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Three black women artists, members of the vibrant and supportive Durham arts community, shared details of their creative practices, and the challenges and joys of being working artists at a Nov. 15 “Ruby Fridays” event.
Durham-based visual artists Candy Carver and Natasha Powell Walker, and independent filmmaker Natalie Bullock Brown joined Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies, for a lunchtime public conversation in the Ruby Lounge at the Rubenstein Arts Center.
The event was held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Department of African & African American Studies.
On being a working artist and having “day jobs”:
WALKER: I just got comfortable telling people at my nonprofit “day job” that I’m an artist. It’s easier at a nonprofit where people have lives. It’s been interesting to see how much they intersect, my “day job” and my art.
BROWN: My parents were supportive. They said make sure you get an advanced degree. I had worked on the Ken Burns Jazz series. I was really worried at age 27 that if I didn’t get married soon, I would not have kids. I left New York and moved here. I now have 2 children and I am married. I just got back to filmmaking about 6 years ago. I started teaching, mostly because I had flexibility with my schedule.
Every waking moment is teaching, filmmaking, kids. It’s challenging.
The funding part, in N.C., I have not figured that out yet. I’m 6 years into a project that I could have done in 3 years in New York.
CARVER: I don’t have a 9-to-5 but I work all the time. It’s fun.
I actually work more than 9-to-5. It’s more than a full-time job, if we’re talking about 40 hours a week. My job can travel with me. I have a lot more flexibility than a 9-to-5. I’m currently figuring out balance, and opportunities that won’t cost me time. I need to be happy to make good work, unlike Mary J. Blige.
On the challenges of being an artist in the Triangle area:
CARVER: There’s a challenge that many of the art galleries are run by white women and that’s a particular perspective that they are choosing art from.
As our area becomes more diverse they will have to seek from a more diverse spectrum of creativity. Black life is way more interesting than shackles, chains and lunch counters. It’s more interesting and it’s broader.
On being taken seriously as women:
WALKER: I’ve experienced harassment. I’ve had both male and female mentors tell me to use it to my advantage, or that’s just the way it is.
CARVER: The majority of my clients are men. Why? I would have thought it would be more women. I’m not sure why. But I’m comfortable with guys. Always have been.
BROWN: Women don’t get as much funding as men. You might have to work on projects where you’re token, or the topic is black and you’re being used for your blackness.
It doesn’t matter if you went to film school. What matters is experience. I want the chance to do artwork that will help me to grow.
On where they create:
WALKER: I like creating at home. I don’t like people walking up to me while I’m creating. I had a studio space in Richmond that I shared.
CARVER: The whole downstairs of my house is an art studio. My dining room and living room are full of art supplies. I’m social, dialoguing doesn’t disrupt me too much. I actually enjoy it. I paint on the floor. It feels nice. I’ve painted on the walls. My mother learned pretty early that I was a different kind of kid.
What will you be doing 5 years from now?
CARVER: That’s so limiting. If I had done what I thought 5 years ago I would have missed out on so much.
I’m working on figuring out ways to make more money and work less.
On “black girl magic”:
CARVER: It’s the ability to pivot, to constantly and successfully adjust.
BROWN: It agree that it is being able to react in the moment to what is needed. It’s being able to have joy in the midst of all of the challenges. Also, it has begun to encapsulate this idea of being a superwoman, which is not real, not healthy, not sustainable.
Magic has be paid, funded, supported or it will fizzle.
DURHAM, N.C. — Actress and comedian Kim Coles, perhaps best known for her ﬁve-season turn as “Synclaire” on the FOX series, “Living Single,” will be special guest for the Duke University course “Dick Gregory and the History of Black Comedy,” Thursday, Oct. 24 at 6:15 p.m.
The course is taught by Professor Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies, with the support of Dr. Christian C. Gregory, executor of the Estate of Dick Gregory and the Estate of Jenny Lillian Semans Koortbojian.
The class is free and open to the public on Thursdays where it is held at the NorthStar Church of the Arts, a converted church founded by Nnenna and Phil Freelon that serves as “a sacred space for healing, creative expression and spiritual connectivity.”
