Utne Reader Visionary: William “Upski” Wimsatt

We need both knowledge and courage

| March-April 1996

Graffiti writer, inner-city journalist, hitchhiker, chronicler and critic of hip-hop culture, “Upski” Wimsatt says that his goal in life is to have “ten thousand role models.” After self-publishing Bomb the Suburbs (1994), a book that showcased his friends in Chicago’s vibrant, tradition-minded rap and graffiti culture and spoke for a desuburbanization (that is, a fearless opening up) of American hearts and minds, Wimsatt embarked on his “Bet with America” (chronicled in The Nation and elsewhere): a wager that he could survive, and even enjoy, deep-nighttime visits to America’s “worst” ghetto neighborhoods. He discovered a civility, calm, and order that rarely make it into the headlines, and survived to return to Oberlin College, where he is now avoiding his classes, cooking up more ideas to challenge suburban fear, reading Plato, and making friends. 

“I just read Plato’s definition of justice—it’s friendship. Isn’t that great? I want to be a student and friend and assistant to people who are doing things I would have wanted to do. I divide the people I know into two camps—people who have intellectual capital, and people who have courage but often lack the intellectual resources. My two biggest personal problems—most people’s biggest personal problems—are ignorance and fear. The people I want to study are those with the most knowledge and the most courage. In addition to learning from Utne-visionary types, I want to live a lot of the time in the ghetto, because that’s where the most courage is, and the most death, and the most life, and the most insight, most of the time. I’m going there as a student, not as most people conventionally assume—to ‘help’ people. The best way for me to save the world is to let the world save me from my ignorance and fear.”