Lynching, Spectacle and Consciousness

Ida B. Wells Portrait

Ida B. Wells Portrait

African Americans have participated in the technical art of photography since the introduction of the daguerreotype in the 1840’s. From this inception, black Americans like Frederick Douglass understood the power of photography to visually represent a more truthful depiction of humanity more accessible than painting, illustration and sculpture. Douglass, who was highly active during the abolitionist movement, through the Reconstruction era, and in the early years of Jim Crow, utilized photography as a means to represent black Americans as humanly dignified, intelligent, and as equally worthy of socio-political positions as white Americans or any other race. He, along with other photographers and visual theorists, such as Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, combated racial supremacy with photography by authoring their own likenesses.

              An equally powerful activist, who collaborated with Douglass at times, employed photography in her advocacy campaigns with a radically different approach. In the 1890’s, Ida B. Wells became the pioneer of the anti-lynching movement.  Though she incorporated self-authored photographs in her campaigns, Wells commandeered photographs of black tortured bodies that were taken by white community members working to sustain and spread their racial ideologies. Wells used photography to fight white supremacy and it’s resulting violence. The photographs chosen for print were of lynch scenes­– tortured, broken bodies bound and hanged, proud murderers and accomplices gathered around the death scenes, all in black and white.

The act of photographing a lynch scene was in part born out of a deliberate need to control how black Americans were depicted and perceived in order to strengthen the power white of supremacy. Rather than solely creating new images to counteract racial injustice, Wells re-contextualized what was already available and reclaimed the images of black bodies, as gruesome as they were, for black Americans.

Wells began her campaign against lynching in Memphis, TN in 1892, after her friend, Tom Moss, and two of his associates were lynched for protecting their grocery story. Wells was forced to leave Memphis after she condemned the murders in her local newspaper. Wells lectured extensively in America and abroad calling people to action to end assaults against black Americans. She published “Lynch Law” in 1893 and in 1895, The Red Record, Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. In both publications, Wells incorporated photographs of lynch victims to accompany her writing, comprised mostly of factual accounts, as proof of the atrocities happening in the American south. Since her work, anti-lynching activists, artists, and families of lynch victims have used lynching photography to fight for and, for the most part, achieve racial and social justice.

 From left to right are Wells, Maureen Moss, Mrs. Betty Moss, and Tom Moss, Jr. Taken about two years after the lynching

From left to right are Wells, Maureen Moss, Mrs. Betty Moss, and Tom Moss, Jr. Taken about two years after the lynching

History of Lynching and Lynching Photography

In America, the phenomena of lynching reached extensive proportions from 1882 to 1930; at least 3,220 black Americans were murdered at the hands of predominately white Southerners. However, lynching of black Americans began after Emancipation in 1865. Under slavery, white slave owners saw black bodies as commodities; slaves were lucrative to the financial wealth of the owners. Seldom were enslaved peoples murdered, rather their spirits were broken, their families torn apart, their histories erased, and their bodies injured. After the enslaved were freed, made citizens, and allowed to vote by law, white communities, mostly in the south, worried that their economic, political, and reproductive ownership would be disrupted by equal participation of black communities. Thus, false justifications were made to lynch blacks under the pretenses of justice and security. There were no laws to protect black Americans from the lynch mobs.

The spectacle of lynching, which at times attracted massive numbers of attendees, was documented through photographs taken by both professional and amateur photographers. These photographic objects were kept by whites as souvenirs, often sold in the form of postcards along with other more demented mementos, such as the hair, teeth, and clothes of the victims. Photographs and postcards were also used to extend white supremacy to a wider audience within an inner circle of white southern communities in an attempt to strengthen and align them with racist ideology. The images were available for newspapers to print along with published accounts. However, most newspapers abstained, sometimes to protect the identity of the mob members, other times to refrain from sensationalizing violence. “Although the paper agreed that Hilliard was a “criminal monster” who committed a “diabolical crime,” it objected to the display of the photograph because it “pander[ed] to a base taste: of those “readers who delight in everything that is exceptionally horrible.” In some instances, mob members would not allow news reporters to photograph the lynch scenes, instead the right to photograph was given only to participants in the crime. This allowed mob members to control what images were documented and how the images were disseminated.

Leo Frank Postcard

Leo Frank Postcard

That white southerners understood their need to control the images gives evidence that they also understood their ideology was flawed. They feared that, in the hands of non-like-minded people, the photographs could be used to counter their assaults and disrupt their economic enterprises. Nevertheless, white communities were unable to contain the images solely in the hands of those sympathetic to white supremacist ideology. African Americans commanded jurisdiction over the photographs for their own political and social campaigns, continuing in the footsteps of Ida. B. Wells.

Imaging Resistance

In 1912, twenty-seven years after the publication of Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) printed photographs of lynchings in The Crisis magazine. An image of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, was printed on the cover of The Crisis magazine in 1916, along with an eight-page article about the event. “Copies were distributed to 700 newspapers, all the members of Congress, and prominent individuals in the arts and politics, as well as the 42,000 who subscribed to The Crisis.[6] By reprinting the images into widely circulating black press, the NAACP not only challenged white ideology but propelled larger numbers of Americans, white and black, citizens and politicians, to speak out against lynching and push for laws that would prosecute those responsible.

Onlookers with the Burned Body of Jesse Washington, 1916

Onlookers with the Burned Body of Jesse Washington, 1916

Two exhibitions were held in 1935 to further push for legislation to criminalize lynching. The NAACP organized An Art Commentary of Lynching, and a collaborative effort between the Artists’ Union, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Harlem-based Vanguard group, the International Labor Defense, and the John Reed Group organized the exhibition, Struggle for Negro Rights.[7] Though the two groups had a rivalry with each other, their goals were the same. Within these two exhibitions, the context of lynching photography further metamorphosed in the form of original works of art. All the artworks either directly referenced or responded to the photographic images of lynchings. Artists took what was, again, originally in the hands of white supremacists and challenged their doctrine. Some of the works of art brought to light undocumented violence, along with the documented lynchings. “Artists were also able to provide insight into activities that took place under cover of night or were shrouded in secrecy for which no photographs existed, making visible lesser-known expressions of mob violence, including the work of posses and manhunts or private mob tortures and executions.” Though an anti-lynching law still did not pass in legislation, the attention received by these powerful artworks reshaped perceptions of violence, black representation, and body image within a larger demographic, both nationally and internationally. The two exhibitions included artwork by both black and white artists at a time when there was not much collaboration between the two within the art world. The joining of forces between various artists and political groups, unified in the fight against supremacist tyranny, produced some of the most compelling socially aware artwork of the 1930’s, including works by Isamu Noguchi, Hale Woodruff, and Thomas Hart Benton.

