The Black Creative Collectives Finding Strength in Numbers

THE POET SONIA Sanchez can’t recall the man’s name, but she knows that in 1971 he was 85 years old, two years younger than she is today. A Black man born near the close of the 19th century, little more than two decades removed from slavery, his life had seen its share of struggle. His hands told the story: swollen knuckles and chafed skin, hands used to lift and to heave and to haul. Now they held a pencil and the bound journal in which he composed his measured lines each week in advance of Sanchez’s Thursday evening workshop at the Countee Cullen Library on West 136th Street in Harlem. He wrote poems about God and nature and other grand things befitting, he believed, the stately tenor of verse. His workshop companions were high school and college students; a mother who brought her restless child along, equipped with crayons and a coloring book; young professionals coming directly from downtown jobs — all Black and brown women and men, some 50 strong, for whom poetry was an unruly thing that could break lines, hold picket signs, make love and cuss.

Sanchez herself — 37 years old at the time, author of three collections of poetry published by the upstart Broadside Press, mother of three, student of the legendary Louise Bogan at N.Y.U. — wrote in a language that lived in the mouths of her people. In her debut collection, “Home Coming” (1969), Sanchez’s poems spit slang (“You dig?”), rend words (“free/dom”), abbreviate with ruthless efficiency (“shd”) and snake their way down the page in slender lines that testify both to her exercise and subversion of inherited poetic forms. She taught her students what Bogan had once taught her, that form will not deform you. She also taught them to listen to one another: “They did not laugh at that 85-year-old man whose poetry was poetry. You know what I mean? Duh-Dah, Duh-Dah, Duh-Dah, Duh-Dah,” she says, her voice marching to her memory of his iambic rhythms. “They listened. And they picked out something that was good.” The old man listened, too. “His poetry began to change,” Sanchez recalls. “Do you hear me? He listened to those young people. They listened to each other.” Though writing might seem like a stern and solitary discipline, Sanchez and her students proved that it thrives in community.

Some of the members of the 1970s New York-based collective Where We At, Black Women Artists, which at its peak numbered in the dozens, photographed at Manhattan’s General Theological Seminary, on Sept. 2, 2021. From left: Dindga McCannon, Linda Hiwot, Faith Ringgold, Charlotte Richardson Ka and Ann Tanksley.Credit…Photograph by Jon Henry. Photo assistant: Juan Sebastián Echeverri

“If there is such a thing as a collective,” Sanchez continues, “it is indeed among those people who started workshops.” She thinks of the Harlem Writers Guild, founded in 1950, which helped advance the careers of Louise Meriwether, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou and dozens more. “That’s why I started this for those young people,” she says, thinking back on her own students, who lacked access to those high-literary workshops. “And it’s one of the best things I’ve ever, ever done in my life.”

The 1960s and ’70s stand as an era of artistic community — of collectives: musicians and writers, artists and architects, photographers and filmmakers listening, arguing and creating with each other. Black artists in particular answered this call, founding numerous coalitions — some short-lived, some enduring. Drawing inspiration from the collectivizing impulse of the Harlem Renaissance, from the habits of kinship and the grass-roots institutional structures of the past that allowed Black art to flourish, these groups explored a range of approaches to fostering culture and community. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, still active today, was founded in Chicago in 1965 by the pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian, the drummer Steve McCall and the trumpeter Phil Cohran. Hoyt W. Fuller, the longtime editor of Negro Digest, co-founded the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) in 1967, also in Chicago, which brought Black artists, educators and activists together for workshops in writing, theater and the visual arts. A year later, four artists in Harlem — William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia and Billy Rose — conceived Smokehouse Associates, transforming blighted urban spaces through vibrant, abstract public murals. That same year, on the South Side of Chicago, AfriCOBRA, a collective that grew to 10 artists in 1970 — including Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell and Barbara Jones-Hogu — aspired to create art, in the words of its manifesto, “to shine, to have the rich luster of a just washed ’fro.” In 1971, Dindga McCannon, Kay Brown and Faith Ringgold founded Where We At, Black Women Artists, a New York-based collective with members working individually and together, engaging in community outreach with prison workshops as well as youth art classes, all geared toward heightening awareness and inspiring liberation.

