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Black Arts Movement celebrates legacy of protest through art

26th September 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Mizani Ball
Contributing Writer

Silence swept over the crowd as the Creole Osceola’s Mardi Gras Indians paraded down the aisle. With the vibrant feathers and exquisite beading of their suits, they opened an evening of cultural activism with a traditional prayer. Members of the community joined university students at the three­day national conference of the Black Arts Movement as it brought its 51st national conference to New Orleans, Sept. 9-11. This year’s Black Arts conference was a joint effort of Dillard University and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research in Boston, Mass. The organizers of the annual event selected New Orleans because of the city’s distinct contributions to Black music, culture and food.

“I got chills when I first arrived in New Orleans. At that moment, I knew there was something special about this city,” said Kim McMillon, the conference organizer, whose recent academic work chronicles the impact the Black Arts Movement on social justice for African Americans. The movement first started in 1965 by Amiri Baraka, the respected poet and cultural critic within the African-American community. The movement, through artistic expression, fought against political and social injustices at the time. In recent times, it has continued its campaign to critique the hardships that people of color face today, McMillon told attendees at Dillard’s Professional Schools building. Selecting Dillard, a historically Black university, was a change for the conference, which had hosted its signature event at predominantly white institutions in the past, McMillon said. The diverse group of students and members of the public at this year’s conference confirmed to McMillon the importance of showcasing Black cultural contributions at historically Black institutions and to Black communities across the country. “There is no one telling you, you need to tone down,” McMillon said in response to the audience’s reception of the artists and speakers. “It’s a whole different experience when we are all together working for a higher good that surpasses anything,” McMillon said.Writer and poet Haki Madhubuti told the audience that his work was motivated by the lack of Black authors as mentors. By creating the Third World Press, Madhubuti wanted to diversify the types of literature that focused on the issues, thoughts, and critiques of African Americans.“You are what you read,” Madhubuti told the audience. “Which is why I grounded myself in us, in all aspects.”

Local artists said they attended the convention to articulate or depict Black struggle in different shapes and forms — from dance to paintings. WolfHawkJaguar, reggae, soul and hip-hop band from Oakland, Calif., were just one of several performers whose music saluted Black pride and urged the audience to embrace Black identity. From local storyteller and actor Chakula Cha Jua, to poet Asika Toure, scholar Richard Wright and literary critic Jerry W. Ward, this year’s artists and scholars emphasized the importance of reciprocity in the Black community. They urged artists and leaders to give back and to contribute to uplifting the community and eliminating social ills from police brutality to education disparities. They reminded the audience of the importance of Black cultural art forms as a tool for Black empowerment. “Seeing Black lives in joy, I’m in joy,” McMillon said of the conference’s impact. “When everyone was dancing it was like the energy just rose to this real beautiful high,” McMillon said as audience members danced around her.

This article originally published in the September 26, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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