Youth, Art, and Aliebns

It’s easy to play “spot the difference” between “Burn All Night” and “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too.” “Burn All Night” is an electrifying, immersive theater experience. The audience is thrust into the narrative and encouraged to dance as the actors whirl through the crowd, sometimes brushing against you as they dance with dizzying joy and intensity. The characters yell at each other in anger and passion, and even the rare moments of silence are piercingly bright and loud. “everyone’s a aliebn” is a book, deliberately designed to be as minimalist as possible. The drawings are in black and white and there is rarely more than a sentence or two per page. The story itself is quiet and unassuming, wandering through a small community with only a shadow of the driving narrative structure.

And yet. I experienced both pieces of art within 24 hours of each other, and was struck not by their differences, but by their similarities. While they chose different forms of expression, both works were grappling with the same questions. What is our place in this world? How do we deal with the knowledge that we are all going to die someday? Who are we, really? What does it mean to be a young person trying to “find themselves” in the twenty-first century?

It’s this last question that drives at the heart of what I find most striking about both creations. It’s common for art to be created for and about people coming of age, but it often misses the mark in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. From my perspective, it’s a mounting problem as technology and culture evolve at dizzyingly fast rates—there’s a small cultural divide even between me and my sister, who’s only two years younger than me. While older artists can write beautifully about what it means to be a young person, they can’t capture what it feels like to be a young person right now. The explosion in documentation and publicity, the accessibility and diversification of fame, the globalization of culture and humor and fights for civil rights—being an emerging adult right now means entering a world that is constantly connected, chronicled, and in flux to a degree that it has never been before.

Some shows, like “Dear Evan Hansen,” attempt to capture how modern inventions like phones and social media intersect with age-old issues of relationships, insecurity, and coming-of-age. But even though the show fits together, there’s something clunky about it. It’s too on the nose, too “look how in touch we are.” “Burn All Night” takes a different route. The performers use phones in multiple songs as part of their choreography, but never explicitly discuss social media. They cry out about how they must be documented to stay alive, to be immortal. Instead of making social media a pointed part of the narrative, it’s written the way our phones exist in real life: baked into the fabric of our experiences, entirely casual but always in view.

“everyone’s a aliebn” stretches the subtlety of this narrative to a new level. There is no content about social media; in fact, the world exists outside of phones, modern technology, and humans altogether. However, the author is Twitter personality Jonny Sun, and the form of the story itself is a modern construction. The book could have been divided into distinct vignettes, but instead each storyline gets a few pages at a time and the characters often run into each other. Sun described the narrative style as deliberately modeled after a Twitter timeline: instead of getting disparate stories, you experience gently intersecting narratives that weave through each other. The tales are about loss, uncertainty, love, and many more fears—everything that’s relatable to today’s teens. That sounds like a joke, but honestly, I don’t know anyone who couldn’t relate to Sun’s heartbreakingly simple writing that somehow soothes all of our deepest insecurities.

I could continue writing about these two pieces of art for hours, but for now I will end with this: I am so excited for this trend of media written about, for, and by emerging adults in 2017. As young artists earn wider audiences and break into more traditional media spaces, we will only see more of ourselves represented, not only in how we appear to outside observers but in who we really are.

“Burn All Night” by Andy Mientus and Teen Commandments just concluded its world-premiere run at the American Repertory Theater.

“everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too” is the debut book from jomny sun.

Education & Action

I'm a firm believer in the power and necessity of education. When I look around the country right now, I see how much I do not know and do not fully understand. With that in mind, I've compiled a reading list of books to help me better understand race and racism in the United States. They aren't in any particular order or grouping: it's merely a list of books that were recommended by various articles as to what I should read to educate myself. I'm publishing this list to encourage others to educate themselves as well, whether that's through your own list of books or whatever medium you choose.

However, education at this time is nothing without action. After my reading list is a list of actions to take, as a white person, to combat racism and white supremacy in the United States. Both of these lists will probably be updated and altered.

Books

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Why Can’t We Wait? by Martin Luther King Jr.

Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks

Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement by Kimberle Crenshaw

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race by Derald Wing Sue

Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History by Vron Ware

The Impossible Will Take a Little While by Paul Rogat Loeb

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela David

Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt by Sarah Jaffe

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi

Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank Wu

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire by Deepa Kumar

No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border by Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis

When We Fight, We Win: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World by Greg Jobin-Leeds

The Muslims Are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundani

How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg

Action

Don't stand for racism, however "small" or "casual." If it is safe for you to speak up, do so.

If you have children, talk to them about what's happening. The age of "colorblindness" is over (not that is ever truly existed). We need to raise our children not only to accept everyone, but to embrace and cherish differences.

Don't just listen to white people. This is surprisingly easy to do, depending on where you live and what your social media bubble is. Make an effort to seek out voices that are different than yours (this is good for widening your mind, but it also makes your life more interesting).

Believe people when they share their experiences with you, even if those stories are outside your life experience.

Do not require POC to educate you. The people on Twitter you would want to ask questions often have already written and spoken about these issues. Do your own research, the answers will usually already be out there.

Work to elevate the voices of POC and never try to speak over them.

Think about the ways that you benefit from white supremacy. You do. No one's asking to be guilty for being white, but you do have a responsibility to use the power you have. Other people are using that power to terrorize and kill people. The time for neutrality is over.

Consider your own language and actions. Are you unintentionally reinforcing white supremacy to others or within yourself?

Don't get mad when people complain about "white people." There are so many other things to deal with right now, and they are a lot more important. If what they're saying resonates with you, consider to yourself why that is, and think about what you change within yourself to make their concern not apply to you.

If you make a mistake: apologize, seek to correct it if possible, make sure you understand what you did wrong, and make sure you will do better next time.

Think about what's going locally and what you can do and say in your community.

Contact your representatives, from local to national, to encourage good behavior and to condemn their failures. Be loud about this, to them and to others.

Go to protests. Tragically, there is no guarantee of safety for anyone at protests, but it's important that those who are less at risk (white people, able-bodied people, etc.) make the effort to be there, not only to support the cause but to help protect people who are more at risk.

Take care of yourself. Take breaks from the news/twitter/activism when you need to or you'll burn out.

Donate to causes you believe in and that are doing effective work.

Support good journalism on a local and national level.

Speak out against false equivalence and poor reporting.

Help people register to vote and get to the polls.

Vote.