MSU African American Studies continues 10th anniversary celebration with Black Arts Movement lecture

Contact: Sasha Steinberg

Mississippi State University’s African American Studies program continued its 10th anniversary celebration Wednesday [Sept. 27] with a presentation by distinguished author James Smethurst. Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smethurst discussed the Southern activities of the Black Arts Movement, the African American cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s that was closely connected to the Black Power and Black Studies movements. (Photo by Russ Houston)

STARKVILLE, Miss.— Mississippi State University’s African American Studies program continued its 10th anniversary celebration Wednesday [Sept. 27] with a presentation by distinguished author James Smethurst.

Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smethurst discussed the Southern activities of the Black Arts Movement, the African American cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s that was closely connected to the Black Power and Black Studies movements.

“My basic argument is that the Black Arts Movement was one of the most important movements of all time that profoundly influences all of us in the United States,” Smethurst said. “Even though the Black Arts Movement tends to be associated with large northern cities like New York and Chicago, the South was of crucial and long-lasting importance to black arts and its legacies.”

The 1964 establishment of the Free Southern Theater at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Smethurst said, marked a major starting point for the Black Arts Movement not only in the South, but also nationally.

“The FST was established after earlier discussions about the need for a theater that could serve the burgeoning civil rights movement in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Deep South, making it among the first, if not the first, of the black arts or proto-black arts theaters,” he said.

Smethurst, who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in English, recounted how the Black Arts Movement changed American thought about what constitutes art, as well as how art is received.

“Before the Black Arts Movement, the notion that a work of art could be serious, even radical in form and content, and popular, was not widely accepted. Now, such an understanding of popular culture or art is standard, a change that can be clearly seen in hip-hop music,” Smethurst said.

“Artists like Kanye West and Lil Wayne regularly reach millions perhaps billions of people with politically and formally radical work,” he continued. “This breakdown of boundaries of genre media and audience has also made it possible for literary artists such as Pearl Clay in Atlanta and Sister Souljah to mix popular fiction genres with black nationalist ideology and reach a mass black audience largely outside of mainstream channels of publicity and distribution.”

The Black Arts Movement also changed how people in the U.S. felt art should be circulated and “opened up the cultural landscape for art and art institutions supported by public money and other resources aimed at grassroots communities,” Smethurst said.

“Not only did it reach millions of people through its journals, presses, theaters, murals, festivals and televisions shows,” he said, “but the Black Arts Movement also left a lasting imprint on our sense of what art is, what it can do and who it is for that remains with us all to this day. And I think nowhere is this more true than in the South.”

Smethurst said the efforts of activists Tom Dent, Doris Derby, John O’Neal, Nayo Watkins and Kalamu ya Salaam, and others in such organizations as the Congress of African People, African American Liberation Support Committee, and Southern Black Cultural Alliance, played a key role in inspiring, promoting and supporting black artists and black arts institutions in the South.

The Black Arts Movement also was instrumental in making Southern cities like Atlanta, Houston, Miami, Nashville and New Orleans major arts centers, Smethurst added.

“The South became an increasingly vital site for black power activities, especially after the inaugural CAP convention in Atlanta in 1970,” he said. “We often think of black power, as well as black arts, as being something from the urban ghettos in the North and the West, but especially after about 1970, ground zero of black power was really very substantially in the South. Oppression was raw and enemies were very clear, so there was a degree of unity of black power and black arts down here that was not seen anywhere else.”

In his final remarks, Smethurst encouraged MSU students to consider pursuit of an African American Studies minor and participate in discussions with local community members.

“The South played a crucial role in terms of reaching grassroots communities everywhere in a profound way, and still does so today in a lot of respects. You should talk to the folks in your community about what was going on back then, as well as the arts movements and what people were doing,” Smethurst said.

“Folks who participated in these movements are still around, but may not be in 10 or 15 years,” he emphasized. “A lot of this history wasn’t written down; it’s in their memories, so once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Part of the College of Arts and Sciences, MSU’s African American Studies program offers courses leading to a minor in African American Studies. For more, visit www.aas.msstate.edu and follow the program on Twitter @MSStateAAS.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.