On Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal, and D.C.’s Progressive Visual Culture

Some of the most vibrant expressions of progressive visual culture in the past decade have emerged from Busboys and Poets, a network of community gathering sites in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.

Started by Anas “Andy” Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist and political activist, Busboys and Poets comprises a restaurant, bookstore, and multiple cultural venues. Its name refers to Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy in Washington before gaining international recognition as a poet and writer.

A mural painted by Shallal at the Busboys and Poets venue in Hyattsville, Maryland, is a strong example of the way in which Busboys and Poets seeks to reinvigorate contemporary struggles for social justice through its exploration of radical history and culture.

Remembering Our Radical History

The mural, “I’ve Known Rivers,” honors the late radical historian and political activist Howard Zinn.

Mural in restaurant.

"I've Known Rivers" mural. Credit: Courtesy Busboys and Poets.

Shallal uses parts of the Langston Hughes poem from which the mural’s name is drawn across the artwork, which presents the comprehensive vision of history exemplified in Zinn’s landmark A People’s History of the United States.

At the center is a portrait of Howard Zinn, surrounded by other progressive icons.

Directly to the left of the Zinn image are the words “end war” and, adjacent to the image of the Dalai Lama, “If I sit silently, I have sinned.”

All of this reflects what Zinn sought to teach throughout his life: knowledge of those who worked for change in the past can empower those in the present to continue the struggle.

The mural invites viewers to read Zinn’s books, to learn more about the figures portrayed in the mural, and above all, to commit to developing a critical and active response to our society.

A Forceful Call for Peace

The exhortation to end war appears in various forms throughout much of Shallal’s work. His large-scale mural in the first Busboys and Poets venue, entitled “Peace and Struggle,” brings a message of peace to the many meals, meetings, and cultural events that take place next to it. The mural is the background for everyday life, encouraging audiences to combine artistic enjoyment and reflection with their ordinary daily activities.

Mural about peace in a restaurant.

"Peace and Struggle" mural. Credit: Courtesy Busboys and Poets.

Among the most prominent details of “Peace and Struggle” are the images of the civil rights and other liberation figures of the twentieth century––people who have devoted their lives to changing the world for the better. As Shallal explains, “These are people that have given up their lives, some of them, so that others can have peace and freedom.” Loosely framing the word “peace” are Gandhi, Rigoberto Menchu, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Among many other figures pictured in the mural are Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Joan Baez, Alice Walker, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Edward Said, and Thurgood Marshall, compelling visual reminders that social protest has a long and honorable tradition in the streets, in the courts, and in scholarship and expressive culture.

The mural’s collage-like form takes viewers on a visual journey through American civil rights history. At the top are the words, in cursive, from Langston Hughes’s famous poem: “Let America Be America Again/Let it be the dream it used to be.” Representing the deepest (and still unfulfilled) aspirations for genuine democracy, the work combines imagery and text to offer a moving vision of the vibrant movements for social justice in the United States and throughout the world. The most prominent word in the mural is “peace,” in bold capital letters, held by women suffragettes and activists from the Women’s Peace Party, formed during World War I and a predecessor to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The word is a pointed reminder of the continuing struggle for a world without armed conflict.

Some of the mural’s other language reinforces this message. “Stop the madness,” for example, has multiple meanings in a world replete with injustice. It refers not only to the continuing struggles against war, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, but such contemporary manifestations as gun violence in American cities, schools, and elsewhere. Likewise, “if you want world peace, fight for justice” reminds viewers of the urgent necessity for active participation in the continuing struggles for social justice.

This artwork provides a powerful political vision that adds to the long American tradition of socially conscious mural art. Images of Rosa Parks being booked after her historic arrest, the young man attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and the June 8, 1972, image of young Kim Phuc running naked down a road near Trang Bang after a napalm attack are all disconcerting reminders of recent historical events that must never be forgotten. One of the classic functions of political murals is to preserve memory, especially of occurrences that mainstream institutions ignore or downplay as the years go by.

