Art & the Politics of Daily Life: “Winter in America”

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Hank Willis Thomas and collaborator Kambui Olujimi.

Many of you know Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” given its numerous citations in popular American culture or because your parents made it required listening. If you don’t know much beyond this one song, I highly recommend coming to know Heron through more of his music. The New York Times published an informative obituary of Heron when he passed away in 2011.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas collaborated with Kambui Olujimi to mourn, critique, and provoke questions stemming from the murder of his beloved cousin Songha Thomas Willis. Their five-minute short film, Winter in America takes its title and uses the Heron track in a way that draws attention to the reasonable concerns about the demise of promise in American life.

Ever listened to Heron’s “Winter in America?” If not, take a moment to check it out and tell us what you think.

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8 thoughts on “Art & the Politics of Daily Life: “Winter in America”

  1. Gil Scott Heron is one of the most extraordinary poets of the 20th century. Here he tells a version of American history, beginning with the disappearance of the buffalo that “once ruled the plains” and the “forest buried beneath the highway.” Literary folk call this technique ‘metonymy,’ the substitution of a part for the whole. The disappeared buffalo conjures the Native American populations; the forest beneath the highway conjures the ravishing of the ecology. This “blast from the past” is more like today’s headlines–the people know, but nobody knows what to say.

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    1. What do you think? I thought about making this “Blog” tab “The Clearing,” but I wasn’t sure that students would recognize this title as a gathering space.

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  2. The repetition of “winter in America” symbolizes the death of America’s will to ensure a free society. America has turned cold as “the healers have been killed” and society finds a lack of hope to save anything since there is too much to save. Surrounded by constant destruction and the falling promises of peace, Americans have stopped fighting because “nobody knows what to save”. Traditionally, winter is never the time to fight because the conditions for armies are too violent and overall inconvenient. This correlates with society’s paused initiative as they hope to wait out the storm of injustice and take on a cause during the right time. However, the song suggests that winter has been, and will remain, in America for a while.

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    1. Thanks so much, Tyler, for taking the time to share your reflections.

      “Winter in America” was released in 1974. You end your reflection by suggesting that Heron offers a bleak view of the future for the United States. Do you think that “winter” has endured? Is Heron’s song relevant in the 21st century? Explain.

      Best,
      Dr. Hite

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      1. The song is still relevant in the 21st century because unfortunately we are dealing with the same sights of injustice. One could say that “healers done been killed” in the Charleston shooting and “last-ditch racists” can be found everywhere. It would be bleak to say that winter has endured in America without acknowledging the good. While it’s easy to see winter in light of the recent events with Sandra Bland, you could also say there has been progress with Loretta E. Lynch as the first black female attorney general.

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    2. Thanks Tyler, for joining this conversation. I’m thinking also that Gil Scott Heron was a poet and musician. His critical poetics is a positive act of resistance to American ennui in the fight for social justice. How does Heron’s decision to engage his listeners, through his art, matter? How are artists today using their art?

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      1. Through his art Heron was able to address and acknowledge the pains that his primarily black audience had endured, bringing to light current issues and expressing a mutual disdain for current state of the country. Sometimes simply acknowledging someone’s pain has a longstanding affect with the audience – they finally see their pains expressed clearly and feel they are no longer being ignored. Today, artists use their art to create conversation and reach the masses with their message through media. Examples of this are Kendrick Lamar, whose music video “Alright” depicts police violence and whose lyrics have brought to mainstream radio the perspective of an inner city teen. Or Laverne Cox, whose role as a transgender woman brings awareness to a neglected group and stands as a positive role model.

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