Black History Month

Black History Month Will Black Artists Of Today Transform Our Politics & Culture?

Will Black Artists Of Today Transform Our Politics & Culture?

By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Posted Feb 28th 2011 2:00PM

Each February, when I think of Black History Month, I think of the black artists who have contributed to the making of America through their writing, painting, sculpting, dancing, singing, composing, and acting.

In some ways, the very act of creating was political. Yet I can't help but wonder about the power of art in contemporary society. Can an observation of the beautiful make us more morally just? Furthermore, is this question still relevant?

Since Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley published in the eighteenth century, African- American writers have maintained a tradition of public expression. Over the years, we turned to various forms of art to assert our humanity as well as to articulate notions of social uplift.

The Harlem Renaissance was, in no small part, a social justice movement. Whether you sided with the Old Guard's notions of propriety or the younger artists' insistence on creative freedom, the message was clear: African Americans would be seen and heard.

Although it is certainly true that not all African-American artists are or have been politically motivated, expressive culture for African Americans can be historically tied to issues of social justice. Sometimes those expressions have been straightforwardly political, and other times not.

As a novelist, I often feel a bit disoriented when in the company of people who are doing what society considers "important" work. I cannot perform a heart transplant. I do not defend the innocent. I am completely lost in a laboratory. And, yet, the world is my laboratory. I am constantly sifting, sorting, pushing my thoughts through a sieve. Some days, I feel the whimsy of artistic play. Is this important? Does it really matter?

If one reads Langson Hughes' passionate editorials for the Chicago Defender, it is clear that he thought it did. Zora Neale Hurston was an ardent collector of southern folklore and brought the skills of an anthropologist to her work.

Romare Bearden worked tirelessly to create an exceptional oeuvre that included over 2,000 works. When Duke Ellington composed 'Black, Brown & Beige' he translated into music the journey of black America.

August Wilson's completion of his life work before his untimely death is an outstanding testament to the sheer force of will that occurs within the context of a belief in art's power.

Thinking about these artists' contributions can remind us of their hopefulness. If one believes in the power of beauty to improve our moral sensibilities, and actively works to produce such objects, there is an inherent optimism in that approach. It is that optimism that has always been the bedrock of African-American struggle.

In fact, I would argue that optimism lies at the heart of the American struggle writ large. All Americans share this ideal, and this is the reason the black American story is and always has been an integral part of the American story.

During this year's Black History Month celebration, we should not only celebrate black America's achievements, but also the underpinnings of black America's idealism. It is a powerful move to consider the possibilities of art and its ability to transform us.

When I return to this question of the relevance of art to issues of social justice in a world where notions of race have changed since the times of these artistic luminaries, I remember author Elaine Scarry's assertion that "beauty really is allied with truth."

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of 'Wench.' Her fiction and essays have appeared in Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories 2009, 'The Kenyon Review,' and 'North Carolina Literary Review.' To find about more about her work and to read her blog, visit Red Room.

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March 06 2011 at 12:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I applaud the nobility of the will unfortunately fall to deaf ears and blind third eyes. In the age of information technology, pertinent facts and figures have a hard time filtering through to the masses in dire need of this and mind dulling garbage flows freely dimming the African American mental wattage. This is why there is such a disconnect between the modern entertainer and his/her historical knowledge. With their pursiuts today it is only a matter of time before our history rich journey is forgotten all together.

March 03 2011 at 7:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply