Artists, historians and activists came together at DS4SI to explore how Black History is a creative force for imagining, depicting and creating the present and future. Listen to some amazing ideas from our panelists and audience.
We're excited to announce the 3rd annual DS4SI Black History Month Series. This year our theme is "REEL Blackness" This series explores black creativity through film. It's particularly geared to creatives looking to explore or venture into some aspect of video, film, acting, etc. In addition, we'll conclude the series with a special tribute to Nelson Mandela.and a look forward to how his legacy can create a "regeneration of liberation."
As usual, it will happen every Tuesday night in February and include good food and great conversation. Hope you can join us and our fabulous hosts and presenters!
DS4SI is excited to host our first "Almost Halfway to Black History Month" speaker! Baratunde Thurston is the author of New York Times' bestseller "How to Be Black", CEO and hashtagger-in-chief of the multi-talented humor site Cultivated Wit, and former director of digital at The Onion.
The third installation of our Black History Month series can be best described by the term "mind trip." Amah Edoh's talk challenged our notions of essence, fixity and identity through her investigations of "African" wax print cloth. Instead of having exclusive origins in places like Ghana, Togo or Cameroon, many of the prints, patterns and actual production of the fabrics we see in African markets in Harlem have their origins in places like Holland. (Funny given that Harlem is a shortened version of the Dutch city Haarlem.)
We also learned that many of the patterns we conceive of as originally "African" were inspired by Indonesian fabrics and patterns. For everyday folk in Lagos, Accra or Dakar, the origins and foreign productions of these cloths are given. For people of African descent in other parts of the diaspora, not so much.
For Amah, the fact that we were ever allowed to imagine a fixed point of origin to something as complex and hybrid as cloth point to how we often yearn for fixity in our complex and hybrid identities as black people. Coming to terms with our complexity may require that we all spend more time as "lost in translation." For many of us, it was the first time we heard that many of the most popular African print cloths were designed by a still living 80 year old white Dutch guy!
Following Amah, Barbara Lewis wove together stories and images of Black style from history and the present. She described Black style as that of jazz: full of surprise, syncopation and a bringing together. She spatialized comtemporary Black experience and hitstorical Black experiences through her treatment of "The Strip." During slavery, Black people found expression of their humanity on the outskirts, on the strips, of the panopticonic plantation. The strip shows up again in the making of African-American quilts, and she would like to see the strip continue to be explored in the making of Black style.
Barbara also touched on some of the controversies in contemporary Black style,particularly the styles of Black youth. She complicated the immediate dismissal of the "sagging jeans" style that is so popular with many youth regardless of class and color, though it is thought to have origins with the Black community. She talked about it as being both a tip to prison culture and a tip to refusing to fit in to the status quo. The sag functions to say, "We aren't part the mainstream, so why fake it."
And she eloquently pointed to the need for Black people to continue to work on our our gender relationships, particularly with each other, given the decimation of gender in our experience of slavery. She talked aobut how we used and continue to use style in ways that counter the decimation of gender in the Black experience.
For the closing presentation of our Black History Month Series, the Design Studio invited Fox Harrell, professor at MIT (the Center for Media Studies and CSAIL), and Malia Lazu, Founder of Urban Labs, to bring us into the digital future. As always, they killed it! From racism deeply embedded in the character choices in video games to new digital and cultural possibilities for healing in Liberia, Fox Harrell shared some ground-breaking work he's done across platforms. Malia Lazu brought the community organizer perspective, sharing how new technologies can help us build our organizations, empower communities, and even make the $5 per voter registration card a thing of the past! Here's what they had to say...
Makani Themba is clear black water into which our dreams of ourselves plunge and are rejuvenated, beautiful and full of humanity. Trails of wisdom dust fall from her curled salt and pepper hair and the force of her analysis pries open eyes and bares our thinking to truth and challenge. Her rumination on Black Liberation and the Black Future, and on the sequence of the freedom of mind and ass, that is thinking and being, posits the question of Black Freedom. To it, I add, does black come before freedom? Do our conceptions of either – black as intrinsic, uncreated, a convening identity that brings together people across culture, language and time – and freedom – as an endpoint, a final state beyond the current struggle - dictate a sequence? And most important, if we are free, does being black matter?
Thus to understand black freedom we must define what is black and what is free. Makani Themba intimates that the most important work of art is to help people imagine what it is like to be free. That freedom must become part of our thinking is preceded, possibly, by freedom being imagined, designed, explored, thought about and thought through, felt from the inside and pushed out through the soul. But what about black. Black must be imagined in the positive, complete with its legacy and lived experience in tact; formed, inclusive, defined and forward, continually creating itself and connected to the past and the future.
And, to understand “black future” we can place this same black against the imagination and hopes black people have had and the imagined freedom that is placed temporally beyond today and at the end of a perceived struggle.
While we are clear that Black must exist for black future and black freedom to exist; is it also true perhaps, that freedom and future must exist for black to exist.
by Mo Barbosa, Guest Blogger and DS4SI Board Member
Professor Seth Markle posits that the Black Arts period has had a lasting touch on the black aesthetic and that its connection to Africa was part and parcel of its expression of the peri-civil rights era (1965-1975). The former is uniquely illustrated in the cultural artifacts that litter every black community in America – lasting, and remade, images of black leaders and thinkers including Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey and Harriet Tubman. This timeframe is also often referred to as the pro-black era and cultural markers such as Huey Newton and conflict poetry inform and transform the black experience in America.
The latter argument is challenged by its own lack of continuity. Black America seems to be exploring its Africaness in a dialogue with Africa where only the Americans speak. Africa is taken as a whole, as a subject to be understood, with no place for its own understanding or its questions to be posed. Africa is treated as a singularity, without texture or contours, something to be held, possessed like a rock, with little thought to its present and an inconceivable attachment to a distant past. Yet, even in this fumble, there are the beats of connection. The current black American aesthetic is steeped in hip hop whose roots and development are as intrinsically and pervasively American as its present and future are international, an indeed African, with or without translation. The black American in every American household is not making a bed or working in the yard, but rather stately serving in reverence as President and, perhaps, as future maker. The very moment in the black aesthetic is perhaps at the height that the Black Arts era was trying to be. Perhaps, Mr. Heron was wrong, it is spring, rather than winter, in America.
The Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) is dedicated to changing how social justice is imagined, developed and deployed here in the United States. Get in touch to inquire about art commissions, residencies or to hire us to run a creativity lab or other generative process for your organization, coalition or campaign.