There’s a word in the West African language of Akan called “sankofa,” a concept that essentially signifies revisiting the past in order to move forward in the present.
The significance of sankofa isn’t lost on local writer Kim McMillon as she speaks with enthusiasm about the need to honor black writers, poets and artists of the ’60s and ’70s who she believes changed the course of American literature and laid the foundation for modern art forms and modes of expression such as hip hop and spoken word.
“To me it’s so important to acknowledge the writers, the artists that came before because their abilities, knowledge and creative inspirations are what can truly inspire us,” explained McMillon.
McMillon, 56, is putting the spirit of sankofa into practice in Merced by spearheading a conference dedicated to recognizing writers, artists and poets who played a primary role in the Black Arts Movement.
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Titled “The Black Arts Movement and Its Influences: 50 Years On,” the three-day conference kicks off tonight with an opening reception at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, followed by panel discussions, plays, poetry presentations and performances Saturday and Sunday at UC Merced.
The Black Arts Movement, which began in the mid-’60s, is generally described as an effort by writers, poets and artists to emphasize black aesthetics and art forms as an effort to uplift black people globally.
“They concentrated their energy into birthing a type of movement that generated the feeling of ‘black is beautiful,’ ” explained McMillon. “For the first time in history there was a concerted effort to see blackness as beauty – a new paradigm of blackness, one that said ‘your hair is beautiful, your skin is beautiful, your body is beautiful.’ ”
The UC Merced conference is particularly timely, since Amiri Baraka, one of the primary architects of the Black Arts Movement, died in January at the age of 79.
McMillon, who is pursuing a doctorate in African American literature at UC Merced, said the conference is a “love letter” to Baraka and the Black Arts Movement, particularly because she had been conversing with the renowned poet in the planning of the conference prior to his death.
“When Amiri died it was unexpected,” McMillon said. “A lot of this was shaped by his vision. So when he passed, I just kept working with the idea that we were going to honor him, too.”
In honoring Baraka, who once went by the name LeRoi Jones, McMillon will be joined at the conference by an high-profile list of writers and artists, many of whom have achieved great success in the literary world.
The keynote speaker of the conference is Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Ishmael Reed, who is scheduled to speak at the conference Sunday. In his career, Reed has also been a winner of a MacArthur Fellowship – often called the genius grant, the Los Angeles Times Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, according to his biography.
Presenters scheduled to appear during the three-day conference, according to the event’s program, include:
• Juan Felipe Herrera, California Poet Laureate, author of more than two dozen books and UC Riverside creative writing professor.
• Marvin X, a playwright and activist who is regarded as the West Coast liaison of the Black Arts Movement and co-founder of the Black Arts West theater in San Francisco in 1966.
• Askia Touré, a poet and activist who co-founded the Black Arts Movement with Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal.
• Umar Bin Hassan, member of the renowned poetry group The Last Poets.
• Ras Baraka, son of Amiri Baraka and councilman in the city of Newark, N.J. Ras Baraka is scheduled to speak about his father’s writing. The presentation will include an excerpt from Amiri Baraka’s play “The Dutchman,” to be performed by Geoffrey Grier and Nicole Byrd-Harley of the San Francisco Recovery Theatre.
• Belva Davis, an Emmy-award winning journalist and the first black television journalist on the West Coast.
• Dr. Nathan Hare, the first person hired to coordinate a black studies program in the United States, regarded by many as the “father” of black studies.
Also scheduled to appear during the conference is California Poet Laureate Emeritus Al Young, poet Eugene Redmond, poet and playwright Avotcja, actor Adilah Barnes, novelist and playwright Cecil Brown, poet Kalamu Chache, Terry Collins, jazz trumpeter and visual artist Earle Davis, artist Emory Douglas, civil rights activist James Garrett, Billy X Jennings, novelist Judy Juanita, poet Genny Li, poet Lakiba Pittman and many others.
Ishmael Reed, who was Amiri Baraka’s friend and contemporary, said he’s looking forward to the discussions at the event. “As a matter of fact, the Black Arts idea spread across the country,” Reed said. “Even though I was a critic, and still am, of some of the phases of its theme, the Black Arts Movement got people to read and write. They presented theater to people who had never seen a show or play.”
Marvin X, who is scheduled to give Saturday’s keynote address, said while conferences such as the one at UC Merced are more common on the East Coast and the Bay Area, they don’t happen often in the Valley.
“Maybe this is something new, to bring consciousness to the Valley,” Marvin X said.
McMillion said the opening night reception at the Multicultural Arts Center will include an installation with photo projections of Baraka and other figures from the Black Arts Movement.
“(Amiri Baraka) was really about helping to uplift everyone. And not just black people,” McMillon said. “He was controversial. People say different things about him, but I think he loved art. And he wanted to see it expressed.”