RSVPS are requested: tinyurl.com/kimcoles
Coles has starred on numerous television programs including Frasier, In Living Color, and One on One. She is also a playwright and the author of “Open Your G.I.F.T.S.: 22 Lessons on Finding and Embracing Your Personal Power,” volume 2 of the series, “42 Lessons of Finding and Embracing Your Blessings in Disguise.” These days, she presents inspirational programs encouraging others to walk in purpose and share their stories based on her perspective and experience in the entertainment industry.
Earlier guests were actress and comedian Marsha Warfield, cartoonist Keith Knight, and author Bassey Ikpi. On Nov. 14, actor and comedian David Alan Grier will join the class and on Nov. 21, New York Times culture critic Mel Watkins will be a special guest.
On Wednesday afternoon the Department of African & African American Studies will launch its 50th anniversary speaker series with Duke alum Ashon Crawley.
Crawley, Ph.D., ‘13, will deliver a talk, “Migration Stories and the Hammond Sound,” at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18 in the Moyle Room of the newly opened Karsh Alumni and Visitor’s Center (2080 Duke University Rd., Durham).
The talk is free and open to the public. Free parking is available across the street in the gravel lot. A reception will follow the talk.
Each month, the department will host a lecture by scholars who have been immersed in black studies at Duke. All of the talks will be held at 4:30 p.m. in the Karsh Center.
“The series is an opportunity to acknowledge the impact of Black Studies on the Duke University campus, and there’s no better way to do that than to highlight the fine scholars whose research was directed by current and former members of AAAS faculty, said Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and chair of the department. “The scholars presenting in the series have emerged as some of the leading voices in the field of Black Diaspora Studies.”
Crawley, who earned a Ph.D. in English and a certificate in African & African American Studies at Duke, is an associate professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility.”
He is also author of the forthcoming, “The Lonely Letters,” described as an exploration of the interrelation of blackness, mysticism, quantum mechanics and love.
Next month, on Oct. 14, Courtney R. Baker, Ph.D. ‘08, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Riverside will give a talk, “Black Humanity, Visible Violence, and Liberation Aesthetics.”
For more information on the Department of African & African American Studies, visit aaas.duke.edu.
AAAS 50th Anniversary Speaker Series
Oct. 14 Courtney R. Baker, Ph.D. ‘08, University of California, Riverside
Nov. 11 Patrick Alexander, Ph.D. ‘12, University of Mississippi
Dec. 4 Kinohi Nishikawa, Ph.D. ‘10, Princeton University
Jan. 30 Candis Watts Smith, Ph.D. ‘11, Penn State
Feb. 27 Candice Jenkins, WSTC ‘01, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
TBA Danny Hoffman, Ph.D. ‘04, University of Washington
By Camille Jackson
Next Thursday, Sept. 19, comedienne, actress and self-dubbed “upper ghetto godmother,” Marsha Warfield, perhaps best known for her wise-cracking bailiff ‘80s-sitcom character, Roz, on NBC’s “Night Court,” will visit Duke University.
Warfield is a special guest for the Duke University course “Dick Gregory and the History of Black Comedy” course, taught by Professor Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies. The course features guest appearances by professional comedians, critics and screenings of rare and/or classic films.
The 6:15 p.m.-7:30 p.m. class is free and open to the public on Thursdays where it is held at the NorthStar Church of the Arts, a converted church founded by Nnenna and Phil Freelon that serves as “a sacred space for healing, creative expression and spiritual connectivity.”
Registration is not necessary but RSVPs are requested: tinyurl.com/DukeMarshaWarfield.
Warfield lives and works in Las Vegas where she performs her show, The Marsha Warfield Experience, at L.A. Comedy Club at the Stratosphere Casino & Hotel. She describes herself as “a loving godmother, an opinionated feminist, an out and proud Black lesbian and a talented actress,” she brings these attributes to her one-woman show. After an overlong period of retirement, Warfield now tackles issues including politics, blackness, coming out as a gay woman and her affair with pizza.
