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Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 2 [3] (Summer 1974)

Birtha, Cheryl Coomer
The state of the arts in the Black community,   pp. 25-28

Page 25

    The State of the Arts
in the Black Community
                       By Cheryl Coomer Birtha
  While forms of artistic expres-
sion differ from one place to an-
other, from one culture to another,
the basic thrust behind the need
for people to produce statements
about themselves, their feelings,
their hopes and their ideas, re-
mains the same. Time and again
it has been demonstrated that the
creative process is a powerful
  This continuing desire for ar-
tistic expression has been strong
within the Afro-American commu-
nity. Black people in America
have been music-makers and
music-innovators; dancers and
dance-creators; orators, poets, and
writers of fiction; actors and ac-
tresses who created illusions that
others could enjoy or contemplate.
Indeed, black people have long
been willing participants and ob-
servers of those areas of life de-
fined as the arts.
  From the landing of the first
Africans in 1619 throughout slav-
ery and beyond, black people in
America have not only developed
a culture that is distinctly their
own, but a culture that has con-
tributed heavily to the develop-
ment of the arts generally in
America. Sometimes, on their long
journey from the shores of West
Africa to slave ports like Savan-
nah, Georgia, Africans danced on
the decks of slave ships to the
delight and amusement of their
white captors. As the institution
of slavery became firmly en-
trenched in the antebellum South,
songs like "Follow the Drinking
Gourd" and "Bound for the Prom-
ised Land" signaled the presence
of agents from the Underground
Railroad who had come to take
black men, women and children
from bondage to freedom in the
North. Out of the Afro-American
slave culture came an impressive
body of mother wit, aphorisms,
and folktales, among them the
stories told in the person of Uncle
Remus about Brer Fox and Brer
Rabbit. It has been long pointed
out that many of these materials
were attempts at putting one over
on the white man in a subtle, par-
tially disguised way. And often
after a long day's work, slaves
would return to their quarters on
many a Southern farm or planta-
tion to dance to tunes played on
makeshift fiddles, banjoes, and
guitars or to mimic and satirize,
through song and poetry, the
ways and activities of their mas-
ters and mistresses.
  After the Civil War, the Eman-
cipation Proclamation, and the
blunted promise of freedom, black
people continued to express them-
selves through song, dance, and
mime. Many Afro-Americans be-
came members of traveling min-
strel shows, and groups like the
Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk Uni-
versity in Tennessee toured this
country and others, gaining wide
acceptance and applause for their
renditions of what are known to-
day as Negro gospel and spirit-
uals. Throughout this time until
today, the black man, through the
arts, tried to depict the frustration
Cheryl Coomer Birtha is a former program coordinator of the UW-
Madison Afro-American Community Center. A graduate student in the
UW-Madison School of Education, she is a project assistant in the
Department of Educational Policy Studies working with the Human
Relations Department of the Madison Public Schools.
and alienation he felt in a country
that he had helped to build but in
which he couldn't fully participate.
Often, the most readily available
forum for the black man's crea-
tive e x p r e s s i o n was the black
church which set the tone and pro-
vided a starting point from which
Afro-Americans would later seek
a more comprehensive and viable
definition of their art and their
  Not until the 1920s did black
Americans begin to approach a
more cogent definition of their art
outside the church. This period,
often referred to as the Negro Ren-
aissance, saw the emergence of a
number of black men and women
who began to address themselves
through various artistic media to
a distinctly black audience. If we
think of art as a mirror of society,
then almost without exception the
writers and visual artists of the
Negro Renaissance tried to show
to the masses of black people the
hows and whys of their participa-
tion in American life. Though the
images and metaphors were less
militant than those found in the
poetry that would emerge in the
sixties, the artists of this period
expressly attempted to raise the
political and social consciousness
of a group of people that had
systematically been denied a basis
of pride. This, indeed, was the
beginning of an artistic and cul-
tural movement that would con-
tinually say to Afro-Americans
and all other Americans that
" black" had not sprung from
primitiveness or jungleness; that,
indeed, it was deeply rooted in a
continent and heritage that - pro-
duced magnificent kingdoms like
Mali, Ghana, Egypt, and Songhai
long before the white man came;

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