Untitled (Lynching Scene), illustration 17, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932)

Untitled (Lynching Scene), illustration 17, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932)

Lynching photography continued to be employed in the work of artists and activists in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. “Black Panther Party Minister of Culture and artist, Emory Douglas, used photography to place lynching within a longer historical continuum.” Douglas’s photo collage, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” was published in a 1972 issue of The Black Panther newspaper. Artistic representations of lynching photography transformed the messages of earlier activists and artists into a modern context. As the fight for civil rights continued, black Americans used lynching photography for historical documentation of a brutal, not so distant, past, in order to attain political and social equality. The images were also used to critique the ways in which black Americans were viewed, by themselves and others, as dictated by the negative representations of their bodies objectified in the photographs and the spectacle of the lynchings.

Implications

“The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated and precisely for that reason this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.”[10] The spectacle of lynching, evidenced by photography, exposes a truth of false consciousness in an era of American history. Ida B. Wells knew that by exposing the spectacle, she could then expose the false consciousness of the society that created it. She used lynching photography as evidence of the most vicious and depraved expressions of colonialist and capitalist ideology, and used the photographs as weapons against the ideology itself. Her work influenced countless artists and activists who followed in her footsteps, fighting for legislation against lynching and for equal human rights. Contemporary artists and activists, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, continue to refer back to the history and imagery of lynching in their struggles against oppression, violence, and racial stereotyping.

Bibliography

Apel, Dora. Imagery of Lynching, Black Men, White Women, and the Mob. New Brunswick:

Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Debord, Guy. Society of Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994. http://www.antiworld.se/

project/references/texts/The_Society%20_Of%20_The%20_Spectacle.pdf.

Raiford, Leigh. “The Consumption of Lynching Images.” In Only Skin Deep, Changing Visions

of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, 267-273. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004.

Raiford, Leigh. “Photography and the Practices of Critical Black Memory.” History and

Theory, Vol. 48, No. 4, Theme Issue 48: Photography and Historical Interpretation (December 2009) : 112-129, http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezproxy.memphis.edu/ Direct.asp?AccessToken=5WFWF49TRPRSQFZ9FQJBJ4P6Q6V9TR96Q&Show=Object&msid=-427763845.

Wallace, Maurice O., and Shawn Michelle Smith. Pictures and Progress: Early Photography

and the Making of African American identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. The Red Record, Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in

the United States. 1895. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977-h/14977-

h.htm.

Wood, Amy Louise. Lynching and spectacle: witnessing racial violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill:

University of North Carolina Press. 2009.

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Culture and Resistance: Civil Rights Photography Memphis, 1968

Culture and Resistance: Civil Rights Photography Memphis, 1968

James R. Reid, Hamilton High School (March 28, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis

James R. Reid, Hamilton High School (March 28, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis

Abstract:

The modern Civil Rights Movement generated an abundance of photographs documenting the African American fight for economic, political, and social justice and equality.  It was a persistent battle against oppressive forces that operated in powerful positions of legal, social, and economic authority.  Local and national news outlets employed photography as a tool to record events surrounding the African American civil rights struggle.  Many photographs have transcended the historic archive to become iconic images that represent a collective memory of the era.  The archive, however, extends far beyond the published images well known today.

The struggle in Memphis is most often portrayed through images of the 1968sanitation strike and the subsequent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Local newspapers, primarily the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar, covered the sanitation strike throughout the duration, but ran stories in support of Mayor Henry Loeb’s obstructionist stance against the formation of a union.  During the strike, many members of the black community boycotted the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar because of the bias and dishonest reporting.

Meeting of Striking Sanitation Workers

Meeting of Striking Sanitation Workers, courtesy of Special Collections at University of Memphis.

The visual archive of photographs offers an important counterpart to the written historical record of the sanitation strike.  It calls for re-examination and interpretation by a diversity of scholars including historians, artists, and cultural specialists in order to document the history of a marginalized community, whose experience has been substantially misrepresented or left out of dominant historical narratives.

Alternative ways of interpreting these images can be realized by examining them for unexplored issues of race, gender, labor, and class, and how they intersect with aspects of activism, agency, and ideology.  The photographs expose a variety of African American responses to oppressive forces, including some aspects of cultural expression that emerged in response to changing social, political and economic circumstances.

 Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis.

Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections,
University of Memphis.

 Home of Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections, University of Memphis.

Home of Lyles Caldwell of 1430 North McNeil (February 29, 1968). Special Collections,
University of Memphis.

Some of the most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement come from the Birmingham campaign organized to raise awareness of Birmingham’s discrimination laws and the Children’s Crusade organized by Reverend James Bevel.  Images of demonstrators attacked by police dogs, bracing against and falling from blasts from fire hoses and suffering heavy blows from policemen wielding nightsticks, and mass arrests of children were televised and published by news outlets around the world. The images exposed the abject violence and brutality used with almost total impunity by dominant forces to resist civil rights.  The horrifying images that streamed out of Birmingham were instrumental in creating sympathy for African Americans and mobilizing support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In his 1964 book on the Birmingham struggle, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King declared, “The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved.  It was caught – as a fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught – in gigantic circling spotlights.  It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world.”

Birmingham Campaign, 1963

Birmingham Campaign, 1963

Dr. King’s testament to the importance of photography as a truth-revealing medium, places him within a pantheon of black freedom fighters who encouraged the use of photography in the struggle.  Since the nineteenth century, African American leaders understood the power of representation to counter negative stereotypes, to advocate for legislative changes.  They also understood the utility of documenting racial violence in the struggle for social, political, and economic advancement.  Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Tubman all implemented photography in their struggles.  They are some of history’s earliest visual theorists and practitioners of photographic politics, and they were instrumental in creating a genre of visual culture stored in news media archives.

Invader as a Marshal and Policeman

Invader as a Marshal and Policeman, Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Memphis.

The Memphis Press-Scimitar archive holds pieces to the puzzle of an underwritten and often skewed account of the black civil rights history in Memphis.  By investigating and interpreting these photographs we can gain greater insight into the past as well as the ability to counter the sanctioned historical narratives through visual documentation of the community’s experience.

Blue Eye Soul Brother

Blue Eye Soul Brother, Courtesy of Special Collections at University of Memphis.

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Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, Farm Security Administration, Washington, D.C.

Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, Farm Security Administration, Washington, D.C.

Gordon Parks used the camera as his weapon of choice against what he hated most in the universe, racism, intolerance, and poverty. Many of the people Parks grew up with ended up in prison or murdered. The camera was his opportunity to not go the direction of his friends. Parks was highly prolific and highly decorated for his artistic achievements documenting social issues and the African American experience. Parks based his artistic pursuits and life philosophy on the lessons taught to him by his parents and his experience growing up in a segregated town in Kansas.

