10 Questions with Dr. Tru Leverette, Associate Professor of English and Director of African American Studies at UNF
Dr. Tru Leverette is a shining example of what an educator can, and should, be. She is passionate about her role as an educator, and you realize this within a few moments of being in her presence. Access to knowledge transforms an individual, and Dr. Leverette believes that it is not her responsibility to tell her students what to think, but rather, it is her responsibility to equip them with the tools that will enable them to think for themselves.
Dr. Leverette is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of African-American/African Diaspora Studies at University of North Florida's (UNF) College of Arts and Sciences. She has authored a number of articles and essays, including "On Being Brown," which was published in "Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out." Dr. Leverette is currently working on an edited collection titled "Against the Grain: Iconoclasts of the Black Arts Movement", which is under review at the University of Georgia Press.
On Thursday, July 13, Dr. Leverette was part of a panel discussion hosted by the Museum of Science and History(MOSH) in connection with the Ritz Theatre and Museum. The event was in support of the traveling exhibit "Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of First," which is on display at the Ritz until Monday, July 31. In addition to Dr. Leverette, the panel, which was moderated by Shawana Brooks, included visual artist Roosevelt Watson III and visual artist/arts professional Hope McMath. The theme of the panel was art as a means of self expression and identity, with a focus on the particular impact art has had on African American communities and the civil rights discourse.
Since the 17th century, African-Americans in the United States have made vital contributions to the arts. Early forms of African American arts varied widely based on the geographic regions in which the artists themselves lived. Art, in the form of small drums, quilts, and ceramic vessels, from southern slave communities resembled the arts of West and Central Africa. Contrast the art of that region with works created by African Americans living in the northeast during that same time period and you will notice more of a European influence in their work.
It wasn't until after the Civil War that the art created by African Americans began being exhibited in museums. It was major cities in the north, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and New York, that first recognized African American artists and the artistic merits of their work. Even in these cities, which were progressive in nature, African Americans were still heavily subjected to discriminatory practices. During this same time period, however, European cities, especially Paris, France, showed an elevated level of appreciation for the artwork of African Americans. This prompted some African American artists to travel to Europe, where they had more freedom to express themselves artistically, experiment with materials, and access education related to artistic techniques.
Starting in the 1920s, the United States began experiencing an artistic movement amongst the African-American community. This movement was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Freedoms and ideas that were widespread in Europe finally spread throughout artistic communities in the United States. This influenced a new generation of African-American artists. James Weldon Johnson, John Rosamond Johnson, and Augusta Savage, all African Americans from Northeast Florida, played important roles during the Harlem Renaissance.
African American artists were still discriminated against, even after the momentum of the Harlem Renaissance. The majority of galleries and museums were not interested in exhibiting the artwork of African Americans. Rather than fight for representation, African American artists instead opted to sell directly to the public. Even in modern times, African American artists are still underrepresented in galleries and museums. The same can be said about documenting their substantial contributions in art history curriculums and textbooks.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the artwork of African Americans began exhibiting themes and ideals linked to the Civil Rights movement. Through their work, African American artists explored the socio-political landscape of the time. This gave birth to the Black Arts movement. The artists within the Black Arts movement sought to create politically engaged work that explored the African American cultural and historical experience and transformed the way African Americans were portrayed in the arts.
The Black Arts movement was heavily rooted in the literary arts, specifically poetry. The expansion of literary arts was also seen during the Harlem Renaissance. During these movements, literary artists crafted a black voice that drew on African American vernacular, songs, and sermons. What they crafted was free form and experimental, often incorporating jazz, the blues, and rhythmic techniques that were also associated with the Beat movement. The Black Arts movement motivated a new generation of literary, visual, and performance artists.
It can be said that we are experiencing a new movement within the arts as a result of the current global political landscape. In the United States alone, indigenous people, Latinos/as, the LGBTQIA community, and younger generations of African Americans are leveraging the arts to amplify their voices and express their concerns while simultaneously sharing with the general population their experiences as members of communities that are often marginalized. Culture always precedes policy and history has shown that the arts can be harnessed as an agent of change.
To every artist reading this, never forget, there is power in your pen, in your brush, in your body, or whatever tools you use to create.
10 Questions with Dr. Tru Leverette
Diversity and inclusion are topics receiving a lot of attention, and justly so. How do you see the arts serving as a platform to address these topics and encourage action?
Art has been a medium through which people can make sense of the world they know, and envision a world they dream of having. Art can be a blueprint for social change. In these times, when many of us are working to increase inclusion and respect for diversity, art can help us make impactful political statements and encourage others in social justice work.
When the term "black art" is used, is it being used to describe the creator, the content, the form/aesthetics, or all of the above?
That depends on who is using the term. Generally, though, I think the assumption is that “black art” is created by “black people,” but those categorizations can be sticky when we delve into issues of identity and unpack what black has meant in mainstream culture—a fairly narrow term—as well as what black really means—a broad category of very diverse peoples. Typically, there is also an assumption that black art is concerned with certain themes—most often identity, oppression, protest, and pride, to name a few.
As humans, we tend to have a need to categorize in order to understand. Do you feel there is danger in using terms such as "black art," opposed to simply identifying it as art without inserting a qualifying racial identifier, because it can unintentionally categorize the work of black artists as novel?
When black art is viewed through a thematic or biographical lens, this can certainly limit an audience’s perception of the work and could potentially limit the expression of the artist. To assume that black art is about black life and to assume that black life is solely about race and struggle is to severely curtail the lived experiences of black people. Those experiences encompass more than pain and protest; like every other human, black people experience a much fuller life than many mainstream stereotypes suggest. People live and love, grow and change, have mothers and fathers, and aspirations… We can’t let a racial categorization of art limit its potential to be about any and all of this.