Memorializing Paul Robeson

Andy Shallal also produced similar mural works at the other Busboys and Poets locations in the D.C. metropolitan area. In his characteristic style, his mural titled “Paul Robeson” is an artistic tribute to one of America’s greatest Renaissance persons and an enduring symbol of athletic and artistic excellence as a film and dramatic actor and as a concert and recording star. Created in the Shirlington arts and entertainment district of Arlington, Virginia, this mural highlights Robeson’s longtime struggle against domestic racism at home and international fascism and colonialism. Robeson, who was a stunningly powerful orator in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and other African American leaders, regularly walked picket lines with ordinary women and men of all races. He took his activism to the streets and he regularly sang before labor union audiences and workers in the United States and throughout the world.

Like many progressive artists, Shallal, with his characteristic fusion of text and imagery, honors Paul Robeson for his courage in using his artistic stature to mount his relentless campaigns for racial justice, workers rights, and myriad other causes throughout his lifetime––an activism that caused him unspeakable personal hardship during the dark days of the cold war red scare and that effectively erased him from the historical record in the United States until relatively recently. Shallal emphasized Paul Robeson’s political activism in a broad tapestry of visual detail, including images of posters supporting women’s suffrage and the environment, opposing war, and announcing Langston Hughes’s famous poem “The Weary Blues.” The most striking images are photographic images of Robeson speaking and marching on picket lines protesting Jim Crow and demanding a Fair Employment Practices Commission, well before the modern civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s.

Mural of Paul Robeson in restaurant.

"Paul Robeson" mural. Credit: Courtesy Busboys and Poets.

The most enduring value of this mural is its contribution to the resurrection of Paul Robeson’s reputation. When Paul Robeson died in 1976, his magnificent accomplishments were largely erased from national consciousness, stricken from the media and from history books. Fortunately, Paul Robeson’s reputation began to be restored shortly after his death. Several books, plays, films, and conferences—especially after his 1998 centenary—highlighted his life and multifaceted activities, complementing honors such as his posthumous election to the College Football Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The belated issuance of a U.S. Robeson postage stamp constituted an oblique government apology and encouraged people to explore his diverse artistic and political contributions.

This mural is part of that movement; it encourages viewers to inquire further into Robeson’s life and, indeed, to emulate his commitment to a progressive anti-racist and pro-labor agenda in the early twenty-first century. Its setting is especially suited to that purpose since its bookstore regularly carries books and periodicals that chronicle Robeson’s life and focus on the broader context of African American history and culture.

An Homage to Human Rights

One of Andy Shallal’s most powerful mural efforts in Washington D.C. is at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), where he serves on its Board of Trustees. The IPS, founded in 1963, is a multi-issue progressive think tank that works closely with social movements to promote alternatives to the egregious racism, sexism, environmental degradation, and economic inequality of contemporary economic and political power arrangements dominated by corporate and military institutions.

One of Shallal's murals located in a conference room at the Institute for Policy Studies. Credit: Courtesy of the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, D.C.

Donated by the artists to the institute, the mural is several hundred square feet and winds around its main meeting room in its D.C. headquarters. The major theme is the story of the IPS and its longtime connection with its social movement partners. Once again, in cursive, the text tells the story of the organization and how its intellectual work and policy analysis inform the progressive movements that have helped to shape the contemporary world. Key figures in the composition include Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Benjamin Spock, and the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. A key detail is the portrait of the late IPS fellow Orlando Letelier and his assistant Ronni Moffitt, who were murdered by a car bomb by Chilean agents on September 21, 1976, in Washington, becoming two of thousands of victims of the murderous Augusto Pinochet regime. Each year, IPS provides a human rights award in the names of Letelier and Moffitt, honoring these martyrs and the human rights movement generally. Shallal’s mural helps memorialize this commitment to human rights and reflects the continuing commitment of the organization to those admirable ideals.

Painting Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, and Zora Neale Hurston

Andy Shallal’s murals are only one aspect of Busboys and Poet’s broader commitment to the visual arts. Each venue has permanent and rotating works reflecting the progressive institutional mission and vision. Many highly accomplished and acclaimed area and other artists have participated, gracing the interior walls and exteriors of the Busboys and Poets establishments. These restaurants and cultural centers are therefore important area sites for artistic expression, providing artists welcome additional opportunities to disseminate their works and to gain more exposure beyond the traditional avenues of commercial galleries and museums.

Flower-box murals of Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis.

Flower-box murals of Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis. Credit: Courtesy Busboys and Poets.