As Sanchez understands them, collectives testify to a heritage of Black people in America imagining their way toward freedom. Long denied access to the institutional structures — the galleries and publishing houses, the commissions and the book contracts — that sustained their white counterparts, they forged creative communities of their own. “We are a continuum of this great thing coming all the way back from the very beginning,” she says, referring to her contemporaries and her forebears, “from that first Black girl who wrote that book of poetry.” That first Black girl was Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), who published “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” in 1773 and laid the foundation for those Black and unknown bards who followed and who, in turn, laid the foundation for those poets whose names we know: Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes and Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks. “The people were the institutions that we had to learn from,” Sanchez says. “And I want the younger poets to know that we are the institutions; we made ourselves the institutions for you to learn from.”

The Dark Room Collective — a community of Black poets founded in 1988 — including (from left), Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Nehassaiu deGannes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange and Adisa Vera Beatty, photographed in Boston in 1996.Credit…Kwaku Alston/Contour Ra/Getty Images

Sanchez made herself an institution alongside fellow poets Don L. Lee (later known as Haki Madhubuti), Nikki Giovanni and Etheridge Knight, the four of them forming a group some refer to as the Broadside Quartet. That name, however, is deceiving. They did not conceive of themselves as a unit (though Sanchez was married to Knight for a time); rather, they were simply among the first poets Dudley Randall chose to publish when he founded Broadside Press in Detroit in 1965. Regardless, Randall and Broadside Press became a center of gravity around which a collective spirit took shape. “We were cooperating with each other,” Sanchez recalls. “We understood that we were the Black cultural ambassadors, writing and reading and spreading the word about change in the world.”

The world was, indeed, changing — if haltingly. The era brought major victories, both legal and moral. The 1960s alone witnessed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 — the event where Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, and one that would draw a quarter of a million people, becoming the largest civil rights gathering of its time, as well as inspire the formation of Spiral, a New York City-based collective of Black visual artists (such as Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis) who, as they wrote in the catalog for their joint exhibition, “could not fail to be touched by the outrage of segregation” — along with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What followed, though, was the realization of how laws alone could not undo the racism inherent in American life. The demands of the times — the murders of Medgar Evers in ’63, Malcolm X in ’65, King in ’68 and more; the uprisings of Black folks in Harlem and Newark and Detroit and Watts and Washington, D.C. — weighed heavily on Black people, sparking righteous discontent that expressed itself in an emergent Black nationalism, in protests and in a generation of young artists seeking kinship with one another.

At times, the cause of racial justice demanded a balm of Black joy and tenderness; at others, a brutal imagination. “We were wicked with what we said,” Sanchez recalls, remembering the era’s insurgent generation of artists. One such group was Umbra, a collective of ideologically heterogeneous Black writers on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — among its members were the poets Thomas Dent, an integrationist, and Rolland Snellings (later known as Askia Touré), a Black nationalist — that formed in 1962. Their conversations mixed craft with politics: The Rev. A. D. King, Martin’s younger brother, came to a meeting. So did the writer and activist James Meredith, who faced down white rioters in 1962 when he integrated the University of Mississippi. In the first issue of its namesake literary magazine, Umbra vowed to “present aspects of social and racial reality which may be called ‘uncommercial,’ ‘unpalatable,’ ‘unpopular’ and ‘unwanted.’” One aim, they stated, was to be “as radical as society demands the truth to be.” Though Umbra was short-lived, it had a lasting influence on the New York literary scene, including on a young writer from Buffalo named Ishmael Reed. “We were brutal to each other,” Reed, now 83 and an acclaimed novelist, playwright and poet, recalls. He credits Umbra with stripping away his literary pretensions (“I was trying to write like Ezra Pound or something”) and prodding him to take more chances. The experimentation begun in Umbra would ultimately lead to Reed’s freewheeling debut novel, “The Free-Lance Pallbearers” (1967), and extend to his most recent, “The Terrible Fours,” released this past June.

