Black History Month discussion: The role of the arts in the #BlackLivesMatter movement

February 2, 2023

What is the role of the arts in advancing the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

A group of influential Black artists of different mediums will discuss in a Feb. 10 webinar, led by University of Michigan professor Antonio C. Cuyler. Each artist has contributed works in the theme of #BlackLivesMatter and used their platform to deepen understanding of the impact of racism.

Cuyler, a professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship & Leadership at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, says that by moderating this conversation, he is implicitly answering the question, “What is the role of Black arts leaders in enabling #BlackLivesMatter to exist through the arts?”

“I feel compelled by this work because seven generations from now, I don’t want people to be having the same conversations about race,” he said. “I am committed to doing my part today so that that does not happen.”

Presented by the National Center for Institutional Diversity, the panel will explore what motivated them to create their work, what they think the role of their work is in helping to envision an antiracist present and future, and Blackness as a part of the creative process.

“For some artists, Blackness is kind of constraining and an encumbrance,” Cuyler said. “So I want to hear from these artists—if they see it as a restrainer or do they see it as a creative wellspring that has yet to even be tapped for all of the creative resources it could be?”

The group also will explore whether this work could serve as a bridge between the Black community and the police community; does this work have the potential to promote empathy and understanding among police forces and to contribute to a greater force for change?

Among the panelists will be Joel Thompson, Atlanta-based composer of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” which was debuted by the U-M Men’s Glee Club in October 2015.

The song’s seven movements represent the last words of seven different Black men:

  • “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66
  • “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16
  • “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23
  • “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18
  • “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22
  • “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22
  • “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43

Additional panelists will include Lawrence M. Jackson, associate professor of dance at George Mason University; Alysia Lee, president of the Baltimore Children & Youth Fund and founder and artistic director of Sister Cities Girlchoir; Joshua Rashaad McFadden, assistant professor of photographic arts and sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology; and Ayvaunn Penn, assistant professor of theater at Texas Christian University.

The #BlackLivesMatter in the Performing Arts webinar will take place 12:30-2 p.m. Feb. 10; viewers may register for free at Zoom webinar.