Half a million people from around the world were in Atlanta, Georgia last month for the ninth National Black Arts Festival. The annual event features art exhibits, films, discussions, and all types of performances by local, national, and international artists of all ages and backgrounds. And this year the festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois' groundbreaking work "The Souls of Black Folk," in which the social activist predicted that a central problem Americans would face in the 20th Century would be race.
One hundred years ago, W.E.B. DuBois considered the progress African-Americans had made since the end of slavery four decades earlier. In his book, he also reviewed the obstacles to that progress, and the possibilities for future progress as the nation entered the 20th century. This year, his vision and predictions are being re-considered in readings, discussions, conferences and new works of art and music.
"The Souls of Black Folk" focused on many issues that faced African-Americans at the turn of the last century… including what DuBois called 'double consciousness' - looking at one's self through the eyes of others. When blacks saw themselves through white eyes, he said, they beheld people worthy of contempt. Speaking at this year's National Black Arts Festival, historian Stanley Crouch said that DuBois' assessment is still valid today.
""The Souls of Black Folk" attempted to do something that we're still suffering from attempting to break outside stereotypes," says Mr. Crouch. "At that time [in 1903], black Americans were depicted basically as lazy, shiftless, sometimes violent."
The celebrated black social commentator said festivals such as NBAF are important because just as W.E.B. DuBois's writing did a century ago they help break the stereotypes people have about African-Americans. This year's festival did that with a sampling of the wide diversity of black art and music.
During festival week, Atlanta is transformed by artists' markets, poetry slams, plays and other performances that commemorate African-American history. Artists who contribute to the festival come from across the United States, as well as from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe.
John T. Dee is a spoken word artist from London. He says he appreciate the Black Arts Festival because it allows him to perform many of his works, including Airplane Man, which depicts his diverse upbringing. "I created this piece to help me understand the confusion about being a black man born and bred in east London, and a lot of my influences come from the sense of being Grenadian, a lot of Jamaican influence in the local environment, a lot of African American influence through TV and pop music, so with all of these things, I always wondered who I was," he says.
Atlanta poet Jessica Care Moore worked with Festival organizers to bring a wide variety of performers to the Festival. She also presented one of her poems, called 'Princess,' that describes the struggle of a young African-American woman who, despite her surroundings, hopes for a brighter future.
"…we died like royalty, wearing wigs shaped by old wire coat-hangers. You named me Princess, I live in America. My castle has 25 floors, 400 families, and one day, I will be a queen."
Through her work with the Festival, Ms. Moore says she's learned how to carry on traditions begun by famous African American poets such as Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka. "Because we are the future of black art, the people under me the 17, 18-year olds, are the future of black art," she says. "So if we keep it in the same hands the people who've been doing it 30, 60 years I've got to give it up someday, too. I'm ready for that day."
Other Festival events paid tribute to Black arts pioneers who helped lay the foundation for generations of performers.
The Negro Ensemble Company was honored this year as part of the Festival's Living Legends celebration. Gerald Krone says he started the theatre group in 1967 with Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks, as a training ground. "NEC was not just a production company, it was an institution of learning for writers and directors and actors and choreographers and administrators." Just as the words of W.E.B. DuBois speak to America today as powerfully as they did 100 years ago, the music, art and poetry presented in this year's National Black Arts Festival speak to new generations of Americans of all races.