From left: Askia Touré, Lorenzo Thomas and Ishmael Reed at an Umbra workshop meeting, circa 1963.Credit…Alvin Simon/Tom Dent papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans

Perhaps one of the most formative, and notable, collectives of the era was the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School on West 130th Street, founded by the writer LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) and born out of the ashes of Umbra and the assassination of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965. Though it lasted for only a matter of months, BART/S became the seed for the Black Arts Movement, which itself was not so much a collective as it was a catalyst for other creative communities nationwide. “We brought street-corner poetry readings, moving the poets by truck from site to site,” writes Baraka in “The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones” (1984). “So that each night throughout that summer we flooded Harlem streets with new music, new poetry, new dance, new paintings and the sweep of the Black Arts Movement had recycled itself back to the people.” Later in the book, he continues: “The world was going through changes. … We had to re-evaluate all we knew.”

CALLS FOR CHANGE ring out again today, from a new generation of artists and activists drawn to collectives by the promise of connection and creative growth. Black American artists have once again begun to foreground the political urgency and agency of their work. Many feel compelled to respond to the present moment of national crisis and Black precariousness — the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, state and local legislation meant to restrict the franchise of Black voters and, always, more death. Sanchez sees the parallels between the ’60s and today. “Sometimes young people don’t necessarily understand,” she begins, then amends herself. “They should now, after they have come through what I call the ritual of killing.” Through this bitter year of protest and pandemic, she looks back across decades to the summer of 1964, to victims of police brutality and vigilante murder. She is drawn today, as she was drawn then, to the importance of art as a means of survival — and to the importance of community, of sisterhood and brotherhood, as a means of resistance and perseverance.

Today’s collectives create together, tour together, exhibit together, live together, survive together, eat together, sleep together, march together, fight together and party together, too. They can comprise as few as two members and as many as dozens or hundreds or more. Some look very nearly like institutions — registered as 501(c)(3)s with boards of directors and bylaws and membership dues; others are informal, improvised, even transitory. Some are driven by a clear manifesto or mission statement; others are bound by interpersonal ties that evolve with the individuals involved. Unlike those of the 1960s and ’70s, which tended to be clustered in urban centers — New York, Chicago, Atlanta — today’s collectives aren’t necessarily defined by geographic proximity, with many often spread across the country, or the globe, coming together by way of social media and other tools of virtual communication. That so many collectives have surfaced online in recent years speaks to a common yearning among creative people for communities of support and inspiration to counter the isolation of contemporary life. Nowadays, being part of a collective doesn’t have to mean creating and debating, eating and drinking for hours at a time every Friday night in the living room of a hot, small first-floor apartment on the Lower East Side (though sometimes it does). Even those collectives that function primarily through digital means make occasions to gather together in the analog world for shared labor and for fellowship.

A 1967 meeting of the Chicago-based Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a collective founded that year by Hoyt W. Fuller (second from left) and others, to discuss the creation of the “Wall of Respect,” a public mural on the city’s South Side that would celebrate the lives of Black icons such as John Coltrane, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nina Simone, Marcus Garvey and more.Credit…Robert Abbott Sengstacke. Courtesy of Images of Black Chicago: The Robert Abbott Sengstacke Photography Archive, University of Chicago Visual Resources Center Luna Collection. Copyright Myiti Sengstacke-Rice

Regardless of how they’re structured, or where they’re based, collectives present an affirmative act of identity formation, a statement of intention to present oneself in conjunction with others. “What does it mean for six folks to name themselves as a collective, no matter what type of work they’re doing?” asks the St. Paul, Minn.-based poet Danez Smith, 32, one of the members of Dark Noise, a collective of poets, all born in 1989 and scattered across the United States (from Los Angeles to Colorado Springs to Providence, R.I.), that formed in 2012 and includes Fatimah Asghar, Aaron Samuels, Franny Choi, Nate Marshall and Jamila Woods.

