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Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 2-4)

By Published: December 19, 2004

In addition to the voluntary behavioral codes, new performance settings, and black audience orientation that the group adopted, BAG's incorporation and creative use of so- called traditional African influences was another manifestation of the period's social and political tenor. Jazz scholar Monson comments, "The whole point of embracing Africa is something most of these groups were really into-wanting to validate African roots, a lot of them experimenting with African instruments, especially percussion instruments, and entitling tunes with names suggestive of Africa." Certainly members of BAG exhibited signs of the emerging Afro-centric consciousness. Hemphill's record label, mentioned earlier, bore the African-inspired name Mbari, and his first album was called Dogon A.D. after an African ethnic group living along 125 miles of rocky escarpments to the southwest of the Niger River bend. BAG's dance instructor Georgia Collins (the first black dancer to appear with the New York City Ballet) featured much in the way of "authentically derived" African dance in BAG productions, remembers Elliott. Album covers and pictures of BAG musicians in Paris also show them dressed in African clothing and patterns. In 1979, Hemphill commented on the positive response his music usually received from black audiences: "Without being condescending, I'd say that black audiences are like home ground. Nowadays, with the advent of communications and what not, I think that white people have a more literary approach."

While grant money helped establish the important educational programs of the AIR-BAG team, the money and programming disappeared within several years. The tenor of the artists' work, and especially of the dramatic performances, made the funding agencies, the Danforth Foundation, in particular, reluctant to continue supporting the project. The Rockefeller Foundation's Norman Lloyd listed a number of concerns voiced as early as September 1969 by Danforth Foundation president Merrimon Cuninggim: "The program has tended to exacerbate white-black relations and increase rather than diminish tension ... [and t]here have been no effective working relationships set up between the Katherine Dunham group and the AIR-BAG group." Cuninggim characterized as "starry-eyed" the glowing BAG reports of Michael Newton, president of the Arts and Education Council, which administered the grant. The Danforth Foundation's consultant for the project, Gene Schwilk, reported to the Rockefeller Foundation his concern that artists were more interested in "social reform" than "art," citing involvement of the artists in housing strikes and demonstrations. Norman Lloyd told the Rockefeller Foundation, "[Schwilk] feels the contact between blacks and whites in the program has been very limited. The impact of the program has been mainly on black youth. Artists have been heavily involved in social reform efforts. ... [The program] is not particularly aimed at Danforth's definition of urban problems."

The charge that BAG exacerbated racial tensions, claims Elliott, never was expressed to the group's leadership, instead being voiced only in a series of private memos and telephone conversations between Danforth and Rockefeller personnel and their consultants. Elliott heatedly disputes the suggestion that BAG exacerbated racial tensions, arguing that "BAG performances at that time in St. Louis [were] the only place where you had blacks and whites communing together, enjoying each other, understanding where we each were coming from, and contributing to one another." Elliott also highlights the number of white youths who were taught in the BAG school. Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, most local and federal grant money had disappeared by the eve of the BAG musicians' move to Paris.

Continue to Part 3...

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