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I am learning how to draw.

It started during the pandemic, but if I am being honest, my practice has languished.

Over the last few weeks, however, I have felt the need to redouble my efforts, so I turned to Google for suggestions about a book to help me in my practice.

I ordered the book that rose to the top, The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, from our local library. When I picked it up and opened it, came across this line:

To understand theories is not enough. Much practice is necessary…

The Natural Way to Draw, xiv.

Now this is not a new book; in fact, it was published after Nicolaides died in 1938. But the book is serious about practice, and as I began to practice a few weekends ago, I started thinking: this is a year long curriculum, and I only have this book from the library for three weeks!

Even so, I took up my pencil and began to practice.

The week after I ordered the book and returned to my practice, I met Charles Ezra Ferrell, co-director of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center. He had opened the 2023 Ubuntu Gathering at MSU with a beautiful poem.

I was excited to meet Charles and to visit the Boggs center. So I went up to him afterward to thank him for his poem. During our conversation he asked me:

Do you have a creative practice?

Smiling, I was happy to report, “why yes I do! I am learning to draw.”

Oh how happy this made him—he is an artist and he went right into asking if I had pencils and paper, and what did I like to draw, and this is how you best draw a face…

We had a long conversation before we turned to Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs in preparation for our visit to the center.

A Pilgrimage

I prepared for that visit as one prepares for a pilgramage in the sense that María Lugones uses the term in relation to her book, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions.1

There she writes:

The ‘pilgrimage’ that the title of the book calls forth moves through different levels of liberatory work in company forged through a practice of ‘tantear‘ for meaning, for the limits of possibility; putting our hands to our ears to hear better, to hear the meaning in the enclosures and openings of our praxis.2

The Spanish word, tantear, names a kind of groping, as in ‘tantear en la oscuridad‘, feeling one’s way in the dark. Practices of feeling, of listening, and of seeing differently are, I am learning, at the heart of drawing and of the liberatory praxis the Boggs Center embodies.

As I drove a van of colleagues to the Boggs Center two days after meeting Charles, I thought about a passage from Jimmy Boggs that Charles had shared with me:

It is only in relationship to other bodies, and many somebodies, that anybody is somebody.3

This is beautiful articulation of Ubuntu that we saw in practice when we arrived at the Boggs Center on the Eastside of Detroit.

Selfie style image with Chris Long taking the picture with six colleagues from MSU and South Africa standing in front of the Boggs Center, a renovated brick house with a small front porch with a balcony as a roof.

As we were settling in, Charles took me aside and said, “I have something for you,” and he handed me a book.

Here it was The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, a gift from Charles in the spirit of helping me learn how to draw—the very book I had ordered the week before!

Ubuntu connects us in mysterious ways.

Ubuntu in Theory and Practice

I tell you this story because it gives voice to the spirit of what we hope will be our next step in the work that began as a Mellon funded project to support Ubuntu Dialogues between MSU and Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The spirit of connection, of collaboration, of generosity, of co-creative practice animates the creation of the Institute for Ubuntu Thought and Practice.

We take this next step with more than a little trepidation. We turn to Ubuntu at MSU as a predominantly white institution in the United States that occupies the traditional lands of the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. We do so with the humility of beginners, with the openness and vulnerability of a community that is learning how to be human in a system of higher education the professes to value things it does not enact in practice.

As many of you know, I return every day in my own reflective practice to that passage from James Baldwin: “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

We say we care about community engaged scholarship, diversity, equity, and inclusion, interdisciplinary research, belonging … but the lived experiences of our students and faculty tell a different story.

And this is one reason we need to co-create this Institute for Ubuntu Thought and Practice as a next step in our journey now that the Ubuntu Dialogues grant is coming to a close.

So please, think of the Institute as an invitation to practice, as an institutional space for co-creation, for dialogue transformed into action, as a welcoming space for the relationships we have established over the years we have been practicing Ubuntu Dialogues together.

This is the spirit in which we hope to move forward together; it is the spirit of Grace Lee Boggs, when she writes in her Autobiography, Living for Change:

“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more human human beings. In order to…transform the world, they must…transform themselves.”4

The practice of self-transformation was at the heart of the liberatory practice that Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs sought to weave into the fabric of the communities they created. They never ceased feeling their way in the darkness, searching for the deeper purpose of our embodied relationships. Let our practice be enriched by theory, our theory enlivened by practice. Let the liberatory work of the Institute for Ubuntu Thought and Practice be an ongoing pilgrimage toward more just and beautiful ways of being together.

  1. Lugones, María. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.
  2. Ibid., 1.
  3. Ward, Stephen M. In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs. 1st edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016, 4.
  4. Boggs, Grace Lee. Living for Change: An Autobiography. Reprint edition. Minneapolis; London: Univ of Minnesota Press, 2016, 153.

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