Opening his keynote speech, Andy Shallal recounted his initial impressions upon his family’s arrival in the United States from Iraq in 1966. At this time, Shallal noted, it was still illegal for a black person and white person to cohabitate in the state of Virginia. Arriving in the heyday of the civil rights movement, the turbulent dynamics of race relations in the U.S. left an indelible impression on Shallal—one that left him struggling to figure out his place as an Arab transplant in this unfamiliar social context. In the build up to the Iraq War in 2003, Shallal revealed that he experienced a similar feeling in the face of burgeoning anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment along with the hyper-patriotism that was ubiquitous at the time. In response, he started to forge connections with the antiwar community, prompting a journey that culminated in the founding of Busboys and Poets—a restaurant, bookstore, and space for social activism in Washington, DC.
Busboys and Poets was named in honor of busboy poet Langston Hughes. In 1924, as a 22-year old working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in DC, Hughes waited on Vachel Lindsay, a well-known poet who had an engagement at the hotel. Hughes summoned his courage and slipped some of his poetry to Lindsay as he dined. Lindsay picked up the papers and read one of Hughes’ poems, “The Weary Blues.” Shallal noted the irony that, while Lindsay ostensibly “discovered” Langston Hughes, Lindsay was ultimately consigned to relative oblivion whereas Hughes became a giant of the American poetry scene. The life and works of Langston Hughes feature prominently at Busboys and Poets. A mural of Hughes’ poem Let America be America Again (1938) is displayed in the “Langston Room” at Busboys and Poets’ 14th Street location.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
Shallal remarked that Hughes penned Let America be America Again in 1938, at a time when racial segregation was an accepted social norm. Yet, despite his personal circumstances as a member of an oppressed minority, Hughes wrote this lofty poem that alluded to the America that could be–an America to which we all might aspire. In Shallal’s view, Langston Hughes’ Let America be America Again also foreshadowed the displays of hyper-patriotism that were ubiquitous in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Shallal then turned to discuss his participation in an Open Society Institute conference on art and social change. The participants in the week-long conference were preoccupied with how to quantify the relationship between art and social change. When conference drew to a close, those present were forced to conclude that the relationship between art and social change simply could not be satisfactorily quantified. Effectively, Shallal argued, art is an unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unquantifiable process.
Shallal posited that artists are particularly adept at finding a transitional space that can transport us from one prevailing point of view to another one. Shallal likened this process to a Kuhnian paradigm shift-one that requires a constant process of poking holes in the prevailing wisdom. This, Shallal argued, is what artists do.
Artists can also provide a boon to societies in crisis. Referring to Naomi Klein’s argument in Shock Doctrine (2007) that elites seek to capitalize on crises, seeing them as opportunities to reshape the economic structure of entire societies. Shallal noted that then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declared Iraq an economic “blank slate” the tumultuous aftermath of the 2003 invasion. While the “shock and awe” of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was catastrophic to Iraqi society, Wolfowitz saw the economic potential of the crisis to the United States. Shallal posited that art can challenge this process by competing with elites for this transitional space and thus acting as an alternative and/or counterforce that can help to restructure societies in other ways.
Finally, Shallal argued that, while there is a tendency to justify U.S. aid for Israel on the basis of shared values, friendship, and/or democracy, this aid is effectively contingent upon its disbursement to U.S. corporations, in particular to arms manufacturers. Shallal posited that this relationship can be seen as a giant laundering scheme–one that has little to do with democratic values or friendship–but rather capitalism. Ultimately, Shallal argued, capitalism is the driving force behind American foreign policy. While acknowledging that many of us have benefitted from capitalism, Shallal argued that we have to dismantle its whole structure. While this will not happen easily, art will have to be the primary catalyst.
Andy Shallal is an Iraqi American activist, artist and social entrepreneur,. He is founder and proprietor of Busboys and Poets, an activism center and café in Washington DC. Andy is a member of the board of trustees for The Institute for Policy Studies and also sits on several arts and philanthropic boards, including The Washington Peace Center, The School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at GMU, DC Vote, Think Local First, Social Venture Network, The National Arab American Museum and Split This Rock Poetry Festival.