Warfield is best known for “Night Court,” but she also starred in “Empty Nest” as Dr. Maxine Douglas, and as a performer on “The Richard Pryor Show.” She has appeared on shows such as “Soul Train,” “The Arsenio Hall Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and her own talk show, “The Marsha Warfield Show.”
Other guests are:
Bassey Ikpi is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying.” An active voice in pop culture commentary and the mental health community, Ikpi’s essays have been published by The Root, Ebony, Huffington Post and Essence. She was also the resident pop culture critic for Philly’s WURD FM radio station and is currently a contributing editor for Catapult. A poet, she has been featured on HBO’s ‘Def Poetry Jam.’ Ikpi is the founder of The Siwe Project, a mental health organization, and the creator of #NoShameDay, an initiative that attempts to reduce stigma and create space for neurodivergent people to be heard and seen through their own personal stories.
These days comedienne and actress Kim Coles, best known as “Synclaire” on the FOX comedy series “Living Single, is using comedy to inspire and empower others through a series of designed programs. “Pulling from her experiences, research and years in the entertainment business,” Coles hosts workshops and group sessions related to topics such as using your gifts, “walking in purpose,” and “sharing the power of your story.” She has made appearances on Oprah, The Dr. Oz Show, and at the annual Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.
Mel Watkins is an author and former editor, writer, and critic for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Since 2007, he has been the NEH Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University where he has taught courses on literature and African American studies. His books include On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, Dancing With Strangers, and Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. His articles and reviews have appeared in numerous national magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, and he has frequently appeared as a commentator on televised documentaries about American culture and humor.
ABOUT THE COURSE
AAAS 331: Black Popular Culture
Dick Gregory and the History of Black Comedy
At the peak of his fame in the 1960s, Dick Gregory may have been the most influential comedian in America, offering truths about race, the Black community and politics in an era highlighted by the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. “Dick Gregory and the History of Black Comedy” will examine the roots of the Black comedic tradition that informed Gregory’s art and activism, with a particular focus, in the spirit of Mr. Gregory, on the ways in which Black comedy has been used in the quest for civil and human rights.
The course will also highlight the role of Black literary satire, including the work of George Schuyler and Ollie Harrington, as well as contemporary examples such as novelists Danzy Senna, Kiese Laymon, Paul Beatty, and Fran Ross, cartoonist Aaron McGruder, comedians Issa Rae, Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock and, even critical race theorist and legal scholar Derrick Bell.
The course is taught with the support of Dr. Christian C. Gregory, executor of the Estate
of Dick Gregory and the Estate of Jenny Lillian Semans Koortbojian.
Classic Black Comedy Films
August 29 Ethnic Notions (dir. Marlon Riggs, 1987)
September 5 Putney Swope (dir. Robert Downey, Sr., 1969)
September 12 Bamboozled (dir. Spike Lee, 2001)
September 26 Watermelon Man (dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1970)
October 3 Sweet Love, Bitter (dir. Herbert Danska, 1967)
November 7 Blue Collar (dir. Paul Schrader, 1978)
November 14 Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley (dir. Goldberg, 2013)
December 5 Hollywood Shuffle (dir. Robert Townsend, 1987)
This Saturday, Feb. 9, Duke University will grapple with a portion of its racial history, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of a pivotal occasion that forced the university to eventually evolve to offer one of the top-ranked black studies programs in the country.
The story of the Feb. 13, 1969, “takeover” of the Allen Building, a surreal moment when tear gas covered the quad, only hastily captured in blurry black and white photos, has been passed down through generations of student activists.
In response to pervasive discrimination, a group of 60-75 black students organized and barricaded themselves inside the university’s main administrative building, issuing a typed list of 12 demands. At the top of the list, they wrote– “we want the establishment of a fully accredited department of Afro-American studies.”
Now, on the anniversary of their activism, the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke for which they paved the way, has invited those black student activists back to campus to acknowledge their sacrifice and contribution to the university.
The group will reunite this weekend for “Commemorating the 1969 Allen Building Takeover: Fifty Years Later,” an event hosted by the department.
The 12:30 p.m. program will be held in the Ambassador Ballroom at the Washington Duke Inn and includes two panel discussions: “The Original Allen Building Takeover Protesters Tell Their Stories,” followed by “Activism Then and Now: An Intergenerational Conversation.”
