February 1st marked the beginning of Black History Month where each year we set aside a few weeks to focus our historical hindsight on the contributions that people of African descent have made, and continue to make to this country. At ArtPlace, we're privileged to work with Black leaders who are driving change in communities across the country. A few of our colleagues wrote to us to share what Black History Month means to them, and how it informs their work.
ALEXANDER ACOSTA (SOUL FOOD CYPHER)
I’m not exaggerating, when I say an emcee can be a city’s greatest historian and teacher…
As a teen, I learned so much about my history and culture from listening to Rap music. Seriously, I look back and realize the impact that listening to Yasiin Bey formerly known as Mos Def and Common had on me. From listening to these two artists, I not only learned about historical figures such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X but also how urban planning and policy affected the lives of communities for generations. In Atlanta, Killer Mike is a great example of an Emcee who has rapped about issues affecting the city and has recently been appointed to the new Mayor’s transition team along with TI. Rappers use the power of their voice to initiate action, and as I learned later, they come from a long lineage of orators in the West African communities called griots who used poetry, song, and storytelling to maintain culture and tradition. From the accomplishments of these artists and their peers, I realized that black history was not stagnate and that it was being made every day… Through their action and voices, they inspired me to do the same… That’s something all great teachers have in common.
DEANNA VAN BUREN (DESIGNING JUSTICE DESIGNING SPACES)
At Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS) we believe that the built environment embodies many of our society’s gross inequities. Through our innovations in architecture and real estate development, we seek to end the crisis caused by mass incarceration by supporting re-entry and diversion programs and practices. With our non-profit, government and community partners, we co-create new prototypes such as peacemaking centers, mobile classrooms, and housing for foster age youth. Together, we harness the power of the built environment to create triple bottom line equity and support the success and expansion of restorative justice, education, and workforce development programs. Pop-Up Resource Village is a creative site activation project that invites mobile resources to “pop-up”on a regular basis to create a village of civic resources for under resourced communities so they can thrive. It addresses the lack of access to resources through the creation of mobile and temporary structures that eliminate the economic and social isolation many communities face by bringing education, resources, and entrepreneurship opportunities directly to them. In eliminating these barriers, we seek to reduce recidivism, improve social cohesion and increase in public safety using the power of creative placemaking.
CHRISTOPHER HOPE, MOISE MICHEL AND TYRIE DANIEL (LOOP LAB)
Black American history is constantly being overlooked and not properly represented in the media within western society. The study of Black history in America shines a light on the everyday influence that Black Americans have on everything from medicine to sports. As a young Black boy raised in a small town outside of Atlanta,GA, it was empowering to learn about the story of Jesse Owens. He came from a small town like mine. Here was a brilliant and talented black man who excelled off of the track, as much as he did on the track. In the 1936 Olympic games, Jesse shocked the world by blowing out his competition, and dispelled any notion of Nazi superiority to the world. The story continues to inspire me, and when something positively inspires people, why shouldn’t it be celebrated? We have to celebrate black history more as a society; Black history IS American history. Even non-Black Americans can grow and improve their lives by getting inspiration from it. The Loop Lab is all about mentorship which is so important in black communities especially because black youths across the US in 2018 are being targeted. Whether it is police brutality, heart disease, lack of access to healthier foods, the industrial prison complex system or racial profiling, there are just so many pitfalls and traps for us to escape now, and it takes more wisdom than we currently have to help guide us through these challenges. I was raised in a household where I was taught that every possession you had was to be used for the good of the larger community. So the concept of a warm, and inclusive multigenerational community is an important value to me. As an organization that has answered President Obama’s My Brothers Keeper Challenge, the Loop Lab is passionate about carrying on the tradition of “paying it forward” to future generations through STEM education. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Therefore, I feel that it is my responsibility to help push open the glass doors of opportunity for future generations.The City of Cambridge holds so much Black history especially in the media, education, and STEM and there is only more to come with innovation.