Dark Noise is multifarious: a multiracial, multifaith, multigender, multidisciplinary group of friends who occasionally collaborate and consistently support one another’s artistic and personal growth. Its name pays homage to the Dark Room Collective, a community of young Black poets founded in 1988 that included some of the most important writers of its generation — such as Carl Phillips, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith — but the distinct vision and bond of Dark Noise was solidified when the group experienced adversity. Facing personal challenges, one member of the group proposed leaving. But in response, the other members gathered around that person and reshaped the collective to meet their needs. It was a moment that might have challenged Dark Noise’s existence. Instead, it solidified their bond and clarified their calling. “Artistic collectives, at least with what we do, are not a means of production,” says Smith. “They’re about the actual lived experience of being an artist and having community. What we are practicing, what we are practitioners of, is love.” Asghar, 31, amplifies the sentiment, centering the personal squarely in the political: “Even saying that we’re centering love in a world that does not center love is political. … That’s not in our poetry; that’s in our life, that’s in our bond.” Dark Noise’s literary love ethic is in harmony with some of its antecedents. “That love — that’s what we were about,” Sanchez says. “That’s why I’m still in love with the Black Arts poets. But that’s also why I’m in love with the young poets. Because they have taken that with them.”

THE TERM “COLLECTIVE” means something quite different for the more than 200 members of Authority Collective, a coalition of women and gender-expansive photographers of color stretching across the globe, with members from Los Angeles to Istanbul, New York to Manila, that was founded in 2017 in response to a shared desire to move beyond simply diagnosing problems in their industry to enacting practical solutions. “The reason we called ourselves Authority Collective is because we wanted to state that we have authority,” says Tara Pixley, 38, a photographer and filmmaker and a professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who is also a founder and current board member of A.C. “We’re not looking to authority to validate us. We, as women of color, as nonbinary and trans folks of color, know the structures of this world that need to be attended to. We understand representation deeply because it has been wielded against us.”

The artist Barbara Jones-Hogu, working on the mural “The Wall of Respect” (1967), conceived by the Organization of Black American Culture, in Chicago.Credit…Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Authority Collective differs from arts collectives like Dark Noise not just in size but in constitution and purpose. Many of the members of A.C. consider themselves not artists but journalists or, in the democratizing parlance of the group, “lens-based workers.” They come together primarily in virtual spaces for mutual support and occasional fellowship, yes, but also to form a shared voice that is audible to the institutions — news organizations, corporations, even the government itself — that dictate the terms of their labor. Take, for instance, A.C.’s “Do No Harm: Photographing Police Brutality Protests,” a public document, issued during the spring 2020 protests after George Floyd’s murder, in which they called on photojournalists to uphold the safety and privacy of their photographic subjects when doing their jobs in the field. Another widely circulated document, “The Photo Bill of Rights,” a joint effort by A.C. and a handful of other grass-roots organizations, presents a practical tool kit and call to action for the visual media industry to achieve a more inclusive and equitable future. These kinds of interventions are at the center of Authority Collective’s mission, and expose the vexed relationship between collectives and institutional structures of power. “Institutions are grappling with this circus-mirror image,” Pixley explains of A.C., though it may be applied to collectives more broadly. “It’s an organization, which they get, but it’s an organization founded on the idea of being against the institution and trying to offer something that the institution can’t possibly offer.”

This dynamic of fascination and misunderstanding on the part of institutions when it comes to collectives — particularly collectives of color — was on display earlier this year when the Tate museum named its five nominees for the prestigious Turner Prize, presented annually to an outstanding British visual artist. For the first time in the history of the prize, all five nominees were collectives. One of them, the London-based Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.), which constructs immersive installations and films that forge spaces of resistance and healing for marginalized communities, issued a letter blasting the Tate for the “extractive and exploitative practices in prize culture.” “Arts institutions, whilst enamored by collective and social practices, are not properly equipped or resourced to deal with the realities that shape our lives and work,” the statement reads. “We see this in the lack of adequate financial remuneration for collectives in commissioning budgets and artist fees, and in the industry’s inbuilt reverence for individual inspiration over the diffusion, complexity and opacity of collaborative endeavor.” It’s a sentiment Pixley shares: “Institutions are enamored of the idea of the collective because they don’t understand it,” she says. “They want to highlight it, they want to award it, they want to be hip in the moment, but they don’t get it.”

