Sunday, July 19, 2015

...But They Forgot About the Artists: Reclamation of SC Black Arts

I am on a mission to recognize diversity in the arts in South Carolina (no, that is not an oxymoron). I have lived in SC my entire life. It took me thirty years of living here continually to discover a poet, writer, or artist from this state.
The first I discovered was Nikky Finney. Then, I found Terrance Hayes, Kwame Dawes, and Jonathan Green. This was all from my own networking and research. I was never taught in any school about any of these individuals. Mary McLeod Bethune was taught to me in elementary school. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn from SC is a staple in today's U.S. legislature. Furthermore, it upsets me that people  like Nikky Finney and Terrance Hayes can win National Book Awards for Poetry and their legacies (ongoing legacies, they are alive today! young and vibrant!) are not taught in grade schools across my own state. Perhaps neither is SC native Jacqueline Woodson, a Newberry and National Book Award winner.

After a tumultuous first half of 2015 in which South Carolina has been at the forefront, it is more upsetting that my state's black artists have been hidden. Now, I have seen our black politicians swept to the forefront as they should be. I have seen lawyers, preachers, and activists at center stage as they should be in these perilous times. However, the lack of black poets, writers, and artists in the same line arm and arm with those figures shows a disparaging indictment on South Caroina arts culture.

Top left: Cadace Wiley; Bottom Left:
Jennifer Bartell; Top Right: Marcus Amaker
Bottom Right: Tonya Gregg
Everyone heralded the impeccable poem by Nikky Finney after the removal of the confederate flag, but from the Walter Scott case to the Charleston Nine to the flag, we saw virtually no SC black artists in mainstream media which is the reason I cannot sleep this night in the aftermath.

There are remarkable black poets like Candace Wiley and Jennifer Bartell, even from Charleston like the young and gifted Marcus Amaker. The art of Tonya Gregg remains a South Carolina treasure. The music of Wendell Culbreath speaks revolution and restoration.

Although incredibly transparent articles have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Delana R. A. Dameron and Kwame Dawes, these pioneers left SC to fulfill other projects although the wealth of their work still lingers here. Most of our best artists and writers leave South Carolina for a variety of reasons. I would venture to guess a factor is the arts are marginalized in our state for lack of support and interest. I was in a poetry workshop where Nikky Finney expressed her return to SC was in part based on this reality. Poet Kendra Hamilton has also returned to South Carolina after success in publishing.

I have to accept that I am in a state where Gov. Nikky Haley whom I have never met from my own small, rural home town constantly cuts funding and representation for the arts in our state and even downsized the inaugural poem by our own Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth for dubious reasons. Even with these setbacks to the arts, I have to be optimistic that someone outside of SC's borders will recognize our best contemporary artists especially in times of national turmoil surrounding our state.

I cannot rely on writers not from SC to write about Charleston when my own gift burns within me each day. If CNN or The New Yorker wants nothing to do with our arts movement, we will thrive here.

Poets Respond to Race on Facebook
I was disappointed at this lack of representation, yet I agreed to go on a Poets Respond to Race Tour with my friend Columbia, SC, poet and author Al Black (who is white). We are traveling to cities in SC to promote the conversation of race and the restoration of diversity and the arts in our state. The project has taken on the form of a vision that continues to grow.

Nonetheless, it is only one vision among many here. Speaking Down Barriers, co-founded by spoken word artist Marlanda "Sapient Soul" Dekine, seeks the same conversation with workshops and open discussion of controversial topics on race.

Working together with this and other projects like The Watering Hole in South Carolina show me that what the cameras and literary journal pages don't see is the work of gifted and talented individuals unifying toward the same objective. We have a responsibility to exhibit, teach, and impart what Gil Scott Heron told us will not be televised.

I am after the growth of SC black arts at its finest and purest. It may not be acknowledged nationwide, but it will be chronicled--starting with me if no one else. Otherwise, we will wait for the world to return to South Carolina in due season.


  1. Well said, Len--and what a good mission you're on. Kurtis Lamkin and Kendra Hamilton come to mind, too--along with lots of others. So many talented black artists in this state!

    1. I did have Kendra in mind too, Susan. We have made contact, and I hope to collaborate with her in the future. I hope to do the same with Kurtis. Michele Reese is another treasure. We have a diverse band of artists here that should be recognized and appreciated more regardless of race.