A Black History Month Reflection

Thursday, Feb 22, 2018
Alysia Johnson
Juilliard Journal
Alysia Johnson

Points of View 

Black artists have frequently borne responsibility for carrying their culture, because if left to others, the black experience expressed through art has the potential to be misrepresented and under celebrated. I want to be clear that by “carrying,” I mean using an artistic medium to pass down, preserve, and educate their audience about their personal experience on the spectrum of the African American one. This will shed light on black artists who choose to create equitable and culturally responsible work, to reflect the dynamic of their culture, whether through curriculum design, production, or community engagement. As a young, black artist of the 21st century, my responsibilities to engage and educate my audience have followed the paths of such courageous members of the black community as Debbie Allen, Aesha Ash, and Arthur Mitchell.

There is a lineage of black art and artists who’ve depicted the black experience. Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, James Baldwin, Camille A. Brown, Miles Davis (’45, trumpet), and Lauryn Hill are just a few examples of what those responsibilities can look like. There are a number of black Juilliard alumni shaping the field to be more responsible and inclusive for their communities. Nigel Campbell and Chanel DaSilva (both BFA ’08, dance) have carried their vision to cultivate greater diversity and equity within the dance profession by creating a tuition-free dance program for the next generation. Their commitment to empower young students to embrace their cultural background will continue to affect the future of dance. Jon Batiste (BM ’08, MM ’11, jazz studies) has created music that reflects the grief and successes of black America, and he has been an ambassador for the performing arts across many communities. Drama faculty member Stephen McKinley Henderson (Group 1) has been performing plays, particularly those by August Wilson, that have substance and illustrate the reality of what it means to be black in America.

Black artists do not only create work for black audiences. Artists are historians and seers, time capsules and truth tellers. Black History Month is a time to reflect on people who have tackled the responsibility of preserving and shaping our culture in a country that has tried to systematically eradicate it. It’s important at an institution like Juilliard, which focuses heavily on the Western and European contributions to the arts, to reflect on the reality of African Americans and their contribution to the arts.

Fourth-year dancer Alysia Johnson holds William Randolph Hearst and Juilliard scholarships

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