Poet, scholar, actor, playwright and broadcaster Kwame Dawes lectured about what it means to be an artist in a world that is constantly changing and in flux as the 2011 Honnold Lecture entitled: “Chameleon of Suffering: Art, Empathy and Citizenship.”
The title of his lecture came from a poem called “Parasite” about him contemplating his state of being in South Carolina. After reading the poem Dawes said, “I am wrestling with the anxiety of being a poet, writing about a culture that initially doesn’t feel like mine but gradually begins to be mine.”
“This transformation is interesting because it is chemical but not internal. The chameleon remains a lizard-like thing despite changing its color,” Dawes said. “And therefore its internal impulses, its ideas, its thoughts, ‘Why do go on, the things I have gone through’ in the lizard’s mind, remains the same.”
In the poem, Dawes relates this metaphor to his situation of living in a new place, and uses it as the foundation for his lecture on the importance of imagination and empathy in the development of the artist.
“I refer to myself as a chameleon of suffering, as if, in a sense, I am engaged in the space I am in trying to understand the nature of its suffering, to become one with its suffering yet, somehow, to remain whole and intact that I may remain whole and intact.”
The danger to the artist is that he or she can succumb to environment and lose his or her position of being different and be one with that state, according to Dawes.
Some people, knowing his background, have said to Dawes that they cannot imagine what it was like to go through what he has been through. Dawes said his answer to this is, “Try. Try to imagine what it is I’m going through.”
He said if people do not try to imagine, “It is laziness—emotional and intellectual laziness …. If anything is offered to the artist, it is the capacity to try to imagine.”
Dawes stressed the relationship of imagination with empathy. He said, “Empathy is, fundamentally, an act of the imagination.”
Empathy is observing and imagining what another person has been going through. Dawes said, “It is an imaginative exercise, not trained to empathize to practice the imagination.”
He said he was not concerned with people who said he cannot write in the voice or in the perspective of someone different from him. “I may fail at it, but that is a failure, not of the universe, but of my craft and my capacity to imagine.” he said. “Yes, if I want to, I must imagine what it’s like to be pregnant. Haven’t had that happen yet—despite my efforts.”
Dawes said that while he cannot experience what is like to actually be pregnant, he could learn from those who are pregnant if he listens and observes them and then “allows imagination to use metaphors and similes of connections.”
His voice reached a crescendo as he said metaphors and similes are “about finding fresh ways to capture something that seems incapable of being explained but we find the metaphor that will help us do so.”
Drawing back to the main subject of the lecture, he said, “I really believe that if, in fact, art is an expression of empathy and allows for the expression of empathy.”