Historically, the African American community could turn to black artists and entertainer for authentic social direction. Authentic in a genuine sense. Not filth, thuggery, and outright buffoonery rationalized as a cultural reflections of conditions “in the hood”. But works and involvements steep in the traditions of a social pact that sustained African American through difficult periods.
One might argue that stage, recording booth, canvas, film, and the poetic word were the prophetic pulpits that transcended Christian sanctuaries and Muslim Mosques.
Four months after a bullet struck down Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Brown gave us, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, at a time when police dogs were routinely sicced on women. Bullyclubs smashed against the heads of men and youth, whose only crime was to demand that America make good, the promises embellished by the Statue of Liberty. And in the epicenter of a season that defined some of the deepest pain African Americans had known since slavery.
The conscience movement, personified by iconic figures like Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Cicely Tyson, Harry Belefonte, Jim Brown, Diane Carroll, and Ray Charles melded their gifts to the struggles and aspirations of millions of blacks from the ghettos and to college campuses around our nation. Even athletes would not be outdone by them. Images of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, holding up black covered fists at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968. And Muhammad Ali reminding Americans that the Viet Cong had not called him “nigger”.
Even the riots of 1935 that many cite as a pivotal event in the decline of the Harlem Renaissance could not erase the role artists play in reflecting the sentiments of and mobilizing African Americans.
Recently, Wendell Pierce captures the imagination of giving back to community as a byproduct of compassion.