What was FOCUS: Black America, 1968?

This Wednesday October 24 at 6PM in the IULMIA Screening Room (Wells 048): the Black Film Center/Archive, the University Archives, the Neal-Marshall Black Cultural Center Library and IU Libraries Moving Image Archive will stage (RE)FOCUS: Black America 1968/2018.

This interactive experience includes a screening of HERITAGE OF THE NEGRO 30 min. (1965), narrated by Ossie Davis and FACING THE FAÇADE 55 min. (1994), directed by IU Alumnus Jerald Harkness. Mr. Harkness and Tim Mayer, the designer of many of the  FOCUS program posters will be present for discussion. This project is supported by Indiana Humanities. For more information about these specific films or questions about accessing them please contact the Indiana University Libraries’ Moving Image Archive.


SCREEN

Focus: Black America film series poster designed by Tim Mayer for the 1968 endeavor.

This striking poster for a film series in IU’s Fine Arts Auditorium stood out among materials on display for the “Voices of 68’” exhibit at University Archives in the spring 2018 semester. Many important questions surround this poster: Who designed it? Why do the titles of these films seem familiar? Whose face is this?  What was Focus: Black America?

 

The film series advertised on the poster turned out to be part of a yearlong event held on Indiana University’s campus throughout 1968. Many of these films are titles held by the Moving Image Archive. The poster was designed by Tim Mayer, then a design student at IUB and today a retired member of the Bloomington City Council.

 

FOCUS: Black America originally took place in 1968 and organizers brought entertainers, academics, artists, politicians, and activists to Indiana University to lecture, participate in panels, showcase artworks, and give performances. Professor Gus Liebenow, founding chair of the African Studies Program, initiated the program with the help of faculty and students in African Studies and across the Indiana University campus. An entire box of Dr. Liebenow’s papers, held in the Indiana University Archives, is specifically dedicated to the yearlong event’s formation. The documents supply evidence of an attempt on IU’s campus to broadcast the history and experiences of Africans and African Americans to the campus.

 

1968 was a transformative year in the United States, particularly on college campuses.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that April, just as IU students were finishing the 67’-68’ semester. At San Francisco State in the fall of 1968, the Black Student Union and a coalition of student groups known as the Third World Liberation Front led a five month strike demanding equal access to public education, more senior faculty of color, and a curriculum the embraced the histories of  all Americans. Among the gains was the establishment of the SFS’s College of Ethnic Studies which served as a model for universities across the the country. Students and other activists were protesting the war in Vietnam. Students on IU’s campus held a sit-in at the Little 500 that year to protest a lack of black representation on campus and address discriminatory clauses in Greek organization charters. The Black Market on Kirkwood Avenue would be firebombed by Klan members later that December and just down the road from Bloomington, Carol Jenkins, a young black woman from Rushville, Indiana, was brutally murdered by two white men in Martinsville. By the early 1970s, the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center and the academic department that would becomes the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies were founded in the wake of student activism.

 

Where would FOCUS turn its focus?

 

Liebenow, his colleagues, and students across campus, sought resources at IU to respond to racial injustice and both overt and institutionalized white supremacy in Indiana with lectures, seminars, musical and theater performances, and a variety of motion picture screenings. Some of the films, which were presented at events on campus, were specifically educational and responsive to social problems related to prejudice and discrimination, while other screenings featured Hollywood narratives that dealt thematically with race and racial identity. Some of the educational and documentary programs were produced and broadcast by CBS and WNET television networks and became part of Indiana University’s Audio/Visual catalogue. The Moving Image Archive has recently digitized educational and documentary films that were, according to information available in Liebenow’s papers, screened at these various FOCUS events.

 

One question about these films and others shown at various FOCUS events is whether they were truly responsive to the campus climate and the needs of black students on IU’s campus. Included in Liebenow’s papers is an editorial written in the Indiana Daily Student, titled “Focus Picture is Out of Focus,” which casts doubt on the extent of this responsiveness. The writer argues that the program is out of touch with the “black racial situation in this country” and calls for more inclusion of black students, whose voices were not being heard in the development of the program.

Who was FOCUS ’68 for and does it have parallel audiences today? What does FOCUS ’68 mean today? Why this program and why now? What can we learn about the curatorial logic of 1968 through this exhibition? Have we made the right choices for (RE)Focus 2018? How might today’s student leaders respond to ’68 and what are their strategies for engaging politics, literature, art, scholarship, and music today in Black America, on campus?

 

 

 

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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