In this guest post, past BFC/A Programming Assistant Saul Kutnicki reflects on (Re)Focus: Black America 2018, our exhibit, film and discussion program, which took place October 24, 2018 in the IU Libraries Screening Room. Funded by a grant from Indiana Humanities in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the event brought together IU Libraries Moving Image Archive, the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center Library, University Archives and the BFC/A.
How looking back helps us look forward…
(RE)FOCUS: Black America 2018 was no typical motion picture exhibition. The evening began with an open-door display of materials provided by University Archives and the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center Library. We called it “open-door” because visitors could come and go as they liked rather than sit for a formal lecture or walk on a predetermined path led by a docent. Librarians and archivists representing various IU collections were on hand to engage in conversation–with one another and with the visitors–about the materials. Each individual item showed a facet of the story of race and student life at IU in the late 1960s, but together they painted a fascinating picture of one program in particular: FOCUS: Black America.
Launched in 1968, FOCUS was a screening and lecture series that sought to educate the campus on African-American history and culture, perhaps helping to lay some of the groundwork for the Neal-Marshall’s founding as well as establishing what is now the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. “(RE)” in the 2018 event title points to our return to and reflection on this history, its significance to Indiana University and the Bloomington community at large.
Items on display included posters, letters, pamphlets, photographs, and newspaper clippings that open a window to Black student life on campus during that pivotal FOCUS era. The richness of this historical record certainly drew attention to Black students’ lived experiences, achievements, and participation in a variety of activities at IU. A glimpse into this past raises questions about the extent to which college campuses or other public institutions have addressed the systemic white supremacy evidenced in many of the materials on display.
How looking forward is linked to the discourse of back then…
After visitors had a chance to view the paper materials, everyone was seated for a screening of a recently digitized 16mm print of Heritage of the Negro (1965) (requires IU login). This film was one of the earliest screenings that took place in the original 1968 FOCUS series. It opens with legendary Black actor, director, writer, and activist Ossie Davis discussing the often complex nature of African-American identity, particularly in the midst of predominantly white cultural institutions, whether schools or the entertainment industry. The term “Negro” itself is placed under scrutiny as part of his examination. In the film, pioneering historian and professor John Henrik Clarke addresses the importance of learning about the deeply interconnected histories and cultures of western Africa and those of Black Americans in the United States. Meanwhile, a range of participants reflect upon the educational experiences they received in the 1950s and 1960s. Heritage is an educational film about education from the perspective of African Americans. It is made available anew thanks to the efforts of IULMIA and IU’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative. There’s even more digitized Indiana-specific material on Black culture to explore. Check out the 1970s radio series The Afro-American in Indiana from the collection of the Archives of African American Music and Culture here (may require IU Login.)
As we digitize and revive past works, bringing them into our current moment, in what ways does that material speak, or not speak, to us? How do we avoid uncritically repeating the problems of the past? African history is surveyed in Heritage in order to foster pride in Africa and weaken white supremacist thinking that has been taught and repeated in European and American educational systems. As a nontheatrical educational film, Heritage generates ideas about educational strategies to confront white supremacy. It raises questions about when and where to start this process. Alternatively, the film’s datedness can be striking, particularly in the way the repeated term “Negro” is imposed upon its efforts to reclaim an African heritage. But the film’s struggle to imagine a liberated black consciousness is dedicated and hopeful.
How looking to the recent past reveals how much work there is to be done…
Immediately following the Heritage screening, the program fast-forwarded to 1994 with IU alum Jerald Harkness’ documentary, Facing the Façade. Mr. Harkness shot the film at IU, during the heyday of Black independent ’90s film (think Leslie Harris, John Singleton, Matty Rich, Julie Dash), and it consists of frank and diverse testimonies from Black IU students about their experiences at the university and in the town of Bloomington. Facing the Façade was Mr. Harkness’ second documentary after Steppin (1992), which historically contextualizes the step show, a dance style popular among black fraternities and sororities, which Spike Lee had showcased in School Daze (1988). Videocassettes of both Harkness films are included in our Mary Perry Smith Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Archives Collection because the filmmaker submitted them to the organization’s annual Black Filmworks and Independent Film, Video & Screenplay Competition. Mr. Harkness was present at the event by special invitation from the Black Film Center/Archive, thanks to funding from the Indiana Humanities in partnership with the National Endowment of the Humanities.
Busy running his own film company in Indianapolis, Mr. Harkness hadn’t actually seen Facing the Façade for almost 22 years. Many audience members commented on how important Facing the Façade remains today, both as a document of Black student life at IU in the past and as a forum for further dialogue on the efforts IU has made with regard to the alienation and ambivalence that the students in the film express having felt as part of their college experience due to racism on campus. Click here to learn about Mr. Harkness’ recent project True First Series, which explores the contributions African Americans have made to the nation as a whole.
After the screening, audience members asked Mr. Harkness about his process, how he approached the interviews, and how he selected the segments of these interviews that he felt would represent a range of Black students at IU. Mr. Harkness clearly wanted people to see diversity within that experience, while also exposing the weaknesses of a university culture that still served a predominantly white student population. That sentiment was an important takeaway for all in attendance to (RE)FOCUS: Black America, 2018, since it added even more relevance to the arc of history that event was putting on display and emboldened attitudes about how the University may still need to change.