This brief manuscript offers commentary about the Opening Session of the 2017 National Communication Association annual convention.
The famous first line of The Last Poets’ controversial 1970 song “When the Revolution Comes” is, “When the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV.”1 That same year, spoken word poet Gil Scott-Heron released his bold reply to The Last Poets’ song reminding audiences, in his posthumously awarded Grammy-winning album The Flying Dutchman, that “the revolution will not be televised.”2 Scot-Heron ends his poem by stating that “there will be no re-runs” because “the revolution will be live.” What made The Last Poets’ and Scott-Heron's songs so compelling is not only their lyrical audacity, but also the timeliness of this post-civil rights era discourse. At a time when it might have been easy to cower or kowtow to demands of a racist and misogynist establishment, they understood their participation in a public sphere that pushed back against racial hegemony was necessary, or else they might as well be bystanders in their own demise.
We are now confronted with another set of challenges relating to social injustice on the global and domestic stages. Since 2011, the United States has seen more than its share of reasons to publicly protest. The continued bloodshed due to race and gender-based xenophobia, police brutality, mass shootings, and global attacks on US soil has left US citizens concerned about their safety. When xenophobia is coupled with sheer neoliberalist force, we end up with a different kind of violence, the kind inherent in the discourse of the United States’ own President Donald Trump via statements like
Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS.” (as reported via the New York Times)
Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!” (at a political rally in Alabama after National Football League players took a knee during the national anthem)
Why do we want these immigrants from shithole countries coming here?. … Why do we need more Haitians? (referring to African and Haitian immigrants)
Once Nigerians have seen the US they will “never go back to their huts.” (as reported via the New York Times)
In these desperate times, American citizens are searching for a kind of transformative revolution embodied through ethical leadership. We are, as a nation, drifting swiftly toward lovelessness and this leads nowhere except to an island of nihilism and isolation. Knowing this, when given the opportunity to plan the 103rd National Communication Association (NCA) annual convention, I began with a theme that intentionally guided members toward conversations that would offer a bit of course correction—Our Legacy, Our Relevance. Little did I know this theme would nicely pinpoint the contours of national and local discourses about immigration, gay rights, and police brutality. This epistemic moment for our country inspired an Opening Session that was a powerful intellectual prelude to an event known as Lyrical Justice.
The NCA Opening Session is ordinarily a time when convention-goers get a glimpse of a range of topics that will be explored during the annual convention. Usually either one speaker or a panel of speakers delivers a speech or set of plenary addresses, respectively. There have been some very interesting speeches over the last hundred years, and sometimes there have been visiting lectures from prominent interdisciplinary scholars such as historian John Hope Franklin and sociologist Patricia Hill Collins. In 2017, the Opening Session was introduced with the title “Engaging the Verbs of Social Justice as We Trace Our Legacies and Relevance.” The panel of communication scholars and poets yielded an interactive conversation that can best be typified as nommo. The Afrocentric concept of nommo refers to the power of the spoken word. Poets lyrically danced in the margins of our academic and democratic sensibilities while assigned respondents serenaded our collective will to be free.
This imaginative interplay set the stage for the Lyrical Justice event the following evening, during which renowned poets Ed Mabrey, Rudy Francisco, Imani Cezanne, Janae Johnson, and Amir Safi, joined by performance painter Patcasso, and hosted by award-winning poets Amber Johnson and Javon Johnson, treated NCAconvention-goers to a spectacular set of performances that will not soon be forgotten. This showcase of talented spoken word artists lyrically articulated the dangers and pitfalls inherent in our country's widening chasm of politically-induced social injustices related to race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, etc. They handily took on complex topics such as the prison industrial complex, police brutality, gun control, immigration reform, racism, sexism, heterosexism, identity negotiation, welfare, and so much more. It was, by all accounts, revolutionary.
To be truly revolutionary one does not have to imagine how to think outside the box. One merely needs to recognize that the box too has an origin and was created for a specific purpose. We are in a new era and therefore we must create new ways of framing our current reality. The creative act of compartmentalizing life into linguistic fragments woven together by tidbits of shattered memories and sullied expectations produces the lyrical platform for revolution. Let's face it, none of us are truly qualified to capture all that we experience in our lives. So, we are in a constant cycle of reacting to what goes on around us. Even in our most brilliant moments, when we would like to believe we are doing something new, even those were inspired by some previous experience or way of knowing. Without getting too philosophical here, it is important to realize that the goal of critical scholarship is not newness but revolution that brings about liberation from barriers that constrain the human condition. The purpose of the Opening Session and the Lyrical Justice event was to invite and reflect upon a set of critical perspectives concerning the zeitgeist.
As the primary convention planner and First Vice President of the nation's largest association dedicated to the study and practice of communication, I brought with me my critical cultural consciousness and my humanistic sensibilities to this role. It is not lost on me that even as I write this response to the Opening Session and the Lyrical Justice event, I have the privilege of being only the second Black president in the 103-year history of NCA. I am proud to have been chosen by thousands of my colleagues to serve in this capacity. I am humbled by the opportunity and the confidence entrusted in me to represent NCA well. I am also mindful that we have tremendous work to do.
The Opening Session and Lyrical Justice event at the NCA annual convention on 16 November 2017 were special, very special, but not new. Although not brand-new or flush with never-seen-before acts of performative poetic resistance, this Opening Session and the Lyrical Justice event were critically necessary! They were also generative in the sense that they elicited emotions we may have forgotten we needed to express. They dared us to love, laugh, cry, protest, forgive, and perhaps more importantly, to not stand still but rather act in alignment with not only an ethic of care, but also with values of equality, justice, fairness, hope, liberty, etc. Drenched with emotion, attendees left commenting,
“I didn't know how much I needed that.”
“Can we do this again next year?”
“Is this NCA?”
“Does this happen every year, because if so I am coming every year!”
“I've been to NCA 40 years and I have never felt this good about where we
To put it mildly, those who attended were energized. I believe they were episodically filled. And yet the struggle continues. My fear is always that these events bring us momentary pleasure or joy, but then after the lights go down and everyone goes home, those who are debilitated are left in the same place they were prior to the feel-good celebration. This is not to say that public demonstrations—whether performative or not—are ineffective, but rather that the stark reality of our material conditions and sociopolitical habitat does not fade easily. Those of us committed to transformative praxis must use these moments to inspire liberation. Otherwise we have done nothing more than entertain ourselves. It is my sincere hope that poets like those who participated in the Opening Session and the Lyrical Justice event inspire each of us to be change agents, to be better human beings, to be better citizens, and to profoundly commit to loving one another more deeply. Ahhhh… now that is revolution!