At the D.C. 5th Street and K Street location, visitors and customers are greeted with simple flower-box public murals celebrating two prominent African American women, Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis. Painted by artist Chanel Compton, who works at Busboys, these small-scale works provide a strong and unambiguous introduction to the spirit of what they will find inside. Like the other artworks, these public murals perform a dual aesthetic and educational function.

For many people, especially younger Busboys and Poets customers, the name Shirley Chisholm may well be new. The text underscores the former Congresswoman’s political credo: Unbought and Unbossed, the title of her 1970 autobiography. The first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives and first to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1972, she compiled a consistent progressive record throughout her career. Compton’s work can inspire viewers to learn about Chisholm and her legacy.

Angela Davis, of course, remains fully active in the early twenty-first century as an intellectual and political figure. As recently as Spring, 2014, she gave a series of lectures and talks at UCLA, an ironic and triumphant return following her 1969 firing as a young philosophy professor by the University of California Regents, with the active support of then-Governor Ronald Reagan, because of her membership in the Communist Party. Davis’s works are likewise available in the bookstore and the mural may well be valuable in encouraging visitors to discover about her activist life and her writings on feminism, the prison-industrial complex, and related themes.

Mural of Zora Neale Hurston.

Mural of Zora Neale Hurston at Eatonville, a restaurant Shallal opened named after Hurston's hometown. Credit: Courtesy Busboys and Poets.

In 2009, Andy Shallal opened another restaurant, Eatonville, named for Zora Neale Hurston’s all-black Florida hometown. Located across the street from the first Busboys and Poets outlet in D.C.’s historic U Street district, this establishment also has a vibrant artistic atmosphere throughout its entire interior. Several artists painted the walls in Eatonville, creating colorful works varying in style from abstract to realistic. The theme follows up Shallal’s own Harlem Renaissance mural at the 5th Street location of K Busboys and Poets. The restaurant focuses on Southern and soul food and highlights Hurston’s linkage to the Washington area when she studied at Howard University from 1918 to 1924.

This image of Hurston, in her familiar pose and her iconic hat, set in the background of text calling attention to Langston Hughes, Eatonville, the Harlem Renaissance, and other fragmentary lines, appears at the exit of the restaurant. While few customers will pause long enough to read more than a few fleeting words, the picture may well deepen their curiosity about Hurston and her literary and anthropological accomplishments in the context of the broader artistic and intellectual ferment of the Harlem Renaissance. Many, to be sure, know of her work and of her conflict with Langston Hughes. Others may be encouraged to read Houston’s works and probe more deeply into her life, including her ethnographic efforts and her occasionally problematic politics.

A Commitment That Extends Beyond the Visual Arts

Beyond its extensive commitment to the visual arts, Busboys and Poets has also contributed profoundly in other ways to the progressive intellectual and cultural life of the region. Most recently, in spring 2014, Andy Shallal produced the play “The Admission” by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner after an ultra “pro-Israel” group tried to block the play when it was initially presented at the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Theater J, on which Shallal serves on the advisory council. The production itself—concerning a wounded Jewish veteran of the Lebanon campaign seeking the facts of his father’s involvement in the killing of Palestinian villagers during the 1948 Arab/Israeli War—has little to do with allegations of an Israeli atrocity in 1948 and much more to do with generating conversations that Israelis, Palestinians, and American Jews are reluctant to have. Shallal put it well: “This is a play that brings the narrative together and that forces you to look at the other side. It needs to be exposed to more audiences because it really helps to bring about some really solid dialogue.”

Busboys and Poets also hosts political and literary speakers such as Ralph Nader, Harry Belafonte, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni, and its Teaching For Change bookstore carries socially critical books, magazines, and academic journals rarely found elsewhere.

Progressive bastions like Busboys and Poets exist throughout the United States, but seldom in such extensive fashion. Sites such as La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, Revolution Books in Los Angeles, Red Emma’s in Baltimore, and many LGBT, feminist, and radical bookstores regularly combine cultural and political activism. They are crucial for visual artists who seek to combine their creative talent with a deep commitment to social criticism and change. Busboys and Poets offers a stirring example of how radical community gathering spaces such as these can give hope to those with a vision of a more humane and decent society.

Paul Von Blum is a senior lecturer in African American studies and communication studies at UCLA and author of a new memoir, A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision, and a short biography of Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson For Beginners (2013).
 
tags: Activism, Art, Culture, Human Rights, Political Activist Art, Politics & Society, Race, Street Art   
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