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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts of activism

Cunningham, James
Part V: Writers and the black revolution: [getting on with the get on: old conflicts and new artists],   pp. [385]-391 PDF (6.1 MB)

Page 387

old conflicts & new artists
by James Cunningham
"The Black Artist has a duty
"the Black Artist who directs his work toward a white audience is guilty
of                T
aiding and abetting the enemy." - Etheridge Knight
"My soul looks back in wonder how I made it over: had a mighty hard
time." -Mahalia
When I took my first step on to the Black writing scene as a Negro 'universalist,'
the fury of the Detroit Rebellion was at its brightest. It was the summer
of '67,          T
and I had just recently finished serving time, four and one-half yrs, at
the Big House
(the Chicago Post Office) and so was very anxious to check out the outside
I had been writing in relative isolation since leaving school in '62, only
running into an
occasional fellow writer every now and then. Fortunately, my sister, a painter,
just put me on the scent of a newly formed group of writers she heard about
through a
black conscious teacher friend. It was called the OBA-C (Organization of
Black American    T
Culture/OBA is an African word for a ruler) Writers Workshop. I was very
eager to
meet these writers, of course, to check out what they were into especially
since their
group had the novelty of being all Negro (it turned out to be far, far blacker
than that).
The meeting, chaired by Hoyt Fuller, the editor of NEGRO DIGEST, took place
on the second floor of the South Side Community Art Center where my sister,
Carolyn,       T
sometimes exhibited. I sat down at a long table next to a large imposing
cat named
Mike Cook who was partly responsible for the featured presentation that evening
as well as much of the heated discussion that followed. A tall soft spoken
brother named
Don Lee walked to the end of the table on my right where he began to read
a sort
of position paper dealing with the role of the black writer entitled "Toward
A Black  387  -
Awareness." It was read, partly, in reply to hotly contested statements
Mike had           T
made the week before. Only one other person that night (besides myself) seemed
to have been in any kind of agreement with Mike and her name was Carolyn
a sleek, elegant, ebony/angular sculptured sister wearing a natural.
The sister in the most bristling mood to disagree also wore a natural. Her
was Tena Lockett. In addition to thinking her extremely narrow, if not mad,
it             ,
took no time to conclude she was also without a thread of talent (time was
to prove
me mad on this point). Yet how could anyone have any talent and still maintain
stubbornly as she did that it was a shame for us (a bunch of writers, no
less) to be
sitting there talking about writing while other black people were dying that
very night
on rooftops, in living rooms and basements and in the blazing glass scattered
streets of
Detroit? The sister had to be mad. Hell, what did she expect us to do? -
we were writers.
Well, Tena stayed on my case with a persistent "When you going to let
us hear              _
some of this 'raceless' Universal stuff you say you write?" Hoyt's challenge
was more
diplomatic and urbane. Viewing me as a very misguided brother who could surely
profit by a chance to clarify his own confusion, he warmly invited me to
return the
following week with my own personal statement of what chores I thought black
artists did have since I objected so to their serving in Detroit.       
This was no modest assignment. It was nothing short of asking me to come
down to earth and away from the timeless problems of Humanity-ville where
is irresistably vague and universal and beauty is highly featureless and
colorless and
truth is without politics. But that was over a year ago (from this writing)
and I am
thoroughly convinced of the soundness of everyone and everything I called
mad that night.
What has been made clear since that night amounts to the simple declaration
the black artist has a primary duty to black people. What that duty primarily

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