LYDIA CLEMMONS AND FAMILY (CLEMMONS FAMILY FARM)
On the Clemmons Family Farm, every day is a day for celebrating Black History. Ninety-five-year-old Jack and Lydia Clemmons, who are the Farm's co-owners, are an important part of this history. Since 1962, the dynamic couple have combined their love of farming with their love for their African-American heritage and the African diaspora. Now, through the A Sense of Place project funded by ArtPlace America, the Clemmons Family Farm and its partners are expanding their arts and culture programs to reach old and young alike in six towns. The Creative Placemaking grant will help to preserve what is one of the rare African-American-owned farms in Vermont and in the nation. Over Jack and Lydia Clemmons' lifetimes, African-American land ownership in the US has disintegrated from 44 million acres when they were young children in the 1920s, to just 3.5 million acres today. The 148-acre Clemmons Family Farm is thus an extremely important asset for African-American heritage. ArtPlace funds will upgrade the Farm's historic barns as venues for vibrant dance, theater, music and culinary arts programs. The programs are all designed to improve community health and well-being through the sharing of African-American and African arts and culture in a quintessential Vermont farm landscape. "Black History Month is important for taking time out to think about and honor the achievements of people of African ancestry," says the elder Lydia Clemmons. "Yet history is really a continuum of past, present and future".
"All of us are living history every day," agrees her daughter, also named Lydia, and who is the A Sense of Place project's Executive Director. "ArtPlace is helping us achieve our vision that people will learn about and celebrate African-American and African history, art and culture everywhere they go on the Clemmons Family Farm, each time they visit."
PASTOR KELLY CHATMAN (AT HOME IN HARRISON)
I was born and raised in Detroit, MI, and lived and worked in Washington, D.C., Portland, OR, and Chicago, IL, before moving to Minneapolis, MN, to lead Redeemer Lutheran Church. During my tenure as senior pastor of Redeemer and as executive director of Redeemer Center for Life, the church and nonprofit have invested in youth empowerment and employment, platforms for community creativity and in the Harrison neighborhood’s social fabric. Over the last two decades, we have assembled a four-block campus with affordable housing, retail and restaurant spaces, community-building and arts venues, an urban farm, bread oven and Venture North Bike Walk & Coffee. I consider Black History Month to be historical and cultural reparation for Black people. I recall attending college when I recognized that rarely did I read about Black heroes or heroines in any textbook. I experienced this as academic genocide. Black History is American History, and many stories and contributions of Black people have yet to be told. Perhaps it is time to talk about Black History Months.
DEANNA CUMMINGS (JUXTAPOSITION ARTS GENERATIVE PROJECT)
"We were trying to draw a future. To leave something that inspires. We arrived to this big epic story. But it is also a big responsibility when telling an epic tale because you have to tell it – epically.” -Namir Fearce, artist and JXTA alumi.
Stories shape us. They shape communities, institutions and behavior. They do not have to be true to be passed on and believed. But what we believe has a powerful impact on the world. Last week, I had the good fortune to see Black Panther with the entire team at JXTA. Director Ryan Coogler and the nearly entirely black cast gave us an epic story that is black affirmative, unapologetically black centered, and a joyfully executed epic story. The film resonated with our team. The big picture of our work at JXTA is about illuminating stories about Black and POCI people and marginalized communities. Our goal is to to shift mainstream narratives that are narrow and largely negative toward collective stories that focus on our assets, skills, creativity, accomplishments and ideas. We train and employ young artists and designers in our North Minneapolis neighborhood so that they can practice powerfully living into their roles as leaders and creators and so that people inside and outside of our community get used to seeing our youth in this light. This is what I think Black Panther does on a grand scale. I left the theater feeling proud of my people, and my team, and with a bounce in my step because we are individually and collectively LIT! Black Panther is the latest cultural milestone that is proof that people who have been historically and systematically oppressed, are hungry to see authentic representations of ourselves and will support projects and institutions where we can produce and tell our own stories. For the rest of this Black History month, and every day of the year, I hope we can make a commitment to support the artists, story makers, and young futurists whose voices haven’t been heard enough who tell the tales we need to imagine so that we can believe, and act on the possibilities of something new. #WakandaForever
BRYCE DETROIT (DETROIT AFRIKAN MUSIC INSTITUTION)
My work is rooted in the historical legacies of tens of thousands of pioneering Detroit Afrikan [Black] performers, musicians, producers, promoters and entrepreneurs who all worked in concert to create one of the most robust and genre-redefining music-entertainment economic ecosystems the world has ever seen. These rich yet underserved legacies are rooted in Black self-determination, collaborative economics and cultural affirmation. These legacies will continue to be important, because embedded in them are powerful points of self-identity and ancestral memory, that we are presently accessing to re-imagine ourselves as architects of culturally-literate economies as well as our own built environments. The Detroit Afrikan Music Institution is working with local architects and designers to rehab the historic Apex Lounge on Oakland Avenue in Detroit, MI's North End neighborhood. Historically, this neighborhood was Detroit’s premiere African-American music district. The Apex Lounge will transform from a vacant property into a center for education, rehearsal, and performance that will serve as a catalyst for reigniting Detroit's music economy.