Closson: Black arts on campus deserve more awareness, recognition

Troy Closson, Assistant Opinion Editor

Earlier this month, Barry Jenkins, director of Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight,” spoke on campus, drawing a packed audience and sparking conversation about the importance of diverse storytelling and art forms. Reactions were similarly enthusiastic in January, when writer Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall about his personal experiences as a black writer. On campus, many conversations I’ve heard about black arts revolve around big-name speakers like Jenkins and Coates. In my experience, however, other black arts events are so rarely discussed it often seems like they don’t even exist.

But they do. And they deserve more attention.

In February, I went to “Black Lives, Black Words,” a showcase of eight student-performed pieces which all examined different facets of black experiences. As I listened to powerful monologues and watched thoughtful performances and skits, I was impressed by the variety of complex issues and intersectionalities they addressed. “Black Lives, Black Words” provided space for me to reflect on my own experiences as a black student at Northwestern, in a way I often do not. The event was also highly attended and, as a result, stimulated campus dialogue about blackness and the challenges of navigating being black at Northwestern. In the same month, Dittmar Gallery held an exhibit of African-influenced visual artwork portraying issues affecting the black community, both today and throughout history. Both displays of black art were uniquely intriguing, inspiring further personal reflection.

During my first year at NU, however, it’s felt like greater campus recognition of black arts rarely exists beyond Black History Month or a few famous individuals. I’ve written about the need for awareness of black history to expand past only a single month myself, and the same applies to awareness of black arts on campus.

Throughout NU, despite being less acknowledged, other student involvement in blacks arts takes place year round. Soul4Real, a black student a cappella group at Northwestern, has performed multiple shows, despite seemingly drawing less attention than other a cappella groups on campus. Refresh Dance Crew holds annual performances in hip-hop dance, a style drawing heavily from black culture. Northwestern’s Black Arts Initiative, established in 2012, regularly holds events aimed, in part, at increasing student involvement in black arts. Over the past few months alone, the Black Arts Initiative has held multiple lecture series by black arts professionals, film screenings of movies that address aspects of blackness as well as brown bag lunches for participants to discuss different topics within pieces of black art. But I rarely hear anyone talk about these smaller groups and events, even though they still hold importance.

Northwestern’s black community shouldn’t be the only one acknowledging, discussing and recognizing black arts. In my first year at NU, I’ve noticed that the arts are readily appreciated throughout campus. From regular musical performances by Bienen students to large, sold-out shows like Lipstick Theatre’s Burlesque, many forms of art draw attention throughout campus. Of course, I’m not arguing that involvement in and appreciation of these arts should decrease. I’m simply saying that black arts deserve equal recognition.

Black arts have had tangible, important impacts on more mainstream art forms and wider society throughout history. The Harlem Renaissance inspired changes in not only black art, music and literature, but also influenced other conventional art styles and general discourse regarding race. Music genres like jazz, blues and hip-hop have deep historical roots in black culture, and provoked transformations in other styles of music like rock and roll, as well as in popular culture. Langston Hughes, among other poets and writers, drew attention to black arts and remains an influence today. Even modern forms of black art, like Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” offer valuable insights into perspectives on the black experience. And that’s exactly why they matter.

In the future, NU’s student body should devote more attention and give more recognition to black arts; and not only just those that involve famous names or popular speakers. Real engagement with diverse art has the potential to change mainstream styles and conventional practices. Greater awareness of black arts can additionally illuminate overlooked issues that black communities face, providing outlets for purposeful reflection, regardless of one’s race or ethnicity. As the U.S. continues to experience racism and discrimination, black arts serve as a meaningful way to create space for real discussion and positive change, throughout the country and on NU’s campus.

Troy Closson is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.