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Artists and poets belong in liberation movements. The work of the artist, much like that of the cultural organizer, is to reconstruct common bonds that have atrophied over time, or which have been directly targeted by unjust systems.
Through music, art, and literature, these Black Southerners—past and present—are interrogating, re-imagining, and reviving our understanding of Southern survival.
Music as the Means of Innovation
What would American music be without Black folks?
That's right. It'd be silent. Rock 'n' roll, blues, jazz, and hip-hop, all were innovated and pioneered by us—and most of these genres were conceived and nurtured right here at home in the South. Each one of these traditions creatively mixes joy and suffering, hope and rage, finely-attuned skill, and raw emotive power. During this month, as ever, we celebrate the unsung: those who lived into the creative work of liberation and autonomy, and those who are still using their voice to chart a path forward.
So many Black women can relate to the well-worn feeling of being overlooked despite the outpouring of our energy, talent, love, and labor. But in the case of Odetta Holmes, the powerful singer Martin Luther King Jr. crowned the queen of folk, her absence from the folk and Americana canon is particularly egregious. Through her journey—from falling in love with opera to pioneering Black protest music—we're celebrating the vocal and movement contributions of this Southern icon.
"She's the blueprint for activism in music in the United States," observes singer/songwriter Anjimile. "It's specifically because of her that I feel like I even have a voice to speak on political issues."
Down in New Orleans, a mother-daughter duo is writing and performing opera in Creole to demonstrate and preserve the history of Black and Creole people from before Reconstruction all the way to the present. Despite chronic illness, Aria Mason does the fabulous and fabulationist work of recovering for the stage the contributions Black folks have made to what is often considered the whitest vocal tradition of all.
"New Orleans has always been a multicultural, musical city, but we rarely talk about the classical and operatic composers, the free men of color who were in the opera houses, studying in Paris, composing and publishing music in the mid-1800s," Givonna Joseph said. "They made significant contributions to the music of New Orleans. It's our mission to bring them to light."
To learn how jazz—America's most iconic form of music, right alongside hip-hop—developed, all you have to do is follow one man: Lester Young. This Black man can blow! Innovator, virtuoso, and traveling man, Lester Young was the little-celebrated major influence on legends like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Turn on our playlist while you read about the man behind the music.
From Dixieland-style jazz to swing's ascension to America's most popular music, to Charlie Parker's bebop revolution—jazz-great Lester Young not only followed the music but shaped its future.
Black Images Are a Way of Holding Space
Visual artists play a critical role in place-making. The emergence of place out of mere space is a matter of aesthetics, politics, and narrative. Distorted under white gaze, erased, or merely missing altogether, the Black image has always occupied a precarious and threatening presence within the making of America. In Southern cities, the precariousness of place is felt most acutely, where insufficient access to affordable housing and precipitous rates of gentrification threaten to dislodge historic centers of Black culture. However, even in rural hollers, Black Appalachians strive to preserve space for their bodies and their stories over and against whitewashed mythologies. The following visual artists use street art and contemporary traditions to preserve Black histories in the places they have called home.
Nationally, we spend so much time discussing the future of Confederate Monuments, and so little time protecting the forms of Black monumentation that already exist in our neighborhoods. As gentrification and corporate development moves into the historic West End, Atlanta-based muralist Fabian Williams discusses the process of monumentalizing heroes and figures in the collective struggle for justice—from past heroes like MLK to current resistor Colin Kaepernick and creative visionary Nipsey Hustle. Scalawag is looking forward to the day when more Black women and queer freedom fighters grace Atlanta's walls and plinths!
"Here we are on the precipice of the future, you got nothin' but bad news. Nothin' but dystopia. Where's utopia? In the dystopian future, with white supremacy? People that look like me are where we should be going. Let's pay attention to these people. These are people that got it right… If we're going to have statues, or murals—it needs to be of people who are uniters."
Allison Janae Hamilton
Visual artist Allison Janae Hamilton uses film, installation, photography to explore her family's relationship to land and Black rural resistance. Hamilton's material focus invites us to consider the Black rural experiences, specifically the turpentine industry in Florida which persisted as a kind of slavery until 2001. In this interview with former Scalawag contributing editor Zaina Alsous, the artist discusses the disruption and alienation from land experienced by Black folks, as well as ancestral pathways for healing.
"My grandmother's family ended up losing their farm and when it was about to be taken over my grandmother's older sisters killed all the peach trees because they didn't want the new owners to have them. So that language in Floridaland was me attempting to think through loss and the difficulty to sustain through all these systematic attempts to wipe out Black people and their industry."
