Civil Rights & the Arts News & Notes continues its series on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the focus is on the arts and the artists that fueled the imagination of a generation. Joining in are three civil rights veterans: Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Paul Von Blum, and Amiri Baraka.
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Civil Rights & the Arts

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Civil Rights & the Arts

Civil Rights & the Arts

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We are winding down our series on the legacy of the civil rights movement talking about arts and the movement.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell is of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Paul Von Blum is a former volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Co-coordinating Committee, now a professor of art history and African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. And we're also joined by Amiri Barocker(ph) - Baraka, a writer of plays, prose and fiction. He is someone who in the mid-60s helped down the Black Arts Movement, an artistic counterpart to the black power movement.

So Mr. Baraka, welcome. Everyone, welcome back.

Mr. AMIRI BARAKA (Writer): Yeah, thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Amiri, tell us what exactly the Black Arts Movement is and how you got involved with the group of people who in some cases are described as more of a coalition than a movement.

Mr. BARAKA: Black Arts Movement in the '60s after Malcolm's death or just before Malcolm's murder, black artists met and decided we were going to move into Harlem and bring up art and bring - leads up the most advanced art by a black artist into the community so that we could actually affect the community with it. And so we wanted an art that was black in form and content. We wanted an art that was mass oriented that would come out to at these little small venues. We wanted an art that would work, you know, to liberate black people to push for self-determination and equal rights. You know, an art that would be a weapon in the hands of activists.

CHIDEYA: Now you wrote the play, "The Dutchman," set on a New York subway featuring a black man alone with a white woman. And there's a film version of the play. It made…

Mr. BARAKA: What was that? You have to say that again?

CHIDEYA: Yes, the film version starring Al Freeman Jr. and Shirley Knight. How did you come up with the idea for "Dutchman?"

Mr. BARAKA: You mean, "Dutchman?"


Mr. BARAKA: That was - I was living in Venezuela and that was at the time of transitional piece that showed, I think, the first kind of - at that time, the first kind of open, kind of hostility to the system and the fact that, you know, the white woman who was always used to advertise everything. Although now they got some black woman doing that too like Condoleezza Rice.

But they always have, you know, the white women everything that they have to sell, including democracy and so this was an attempt - an early attempt in my mind at least to pierce that facade and show that beneath that lurked the same kind of hostility and racism.

CHIDEYA: You came out of the surface out of the Air Force and a lot of the movement of - the initial movement of civil rights came about when people returned from World War II. You're not of that generation, but did that influence how you looked at being a black artist?

Mr. BARAKA: Now, what influenced was the struggle itself. I mean, I got out of the service in 1957. That was the same year that they blew up Dr. King's house after they had successfully had the busboy count that Rosa Park initiated. And you know, '55 was the - Emmett Till murder, which to me was the real engine of the civil rights movement.

So that, you know, that question of - the King, 1957, when I got out of the service, and people showed up at King's house when they had blown that up, said, Dr. King, what should we do? He said, if any blood be shed, let it be ours.

I think I was one of my whole generation that rejected that approach even though we love Dr. King and sympathized and watched him be beaten and hospitalized and brutalized with the rest of the civil rights people and the freedom marches and all of that. And so we responded more readily to Malcolm X. Malcolm X said, you treat people like they treat you. You know, they treat you with respect, you treat them with respect. They put the hands on your sin into the cemetery, which I thought was a very profound statement. And that same year, Robert Williams was in Monroe, North Carolina, you know, fighting with Klan. You know, they had a sit-in in the library. They had swimming in the pools because those were segregated. You know, we couldn't go to the library. We couldn't swim in the pool.

CHIDEYA: We'll, let me get…

Mr. BARAKA: This kind of history is very, very important. but our children are usually not taught the history of America from the side of the oppressed.

CHIDEYA: Amiri, let me get Ysaye in here. Were you influenced by the music as well as influencing how people heard music associated with the civil rights movement? What did you listen to?

Mr. BARAKA: The music reflects the people. The music reflects the people's struggle. I mean, the Motown and the kind of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, you know, (unintelligible). That music all reflected the kind of the struggle whether it was, you know…

CHIDEYA: Amiri, I actually want to get…

Mr. BARAKA: I'm proud, you know…

CHIDEYA: I want to get Ysaye Maria Barnwell in on this. What are your thoughts (unintelligible) Amiri?

Dr. YSAYE MARIA BARNWELL (Vocalist, Sweet Honey in the Rock): Hi, Amiri. Yes, I was profoundly influenced by the music. In fact, I think a good deal of my politicization came out of the music, particularly the music the SNCC Freedom Singers. Last time, it was like Odetta, like Mina Simone(ph). Of course, people like John Bias(ph) and Bob Dylan, and then the Curtis Mayfields and the Sam Cookes(ph).

All of them, I think, were sending messages. And I think the thing that's unique about the civil rights movement is that you couldn't have the same kind of movement, particularly in the south, without the music because that was the culture. And if you're going to have a black movement, you had to have - it was - the culture was embedded in the music. And so the music came from everywhere. Not only those - the hymns and the music out of the church but the popular music of the day, the jazz musicians, all of it, working together, defining what the moment was, informing people of what was going on and moving us forward, giving us the inspiration. Even on the picket lines and in the demonstrations. It was the music that really was the bubble of protection around those people who had no other weapon because they're really seriously trying to be nonviolent. And so the music was profound.