[NOTE: The event is at capacity. Attendees already registered are encouraged to arrive early as seating is limited. Late attendees will be directed to overflow seating at the Nasher Museum of Art or the Rubenstein Arts Center. At the end of the program, attendees will be shuttled to a reception at the Nasher Museum of Art for where a live DJ playing music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Free parking is available for all of the day’s events. A free shuttle will transport attendees back and forth between the two venues during the afternoon and early evening.]
To see the full schedule and available parking, go to https://aaas.duke.edu/abt50. Those unable to attend can watch a YouTube live stream and follow the discussion on Twitter @dukeaaas or by searching hashtag #DukeABT50.
Nearly 30 of the original Allen Building Takeover participants are expected to return to Durham, many of whom have not seen each other for 50 years. They have mixed feelings about their experience at Duke and are pleased to know about the impact of their activism.
“Fifty years later, it brings me great joy to know that the same institution which called in the police and National Guard on us in 1969, would today, welcome us back and acknowledge that our actions contributed positively to the evolution of the university,” said Catherine LeBlanc ’71, a business/education consultant, who was among the fifth class of black students to enter Duke.
LeBlanc will moderate a panel of fellow participants sharing first-hand accounts. A second panel will feature Duke alumni from several generations, including the recent 2016 Takeover, as well as former local/community activist Howard Fuller who mentored the Takeover participants.
“Six years after the first cohort of Black Students entered Duke in 1963, Blacks students and their allies were willing to put their academic careers and professional futures on the line, to push the university into the future,” said Mark Anthony Neal, professor and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies.
“The sacrifice of those students, including the trauma and anger they may have carried with them from participating in The Takeover, has helped create the Duke that we know today – not quite where it needs to be, but a far cry from what it was,” he said.
For more information on the Allen Building Takeover, visit Guide to the Allen Building Takeover Collection, 1969-2002 or listen to recordings of student radio station broadcasts from February 13, 1969.
OTHER ALLEN BUILDING TAKEOVER 50TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS
The Allen Building Takeover marks the moment that Duke as an institution began to grapple with what it means to be an inclusive community, said Duke University Archivist Valerie Gillispie. “The alumni who participated in the Takeover did so at significant personal risk in order to bring attention to the struggles of African American students,” she said.
Last summer Gillispie organized a team of undergraduate students to curate an exhibit, “Black Students Matter: Taking Over Allen in ’69,” set to open on Feb. 13 in Perkins Library, Chappell Family Gallery. The event, free and open to the public, will begin at 4:30 p.m. Duke undergraduates, Lexi Kadis, Alan Ko, and Zara Porter, under the mentorship of a Duke graduate student, Ellen Song drew from a number of collections held by the University Archives to curate the exhibit.
“It was important to me that the exhibit resonate with today’s student body, and that it draw connections between the issues of 1969 and the concerns faced by today’s students of color,” Gillispie said. “The exhibit is a chance for the entire campus to reflect on the events of February 13, 1969 and the ways it impacted the fifty years that have followed.”
At 6:30 p.m. on the same evening, “Students Demand Change: The Genesis of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture,” also free and open to the public, will be held at the in the Flowers Building in The Underground room. [Space is limited]
“It will be a reflective conversation,” said Chandra Guinn, MLWC director. “Through dialogue, we will consider how student activism and students’ demands called for and became the catalyst for institutional change.”
Attendees will reflect on student activism throughout the years and the conditions that gave rise to the Allen Building Takeover with a focus on “what work is left to do.”
“It is important to take time to reflect on how far we have come and what is left to do to help make the campus community one where all feel welcome and supported. It is because students demand change that institutions are made better,” Guinn said.
For more information, contact the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.
Find the stories. Make lesson plans. Put it online.
That’s what a team of students working for the weekly webcast Left of Black was tasked with this summer, but it wasn’t so simple. The webcast showcasing scholars, artists, musicians, just completed its 8th season. That meant there were nearly 250 videos and guest interviews to sort through, many of which hadn’t been in circulation since they first aired years ago.