Slavery is not controversial; it's hideous. Remembering the enslaved is also not controversial; it's necessary. Who knows how many Black people facing slavery passed through Crawford Frazier Negro Brokerage House on their way to plantations? Thousands of Black folks still pass through this space on their way to work in its current form as the Five Points Marta Station. Atlanta visual and performance artist Masud Olufani decided to shed light on its shameful past. In 2018, we sent Olufani to our friends down at 100 West Corsicana in semirural Texas for a monthlong residency to create portraits celebrating the histories of the Black folks and former enslaved persons who worked on cotton fields in central Texas. His performance led to a communitywide discussion and interrogation of the racialized overtones of some of Corsicana's public works of art.
"The levers of government turn at a slower pace when it comes to public art, and when the conceptual framework for that art is slavery, they nearly grind to a halt. MARTA felt the project was too 'controversial,' and the mayor's office expressed tepid interest in relocating the memorial."
Queer Liberation Through Language
Within the deep viscosity of Blackness, there are millions of intersections yet to be uncovered. Our complicated, gorgeous, and articulated selves emerge from these networks of kinship. Language and poetry is the inheritance out of which we name ourselves.
To love Blackness is to love the entire diaspora of Black people spread out over geographies and genders. As love is necessary to sustain life, the Southern call for Black queer liberation is most radical and gloriously arrayed when it is done in solidarity with all the living. These queer Southern poets instruct us in how to love ourselves, how to love the land, and ultimately how to love each other.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
"night black is the same way"
more queerly the absolute truth
what could be still
be flat be sold
be dismembered untold
be over be old
be less than yes
be anything other than blessed
in sight of night of you
you you you beacon of black
"may as well be
may as well be
Scalawag's love for Alexis is pretty much unparalleled. We've written several reviews of her work and continue to use her insight and experimentation as a touchstone for radical Southern imagination. As a Black feminist researcher and "speculative documentarian," Gumbs' work is simultaneous poetry, Black feminist theory, and science fiction. She explores poetry as a genre that is not just pleasure or literary analysis, but also a medium for spiritual awakening.
Three poems inspired by Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.
Poems by Taylor Johnson, Jericho Brown, & Alexis Pauline Gumbs: "I sing and find it underlined by a beloved stranger. It's like turning the record over and knowing you're hearing what I'm hearing."
Breonna Taylor, Breonna Taylor, Breonna Taylor.
Just this Sunday, W.J. Lofton dropped the visual poem Would you kill God too?, a collaboration with visual director Natalie Sims, NAACP image award nominee Amyra Leon, and acclaimed filmmaker Ava Duvernay, to hold law enforcement accountable for the deaths of Black people. This latest piece was part of a series of videos the poet wrote and curated to honor the lives of Breonna Taylor and other Black women who are repeatedly denied justice.
"while the soul smolders in a past fire to make mockery of
what heaven offered us"
Always championing the myriad articulations of Black folks in body, gender, ability, and orientation, Lofton works to empower Black people on the page and also at the ballot box as a voting rights lobbyist. Scalawag was one of the early publications publishing Lofton's work but we damn sure won't be the last.
Southern girlhood swooping up all creatures and kinfolk into her lanky brown arms, Nikky Finney is a poet, professor, and author of 2011 National Book Award-winning Head Off & Split, a collection of poems named to honor her trips to the fish market as a girl growing up by the sea in South Carolina. Her latest work, Lovechild's Hotbed of Occasional Poems, released last year, is a collaged homage to those intersections, intimacies, and inspirations that come to sustain a life. Finney honored Scalawag by placing the title poem in our print magazine. Our editors got to talk with Finney about the book, about remembering her father, and about reading poetry anthologies from the Piggly Wiggly.
"My community was filled with so many useful Black people who did things with their hands. Mr. Neal built our houses, Dr. Deas was our pharmacist. I would watch him behind his counter in his white jacket mixing our medicines sometimes. Mr. Brown was our electrician. He rewired our houses with a pencil on his ear. Mrs. Robinson was our great seamstress. I wanted to be useful too. I wanted to make something with my hands. When I started telling people around me that I was a poet they started requesting poetry from me."
Let Black artists tell it. Art is not just beautiful; it's useful. Scalawag believes that art is useful like journalism is useful. If it's good, it ought to provide a new way of seeing the ordinary. Everyday Black art inspires our team to open our eyes again to the possibilities for our kin and our region.