Parks was inspired by the photographic achievements of artists who worked for the farm security administration during the Depression era. He himself ended up training as a documentary photographer with the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker. Stryker pushed Parks to document racial strife in D.C. He is well known for his photographic essay projects, among other projects like writing and directing the movie Shaft, a lifetime achievement all its own. In D.C., Parks experienced the worse discrimination and bigotry he had ever seen. Parks began his photographic essay “American Gothic” based on the life story of Ella Watson. This photo essay is important because it was published in Life Magazine and part of the FSA program. It documented the status of people working in poverty. The photo of Ella Watson holding a broom and mom while standing in front of the American flag may be the most famous of this photo essay. he photographed Watson at home, church, on her way to work. All these photos speak about all the ways people navigate poverty.

Harlem Gang Wars 1948

Harlem Gang Wars 1948

His essay on gang-life in Harlem began after Parks was hired as the first black photographer for Life magazine. There was a need to cover crime and white photographers did not want to go to Harlem. Parks got to know Red Jackson, the light skinned leader of the mid-towners gang. Parks agreed to drive them around in his Buick for a couple of weeks. They ended up becoming good friends. Parks would not show Red with a gun in his hand. Parks destroyed the photos he took along with the negatives. Parks showed the ugliness associated with life.

Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader, 1948

Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader, 1948

In 1961 Parks’ photo essay focused attention on extreme poverty in Latin America called Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty. In a town outside of Rio de Janeiro, Parks met Flavio de Silva. Flavio and his family became the center piece of Parks’s story. This was one of the two best photo essays for Life magazine. Flavio was the oldest of 7 children. He was very sickly. Everyone lived in a 1 room shack and slept in two boxes. The lived off rice, beans and coffee. Parks commented that the 3 words the children most often said were “shit,” “motherfucker,” and “fuck you.” The cuss words show the detrimental killing affects of poverty. Parks became like a 2nd father to Flavio. He brought him to America for asthma treatment. Parks went back to see Flavio as an adult. he never got out of poverty. Parks learned then that throwing money at poverty does not solve it. Parks also covered poverty in America. He documented the Fontenelle family in Harlem. All of the family members died of drugs, gunfire, aids, or heart disease.

Gordon Parks, Fontenelle family

Gordon Parks, Fontenelle family

Parks was the first person to start documenting the Black Muslims for Life Magazine along with stories on the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. Parks worked on these assignments because white reporters were denied access. Parks approached the Nation of Islam through Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad, the leader, gave Parks his blessing and access to all rituals within the group. Parks covered the Black Muslims for three intensive weeks in 1969 and in 1970-71. He photographed Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver in front of a picture of H.P. Newton as well as the Black Panther Headquarters.

Gordon Parks, Female Black Muslims, LIFE Magazine

Gordon Parks, Female Black Muslims, LIFE Magazine

Parks is associated with the pre-Civil Rights era (1940s-50s), Civil Rights in the 1960s, the Black Power movement of the 1970s. He used his primary medium, photography, to address social issues, and document the African American experience.

GordonParks

********************If interested, please ask for bibliography*********************

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Ideas of Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Expressed Through Popular Culture of the Time

The Civil Rights and Black Power movements were major ideologies of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Civil Rights movement implemented civil disobedience and direct non-violent action to achieve political and social equality and justice for blacks in America. It was a grass roots movement that originated in the south as a response to enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws. Leaders of the Civil Rights movement include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the NAACP, Fannie Lou Hamer, and members of the Bus Boycott in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders. The Civil Rights movement was successful in achieving democratic rights for blacks and challenging the absence of those rights.

The Black Power movement focused on achieving economic and political power for blacks by controlling schools, business, and other institutions. Many of the leaders of the Black Power movement rejected integration and advocated for a separate nation built on pride and recognition of black history, culture and identity. Many of the movement’s leaders were frustrated with the non-violent approach of the Civil Rights movement and advocated for a more militant approach, even calling for an armed rebellion. Some justified this by saying violence had always been used to subordinate black people in America, thus violence was necessary to achieving autonomy. Important activists include Stokley Carmichael and Black Panthers members Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Angela Davis. The group’s ten point program clearly laid out their demands for autonomy and justice. The Black Panther style of black leather jackets, berets, sunglasses, and firearms was very distinct, and eventually found its way into popular culture.

By the 1970’s the FBI had destroyed the Black Panther organization, but the ideas had already permeated every aspect of American pop culture. Black press had always published articles and images about black issues. In the 1960’s the black press marketed black power and black pride heavily in from Afro centric advertisements to coverage of black uprisings. Other media such as Life magazine were printing articles about the riots, rebellions, revolutions, and activists. Magazines were important in disseminating the influences of black popular culture. Life magazine addressed issues of African American history, a major influence of the Black Power movement. The importance of teaching African American history was also a central to the writings of Alex Haley and celebrities like Isaac Hayes.

Questions about cultural ownership were raised when black culture left the community and was appropriated by popular culture. Album cover art for jazz and soul musicians used album art for political and cultural messages. Jimmy Smith referenced his cultural roots in a photograph of him standing in front of a traditional southern diner on his album titled Home Cooking. It recalls the teachings of Alain Locke for blacks to return to and embrace their southern heritage. James Brown promoted civil rights and black power messages in relation to biblical themes in the artwork for his album, Payback. Musicians also had strong messages in their music. Marvin Gaye’s concept album, What’s Going On, is a masterpiece. It was revolutionary for it’s time. He made it all himself. The concept grew out of him having a brother in war. Gaye sings about veterans dealing with changes. “What’s going on,” is also a good example of how African American language and culture became part of popular culture language and awareness. What’s going on?

Black Power movement had a huge impact on African American artists. There was a strong rejection of art for arts sake. Art played an important role in the black community dealing with black history and social issues relevant to the time. Graphic arts were especially useful to the Black Panther party.   Emory Douglas may be the best known artist of the black political poster. He was a revolutionary artist and the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party from 1967-1980. He combined art and message, which he learned from Aaron Douglass and Charles White, especially from White how to use text and image. Douglas covered issues of corporate politics, public housing, political prisoners, and boycotts among other important issues of the time.

Several artists worked to recreate the stereotype of the “mammie” figure. Murray DePillars’s illustration of Aunt Jemima on the cover of pancake and waffle mix boxes lined up in front of an American flag shows her in action, wielding a spatula. Her breasts are exposed referencing the images of the personification of justice.

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New Negro Arts Movement: Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction

The “New Negro Arts Movement” began in 1917 and lasted until the 1930’s as a part of the larger “New Negro” movement in which African American culture achieved unprecedented political and social recognition despite the ongoing horrors of Jim Crow law and segregation.  The “New Negro” movement was born from America’s post World War I transformation and out of black migration from rural communities to city centers.  African Americans’ claim of citizenship found new ground within the urban setting where the development of social, academic, and artistic forms took place.  The movement is more popularly known as the “Harlem Renaissance.”

Scholar and philosopher Alain Locke’s The New Negro handbook, published in 1925, was first to use the term, “New Negro,” and encourage black artists to draw from their experiences and cultural heritage for inspiration. The socio-political work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey influenced the “New Negro” movement through the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the dissemination of two major national publications, The Crisis and The Negro World.  Along with these publications, others such as Survey Graphic and Opportunity distributed ideas of equality, solidarity, and racial pride, commissioned artists for graphic designs, and showcased artistic works by African Americans. The rhetoric of progressive race intellectuals, such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke, propelled black intellect and creativity with underlying themes of renewal, rebirth, and growth for African American status in a new era of modernity.  Locke, especially, advocated these ideas within black literature and arts.

Painter and illustrator Aaron Douglas (1898-1979) was an early modernist artist who is most often associated with the “Harlem Renaissance.”  Douglas was from Kansas where he taught art and organized an art club at Lincoln High School in Topeka.  While in Kansas, he subscribed to all the major black journals and followed the art movement in Harlem.  Douglas moved to Harlem in 1925 and began mentoring under Alain Locke and Winold Reiss, immediately placing himself in the center of the “New Negro” movement.  Reiss, a German immigrant, was an established artist of the “Harlem Renaissance” whose elegant portrait studies of African Americans helped shape the visual aesthetic and agenda of the movement by countering negative racial representations and stereotypes with respectful depictions of famous and unknown African Americans. Weiss also designed graphic covers for African American journals.  Both Locke and Reiss pushed Douglas to explore his own blackness and experiences in his art.  Reflecting on his African roots and his American experience, Douglas developed a style called, “Egyptian Form.”  This style combines Egyptian motifs, abstracted forms, hard-edged geometric shapes, stylized figures in silhouette, and monochromatic tone and color.  Further developing his style, Douglas introduced a limited color palette with diagonal and concentric bands of gradated and overlapped colors that contrast the linear forms.  All of which became his distinct signature style.

Douglas designed illustrations for Alain Locke’s book The New Negro, covers for civil rights, labor, and socialist oriented journals, and other illustrations.  In the 1930’s Douglas began working on mural projects where he could address social issues in public spaces.  Douglas designed a five part mural series titled, Aspects of Negro Life, commissioned by the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, now the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, under the WPA Federal Arts Project.  Aspects of Negro Life chronicles the journey of African Americans in a four-part series.  The first mural, The Negro in an African Setting, evocatively depicts an African ceremonial dance scene, the second mural, An Idyll of the Deep South, confrontationally illustrates black experience in the south, the third mural, From Slavery to Reconstruction, illustrates freed people striving to build new lives and communities, and the fourth mural, Song of the Towers, warns of the dangers of urban migration and the trappings of mechanized labor.  It also includes positive messages such as the power of music and importance cultural leadership.  The fifth panel was never finished but was meant to illustrate solidarity and unity between white and black workers.  Overall unifying themes of the project include music and cultural heritage, socialist ideas of black labor and exploitation, and the necessity of solidarity.

The “New Negro” era of creativity encompassed all forms of art including painting, illustration, literature, music, dance, film, and theater, all of which influenced each other.  New urban centers provided performance spaces where art was expressed as a form of entertainment for both black and white audiences.  Jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, along with a wealth of other great performers, played in nightclubs like the Cotton Club.  Douglas was influenced by nightclub culture and music and wished to paint visual representations of black music.  Painted in his distinct style, the mural Dance Magic (1929), made for Sherman Hotel’s College Room Inn, a whites only jazz venue in Chicago, Illinois, characterized the swagger and feel of the intoxicating music and nightlife.

The “New Negro Arts Movement” happened in urban cities across the country. It is more widely known as the “Harlem Renaissance” for a multitude of reasons including the massive growth of black population in Harlem in the mid-late 1920’s, the high concentration of black artists, intellectuals, organizations, churches, newspapers, and patronage within the community, as well as it being the home of Locke and headquarters for NAACP and UNIA.  The label, “Harlem Renaissance,” limits the intellectual and artistic proliferation of black creativity in the 1920’s and 30’s to a singular location and phenomenon and potentially subordinates the scope of artistic genius and creative freedom within communities in major cities across America.  Yet, the term “Harlem Renaissance” serves as a metaphor, as it has since its inception, for the transformational period of a renewed and celebrated black culture.

One “Harlem Renaissance” artist who worked in Chicago was Archibald Motley (1891-1981).  Motley was the first artist to focus on urban nightlife in Chicago and in 1928 became the second African American artist to have a major exhibition in New York City.  He is credited with bringing the subject matter of African American social life into the fine arts arena at a time when it was considered too base for the visual arts.  Born in New Orleans, Motley’s parents moved to Chicago in 1892 where Motley spent most of his life.  He was trained under George Bellows at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Like Douglas, Motley was encouraged by his mentor to explore his own experiences and social surroundings in his work.  Motley’s early paintings were realistic portraits of women.  He addressed racial and gender stereotypes of the tragic mulatto and the jezebel that were associated with this group, and similar to Weiss, countered negative representations.  The Octoroon Girl, 1925, depicts a fashionably dressed and accessorized young woman, directly looking at the viewer, in a realistic style reminiscent of Renaissance and Baroque painting.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1929 to travel to Paris, Motley’s subject matter and painting style changed.  He was greatly influenced by Parisian nightlife and the active jazz scene.  Here, Motley began painting interior and street scenes, specializing in urban settings.  In Paris, Motley’s career blossomed, as he became one of America’s most important artists of African American musical culture.  Motley’s approach matured into a uniquely modern style with vibrant warm colors, densely packed compositions, and abstracted figurative forms. Once he returned to Chicago, Motley voyeuristically studied the thriving black community of Bronzeville.  In his painting, The Black Belt, 1934, Motley depicted a busy nighttime street scene packed with social activity. Motley’s figures were abstracted into modernized forms and painted with intensely warm, vibrant colors.  His subjects are stylishly dressed and engaged in seemingly legitimate and illegitimate activities. This was Chicago nightlife seen through the artist’s eyes.  Motley had a unique ability to capture nightlife through his representations of artificial lighting that emanated from interior windows, streetlamps, and cars.  Motley did not attempt to idealize or glorify his subjects, but rather he depicted them as he saw them, sometimes grotesque or beautiful, upbeat, and full of life.  Motley also painted leisure and recreation scenes for a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.

Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley worked from two different places within the “Harlem Renaissance.”  Douglas worked from within the intellectual core of the “New Negro Movement,” while Motley concentrated on a specific black community in Chicago.  They each developed their own unique artistic modern styles to depict the African American experience.  From separate corners, Douglas and Motley were connected by the “New Negro” attitude.  They created works of art that opposed and resisted the overwhelming amount of stereotypical, negative images of African-Americans and black culture.  Both recognized the importance of their own human experience and that around them and celebrated the life, heritage, and culture through their art.

The Black Belt

The Black Belt

Leila Hamdan

Memphis, TN 2013

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Museum Relevance: Public vs Private Funding

Though this post does not directly address the arts of Africa and African diaspora, it does reflect my working philosophy on arts institutions, as well as, how public and private funding influence the arts.  Below is a question posed by my Museum Practices professor Dr. Robert Connolly and following is my response.

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to as a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?

Cultural institutions expand, stimulate, and progress social cohesion through shared symbols, experiences, and quest for meaning of existence, which all people share regardless of income.  These institutions are tools for education, collaboration, and community.  This paper will discuss reasons why a portion of America’s tax money should continue to fund cultural institutions and the paid positions of their employees.  I will look at the work I have done to serve the public as a collections manager and registrar at a national art museum.  Additionally, I will explore the existing political agenda to cut all public services, including the arts, and argue that private funding alone would marginalize the main audience that most cultural institutions strive to reach.  The project description states that paid positions in museums are an example of money being taken from the poor and given to the rich.  This idea leads people to accept the false notion that the rich control art and culture, where in fact we have a much longer tradition of arts as a species than the current commoditization reflects.

As a collections manager and registrar for a national art museum, I passionately worked to uphold the museum’s mission to preserve and advance the creation of fine metalwork.  Community was a crucial part of the museum’s operation; metalworkers are inherently communal people, and the general public was never excluded.  Metalwork is a bridge between art and industry, labor and luxury and is a medium that affects the lives of every living being and has since the first Bronze Age.  Through museum programming we reached an inclusive audience from all backgrounds and income levels; our largest audience was working-class people intrigued by metal arts.  Many people had heard stories of their family members, usually a grandfather, who was a blacksmith, and wanted to know more about the skill and history.  The museum I worked for had a permanent collection, temporary exhibition galleries, an extensive library, and two metalworking facilities.  These areas allowed museum visitors to see fine, well-crafted artworks on display and in the same visit see similar creations made by real metal artists working in the two facilities.  The visitors could then read about histories in the library or ask me, also functioning as the head librarian, questions.  My responsibilities allowed me to assist visiting artists and scholars with their research, as well as teach people of all ages and backgrounds, lessons in metal elements, the history of metal industry and art, and contemporary fine art and craft.  This kind of knowledge is both pragmatic and empowering.  I also worked to preserve the permanent collection, acquire new pieces for the collection, and bring in a variety of exhibitions.  In the six years I worked for the museum, I saw the minds of countless children expand when they saw an artist melt or bend metal into another form, and I understood the empowerment they gained first hand.  I had once visited that museum for the first time and remember well how mind opening and world expanding the experience was for me.  Years later, as an employee, public tax dollars paid my salary, and I worked to give the public everything I could.  Many of the employees who work for non-profit organizations put extra time and energy into a position they are passionate for, thankful to have, and do not necessarily make much money doing.  The employees of cultural institutions deserve the support of the American tax-payer as much as American tax-payers deserve to have control over what cultural arts are available for them and future generations.

When presenting a case to “John Q. Public” on why their tax dollars should fund cultural institutions and programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museums and Library Services, one cannot overlook the existing political agenda to lower or eliminate government funding for many public services and benefits in education, health care, environmental protection, housing, as well as, the arts.  Other countries are experiencing devastated economies similar to America.  Austerity measures currently threatening the general public’s livelihood in France, Spain, Greece, Chile and Canada are the same that threaten America’s public.  It is not far fetched to say that our country is headed in the same direction of economic crises with one major difference being the amount of tax dollars spent on military defense.

The NEA and IMLS are two democratic groups that heavily support and fund cultural institutions by promoting public access to educational materials, preservation of cultural traditions, and advancements in art.  Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, chairs America’s House Budget Committee, which recently approved a budget plan for FY13 to cut all federal funding for the NEA and IMLS.  After which the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill to drastically cut funding for public services including the NEA.  It is unlikely that most of the projects funded by NEA and IMLS would happen if it were not for the grants they provide.  In 2012, the NEA awarded grants to the American Alliance of Museums to revise their accreditation process.  They also awarded grants to several institutions for diverse exhibitions and publications, including Asian art, Dina’ina Athabascan culture, black performance art, mixed race Asian American heritage, and artwork by Carrie Mae Weems.  If organizations like the NEA and IMLS were no longer publicly funded, artistic production would dramatically decrease or disappear along with the transparent and democratic process of preservation of cultural heritage and access to information.  Privatizing funding for arts and cultural institutions would narrow the audience and recipients of funding to a tiny demographic, which traditionally excludes minorities, underprivileged and the working poor.

A crucial purpose of NEA, IMLS and other means of publicly financing the arts is to ensure access to art for the broadest segment of the population with the assumption being that culture is a necessary part of life.  “As the old union song goes, “small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.  Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.”  If all public money for culture were removed there would be a contraction of what was available to see and who was allowed to see it and reap the benefits.”*  In justifying my position to “John and Josephine Q. Public” on why their tax dollars should fund my position in a cultural institution, I would first ask Mr. and Mrs. Public to question the political and economic agendas that affect all aspects of their lives.  I would ask them to question their role in the assimilation and gentrification of culture and arts.  Lastly, I would encourage the public to advocate and support their local museums and cultural institutions.

By Leila Hamdan

Memphis, TN

2012

 *John Jester, Memphis, TN, 2012

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Strange Fruit: Meerpol and Holiday

Film Review, Strange Fruit

The interconnectedness between arts and social issues is  embodied in the song, “Strange Fruit”.  A film of the same name documents the history and effects of “Strange Fruit” and opens with Abbey Lincoln, an American jazz vocalist and performer, reading the lyrics.  Billie Holiday popularized the song with her emotive version recorded in 1939.  The song  poetically describes the horror of a lynching of a black man in the South.

A Jewish teacher and activist, Abel Meerpol, originally wrote the song as a poem after seeing a photograph of a lynching.  He set the poem to music and performed it at a teacher’s union meeting in New York where it was brought to the attention of the manager of Café Society, a club where Billie Holiday performed.   Holiday was introduced to Meerpol and agreed to record the song, and after hesitation from her record label, “Strange Fruit” was recorded by Billie Holiday. The song sparked activism for black communities across the country and in Europe.