With funding from Story+, a 6-week summer research program in the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI), the students, two graduate and two undergraduate, set out to accomplish the mission. Using their respective skills of creating lesson plans, video editing, website building and some acquired new skills, they found interesting stories in the Left of Black archive and turned them into online teaching modules for middle- and high-school students.
The enrichment modules include a video clip derived from a Left of Black episode, a lesson plan and a “digital student experience,” as well as supplemental reading. The Story+ Left of Black team exceeded their initial goal of creating two modules — the team was able to produce four — and made their final presentation at a FHI research symposium on Wednesday, June 27 at Smith Warehouse.
The themes covered in the modules are: service and citizenship, the cultural significance of Black barbershops, the role of music in the Black Power Movement, and Black armed resistance. Each module includes discussion questions, timelines, vocabulary and further reading and is in alignment with the state’s common core standards. The digital experiences and lesson plans can be accessed online here: https://sites.duke.edu/leftofblackenrichment.
Duke undergraduates Ce’Ondra Ellison and Malcolm Brown had both taken classes in Duke’s Department of African & African American Studies and were passionate about what themes and characters they might find.
“This information is so lacking,” said Ellison, an African-American Studies major from High Point, N.C. “I am hoping this work will have long-lasting impact on education.”
Brown was enthusiastic about the project, and quickly grasped the technical aspects of the project like animating a grandmother for a video clip about Black armed resistance.
Graduate students Allison Raven and Nicole Higgins each had prior experience teaching in classrooms and creating lesson plans.
The Story+ experience “allowed me to stay connected to work I had been doing before with high school teachers, which is easy to lose in academia,” Higgins said.
“I think we have been extraordinarily lucky with our team. None of us knew each other before beginning the project. For something that relies so heavily on teamwork, this could have gone really badly, but we all balance each other really well and work well together. And I loved the collaborative aspect,” Raven said.
As a team, Raven said they gained a deeper understanding of how to tell stories in the digital age and which tools to use, including social media. The team won FHI’s Story+ Instagram challenge.
FHI’s Chris Chia, Amanda Starling Gould, and Eric Barstow, provided infrastructure and guidance as the Left of Black team delved into the archive and selected a WordPress template on which to build the website.
Left of Black host Mark Anthony Neal, who is also the chair of African & African American Studies at Duke, helped the students select four episodes in which to focus their efforts:
- Quincy T. Mills, a history professor at Vassar College and author of “Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America”;
- Chad L. Williams, chair of the African American Studies Department at Brandeis who wrote, “Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the WWI Era”;
- Ricky Vincent, author of “Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music”; and
- Akinyele Umoja, an associate professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State who wrote, “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement.”
The students took excerpts of these videos and used graphics and animations to produce enrichment videos like this one:
First started in 2010, Left of Black is now entering its 9th season. Neal has interviewed a number of notable scholars over the years including Carrie Mae Weems, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Marc Lamont Hill and Melissa Harris Perry. There are plans to continue building the Left of Black curriculum and digital platform.
“It has reinvigorated the project for me,” Neal said. “It’s something we had envisioned from earliest days of Left of Black and we were thrilled to have a team of students to help us realize that vision. It serves as model for what integrated learning could look like, not just at Duke but in the production of scholarship for a broader audience.”
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke, will deliver the first Trinity College Distinguished Lecture, titled, “My Mother Gave Me This Big-Ass Name: A Black Scholar in the Mix.”
The lecture will be held at 3 p.m. in Penn Pavilion on the university’s West Campus. A reception will follow.
By delving into such topics as hip-hop music and gender relations within African American culture, urban sociology, black masculinity, and queer theory, Neal challenges audiences to engage with the ideologies of black popular culture. He seeks to understand how the music, television, film and literature of African diaspora cultures impact the societal and cultural norms of the United States and around the world. Neal is the founder and managing editor of the blog NewBlackMan and he hosts the weekly webcast Left of Black.
The lecture is part of a celebration of 50 years of black faculty scholarship in Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.
Attendees are asked to RSVP at https://duke.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eWF3J0fzCiPnAA5.