Black Lives Matter. Three simple words that make a poignant statement. A statement that is true and supported in the College of Creative Arts. Three words forming a phrase that reflects the last eight years of our nation’s complex struggle with racism in America. A phrase that starts with the killing of Trayvon Martin, continuing through the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. A phrase that has now reached a new crescendo with the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Black Lives Matter.
The arts fill many roles in society. For many the roles that come to mind are to reflect beauty and to provide escape. However, one of the most important roles of the arts is to reflect society and to challenge us to engage in difficult conversations. Throughout history, artists such as Paul Robeson, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Jacob Lawrence, TJ Anderson and August Wilson have illuminated the conflicts in our society. Their work effectively memorializes the challenges of their times and inspires the difficult conversations that we must engage in as a society. It is because the arts can lead us to engage in these difficult conversations that I believe it important that I add my voice as the Dean of the College of Creative Arts to the voices of President Gee, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Meshea Poore, chief of University Police W.P. Chedester and Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association.
Some of the inner struggles we currently face are ”will my voice matter” and “others say it better.” As a leader, I understand this struggle. To deal with that struggle we must realize that silence has power. In the arts, silence is a powerful tool. Silence can be used to create tension, or repose. Silence can indicate uncertainty, or quiet resolve. Silence can also be interpreted as acceptance.
So how are those who have committed their lives to the study of the arts able to make a unique contribution? I believe that there are at least two unique ways that we can help.
The first thing we can do is inform and introduce. Who are those artists that have given us contributions that can start these difficult conversations about race? If you are a part of our community and you can’t think of any, that is ok. As long as you accept that is a problem in need of remedy.
After you think of those artists, go ahead and start conversations. Have a conversation about Duke Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” and why certain catchy tunes were cut two weeks into the musical’s run. Introduce someone to the photography of Teenie Harris and have a conversation about what happened to those areas of Pittsburgh shown through his lens.
Another unique way we can help is to create. Apply your voice, your humanity, to this moment in time. Some of the greatest contributions by artists, such as Nikki Giovanni and John Coltrane, are those that reflect very specific moments of cultural change.
There is one more role that artists can fill; we can be healers. Since his passing, the music of our own Bill Withers has been used to help us during the challenges of COVID 19 and as we struggle with more senseless killings. How better to move from sorrow and confusion to understanding than through the power of song. We can be a successful part of this moment. A moment when the phrase Black Lives Matter reflects the change in our American experiment, that moment when the healing finally began.
H. Keith Jackson, DMA
Philip J. Faini/Falbo Family Dean
College of Creative Arts
West Virginia University