The film examines the history of lynching.  Dr. Vivian, a Reverend and civil rights leader, speaks of the belief that black people are not human and would be hanged for no reason, killed and mutilated, often times surrounded by cheering crowds.  The film brings to light the savagery and terror of lynching and highlights those who fought against it.  Activists who struggled for racial justice were pared in the film with labor rights activists, anti-Fascist groups, teachers, and unions.  Unions, Leftist organizations, and popular culture were important for the anti-lynching movement helping to gain momentum and reach communities outside of the black experience.

Abel Meerpol wrote thousands of songs and poems, including, “The House I live in.”  Meerpol was very proud of “Strange Fruit”.  The song eventually caused him to be investigated for suspicion of Communist ties.  He was accused of being paid by Communists to write the song.

Strange Fruit has gone on to be performed by a multitude of other artists, including Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, UB40, Josh White, and The Gun Club.

Leila Hamdan

Memphis, TN

2013

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Dutchman by Leroi Jones

Leroi Jones’s involvement in the Black Power movement of the 1960’s was darkened by black male’s experience of being accused of having uncontrolled impulses to rape white women.  This gross stereotype is connected to the false accusations made by white men and women, primarily in the south that led to thousands castrations and lynchings of black males.  The film, Dutchman, based on a play, by Leroi Jones echoes this history.   For the purposes of this essay, I write my immediate, honest response to the film.  First, the music hits me, opening with an instrumental, fast paced and intense.  The darkness of the underground station alludes to an ominous story.  A white woman wearing a tightly fit dress elicits the glance of a well-dressed black man sitting on the train.  She joins him.  The camera angled from below the seats generates a dark intensity.  The female character, Lula, frightens the man, Clay.  She immediately sexualizes him then insults him and his blackness.  Her insults offend me.  Lula carries an apple; her role as an eve character becomes clear.  She seduces him with the apple.  Lula acts crazy, intentionally excites Clay then yells.  As she moves, he follows her and the lights go dark, an allusion to the “Fall.”  I am annoyed by her behavior.  “What right do you have to wear a three button suit and striped tie?  Your grandfather was a slave.”  She calls him a nigger.  Clay calls her a Jew.  I am pleased by his retort.  He is offended, but he follows along, having been sold on the idea of having sex with her.  Clay looses himself, as if intoxicated; he is captivated by her behavior and psychological game.  Lula calls clay a ghost and a murderer.  I am reminded of Invisible Man.  At some point in the middle of the film, they look around them and the train car is filled with passengers.  Lula’s hysteria is over the top.  She begs him to have sex with her- to “rub bellies.”  I am reminded of lynching history, and the white woman’s fantasy and engagement in sex with black men.  The black man always being the one accused of assault.  Lula attacks Clay and attacks the passengers on the train.  They ignore her.  No-one stands up to her, nor do they stand up for Clay.  I am disappointed.  Lula calls Clay an Uncle Tom repeatedly and he slaps her.  The film climaxes.  Clay looses his temper, pushes her around and threatens to kill her.  Clay shows his anger.  His dialect changes.  His monologue is intense, but it pleases me.  I am proud of him.  Clay talks about the black musicians Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker and how they put messages like, “Kiss my black ass,” in their songs.  This is their release, their revolt against the way they and other blacks have been treated throughout American history.   I am amused by his honesty and reminded of reasons the New Negro Movement and Black Power Movement existed.  Clay proclaims that murder would make all black people sane.  He tells Lula to stop preaching rationalism, to let blacks speak curses to whites in code.  I am reminded of the repressive black experience.  Lula stabs Clay and finally people on the train respond by helping her.  Four white men carry his body away.  This again reminds me of lynching history.  The film becomes silent and a new scene begins.  Lula eats an apple and approaches another black man sitting alone on the train.  The final scene returns to the underground with the same menacing music that opened the film. The title, Dutchman, becomes clear.  I am overwhelmed by the symbolism, saddened by Clay’s murder, and moved by the powerful and artistic approach Leroi Jones uses to represent and comment on an aspect of the black experience in America.

Follow this link to view this film in its entirety: http://www.colorfultimes.com/2009/11/culture/film/dutchman-the-movie-55-mins/

Leila Hamdan

Memphis, TN

2013

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Memphis Art Brigade: The Blacklist

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Mumia Abu-Jamal (1954– )

I was able to connect with my friend and comrade on his/her affiliation with Memphis Art Brigade and the Blacklist.  As an active member and participant in the blacklist project,  he/she offers a bit of insight into the purpose, intention and direction of the project itself.  2012

The blacklist is an urban education project, it works within the same vain as Memphis Art Brigade as a whole, the idea of reclaiming public space in general and reclaiming education in particular.  The blacklist aims to take political discourse and dialectics from the sterile environment of academia and begin these conversations on the streets of Memphis, as to build a critical attitude toward our realities within the community.  The idea is simple, each poster is dedicated to an author, theorist, musician, poet, etc which gives a summary of their work and selected bibliography. The idea is to keep ablaze the flame of dissent and protest while simultaneously educating ourselves as to the history of struggles and providing the means to construct a new way forward.

On a personal level, I think its crucial for us to work through the avenue of MAB as anonymous members of the community which add to the dialogue surrounding issues and stand as a _____ of critical thought. This way we can avoid the individualism (self discovery) of much of today’s art, and let the ideas of the work stand for themselves, not a stand in for the artist’s psychological crisis.  Take for example the blacklist- there is no real necessity for the viewer to know where they have come from, not that it comes from some external being, hands have produced the posters as well as the fact that humans alone have produced these ideas and theories.

To us art is a form of production, one in which ideas, and the ways in which we see and interpret our reality are created, deconstructed, and progressed.  The ruing class has long since known this, just as those who fight against them. We are saying that we must reclaim art as another means by which we may construct a new order and one in which the limitations of your knowledge may be tested and altered.  Art can no longer elude what it truly is…. I think John Berger said that (or something like it).

We plan on getting as massive of a distribution as possible- this means establishing a network of distribution which would get posters into all neighborhoods of Memphis whether as pamphlets, posters, zines, etc.

MAB itself is ambiguous in a way.  It is not a formal organization.  Anyone who wishes to add to the critical dialogue can put up their art on the walls of the city, tag it MAB and THERE, they are a member of MAB.  http://memphisartbrigade.blogspot.co.uk/

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Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

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Fireside: Lamont “Bim” Thomas

Fireside: Interview with Lamont “Bim” Thomas conducted by Leila Hamdan of Memphis, TN, May 2012

Lamont is a significant black American artist and musician based in Cleveland, OH, whose character and career reflects Memphis Art Brigade’s urban education project.  Lamont is a long time visitor of Memphis, who performs multiple times a year with bands like Obnox and Puffy Areolas and collaborates with lots of Memphis musicians. 

