“No artist can sit in an ivory tower, discussing the problems of the day, and come up with a solution on a piece of paper. The artist has to be down on the ground; he has to hear the sounds of the people, the cries of the people, the sufferings of the people, the laughter of the people – the dark side and the bright side of our lives.”
- Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Minister of Culture
I am an artist. I always have been although I didn’t label myself as such until I became an adult. I’m not professionally trained in any medium but I love to have my hands and feet and voice and body in any and all kinds of creative expression. I’ll never forget my tenth grade English teacher’s class where for some reason I could never get above a B on a paper but during an oral presentation unit when I transformed myself into Nikki Giovanni and stood in front of my peers to share some of her poetry and stories from her life, I received one of the highest grades in the class. There’s something about performing, about creating, about expressing that just feels right in my body and my soul.
Before my Civil Rights spring break journey even started I decided that I would sketch my way through the south. In each city I’d spend some time drawing places or people who were crucial to the civil rights movement. Creating art calms me. It makes me feel at home. It grounds me. I wanted to create that same environment on my journey.
Throughout the week I was reminded again and again how crucial the arts were to the movement. The Freedom Songs. Posters from the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture Emory Douglas. Quilters from Gee’s Bend. Ernest C. Withers, a Memphis photographer, who documented much of the movement. The countless present day murals I encountered in every city I visited depicting key messages and people from this crucial time.
The arts were alive and vital to the movement. They are just as alive and vital to today’s movements. Some of the pieces created around Trayvon Martin’s death and the #BlackLivesMatter movement have inspired me and reminded me how important it is that we connect to and express ourselves in a variety of ways - so that each and every one of us can contribute, express, and be part of creating change in our communities.
It got me thinking about the slow removal of the arts from our country’s schools. Many of our kids don’t have access to dance, music, theater, and visual arts. Many decision-makers in education see ceramics as less valuable than English Language Arts. They think that mathematics is more important than West African dance and drumming. I couldn’t disagree more.
I went to a music academy for high school where I took piano, marching band, and music theory alongside AP Comparative Politics, Calculus, and Physical Education. My peers performed in musical theater and jazz ensemble and had their visual artwork displayed throughout school hallways and across the city. The arts allowed me to find and become my full self. They helped me figure out who I was as a learner, how I best process information, what it means for me to truly know and master a skill or new content. I wouldn’t have done that if instead of piano I took a double block of mathematics – something that my 7th graders and many students in low-income, high-need schools experience.
Sketching my way through the south helped me better understand the history, the story, and the struggle of those involved in the civil rights movement. Spending 90 minutes in the balcony of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to draw a stained glass window that was gifted to the church from the people of Wales after the bombing allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation for the humanity and support and love felt around the world for African Americans during this time. That gift, that expression, should be available to all – not just kids in affluent areas whose parents can donate and fundraise enough to hire an art teacher when district funds get cut.
Sketching my way through the south reminded me that as a teacher I need to advocate for the revival of arts classes during the day for students in public schools and that in the mean time I need to better integrate the arts into my 7th grade English Language Arts classroom. I’m grateful for the reminder but bothered by the fact that I even need it.
As artists, we play a vital role in creating change in our communities. As educators, we do the same. How do we best organize and advocate for the reintegration of the arts in our schools? How do we generate a nationwide appreciation for the arts? If we don’t we’re destined to have an entire generation of kids who are less compassionate, less expressive, and less connected to their communities.
Just like Emory Douglas said that no artist can sit in an ivory tower, discuss the problems of the day, and come up with solutions on a piece of paper, no education policy maker should be able to either. Those of us on the ground know our kids, their laughter, their cries, and their struggles. We also know their desire to be engaged, to love learning, and to discover and explore their whole selves while at school. Let’s bring the arts back into their lives so that they may be happy and engaged critical thinkers and creators.