CHIDEYA: Paul, when you think about the way visual art interacts in a context like this, a lot of people see visual art as more rarefied, more museum-oriented. Do you think that visual art had the same kind of influence or reach the same kind of audiences?

Professor PAUL VON BLUM (Art History and African-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles): I think that the music probably played the biggest influence. As a kid on the frontlines, I listened to the music all the time. But the art had also a very profound effect. And it continues to have an effect. Many of the artists whose names I gave a couple of moments ago produced works inexpensively so that it could be distributed to a much larger audience. And I would add that many of these works are still available today, and they inspire a younger generation of people who are continuingly involved in the ongoing struggle against racism.

CHIDEYA: Now, Paul, give me a context for how these artists, I mean, obviously, different artists. But give me maybe an example of how one of the visual artists that you've been talking about, perhaps David Hammons, emerged into the scene.

Prof. BLUM: David Hammons grew up here in Los Angeles and he produced a variety of very important works. One of his most important works is a work called "Injustice Case," which is a view of the horrible activity in the Chicago conspiracy trial when he was dragged in and bound. And this work, "Injustice Case," is not only a study of the way in which African-Americans have been improperly treated by the judicial system but it has continuing relevancy even now. We see that every day in the news.

CHIDEYA: Amiri, do you think people pay enough attention to some of the work that was created during the civil rights era? Has there been a carrying forward? I mean, obviously, you continued to create work. You've, you know, "Tales of the Out and Gone." You've written so many different types of literature and you continue to create. But are people today able to look back at the influences of the black arts movement and really reference them as we look at the world today?

Mr. BARAKA: Well, were you talking to me? I'm sorry.

CHIDEYA: Yes. Yes. I'm wondering if…

Mr. BARAKA: Let me say this. The people's struggle influences art. It's what the people are doing on the ground. And the most sensitive artists pick that up and reflect it. It's like David Hammons back in the '60s was very, very progressive kind of artist. The stuff that he did in the '60s reflected the movement more clearly. But as the movement itself subsided, you can see David Hammons even then begins to get more abstract and begins to, you know, the whole kind of pieces that he did then get less directly related to the struggle to liberate the people.

And that's the way it is. I mean, you could take somebody like Jake Lawrence, for instance, who comes, you know, the Harlem Renaissance riding up to the '60s and the kind of focus - his strict focus on struggle with this John Brown or Harriet Tubman, (unintelligible). You know, or the people - migration from the South.

Here's an artist truly motivated by the need to support the liberation of his people and all people, actually. But then there are others who are caught up in particular trends and so say, when the movement gets passes, as it is today, like, you know, the boys talk about the sister syndrome. We roll a rock up the mountain and rule above them ahead. This is a down cycle.

When a down cycle comes, a lot of people who just reflect trends and who are interested more in commercialism than actual profundity of struggling to overthrow monopoly capitalism and racism, the art begins to reflect that too. So one thing an artist has to do is keep his eye on the prizes, so to speak. You have to continually struggle even though you're freeing (unintelligible) less trendy according to what the manipulators of taste decide, you know? But you have to keep on pushing.

CHIDEYA: Ysaye, let me ask you the same question. You - Sweet Honey in the Rock is known for taking protest songs, songs of struggle, reaching not just back into the civil rights era but even further back in time and putting them in the context of contemporary performance. How do you keep that kind of - not just the music but the movement alive?

Dr. BARNWELL: I'm going to have to go after this question. But I think that Sweet Honey's mission really is both to preserve our tradition as well as to extend it. And so one of the things that we do is we do look for traditional material that can be easily placed in today's world. Things that are familiar to people - so that when you hear them in a different context, you say, oh, I didn't even know that that was what that song was really about.

But in addition to that, we also create new music. It's important to keep extending the tradition and keep moving. That's what artists do. So we also reflect. We also try to interpret what's going on for us, particularly as African-American women in this country and as artists.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ysaye, we know you have to go. Thank you so much.

Dr. BARNWELL: Thank you very, very much.

Mr. BARAKA: Take it easy.

Dr. BARNWELL: Thank you. (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Paul, last question, very briefly. What influence have artists like Paul Hammons had on the contemporary art scene? This is for Paul.

Prof. BLUM: I think…

Mr. BARAKA: I can't hear. This phone is terrible.

CHIDEYA: Paul, please go ahead.

Prof. BLUM: Now, I think that the artists - the people without whom I fought like Elizabeth Capulet(ph) and (unintelligible). They have a huge influence on younger African-American and other artists who are - have their eyes on the ground and who continue their effort to advance the struggle.

CHIDEYA: Well, Paul and Amiri, thank you so much.

Mr. BARAKA: Yeah, thank you.

Prof. BLUM: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking with writer Amiri Baraka. His latest is a book of short stories called "Tales of the Out and Gone." Also, Paul Von Blum, a professor of art history and African-American studies at the University of California Los Angeles. We were also hearing from Ysaye Maria Barnwell who helped found the socially conscious singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Her latest record is "Experience 101."

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