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LH: Bim- I first met you in Columbus at the Gibson Brothers reunion show.  What is your relationship with members of the Gibson Brothers?

LT:  The Gibson Brothers music freaked me out before I actually met them- in the form of their cover of “I Had A Dream” by Nathaniel Mayer.  I guess I met them through being employed at Used Kids by a founding member Dan Dow.  I was always into music and had been in a couple of bands, but working at this store changed my life and still deeply affects me today.  I love those muthafuckas you know…all of em!  But yeah that lead to a close friendship with Don Howland who was also a member of the Gibson Bros and their neighbor at the time.  Howland and I have been making records together for 17 years now.  Our last “And Without a Name” came out on Columbus Discount Records a couple of years ago to good reviews and is considered by some as one of our best.  We have a new one in the can right now.  He’s one of the smartest guys I know and I consider him my brother.  I make it a point to cover his songs with Obnox because they’re great tunes and no one else touches em, not even him in some cases.  I would meet Jeff Evans and Ellen Hoover not long after that.  I never knew them when they were a couple.  I’d never known Evans when he was an Ohioan either.  But I have great respect for Jeff and all the crazy cats he’s worked with over the years.  His father was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. (Miss ya Mr. Evans!)  Howland and I have toured Europe with Country Jeff a couple of times…the first tour for 3 weeks and second for like 7 and a half weeks.  We were in gnarly spots like Novi Sad, Serbia on that trip.  Not many people play there, but Don and Jeff were not phased.  And what can you say about Ellen…she’s simply beautiful through and through.  She used to lay out our Bassholes covers and has been so supportive over the years that I don’t know what to say…let’s put it this way, Obnox has played Columbus twice and she’s been right there in the mix.  So yeah I know all the Gibson Bros and following them has kinda shaped some of my taste especially when it comes to blues, country, and early rock.  A lot of guys have come up through a relationship with one of the Gibbys…Jay Reatard, Rich Lillash Jack and Greg Oblivian, Alecja Trout, Me, Jeff Novak, Richie Violet and Chris Wilson, Bruce Saltmarsh was down and Dan Brown, George Reyes, Jeff Bouck, some of Darrin Lin Wood’s best work was done standing right next to Jeff.  Jon Spencer got over the Pussy Galore hangover touring and recording with the Gibson Brothers.  Who knows?  Maybe someone will do a proper set and put their legacy in perspective.  Its worth checking out fa sho!

 

LH: When did you first start playing music?  What instruments do you play? and would you list the bands you’ve played in, chronologically?

LT:  I was a late bloomer sort of…I didn’t start playing until I was a junior in high school.  Most of my friends at least played an instrument long before that…they maybe didn’t write songs, but they played.  I started out singing at church and in school.  When it comes to punk, I am a drummer.  That’s what I do best and that’s how I generate a lot of ideas.  I’ve been playing guitar lately, but not very well.  I play good enough to write songs.  Recently people have wanted to hear these songs live so I’ve had to get better real quick.  Luckily when it comes to Obnox I have one of the best drummers out there…I haven’t been in as many bands as some.  The bands I’ve made records with are Flipping Hades, Bassholes, My Uncle Wayne, This Moment in Black History, Deathers, Puffy Areolas, and Obnox…I’ve toured with V-3 once.  Pretty soon, like two weeks from now I’m going to play drums on the new Unholy 2 ep.

LH: What was it that drew you to making music?  What is one or some of your proudest accomplishments/projects you’ve worked on?   And do you have any frustrations with the music industry?

LT:  I was drawn to music because when I was a kid my family had great records that I spent a lot of time listening to. Our church had a great band and choir too, and that was crucial for me.  They were good and a lot my family were members were in the choir so I wanted to rock with em!  I got into making music because I loved records…from my family’s records, to college, to Used Kids and beyond, vinyl records have always knocked me out.  There’s always good stuff.  People get bitter and swear everything sucks, but they’re usually looking in the wrong places for their entertainment.  But yeah, I just wanted to participate…you know, kinda have my own say.  Also, Ohio consistently creates great recorded music history and so I wanted to be a part of that as well…like in my community and Ohio as a whole, I felt if I could make good enough records, I’d be reppin my city and state full on.  I’m proud of all of groups and records and labels I’ve been a part of.  That’s been the best part…meeting all of these wonderful folks within this scene.  You know the party is only as good as its music and I’m real thankful that I’m surrounded by people who only dig the best shit.  I guess the amount of time that Don and I have worked together still amazes me as well, but I can’t nail down any one thing that I’m most proud of…I’m too old to be frustrated with the music industry.  I live in the underground.  I’m sure the industry is aware of a guy like me, but that world really doesn’t include me.  I don’t have much, but I’m thankful for what I’ve got and grateful to still be doing it.  There are some dudes that bite the stuff coming out of the underground and take it to the masses on some Pat Boone shit, and that’s frustrating, but that’s been going on since Tin Pan Alley days so what’s a nigga gon do.  All I can do is try not to make any shitty records…hahahaha!  Maybe after I’m dead someone will care, probably not! Hahahaha!

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LH: I’ve heard you described as ‘punk rock’s Elvin Jones.’ What does that mean to you?

LT:  Ah that Punk Rock Elvin Jones thing…yeah people say that sometimes.  I am into him and Art Blakey and Zig Modeliste and countless others.  I take it as a compliment.  I don’t think I’m heavy like a jazz guy because that’s that black classical music ya know…the last great American art form if you will.  I do wanna make punk records that are important to people like jazz is important to so many.  I do hate to see a drummer doing ordinary shit with no feeling, but making these fuck faces like he or she is gonna bust a nut.  It just seems fake to me.  I try to remain calm and protect the pocket like a jazz cat so yeah the Elvin thing I take as a compliment.

LH: How do you relate to being a strong, engaged and engaging black artist within the underground scene?   

LT:  There are a lot of black artists that are Uncle Toms, straight up, but I’m not going to pretend to be anything, but what I am, a strong black man, especially in a scene where there aren’t many brothas involved.  Needless to say, the question about race is great because a lot of people tip toe around it like things are super sweet these days, but not much has changed.  There are more brothers locked up now than there were during slavery…Trayvon Martin was just gunned down for no reason.  Its very easy for a nigga to die or go to jail, so I’m not going to sit around and pretend that because people enjoy the records, they also give a shit about what’s going on with my people or me.  If anything, within this underground scene, I want to show people, especially young bruthas and sistas, that we have all types of flavors.  If you wanna rock n roll, skateboard, dress a certain way, don’t let anyone, especially our own, hinder you from expressing yourself because we have influenced so many aspects of popular culture and after all we’ve been through, we should be able to enjoy it too!  Even with all the stigma and stereotypes regarding black folks, I try to be myself and a good ambassador for my people, but I’m not going to pretend to be white or anything else to make someone comfortable just so that they can say they know a couple of cool black people that are “not like the others” or some such shit.  I’m just like the “others”, but unlike most bruhs I enjoy expressing myself in the punk rock community.  That’s my lane and I stay in it.  I could be a rapper, a jazz cat, or a straight church boy, but God made me a drummer in a punk band and the Blackest Punk Rocker in the country so that’s how I roll and the people that know me and respect me, my real friends, ride with me on that!  My friends live with me in the underground and that’s where the heat is…I’ve struggled and been down and made mistakes, but right now, I’m doing what I feel is good for my soul as a representative of the underground scene.  Let the brothas rock n roll! Hahahaha!