Such established high-culture institutions are drawn to collectives, and more specifically to Black collectives, for obvious reasons. “The most radical Black culture is happening at the Guggenheim and at the Met,” says the writer Greg Tate, who in the mid-80s co-founded the New York-based Black Rock Coalition, a collective formed to generate opportunities for Black musicians. (It drew inspiration from the aforementioned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.) He’s referring to the Black artists — Carrie Mae Weems, Simone Leigh, Solange, Deana Lawson and others — whose work has recently been showcased in these “suddenly woke white art institutions,” who’ve realized, he continues, that “the key to getting the next generation of patrons and visitors to consider these places as cultural destinations is to present more contemporary Black women artists.” As such, these institutions are starting to play a vital role in the funding, support and promotion of Black culture — and could be doing the same for collectives. Tate points to Afropunk, founded in 2005 by James Spooner and Matthew Morgan, which runs a successful music festival, as well as other entertainment offerings, as an example of this. “The thing that Afropunk figured out over us is corporate patronage,” he says, in admiration rather than admonition. “You know, the revolution must be monetized.”

From left: the artists Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia, Billy Rose and William T. Williams, founders of the New York City-based collective Smokehouse Associates, in front of their public mural on East 120th Street and Sylvan Place in Manhattan circa 1970.Credit…Artwork created by Smokehouse Associates: William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, Guy Ciarcia and Billy Rose, circa 1968-70. Photographer: Robert Colton, courtesy of the William T. Williams Archive and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

IT’S HARD FOR collectives not to lead with politics, even when their missions are not explicitly political. The word “collective,” after all, arrives prepoliticized, with the presumption of a leftist, even radical bent. Outside of the arts, the most common place one finds “collective” used as a noun is in the context of communism: collectivist farming in the former Soviet Union and in China, for instance, or in reference to workers’ cooperatives and communes. In the United States during the 1960s, arts collectives emerged as a natural outgrowth of the communitarian spirit of youth culture. For artists today, at least part of the pull of the collective might stem from an aspirational, nostalgic desire to recapture a spirit of community that they were not themselves alive to enjoy. Perhaps, too, it is born of a shared sense of longing, even desperation, for answers to seemingly intractable social, political and environmental challenges that stifle the efforts of individuals acting alone.

Indeed, the collectivizing impulse runs counter to the dominant American mode of individualism, which elevates singular achievements over communal ones, perpetuating the myth of self-made success in politics, business, the arts and beyond. So much of daily life in the United States is becoming bespoke and curated: multivitamins formulated for your specific body chemistry; data-driven particulars on how you sleep and how often your heart beats; health treatments keyed to your genetic code. The very structures of wealth in the country are doing the same, skewing dramatically since the Great Recession not just toward a class, or even a percent, but toward a handful of individuals and families we now know by name.

In the arts, too, the individual most often stands above the group. The term “multihyphenate” emerged in recent years to celebrate a new breed of cross-genre creatives — many of whom are people of color, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monáe, Donald Glover, Rihanna and Zendaya — while obscuring the close collaboration with others that makes most of their work possible. The spotlighting nature of nominations and awards perpetuates the mythology of the singular genius creating in isolation. Running counter to the idolatry of the individual is the impulse to collectivize: for anointed individuals to bring their crews along with them, giving them credit, too, where it’s due. We’ve witnessed this recently in the fashion industry. The designer Telfar Clemens’s clothes and handbags are often emblazoned with “Telfar,” or simply with his initials, but his unisex designs are born of collaboration and community. (The brand’s motto is “It’s not for you, it’s for everyone.”) Similarly, Kids of Immigrants, the Los Angeles-based streetwear label founded by Daniel Buezo and Weleh Dennis, styles itself more as a movement than a fashion brand, with community-based initiatives and conscious collaborations (with partners like Vans) that amplify core principles of love and public service. The rise of collectives might also signal a shift in the primacy of certain arts over others. The individual genius of poets and novelists and visual artists has been supplanted by the more transparently collective work done in television and film and music. Who doesn’t want to form a band? Who doesn’t want to be on set? Even the heretofore more solitary arts now bend toward the communal. That they can do so speaks to the fact that they were always more communal and collective than we allowed ourselves to think. As a culture, we are questioning the specious notion of individual genius in favor of the wisdom of the commons.

