The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Signature Black Heritage Month Event Connects Racial Justice with Multi-Arts

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On February 15, 2021, Commonwealth Honors College hosted, via Zoom, its annual Black Heritage Month event. This year’s event, entitled “The Arts as a Praxis of Liberation: Embodying Change and Transformation in a Time of Racial Justice,” invited Professor Jamila Lyiscott of social justice education and Professor Juana Valdés of printmaking as panelists, and was moderated by Professor Judyie Al-Bilali of the Department of Theater. The event drew a crowd of over 60 students, faculty, and community members.

Commonwealth Honors Dean Mari Castañeda kicked off the event by welcoming the trio of guests before granting Al-Bilali the floor. Al-Bilali used her opening remarks to express her gratitude that the event was able to introduce her to Lyiscott and Valdés’s work and allowed them to collaborate across the educational spectrum. She then allowed Professor Lyiscott to introduce herself.

Lyiscott, a spoken-word poet, invoked power and strength in her opening statement, drawing on the title of her dissertation, “How Broken English Made Me Whole,” as a framework for her work. She then shared a clip from one of her TED Talks, entitled “2053,” which she wrote to commemorate the 2016 Presidential Inauguration. Stylistically, the spoken word poem acts as a conversation between Lyiscott and her grandchildren in the year 2053.

“In the year 2017, when the putrid stench of polarized politics tried to render us broken, tried to block our seat at the table until we broke in, tried to asphyxiate our choices, tried to Ursula our voices, we the people believing in the possibility of a more perfect union, stood at the precipice of pandemonium and fought from a palpable piece, we stitched together a quilt of hope out of every fiber of our being,” orated Lyiscott.

The entirety of the poem embodies Lyiscott’s journey to use spoken-word as an avenue for evoking the histories, legacies, culture, and ethos of her people in a way that is meant to disrupt systemic racism. The various language practices of African American, English, and Caribbean-Creolized English serve to shape the intellectual properties of who Lyiscott is in a world that defines her through the lens of white supremacy and anti-blackness.

“The policing and manipulation of language has always been tied to the policing and manipulation of our bodies,” said Lyiscott.

Once Lyiscott concluded her opening remarks, Valdés took the floor. Drawing from her heritage and history as a person of Afro-Caribbean heritage, Valdés uses multimedia art to explore issues of race, transnationalism, gender, labor, and class. Her work serves as an archive and explores migration as a complex process, exploring issues of personal identity and multiple collectives.

In her artwork, Valdés seldom uses the human body; rather, she focuses on using everyday objects as a substitute. The absence of the body, she says, symbolizes the experiences of the disadvantaged peoples she explores in her work. The first art piece she displayed, entitled “colored china rags,” intends to question the mythology of whiteness, creating visual analogs between rags of cleaning women, the supplements of a woman's body, and a range of skin tones.

Valdés explored other artworks of hers, including a timeline of her heritage supplemented by collected objects from across the world.

“Working with languigists, anthropologists, and archaeologists, I demonstrated how the legacy of colonization has been entrenched in institutions which are structured and, most importantly, in objects,” Valdés said. “The timeline that goes around the structure of the installation has my mother’s ancestry...rooting my family heritage at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, revealing how the ancestry of Black and Brown history is strictly linked to trade and globalization.”

Her most recent work is a multichannel video exploring how mass media has portrayed and documented the migration and refugee crises.

“By having these works and these institutions that look at the past and question the struggles these communities have had within contemporary museum and art spaces, the work holds space but functions more as a witness of the inequalities that have taken place and continue to take place.”

The panelists then entered a Q&A discussion headed by Al-Bilali, answering questions submitted from the audience. One question asked: As both an artist and an activist, do you believe your art is inherently disruptive as you create from your heart, or are you consistently making the conscious effort to say something specific in the spaces that your art occupies?

“As a woman and an artist, making the kind of work that I do, it isn’t confined to commercial aesthetics,” Valdés said. “That act in itself is kind of radical, just being who I am and making the kind of work that I am, the work that is for a very specific community to find themselves within, which is really significant for me.”

“It’s almost like planting a seed that germinates in view over time to bring consciousness and awareness,” added Valdés. “To wake up people, and it happens slowly and consciously and hopefully without drama.”

Lyiscott and Al-Bilali honed in on this idea of their art becoming intertwined with their life wherever they go. Al-Bilali particularly added that the deepest, most meaningful artwork needs time to digest before she can verbalize her thoughts about it.

"That intersection of art and activism, that calling to speak truth to power and do it in a way that is poetic; I am a poetic being.” Lyiscott said. “It really doesn’t matter what I am doing, that intersection pervades it. I just bring it with me wherever I go. It’s not like a specific intention, it’s who I am. Even if I never wrote another poem again, my life would be poetry because that's how I show up to everything."

Al-Bilali concluded the event by thanking both panelists, Dean Castañeda, and the audience for coming. After the discussion, both speakers and moderator Al-Bilali expressed their excitement at continuing conversations like these between themselves and at UMass as a whole.

“I can’t wait to sit in person [with Professor Lyiscott and Professor Valdés] and have unmediated conversations, live and embodied,” Al-Bilali said. “I want to thank CHC for the excitement and timeliness of this conversation, because we are having a profound effect on the academy and the future of education."

The Black Heritage Month Celebration at Commonwealth Honors College was originally launched by professor and former associate dean, Alexandrina Deschamps, in 2015 to focus on the College’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The entirety of the event will be uploaded to our YouTube page in the coming days.