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Memphis Art Brigade: The Blacklist… what do you think about it?

The Blacklist is a great way to turn young heads on to some of the bravest and strongest figures I ever heard of…some of my absolute faves are on the list. And I’m utterly flattered that you can imagine me on a list with such great company. I hope the people of Memphis appreciate this type of outreach because it can really inform people of all ages. It could inspire people you know, to challenge oppression of any sort. These are the type of personalities that influenced me when I was a kid and made me want to do something meaningful with my life…though not as in depth and heady. I was an “Eye’s on the Prize” type of youngen!

Who are some of the artists you relate to the most or whose careers you respect the most?

Most of the artists I relate to the most couldn’t make careers out of their art…as far as music, I tend to champion the best underground stuff from the best music towns like New Orleans, Memphis, Austin, New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, San Fran,and LA because its not a good idea to suck in those cities, even if you’re just passing through.  I’m sure there are wonderful people all over the map, but I find myself returning to these places again and again, usually because of the artists that live there, and in most cases, those artists occupy the underground.

Tell me about your bands Obnox and Puffy Areolas.  Elijah Vazquez, who plays with you in Obnox seems to have a very different disposition than the guys in Puffy Areolas.  Having spent a few evenings with you guys over the past couple months, I have to say, you all are enchanting.   Everyone has their own magic, intelligence and insanity.

Obnox came to be in order to make a 7″ while the TMIBH guys got their bearings as new fathers, but after playing around the house for a little while, I had more material than I anticipated, so then I thought to make an ep.  Hey why not a 12″ ep?  How bout some improv and a couple of my favorite Howland tunes.  Just little things I’d always wanted to do…and who would argue with me if I tracked everything myself?  I could do whatever I want which most drummers have no idea what that’s like.  Once people started to dig it a lil, I decided to find a drummer that had a similar style as mine or would be willing to imitate it and that’s when I reached out to Elijah. He’s super talented…he’s always trying to learn more even though he’s a music educator.  He’s got his own solo agenda, makes hip hop beats and is way into punk as well, so we get along great.  Cleveland is the type of place where a small cache of black artists can function right along side say hardcore bands and metal bands.  Its the kind of place that has more brothas at shows than just about anywhere.

I joined Puffy Areolas as a fill in for a couple of gigs and we’ve been rocking ever since…its really Damon’s thing.  I just rehearse and record and try to make it hot.  I’m only as good as the guys I play with and these dudes are swell.  And it feels good to rock with yet another bruh, not unlike hanging with Rafeeq Washington, Larry Caswell, or Elijah.  Lots of hip hop cats are parallel to us as well as some new young black rock cats like Chubbs and Retro.  What I like about Dame though is he’s interested in putting real raw and wild sounds out in the streets.  I wasn’t hearing that distorted abandon that’s a part of my favorite garage and punk records…everyone wanted to sound like they had it all together whereas he fucking lets it all hang out to the point of near absurdity and/or injury which is perfect for a guy like me whose into really gnarly and fucked up music.  Not just making noise, but a very rhythmical noise that’s peppered with soul, improvisation, and psychedelia.  That’s why he’s right on time and we ride deeper than Atlantis…it also helps that the boy chain smokes weed too, which kinda keeps us locked into the groove, innately, like second nature!

 You all were about the only saving graces of South by Southwest.  That was my first experience.

SXSW has always been good to me.  I have a lot of good friends in Austin, so its just great to see them and sometimes the music is the only way I can get back to them.  The size of the conference has gotten to be a bit much.  It used to be a lot easier to get around from gig to gig, and there wasn’t so much animosity toward showcases and parties unrelated to SXSW.  But yeah, I enjoy playing, and I don’t mind touring.  God gave me this gift and I wanna use it as often as possible.  Being a father, I can’t tour as much as before, so SXSW is a chance for me to play to hundreds of people from all over that would never see me, and that’s good for the bands I’m in and the records I have out at any given time.  Puffies/Nox tour had me doing 18 shows in 10 days, including two shows with Unholy 2.  Most people would consider this a hassle, but this is what I do and I have no problem driving far or sacrificing sleep to be a part of it.  Most people shouldn’t be in bands either, but that’s another story.  I appreciate the fact you enjoyed our performances.  There are some bands that are really shitty out there…we don’t have to name them, because they know it.  In some cases the nation’s better bands don’t even want to participate because of that fact and the size of the fest.  I wish someone would put me on Fun Fun Fun or Chaos in Tejas, but SXSW doesn’t bother me like some.  Maybe growing up near the amusement park Cedar Point had something to do with it.  South by reminds me of that environment, ya know, surrounded by tourists.  That tourism thing is definitely taking its toll on a city that tons of people are destined to live in.  Hell, I even thought about moving there back in the early 90’s when one of my friends moved there.  Needless to say, he lives in Houston now with a little more room to breath I suppose...


I think being a father may be one of your proudest accomplishments.  Do you hope to have more children?  What are your thoughts on love?

My daughter Mia is wonderful…smart, healthy, happy, and damn funny, but I don’t see myself having anymore kids.  If I could afford it maybe…whatever I did for money would leave no time to play any music.  I love my family though…they can tolerate me going off and doing a lil music here and there for a couple of weeks at a time.  If it weren’t for them my music wouldn’t be nearly as interesting for sure…see when you leave your family for any given time, whatever your doing is not more important than they are, so if you’re absent because of recording and touring, those better be your best recordings and best shows because you made great sacrifices to get there.  Yeah that’s love…I got love for everybody in the game too, not just my family…I even got love for the niggas that don’t like me anymore! Hahahahaha!  I’m even trying to articulate that love in song…no one around here sings about love anymore, just these diary entries about themselves and their stupid and ridiculous lives.  So yeah the original L-word is pretty important to me.  If you don’t have any love in your heart I suppose its hard to sing about it huh?  Oh by the way I also love strong reefer as well as strong women! Hahahaha!


Where does ‘Bim’ come from?

My family has called me Bim since I could remember…I don’t ever remember my ma once saying my given name, Lamont!

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