In what ways do you think assumptions made about an artist's race can influence how an audience perceives their work?
When an audience presumes to know an artist based on racial stereotypes, then that audience’s expectations will be limited to their preconceived notions. This type of closed-mindedness will limit meaningful exchange among various groups, since the audience may not be willing to see an artist’s work at all, having already formed its expectations. If audiences can work to shed their expectations and approach each artist’s work on an individual basis, then surprising and productive interactions are more likely to occur.
There are often toxic misconceptions about social movements. There is a belief that to be pro-something you must be anti-something else. Do you feel that similar misconceptions surround black art, and if so, how can we as a society extinguish such myths?
That seems to be a problem inherent to dualistic thinking and often in social movements based in identity politics. When art speaks to social injustices, it necessarily has to call out oppression, and there does seem to be a misconception that speaking out against oppression is synonymous with reversing an “-ism.”
For some, the attitude is: If you speak out against white supremacy, then you must hate white people. But we know this isn’t often true. One of the best remedies for this problem would be to really focus on the oppression—the action that infringes on others’ rights to be—and to fight that, rather than to fight people. On the other side of the coin, many people need to step back and realize that they aren’t being personally attacked when others fight against oppression. I think I’m paraphrasing Alice Walker when I say, “We need to fight for causes, not for colors.”
There is a new wave of contemporary work influenced by racial injustices - work that focuses on pain and trauma inflicted upon black bodies. Do you feel that when galleries position such art for collectors it runs the risk of being marketed for consumption rather than a catalyst for social change, or even worse, voyeurism masquerading as empathy?
Many people seem to have become desensitized to others’ pain and suffering. Because of that, I’m unsure whether the art you discuss always has the impact its creators likely desire. I’m reminded of the spectacle of lynching and how this became a carnival for those who wanted to enjoy the sight of black people’s pain, physical mutilation, and death. I hope contemporary art that speaks to black trauma isn’t received in this way. That instead, it helps people realize the depth of others’ suffering and that it makes them feel outrage and inspired to fight for justice and compassion enough so that they are willing “to suffer with” (which, by the way, is the etymological root of “compassion”).
Neighborhoods that receive inadequate resources are often referred to by terms such as marginalized, underserved, or disadvantaged. Do you feel such terms could potentially have negative effects on a community's confidence or how they view their own potential?
Externally derived definitions for groups of people are often negative and can certainly have an impact on a group’s self-perception. This is why one of the first steps against oppression is the creation of one’s own definition, taking up the ability and right to define and name oneself. As Stokley Carmichael said during the Black Power Movement, “The first need of a free people is to define their own terms.” People have a right to define for themselves who they are.
W.E.B. Dubois described a notion of double-consciousness in the lives and minds of African-Americans - "One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings." This quote indicates that the African-American consciousness is split into factions. It represents having to reconcile one’s identity as seen within one’s own culture with how one is seen and critiqued by the mainstream culture. As a person of mixed-race, do you, or have you ever, felt a double-consciousness or a feeling of living between two worlds?
Dubois was speaking to black lives and national identity when he discussed double consciousness, but the idea has been applicable to numerous people who find themselves “in between” various groups. Most people with an identity outside that of the dominant group—women, racial minorities, LGBTQ individuals—can understand this experience.
Racial “mixture” is another status that recognizes such two-ness. Traditionally stereotyped as tragic, such so-called mixture has been increasingly celebrated since the late twentieth century. Personally speaking, I have had times when I reflect on my multiple identities and other times when I feel such multiplicity denied by others who see me. But I think that’s the case with most folks: on a daily basis, we all interact with people who don’t fully know us. And that’s okay, as long as those others aren’t interfering with our ability to live our own lives. I’m less concerned with having strangers “know” my identity than I am with creating a world in which people won’t oppress others because of any identity.
What are some specific actions you feel can be taken here in Jacksonville to make the arts community more welcoming and inclusive to a diverse audience?
To answer this question, I’d first suggest cultivating an appreciation for the arts, which ideally should begin when people are young. For that reason, I think art programs need to be kept in all schools, and training in the arts should be accessible to every child with the inclination. We also need to encourage a widespread awareness that art takes multiple forms—from what has been called “high art” (ballet, classical music, etc.) to the myriad folk arts (quilting, cooking, other crafts, etc.). It’s also crucial to recognize that art has been created by all cultures throughout time, even non-mainstream cultures, so the arts are not solely the purview of the privileged.
What are some transformational initiatives that you'd like to see implemented in Jacksonville to ensure that as a city we develop together, leaving no community behind?
Initiatives that focus on diversity and inclusion can help in this regard, and the arts community is already highly involved in this work. Events like the recent MOSH/Ritz panel discussion on black art are helpful, as are diverse exhibits in area museums and galleries, such as those at the Jax Makerspace in the downtown library, and community outreach initiatives of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.
My UNF colleague, Dr. Chris Janson, is working on a mural project with ArtRepublic that involves local students. It will commemorate the 1960s sit-ins that precipitated Ax Handle Saturday, which I think will be a valuable way to bring more awareness to Jacksonville’s rich civil rights history.
A “Jacksonville Arts Collective” might be another way to bring diverse artists together for collaboration, social activism, and education. Some of its artists might even be able to volunteer in schools and local communities, similar to work scheduled to be done through the Cultural Council and Any Given Child Jacksonville's “Lift Every Student” program, to teach art classes and foster upcoming generations of artists and activists.
Overall, I think it’s imperative that the arts and humanities be supported and sponsored. As Georgia O’Keeffe said, “To create one’s own world takes courage.” The arts inspire such courage as well as such social change.