|Letter from the Directors|
October 14, 2013
Welcome to Black Aesthetics and African Centered Cultural Expressions: Sacred Systems in the Nexus between Cultural Studies, Religion and Philosophy, an NEH summer institute sponsored by the Emory University Department of African American Studies in conjunction with the Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts. In the New Negro (1925), African American philosopher and educator Alain Locke contends that, prior to the Harlem Renaissance, generations of African Americans lived under the shadows of oppression and the finite possibilities dependent upon the affirming subservient relationships with white Americans. According to Locke, it was not until after the First World War that the “pulse of the Negro world” began beating in Harlem with the convergence of old and new traditions, which constituted the “spiritual coming of age” (Locke, 1925). Expressed through the creative visual and literary arts, the Harlem Renaissance promoted a unique “black aesthetic” that was tied directly to the experiences of black people throughout the African diaspora. This connection allowed African Americans to see themselves anew as part of a larger narrative, which became an integral part of the social, economic, political, and cultural transformation of African Americans throughout the twentieth-century.
This transformative time period of unprecedented growth and advancement was further articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1926 essay “Criteria for Negro Art.” Here, Du Bois recognizes the capacity of art to challenge decaying ideas related to race and citizenship, while presenting, preserving, and affirming the beauty of people of African descent. More than anything, Du Bois believed that one of the central purposes of black artists in the twentieth-century was to use “all the methods that men have used before” to capture the world as it was unfolding. Du Bois believed that the first method used for artistic creation was truth – “not for the sake of truth, not as a scientist seeking truth, but as one upon whom truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as the one great vehicle of universal understanding” (Du Bois, 1926). In telling the truth about one’s circumstances and conditions, the artist is elevated as a conveyor of “justice, honor, and right — not for sake of an ethical sanction but as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest.”
For artists of African descent attempting to define the worlds in which they live and the worlds from which they have come, is the truth connected to a singular root origin from which all can claim the basis for their identity? If so, is this place of origin Africa, and are the traditions of expression rooted in the past and revisited through universal notions of place? This begs the question, what is black art? What do we mean when we say “black aesthetics”? Does black art require a common point of origin in order to satisfy the heuristic impulse advanced by the arts as a type of inquiry and point of departure related to ideas concerned with the development of a civilized people? What is more, in this so-called “Post-Race/Post-Black” milieu, so defined with the election and re-election of the Nation’s first non-white president, Barack Hussein Obama, how will black art continue to serve and maintain the aura of dissent necessary to advance the social, economic, political. and cultural transformation of African diasporic communities? The Interdisciplinary Project on African Diasporic Culture, Religion and Art (IPADCRT) proposes a summer institute to answer these questions and others.
Pellom McDaniels III
Paul Carter Harrison