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Monday, September 12, 2016

BAM Conference

BAM 9.8-11.2016

Knowing that the Black Arts Movement was a logical moment in the ongoing evolving of African-generated arts is a matter of common sense rather than one of academic acrobatics.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

This knowledge of what it means to be Black in America is an inner introspection that is never the same for any two people.

Kim McMillon, organizer of the Dillard University-Harvard Hutchins Center  Black Arts Movement International Conference, New Orleans, September 9-11, 2016

After more than two years of work, it came to fruition.  It was simply Dr. Kim McMillon's vision of the necessity to celebrate, contemplate, define and redefine, tell tales and speak truth about the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement to whomever would listen.  It occurred in a city that Tom Dent famously declared with his uncanny wit and wisdom to be a weird place.  Like other twenty-first century conferences, it was characterized by plenitude  --  the too much to be said in three days.  Its special flavor was one of Southern influences.  It was one of those endless conversations citizens of the United States of America need to delay the inevitable tragedy of ritual murder and ritual suicide and ritual terrorism.  The conversation is about how the past occupies the space where the future has always been.

Personal Notes

September 8 ---Kim McMillon, Quo Vadis Gex Breaux, and I are special guests on a WBOK-AM community notebook program.  We talk about the origin and purpose of the conference.  We extend an invitation to the people of New Orleans, especially the young citizens, to participate in a moment of learning and teaching, a moment of genuine public education.

September 9, 6:00 p.m. ---In the atrium of the Professional Schools Building at Dillard University, Big Chief Clarence A. Dalcour of the Creole Osceolas, opens the conference with the chanting of "Indian Red."

Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, opens one conceptual space with his keynote address "A focus on people from the Midwest who have been left out of the Black Arts Movement: Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, Margaret Burroughs and Hoyt W. Fuller."  Burroughs was born in St. Rose, Louisiana, and Fuller was born in Atlanta, Georgia.  They were Southern influences on the evolution of BAM thought and activity in Chicago.  For Burroughs, the importance of legacy was to be remembered for positive contributions to one's community, and her legacy is DuSable Museum.  Fuller, who died in the city of his birth (the eternal return of things), left the legacy of his editing Negro Digest/Black World and founding First World, his thinking about the concept of the Black Aesthetic, and his nurturing of OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture). Note other Southern influences.  Sterling D. Plumpp was born in Clinton, Mississippi and Angela Jackson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and both of them were Madhubuti's comrades in OBAC.  Many people know Chicago as the UpSouth home of the Mississippi Delta blues.  Under the banner of BAM, Chicago can be reconsidered as the place where the Southern writers Richard Wright and Margaret Walker had some influence on a so-called Chicago Renaissance.  We must challenge the accuracy of naming any cultural expressions by people of African ancestry a "renaissance."  Madhubuti's keynote reminds me that the Southern historian Julius Eric Thompson wrote Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995 (McFarland 1999) and was himself a BAM poet.  When Madhubuti made references to John Oliver Killens  (born in Georgia), the famed Fisk University conference of 1967 that had some impact on the thinking of Gwendolyn Brooks, and the work that he did with Killens at Howard University, I am reminded that Stephen Henderson (born in Key West, Florida) founded the Institute for the Arts and the Humanities at Howard after making noteworthy contributions to the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta.  Killens did his major work in New York, but he never forgot the crucial importance of the Black South voice.  The South is everywhere in the unfinished history of BAM.  It is an open secret that Washington, D.C., the scene of IAH's noteworthy BAM-related conferences, is a very Southern city in America's democratic experimenting.  Madhubuti opened floodgates.

September 10, 9:00 a.m. PSB 115 ----I shared the stage with Askia M. Toure (born in Raleigh, North Carolina) to give a joint keynote address.  Toure spoke eloquently about Umbra, the importance of BAM journals, and the importance of reading  the pamphlet "Freedom Manifesto: A Draft Manifesto to Rebuild the Black Liberation Movement "(August 2016), "the work of veterans of five decades of struggle and young activists in the current struggles."  Toure directed thought to the continuity and cultural, political, and social necessity of the Black Arts Movement rather than to  the academic delusion that BAM dissolved either in 1974 or 1975.  I tried to make these points in my keynote remarks:

  • If we admit that "history" is at once a process and a narrative of process, we recognize that (a) the cultural expressions of enslaved African peoples in the USA culminated in a burst of energy now called the Harlem Renaissance; (b) the Harlem Renaissance with all its achievements and flaws (see Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) focused on one site of development (there were many sites of activity beyond New York) and served as prelude/preface for BAM (c. 1960-1975), the special assertion of what W. E. B. DuBois outlined in The Gift of Black Folk (1924); (c) BAM was a forecast of NOW (acronym for "no single name or single wholeness), the dispersed and decentered sense of freedom, the belief in an abstraction that does not exist.
  • BAM is a logical configuration, a matter of time and space, of change and continuity, of caste, class and commerce in human capital.
  • This conference is one and only one effort to use common sense to recognize the necessity of conversations about the ACTUAL and the REAL, the perpetual motions of history, the dao of being.
  • At the center of this particular conversation, at the core of this conference,  is the spirit/memory of Tom Dent (1932-1998) and what he said about the imperatives of history.
  • In his magnum opus Southern Journey (1997), Dent noted that in his youth dream roads were "fueled by books, movies, and legends" which "led to a nonracial world" of solace.  Dent came to believe that this dream world does not exist.
  • Smashing the icons of dream worlds, as Dent did in his play Ritual Murder, was and is the work of BAM, the work of exposing what is obscene in the American Nightmare and figuring out how to defeat those icons.  With all its contradictions, BAM had to do with cognition, with a consciousness of aesthetic gestures in life  (not inside the abstract limits of philosophy of art and its limits of good, beauty, truth.
  • As editor of the Maroon Tiger at Morehouse College, Dent criticized his generation for apathy and nonchalance, for not fighting to get out of confusion (November 15, 1951).  As Dent told me in a 1986 interview, our job is working toward "critical and widening vision."  Yes, that is the work of this 2016 conference.

September 10, 10:00 a.m.  PSB 115----Black Studies Roundtable, moderated by Jerry Varnado

Panelists: James Smethurst, Jimmy Garrett, Ishmael Reed, Eugene B. Redmond, Quincy Troupe,

Kalamu ya Salaam, Askia Toure, Jerry Ward

My opinion about where Black Studies should be located is sufficiently "incorrect" to anger colleagues who, truth be told, have done remarkable work on the plantations of American higher education.  Given all the uncertainty about progress in local communities, our surplus of tragedies small and large, we need robust PRACTICE outside the Academy and inside community sites regarding culture (i.e., values and lifestyles, especially as they are affected and infected by commerce in the USA).  We need to give dedicated, constant attention to social institutions (i.e., roles and collective forms of social interaction), namely

  • the police and criminal injustice
  • legal systems and persons who say they are responsible for order and law
  • the prisons in the USA
  • educational institutions at all levels
  • hospitals and health care delivery; Medicare, Medicaid, and HMOs
  • sports and popular entertainment, film
  • Mass media, publications, the news as deliberate infotainment and misinformation
  • social networks as emerging technologies of mind-control
  • labor

I ask for Black Studies to be efforts of local discovery by trial and error of pragmatic local solutions.  I am Vietnam veteran pissed-off when the roundtable minimizes the long history of forms of black study in HBCUs, and I stand and say as much loudly.

September 10, 11:30 a.m. PSB 200 ---Paper Panel 4 "Icons of the Black Arts Movement"

Presenters --Lasana Kazembe, John Zheng, Eshe Mercer-James, Reginald Martin

I am humbled by Martin's paper "Takin' It to the Bridge: The Legacies of Ishmael Reed and Jerry Ward," but energized to continue my version of bridge-building between the USA and the Peoples Republic of China.

LUNCH --1:00 p.m. with Eugene B. Redmond and discussion of program planning for October 2016 in East St. Louis

September 10, 3:00 p.m. , Cook 204---Southern Writers Roundtable

Moderator: Jerry Ward

Panelists: Quo Vadis Gex Breaux, Chakula Cha Jua, Mona Lisa Saloy, Kalamu ya Salaam; C. Liegh McInnis added late during the session

To begin --three quotations, all from Black Southern Voices, to which I request that panelists respond

1. "The black Southern literary voice is a most important voice.  As the South goes, so goes the nation, with all due respect to the rock-bound coast of Maine and all the Hampshires.  It is the voice of hard truth and reality." ---John Oliver Killens, "Introduction,"  page 3

2. "When murder occurs for no apparent reason, but happens all the time, as in our race on a Saturday night, it is ritual murder." ---Tom Dent, Ritual Murder, page 324

3.  yes, i see hard times

     a ' coming

     and i see blk folks


     we are still

     our own best resources

     and i rejoice

Nayo (Barbara Watkins), "Hard Times A' Coming," page 283

Comment ( my paraphrase) by Avotcja, a poet, playwright, multi-percussionist, photographer and teacher: The writer's job is to know many stories from all people.

September 11, 11:00 a.m. ---Videotape interview on the conference; Arnold Bourgeois, interviewer

September 11, 11:00 a.m., PSB 115 ---"Young People's Town Hall Meeting"

I arrive late but catch the drift of the discussion led by four young people.  I am dismayed that elders not young people constitute the bulk of the audience, because I had hope we might have ended with a significant exercise in intergenerational listening to the young, to hearing their voices.  What the four young people did say, however, was amazingly sobering: Young people may be reluctant to reach out to elders, because young people resent being disrespected.  When the discussion turned to a lack of interest in African American literature and culture among many students at Dillard University, I went into Jerry Ward the teacher mode.  As a person who retired from teaching at Dillard, I noted that what was obviously absent from the conversation was a primal question: WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION IN THE USA?  That question has not been adequately addressed, particularly in light of our endless evolving of African-derived cultural expressions.  It has not been addressed in terms of what global capitalism is designed to do with human beings.

I returned home from the conference with gratitude to Kim McMillon and Mona Lisa Saloy and all the people who made the event happen. I returned home to consider where I entered on September 8 with a renewed sense that Southern influences prevail:

Knowing that the Black Arts Movement was a logical moment in the ongoing evolving of African-generated arts is a matter of common sense rather than one of academic acrobatics.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            September 12, 2016

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