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Back to Class

There'll be film, art, gospel, and more at the African American Arts Festival.



Memphians in search of intellectual stimulation should head over to the University of Memphis campus next week, where professors of the African and African American Studies Program are hosting an African American Arts Festival.

"The event is actually part of our ongoing lecture series," explains Beverly Bond, who, as director of the program, put together the festival. "We're trying to bring in some major speakers to motivate our students -- and draw in people from the community."

Few Memphians, it seems, are aware of the African American Studies Program. "You can't blame people for that," says Earnestine Jenkins, an assistant professor of art history at the U of M. "There just haven't been scholars here trained in this field. It's not fair to say that [Memphians] don't appreciate African and African-American culture, when -- other than music -- they haven't been exposed to it."

"I use films, pop culture, and images in class to generate interest in my students," Jenkins says. "It's a building process. I think the interest is there. It just hasn't been cultivated."

Jenkins, a native Memphian, returned south in 1998 after getting her doctorate at Michigan State University and completing fieldwork in Ethiopia. "The culture itself is one of the main reasons why I wanted to come back," she says. "Memphis is changing. There's a lot of growth, particularly in the sizable African and Caribbean populations. But there's a lack of global knowledge here. People still tend to look at race in terms of black and white. We could use more exposure to diverse cultures and peoples."

While the majority of Jenkins' classes examine the African diaspora, Verner D. Mitchell, an assistant professor of English at the U of M, encourages his students to focus on their own surroundings for inspiration.

"Artists who grew up in this area draw on their personal experiences," he says, citing William Faulkner, Ernest Gaines, and Randall Keenan as examples. "Environment, community, and history provide vital details, but they're all things that Memphians might take for granted. Those Southern writers tap into something we're familiar with and make it seem special and unique. My students enjoy reading regional writers."

The African American Arts Festival kicks off Tuesday, April 13th, at 4 p.m. in Mitchell Auditorium with a lecture from Portia K. Maultsby on "The Commodification of Gospel Music and Its Transformation Into Popular Song." Maultsby is a professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University. She's also director of the Archives of African American Music and Culture at the university. PBS watchers might recognize her name from documentaries such as Eyes on the Prize II and That Rhythm Those Blues. Then, at 7:30 p.m., the University of Memphis Gospel Choir will give a concert in Rose Theatre.

On Wednesday, April 14th, Mitchell will moderate "Memphis on the Mississippi: Artists and Writers Interpret the African American Experience in the Mississippi Delta." Memphis author Arthur R. Flowers, LeMoyne-Owen College professor/artist Philip Dotson, and Arkansas-based illustrator Higgins Bond are scheduled to participate in the panel discussion, which will take place in Mitchell Auditorium at 4 p.m.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Babatunde Lawal, professor of African, African American, and Diaspora Art at Virginia Commonwealth University will speak on "African Carryovers, Biblical Reinterpretation and Double Meaning in African American Self-Taught Art." Lawal's address is the inaugural lecture for "Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South," an exhibition at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, which will open in June.

On Thursday, April 15th, at 7 p.m. in the Rose Theatre, Jessie Rhines, an African-American/African Studies professor at Rutgers University, will discuss his book, Black Film, White Money. In it, Rhines traces the roles African Americans have played in the film industry, from 1915's The Birth of a Nation to 1991's Boyz N the Hood. Rhine's lecture will conclude the festival's "24 Hour African and African American Film Marathon," which will begin at 1 p.m. on Friday, April 16th, in the University Center Ballroom.

Jenkins will introduce the films, which include such local favorites as Wattstax and Shaft; music documentaries like Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Say Amen, Somebody; overlooked dramas such as Nothing but a Man and Bright Road; classics Imitation of Life (the 1934 version with Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington) and Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree; comedies Claudine and Richard Pryor Here and Now; cult faves Ganja and Hess and Black Orpheus; and Sankofa, a 1993 effort from Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima.

Jenkins has also included George Romero's 1968 drive-in flick Night of the Living Dead in the lineup. "This film originated the theme of a heroic black male figure in horror and science-fiction genres," Jenkins says, pointing out that Duane Jones' portrayal of Ben provided African-American audiences with a relatable character. "Night of the Living Dead was made in the era of the civil rights movement," she says. "[Romero] was influenced by photographs and TV images of blacks confronting police in the South. And, of course, it's a pop horror classic."

All events are free and open to the public. For more information on the African American Arts Festival, go to or call 678-3550.

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