In a rousing tribute to the life, work and spirit of NAACP founder and renaissance man W.E.B. Du Bois, Atlanta's ninth National Black Arts Festival united a diverse crowd for 10 days of nonstop art, entertainment and scholarly discourse that thrilled the senses, wanned the heart and stirred the mind.
The July festival honored the 100th anniversary of Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, while celebrating the African Diaspora. A rich menu of more than 200 family and educational programs featuring music, dance, theater, literature, visual arts, film and spoken word, forged bonds across genres, generations and geographic boundaries.
Founding artistic director Stephanie S. Hughley says the focus of the 2003 festival was to encourage dialogue among generations, "to discover how the work of W.E.B. Du Bois influenced our past and how it will inspire our future."
Du Bois tributes included: a staged reading of excerpts from Souls by a quartet of actors; a documentary film biography of Du Bois by Louis Massiah; an examination of Souls by author/critic Stanley Crouch, co-author of the recently published Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk; a dialogue between author Thulani Davis and historian Manning Marable on the relevance and lasting impact of Souls; and a dynamic poetic opera, The Songs of Black Folk: A Soul Meditation, performed by talented hiphop poets and spoken-word artists.
Robert Rhodes, a professor of African American Studies at Ohio University in Athens, says the jazz composition, "Souls Within the Veil," by trombonist Craig Harris, captured the essence of Du Bois. "[It was] one of the greatest performances I've seen - a marriage of music, history, politics and culture that dealt with the Talented Tenth and the double consciousness that Du Bois wrote about," Rhodes says.
The Souls of Black Folk theme held special significance for Tamara Nash, an executive at Georgia-Pacific, an Atlanta-based paper and building products company, who says her maternal great-grandmother was a first cousin of Du Bois. "I learned more about him during this year's festival than I ever knew," she says.
"Connect. Inspire. Transform."
Marking the inaugural of an annual event, the theme of the 2003 festival was to "connect, inspire and transform" humanity through art. The festival had been biannual since its inception in 1988, welcoming more than 5 million guests over the years to experience the works of more than 25,000 artists from around the world. Hughley estimates that with some 800,000 people attending (up about 300,000 from last year), "the 2003 festival was perhaps one of the most solid, with a provocative program that encouraged audiences to take a look at where we have been and where we are going as a diverse community."
The array of exhibits, events and symposia explored the influence of African Americans on American art. The Gathering of Colors gala dinner - featuring Black, Latino and Chinese poets, rappers, dancers and musicians - demonstrated global multiculturalism in full bloom.
The Pan-African Film Festival featured scintillating African American, African, South American and Caribbean dramas and documentaries. It included a preview of the upcoming Hollywood drama, Civil Brand, featuring Michael Beach and produced and directed by Eriq LaSalle. In attendance at the film festival were such stars as N'Bushe Wright, Mos Def, Cedric the Entertainer, Danny Glover, Jasmine Guy and Sinbad.
Visual arts exhibits included African sculptures, South African prints, African American memorabilia and an exhibit of dolls called "Divas, Drama and Doll Babies." Sistagraphy, a collective of Black female lensmasters from around the country - included Susan J. Ross, Edith Biggers and Sheila Tuner. Images by Parisian photographers Phillippe Salaun and Gilles Perrin showed the resemblance of people in Mali and Peru.
Many enjoyed the works of artists Radcliff Bailey, Charles Nelson and Lillian Blades at "gallery crawls." Others attended a discussion of "post-Black" visual art with artists, arts lovers and experts from around the nation.
The festival was also a shopper's paradise - bustling artist and vendor markets at Greenbriar Mall and Underground Atlanta featured dozens of Black artists and artisans from across the country.
"Not only did you have all the beautiful artworks - wood carvings, metallurgy, paintings, basketry, musical instruments, quilts, pots - you had folk art and fine art," says Sylvester Oliver, an ethnomusicologist at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss. "You could not avoid experiencing what Du Bois called 'the two-ness of the Negro' - you saw where the African and the American streams of consciousness merge into a common source of inspiration."
