NYU Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2013 - Page 76

We African Americans, unlike most immigrants from Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and Continental Africa, cannot claim a homeland other than United States. Yet, we’ve been able to carve out of the American experience a recognizable cultural identity. In the early years, isolated in the rural South, black cultural expression…song, dance, language, and sacred practices… owned a distinct ethnically centered authenticity. The great black migration to the urban centers of the industrial North at the turn of the 20th century fostered an intimacy, however segregated, with a diverse population of newly arrived Europeans and thereby, an amalgam of multi-cultural influences. Though African Americans became urbanized in the North and acquired an intimate appreciation and aptitude to execute the artistic expression advanced by Europeans, social isolation from the dominant culture, commonly known as segregation, provided the nurturing ground for cultural inventions and practices that had sustained traces of Africa, notwithstanding the appropriation of European techniques like harmonies and melodies in Jazz, yet never abandoning the African retention of what Larry Neal would call, the Blues God as the core of inventiveness. Back in the early 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance produced the first significant groundswell of cultural production by African Americans in art, literature, and music. This enterprise, largely supported by financial patronage of white negrophyles, produced work that was judged to be excellent fascimilies of the aesthetic conventions of the Western canon, and thus was proudly endorsed by the New Negro intellectuals as an impressive verification of social integration. While much of this new work did reveal a capacity for African Americans to master the crafted skills of European art production, it was at the expense of suppressing any impulse to exploit the arousal of a naturally endowed African imagination. In response to an apparent artistic vision that was distancing itself from Africa, the highly esteemed Harvard scholar, Alain Locke, urged his peers to return to their African roots when he wrote, in his 1925 edited volume, The New Negro: An Interpretation, “…if African art is capable of producing the ferment in modern art that it has, surely this is not too much to expect of its influence upon the culturally awakened Negro artist of the present generation.” 74 I am reminded of an event back in the early 1970 when the innovative director, Gilbert Moses (Baraka’s slaveship and Bullins’ taking of miss daisy) hosted a gathering of black intellectuals and theatre practitioners at his home to meet and greet the St. Lucian poet/dramatist Derek Walcott following the successful mounting of his play, ti-jean and his brothers, at the Public Theatre in New York. Caught-up in the unrestrained conviviality of the event…and perhaps too much wine…I found several occasions throughout the evening to engage Derek with a cavalier, unsolicited intimacy, addressing him as Rasta with a crude, however amicable, construction of Jamaican patois, to which he invariably responded with perfectly tutored colonial English. At a certain moment, Derek had enough of my mock-linguistics and demanded that I discontinue the charade, declaring that his heritage had nothing to do with Mother Africa, claiming instead, with self-possessed assurance, that his heritage was Abyssinian, a testimony that induced an eruption of mirthful laughter from everyone within earshot. Derek, however, was not amused. I immediately abandoned the patois and acceded to the self-invention of our Caribbean guest whose gaze into the Middle Passage from the shores of his homeland engendered a different narrative than gleaned by we who have gazed into those same waters from the shores of the United States. BRN-F