Contact: Sasha Steinberg
STARKVILLE, Miss.— Mississippi State University’s African American Studies program continued its 10th anniversary celebration Wednesday [Sept. 27] with a presentation by distinguished author James Smethurst.
Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smethurst discussed the Southern activities of the Black Arts Movement, the African American cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s that was closely connected to the Black Power and Black Studies movements.
“My basic argument is that the Black Arts Movement was one of the most important movements of all time that profoundly influences all of us in the United States,” Smethurst said. “Even though the Black Arts Movement tends to be associated with large northern cities like New York and Chicago, the South was of crucial and long-lasting importance to black arts and its legacies.”
The 1964 establishment of the Free Southern Theater at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Smethurst said, marked a major starting point for the Black Arts Movement not only in the South, but also nationally.
“The FST was established after earlier discussions about the need for a theater that could serve the burgeoning civil rights movement in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Deep South, making it among the first, if not the first, of the black arts or proto-black arts theaters,” he said.
Smethurst, who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in English, recounted how the Black Arts Movement changed American thought about what constitutes art, as well as how art is received.
“Before the Black Arts Movement, the notion that a work of art could be serious, even radical in form and content, and popular, was not widely accepted. Now, such an understanding of popular culture or art is standard, a change that can be clearly seen in hip-hop music,” Smethurst said.
“Artists like Kanye West and Lil Wayne regularly reach millions perhaps billions of people with politically and formally radical work,” he continued. “This breakdown of boundaries of genre media and audience has also made it possible for literary artists such as Pearl Clay in Atlanta and Sister Souljah to mix popular fiction genres with black nationalist ideology and reach a mass black audience largely outside of mainstream channels of publicity and distribution.”
The Black Arts Movement also changed how people in the U.S. felt art should be circulated and “opened up the cultural…