Music lovers enjoyed the sounds of crooner Freddie Cole, the international classical woodwind quintet Imani Winds, popular jazz keyboardist George Duke and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra playing at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Theater stages were alight with drama from South Africa and the heart of urban America. One of the highlights was Iceland, a spellbinding one-man show by Roger Guenveur Smith which focused on the rocky terrain of love.
Literary events included dozens of emerging and bestselling authors sharing and discussing their works on stages, in literary cafes and at local malls. Biographers Valerie Boyd (Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston), A'Lelia Bundles (On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker) and Wil Hay good were among the authors on hand. Haygood moved an audience to tears with a reading from his forthcoming book, In Black and White: The Life and Times of Sammy Davis, Jr. There were also poetry workshops and spoken-word performances.
Among the amazing dance performances was the Spirit of David Dance Troupe. The festival marked the first visit to the United States for a troupe of youth from the Black Hebrew Israelite community whose African American parents left the United States in the 1960s to live in Israel.
Atlanta-based financial consultant Rodney Johnson took in the dance events. "They make me proud to be African American in the way that they display our beauty, our strengths, our pride, resilience and commitment, in the quality of their performance, and in sharing our culture with the world," he says.
In the Children's Education Village at the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, 16 African American middle school students from Atlanta shared their recent journey to a Nicaraguan village.
Passing it On
During the festival, renowned artists shared their knowledge and praised new talent. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee emceed a glittering tribute to the legendary Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). The tribute featured several NEC alums, including LaTanya Richardson, Robert Hooks and Anna Maria Horsford, who discussed the state of Black theater.
Literary superstars Pearl Cleage, Ntozake Shange, Paule Marshall, Nathan McCall and Jill Nelson applauded the work of new authors Tayari Jones, Margaret Cezair-Thompson and Kevin Young. Famed spoken-word artist Jessica Care moore, currently appearing on Broadway in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam, led a panel discussion on the state of youth, hip-hop, art and race, which featured Abiodun Oyewole of the legendary Last Poets.
Hughley's multigenerational vision extended behind the scenes as well. Atlanta poet Ralph Cheo Thurman is the festival's longtime literary consultant; this year, his 28-year-old son, Babatunji Thurman coordinated festival events designed to "bridge the gap between Africa and hip-hop for my generation of young people."
Kenny Leon, who stepped down as the first Black artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theater to form the national True Colors Theater Company, emphasizes the need to "keep passing on our culture from generation to generation."
"Sharing Our Culture with the World"
As Hughley and her staff gear up for the 2004 Festival, to be held July 16-25 with the theme "Women of the African Diaspora," the impact of this year's mammoth celebration resonates on a personal level. "Black folks acquire a sense of self and group identity through art," explains Edward S. Spriggs, a renowned arts expert and the festival's visual arts consultant. "Art serves to validate and expand one's idea of the world and the intellectual and spiritual possibilities that are inherently human. It provides pathways to realize and celebrate our soul-force."
"If one came here in search of something, they got overfilled," says Fa'ona Veleka Strong, a healer/poet who recently moved to Atlanta from Tampa, Fla. "I like when we gather to learn from each other. It has allowed us all to be together."
Atlanta communications consultant Ellin Osorio believes that, in addition to providing high-caliber entertainment, "the Festival's larger purpose is to educate all comers about the variety and delights of African culture, wherever it exists." She notes that Atlanta's National Black Arts Festival, with its unique mix of arts of all kinds, "is a one-of-a-kind event, and our world is better for it."
W.E.B. Du Bois would be pleased.
Upcoming Cultural Festivals
Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities
Jan. 28-Feb. 1, 2004
National Black Fine Arts Show
New York, N.Y.
Jan. 29-Feb. 1, 2004
Native islander Gullah Celebration
Hilton Head, S.C.
February 1-28, 2004
Hollywood Black Film Festival
March 30-April 4, 2004
African Film Festival
New York, N.Y.
April 3-15, 2004
San Francisco Black Film Festival
San Francisco, Ca.
Denver Black Arts Festival
national Arts Festival
July 16-25, 2004
National Black Theater Festival
Summer 2005 (biannual)
TaRessa Stovall is co-editor of Proverbs for the People: Contemporary African American Fiction (Kensington).…