Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Afternoon in Midwood: The Black Brooklyn Renaissance Conference at Brooklyn College

We've been able to attend a few events of the many we wanted to in the yearlong festival called Black Brooklyn Renaissance: Black Arts + Culture, 1960-2010, a program of the Brooklyn Arts Council and the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, and sponsored by MetLife Foundation.

This morning we were at Brooklyn College, teaching our wonderful Borough of Manhattan Community College students in our Short Story class -- today we covered some favorite Southern-based stories, Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal," Richard Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," and Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" -- and after we got out of Boylan Hall at noon, we headed over to the BC Library (which now has an entrance at what was LaGuardia Hall to those of us who practically lived there forty years ago) for some of today's daylong Black Brooklyn Renaissance Conference, which was presented in conjunction with the H.Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music and the Department of Africana Studies at BC.

Kay Turner, Director of the Brooklyn Arts Council's Folk Arts Program, moderated the first panel, "Historical Reflections of the Black Brooklyn Renaissance," featuring three distinguished musicians: the legendary pianist and composer Randy Weston; the renowned hard-bop trumpeter, arranger and composer Cecil Bridgewater; and Obara Wali Rahman Ndiaye, the percussionist who probably knows more about Senegalese and Old Mali drumming than anyone in the Western hemisphere.

Randy Weston, a Bed-Stuy native, established himself in the 1960s as a leading jazz modernist and a pioneer in the fusion of jazz and West African music, and he's just published his autobiography, African Rhythms, with Duke University Press. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to hear him speak -- this panel was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., while we were teaching -- but here he is being interviewed at the Schomburg Library and talking about the Brooklyn music scene back in the day:

We did get to hear some of Cecil Bridgewater's talk about the 1970s and his experiences learning from the elders and the importance of that passing on of tradition, about the music scene in Brooklyn in the 1970s, particularly about the legendary arts and cultural center The East, about which he told some interesting tales.

Wali Obara Rahman Ndiaye, the director and master drummer of Brooklyn's African Ballet Theater whom we first knew as Wali King, became emotional a few times during his affecting reminiscences about the Brooklyn scene during the 1970s as well, and the two-way traffic between New York and Africa that flourished during that time (he gave credit to Alex Haley's Roots for some of that, and anyone alive at the time -- we were teaching mostly African-American students at Long Island University then -- knows how that work affected all of us). In some ways, the seeds of the Black Brooklyn Renaissance began long ago across the Atlantic.

After a short break, Ray Allen, BC professor of music and director of American Studies, introduced keynote speaker Greg Tate, longtime Village Voice writer and cultural critic extraordinaire, who's published just about everywhere and whose work we've always found incredibly lively and thought-provoking. Greg Tate didn't disappoint in his talk, Refractions from the Renaissance: An Exploded View of Brooklyn Culture, 1980-2010.

He began by noting that he was giving a view of Brooklyn -- the BK, Crooklyn -- from a resident of Sugar Hill, Harlem, but his address was an encyclopedic account of African-American culture in Brooklyn, over the past thirty years. Starting with the political actions resulting from the mob killings of Willie Turks (1982), Michael Griffith (1986), and Yusef Hawkins (1989), culminating in the December 12 Movement and the Day of Outrage and police riot on the Brooklyn Bridge -- Greg Tate evoked the tremendous amount of talent, energy and innovation coming from 1980s Fort Greene and other neighborhoods, mostly in music but also in visual art, film, and cultural and political life, not least in the seminal days of hip-hop.

Our scribbled notes in the program are basically a litany of very proper nouns: the Rev. Al Sharpton, Sonny Carson, Alton Maddox, "Brooklyn is in the house," Basquiat, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, conscious rap, "Burn the Flag," Vernon Reed, the Black Rock Coalition (Greg Tate himself is a founder), Spike Lee of course, Thulani Davis, Black Men Versus Crack, Clinton Hill, Michael Cooper, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Barry Michael Cooper, "Giuliani gentrification," Wu-Tang Clan, RZA, GAZ, Ol' Dirty Bastard, KRS-One (Park Slope!), Geechee goddess Tamar-kali (Midwood!), Saul Williams, James Spooner, Afro-Punk (movie, festival, movement), "mythical Black Brooklyn as Left Bank Paris," "Straight Outta Brooklyn," "Just Another Girl on the IRT," "She's Gotta Have It," Kerry Washington, TV on the Radio (Williamsburg!), etc. etc.

Wow. Greg Tate's talk left us breathless. We wish we could have stayed for more -- the Afro-Caribbean Drumming and Uprocking BK Style with Frisner Augustin, Jose Ortiz, and the Dynasty Rockers; panels on Ceremony and Festival Traditions with Ray Allen, Dale Byam, Michael Manswell and Ivan Jackson; and The New Hybridity in Dance and Music with Kyra Gaunt, Fred Ho, Baraka de Soleil, Joseph Schloss and Neil Clarke; and the evening Brooklyn Jazz performance with the New Cookers: Kenyatta Beasley, Keith Loftis and Anthony Wonsey -- but work was calling us back to Williamsburg. We're grateful to have seen what we could of the Black Brooklyn Renaissance Conference and look forward to seeing more on video.

No comments: