Calling for ‘Creative Maladjustment’ Among Artists

Television personality, author, and professor Melissa Harris-Perry gave the first annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture, which was sponsored by the Office of Student Affairs and the Liberal Arts Department. 

 (Photo by Sabrina Tanbara)

Creative maladjustment was the theme of Melissa Harris-Perry’s January 23 lecture at Juilliard. Harris-Perry, an author, professor, and television personality, was invited to speak as part of Juilliard’s weeklong celebration of the work and life of Martin Luther King Jr. The term “creative maladjustment” came from a speech King gave on December 18, 1963, at Western Michigan University. He said he “never intended to become adjusted to” segregation, discrimination, religious bigotry, “economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give to the few,” militarism, and physical violence.


I came away from the talk also feeling proud to be maladjusted to laws that threaten to take away racial and gender freedoms; to the “accidental” murders of minority youths; and to the miseducation of low-income communities. Artists are profoundly maladjusted to the world around us, and that is the most important groundwork for continuing change, Harris-Perry told her audience of about 70 students and other members of the Juilliard community.

Many people commonly ask, “What would M.L.K. do?” as a, or the, way to understand racial justice in this country, Harris-Perry said, but that question cannot be enough for us. With this in mind, she created a context in which to ask about contributions artists have made or can make in the face of political struggle. She showed us a photo of the M.L.K. Memorial in Washington, D.C., and asked, “What is wrong with this picture?” The answer: King is alone. Despite feeling a sense of awe that a memorial like this finally exists, Harris-Perry believes it suggests that “King was a solitary figure who emerged from a rock,” as if there was a conscious decision to wipe out the history that came before and with him. She said that King is our “collective rhetorical tool to understand and address inequality,” noting that Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Bevel, and Bayard Rustin are among the creative forces behind the man we think of as M.L.K. They helped King become a gifted writer, orator, and “political artist.”

The artist, Harris-Perry said, creates space for creative maladjustment. That is, the artist “alters the meaning of what we see, how we move, and how we speak; gives language to core experiences that escape our full comprehension without interpretation; and envisions possibilities that the empirical world denies.” Artists also “imagine what then becomes possible,” she added. 

At the end of her presentation, Harris-Perry took us back to questions she had asked at the beginning: Why do so many American schools kill arts education? Why do so many of these same schools, most in low-income and high-minority areas, make their students remove their shoes and belts before entering and sit with their hands above the lunch table? These schools are getting students ready for incarceration, not life. So, if these kids happen to go out and do a play, they might just become creatively maladjusted artists who don’t need the corrupt system or those who implement it. And the artist “respects no arbitrary boundary. The artist refuses to be invisible. The artist refuses to be silent. The artist is unconcerned with authority and deeply concerned with community,” she said, adding “the artist will always make order of chaos and chaos of order.”

Afterward, Harris-Perry opened the floor to questions. I asked if she thought we had made progress moving away from what Dubois called “slave mentality.” She replied with her own definition of slave mentality, that slaves were black people who wore a mask that suggested being fine in the the face of adversity and yet had enormous capacity for love and creation. I wish we did have slave mentality,” she said, adding that the problem our society faces today is slaveholder mentality: the drive to climb up the ladder of destructive “normality” instead of breaking that ladder down.

First-year drama student Kate Eastman said she felt our educational system was broken. Harris-Perry replied, in essence, that it’s only broken in poor areas, and that people with money and resources know what to do—the fewer tests you have, the more that learning becomes the important thing. Yet in poor areas, she said, we implement more tests to “improve” education. “Children learn to speak by babbling, yet we have created school systems where failure is held against you,” she said. She believes we need the freedom for failure and for self-directed understanding. There are subjects we agree our children should learn, but we need to leave room for how they learn what they learn. And no teacher can do that with 30 students per class.

When first-year drama student Medina Senghore Collie asked for advice about accepting roles in “black movies,” which Harris-Perry has critiqued, she replied, “Are they feeding you? Take your role.” But, she added, we need to carve out humanity and dignity from any stereotypical and badly written roles. She also criticized the moviemakers who are in positions to make different kinds of choices and the audiences that see these movies. In fact, she said, audiences need to change their choices. “We are eating at the segregated lunch counter,” she said. And to add to that, I would say, we need to stop participating in that self-hatred. We need to become creatively maladjusted.

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