The arts and artists don't get recognized enough in discussions of political organizing and consciousness raising. But I often think about how groups of artists were critical to my intellectual development and approaches to arts programming.
During the late 1990s, when I was an undergraduate at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, I became aware of poets organizing a weekly reading near our campus. One of those poets was C. Liegh McInnis. He gave me early exposure to the sounds of a "political" poet.
But the more commonly used word for us back then was "conscious." We would say McInnis is "conscious," which was our complimentarily way of praising someone who was aware of Black histories, culture, oppression, and capable of articulating that knowledge in art or just in conversation.
We thought "consciousness" was our generation's term, but I later discovered that Black artists and thinkers of the 1960s used the term, and many had adapted the idea, if not term, from a Black conscious figure named Malcolm X.
There's a longer story to be told about how Haitian folklore first gave rise to the notion of zombies, who were dead people reanimated to do mindless work. Much later, in his speeches encouraging the growth of consciousness or Black awareness, Malcolm mentioned that "the dead are arising," a phrase which became the title of an award-winning biography. You now see the move from zombie to consciousness to woke, right?
(By the way, over the last decade, white liberals and conservatives have culturally appropriated, reconfigured, and whitewashed what we called "conscious" and remade it as "woke." Alas, that's a blog entry for another day or perhaps never).
At the time when I first heard McInnis, I had not yet discovered Amiri Baraka and various others. Or, in retrospect, McInnis was one of a few good primers for Baraka and the Black Arts Movement, which I would study more extensively and choose as the subject for my first book. Notably, McInnis was local. So even as I started learning of other politically-minded creators in college, many of them felt distant, or they weren't in the arts.
I only attended a few of the weekly programs put on by McInnis, Jolivette Anderson, David Brian Williams, and others. Still, they unknowingly gave me blueprints for the smaller scale arts activities that I coordinated at Tougaloo.
For one, I organized poetry readings on campus. In addition, three of my four years at Tougaloo, I self-published edited volumes of poems by group of my peers. Most importantly, I was almost always in conversation with folks about arts and ideas.
Not long after hearing McInnis read his poems, I recall a conversation when someone described him as a poet. Someone else chimed in noting that beyond poetry, McInnis was really knowledgeable about Prince. Back then, terms like "scholar," "cultural critic," "ethnomusicologist," "cultural historian," and even "music critic" hadn't become integral to our framing of things, so we'd simply say that McInnis knows a lot about Prince.
I wish we had some interventions to help us back then. Like, rather than simply saying he "knows" a lot, it would've been good if we considered the significance of someone studying music and musicians. We were looking at the outcome (i.e. someone sharing interesting and useful information about Prince), but just as impressive was the process: McInnis listening and re-listening to the music and reading and re-reading liner notes, interviews, profiles, and histories of music. And then after all of that, taking the time to write and revise and publish.
McInnis produced the first version of his The Lyrics of Prince in 1997, and I didn't get my hands on the book until a later edition some years later. Looking back, my knowledge of a local writer devoting himself to what I would come to view as cultural criticism was important for my own development.
McInnis wasn't the only or first artistic influencing my ideas back then, but he and his local-ness were really important.
Today, my students have much more access to cultural criticism and information on Black artists the world over. YouTube, Wikipedia, social media, and countless websites provide them with text, images, audio and video recordings. But perhaps the lack of access to good local models might be a problem.
That lack of access could explain why despite all their digital resources they still struggle in some ways. There are all kinds of benefits to having access to a local conscious artist who knows a lot about one or two or many Black musicians.