Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Just how important is art when celebrating Black history and upholding social justice?

Poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington: Art like poetry can be a means for social commentary, to be clebrated during Black History Month.

Art like poetry can be a means for social commentary, to be clebrated during Black History Month. Image: REUTERS/Patrick Semansky

Samantha Akwei
Alumni, Global Shapers Community
Ginelle Greene-Dewasmes
Community Specialist, Global Shapers Community, World Economic Forum
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  • The role of art, particularly in African heritage, can act as a dynamic means of preserving history and cultural identity and serve as a living archive connecting individuals to their roots.
  • Art, especially poetry and music, has acted as a powerful tool employed by artists for social commentary, inspiring change and calling for unity.
  • The intersection of art and activism has been and continues to be a critical catalyst for societal transformation, with a call to empower broader society and those disproportionately oppressed.

This week marks the start of Black History Month in the United States. The annual observance is also officially recognized in many countries, including Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Panama, Costa Rica, Ireland and the United Kingdom, in celebration of persons of African descent as a means of cultural inclusion and recognition of their achievements. Part of the celebrations includes the appreciation and honouring of African heritage, art, culture and its role as a platform for social justice.

For centuries, art has always been a unifying force that has brought people from all walks of life together but particularly for people of the African Diaspora, it has been used to preserve collective history, transcend the boundaries of society and enable access to places and spaces that otherwise would have been inaccessible.

From my own experience, history was instilled in me through art. As a first-generation Ghanaian American, I saw African art in my home growing up. It taught me that much of African art was never for the artist’s sake but to manifest our beliefs while archiving history.

There were displays of Ghanaian tribal adinkra symbols resembling plants and creatures holding positive proverbial meanings alongside masks embodying symbols of power and protection. It was as if my parents carefully curated these collections to remind me who I was and where I came from. I learned that while we sought to live our culture, we were also to acknowledge the spiritual forces within nature that contribute to our livelihood.

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Art brings people together

Attending an artistic public school that allowed me to explore the art of poetry gave me insight into how the power of words can bring people together. I admired women like Maya Angelou, the first African American and woman to speak at a presidential inauguration. Her poem created a metaphor using the symbols of rock, river and tree to convey renewed hope for the American people. Entitled, On the Pulse of Morning, it called for America to reinvent itself before it became extinct. She paved the way for women like Amanda Gorman’s poem, The Hill We Climb at the United States 46th presidential inauguration, which called for unity and togetherness after the world was recovering from several bouts of social, economic and political unrest such as the death of George Floyd, the storming of the nation’s capital and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But I imagine these women were merely following singers like Billie Holiday, who penned songs like Strange Fruit in 1939. This song metaphorically described Black bodies that were being lynched to strange fruit on a tree and it became the anthem of the anti-lynching movement, which caused Americans of all races to awaken to the daunting injustices of that system. Fast-forward 32 years later, in 1971, songs like What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye highlighted the convergence of the many social ills happening, from police brutality to the war on Vietnam and hippie ideals, causing persons from all around the world to pause and collectively ask the simple question and yet so complicated question of “What’s going on?”

In some sense, it can be said that these artists were the unofficial ambassadors of their time, choosing to say things that would have gotten a person of their lineage punished. Armstrong begged to differ and responded aptly to this after he recorded a jazz musical entitled, The Real Ambassadors, which addressed topics such as the civil rights movement and the Cold War:

“Jazz is the ambassador… I might be the courier that takes the message over there but it’s Jazz that does the talking. My horn and me have travelled from Sweden to Spain and when I played in Berlin, a lot of cats jumped the iron fence to hear old Satchmo. Which proves that music is stronger than nations. I don’t know much about politics but I know these people in foreign countries hear all kinds of things about America, some good, some bad. I’m pretty sure what comes out of this horn makes them feel better about us.”

Given the current polarization of our world, we need not just to reimagine but also work to recreate a new world that is unified.

Samantha Akwei, Alumni, Global Shapers Community, World Economic Forum

Art creates access

Although words have the power to inspire, poems and songs are meaningless unless they have teeth, as stated by Black Arts Movement poet Amiri Baraka. Or rather, words must be lived out as many of the greatest African American writers, actors and musicians used their art to integrate into spaces they were not allowed into due to societal laws of the time. For instance, artists like Sidney Poitier and Louis Armstrong were often called Uncle Toms for their ability to be accepted by white audiences but few people are aware that due to segregation laws, Armstrong often could not stay at some of the venues he played at nor was Poitier fairly compensated for the film Lilies of the Field, which made him the first Black actor to win an Oscar.

However, Armstrong’s experiences with discrimination led him to include in his contracts that he would no longer play at venues he could not stay at, forcing them to change their racist practices. Thus, it was not enough for these men to be great artists; they needed to sacrifice and stand up for their beliefs to pave the way for others.

Overall, the subjective nature of art lets people reimagine their reality but given the current polarization of our world, we need not just to reimagine but also work to recreate a new world that is unified. Specifically, the rise and continued harmful effects of white supremacy that led to European colonialism, the Scramble for Africa and subsequent stolen art and artefacts from Africa only keep people of the African Diaspora disenfranchised mentally, physically and spiritually.

Art has always played a role in the formation of society, especially at times that required a great awakening. However, the true measure of art will lie in its ability to empower society and those disproportionately oppressed by it.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionArts and Culture
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