Though the concept of a collective might seem anachronistic — a throwback to 1960s-era love-ins and hippie communes — it’s often a call for belonging, for protection, and about finding a place like home. Authority Collective’s Melissa Bunni Elian, a 34-year-old multimedia journalist based in Yonkers, N.Y., belongs to multiple collectives for precisely this reason. “You just have your different groups of people for different things,” she explains. In addition to being on the board of A.C., Elian is also a member of the Black Shutter Collective, an invitation-only virtual community of Black photographers. “It’s really a group chat — there are some things that I only want to talk about with Black people, because I need that perfect understanding.”

The view from the stage during a performance by Phil Cohran (in dark shirt) and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble at the 63rd Street Beach in Chicago, 1967.Credit…Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

The urgency of connection and support is heightened among Black American artists for whom the call to collective action is not only aesthetic and ideological but often existential, and for whom the mythology of the individual has a particularly pernicious impact, with the culture’s celebration of individual achievement often coming at the cost of attending to the conditions of the group as a whole. In recent years, as instances of police violence and killing of Black people have become more visible, very little has changed in terms of addressing the root causes of this violence — the militarization of police forces, state and local statues that shield abuses of police power, enforcement disparities, the infiltration of white supremacist organizations into the rank and file of law enforcement. Instead, we’ve seen statements, pledges of solidarity and other symbolic acts that might assuage a sense of culpability but do little to save lives and protect the vulnerable. Social activism is often portrayed as the work of charismatic leaders rather than that of grass-roots communities and broad-based collectives. It’s easier, after all, to put Martin Luther King Jr.’s face on the cover of Time magazine instead of the hundreds of members of Montgomery, Ala.’s Women’s Political Council who first called for a boycott after Rosa Parks was jailed for failing to relinquish her seat on a segregated bus. Gloria Steinem is more legible to the public imagination than the 300-plus women who came together in 1971 to found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Recent years have witnessed the proliferation of collective movements without singular leaders, be they actual or symbolic. From ACT UP in the late 1980s to Black Lives Matter today, so-called leaderless movements elevate a cause over an individual, stymieing efforts at suppression because they provide no appointed leader to suppress.

In art, as in politics, collectives often serve an unmet need, giving artists license to remake inherited forms and the resources — imaginative and sometimes financial — for doing so in ways that one would likely not have on one’s own, as well as fashioning spaces of love and care as a precondition for artistic creation. “How do you structure love?” Asghar asks. Dark Noise does it by making deep communication routine: biannual retreats during which they each deliver artists’ statements to one another; standing phone calls and video chats; regular text threads; sharing each other’s works in progress for comment, criticism and encouragement. “We’re actually really systematic about how we practice love,” she says. It “allows for a type of commitment, a type of ‘we are here’ and a type of solidarity building.”

One might imagine that these many months of pandemic would have curtailed these collectives. And indeed, some admit they’ve taken a toll. In other ways, though, these groups — particularly those with far-flung members — were perhaps better equipped than the rest of us to confront the challenges of social distance, already Zooming and G-chatting, Slacking and instant messaging. The consequences of doing anything with a group today demand these fluencies. Yet collectives also often know the value of the interpersonal, the intimate, the shared space. “We’re all pining to see each other,” Smith says of their Dark Noise compatriots. “It’s like when you haven’t been home in a long time. I’m waiting for their unpixelated faces — to be in the room with their thoughts again. There’s nothing like it.”

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