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Many jokes have been made about how social media algorithms have become attuned to our personal interests. My algorithm seems to have picked up on my habit of stopping to watch snippets of 50-year-old conversations between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin, or moments extracted from interviews with Angela Davis. Some of these revolutionaries have become ancestors, while many are still sharing their wisdom with us today on Zoom. Sometimes I’m prompted to pause my scrolling to rewatch a clip; even though I’ve seen it many times before, I always appreciate its wisdom. Other times I’m struck when a clip seems to be from a media appearance I haven’t seen before. Those are some of the videos I’m most grateful for.
I was recently scouring YouTube for specific soundbites of writers like Baldwin discussing their creative processes. While there was some available content, it was mostly limited, considering the impact these figures have had on our society. This is why I’m particularly interested in the work being done by the American Archive of Public Broadcasting in collaboration with the Library of Congress and GBH in Boston. Since 2013, the goal of the AAPB has been to preserve material on Black subjects from public radio and television programs, digitizing it and making it available online for free. I’ve sampled some of the more than 40,000 hours currently preserved by the AAPB, and what’s immediately clear is the wealth of Black authors, journalists, musicians, and politicians who were given a platform through public broadcasting. Here is just a small sample of what’s in this invaluable archive.
Black Journal was perhaps the most exciting revelation during my exploration of the AAPB. A publicly funded program, its hourlong segments featured Black journalists talking about issues in the Black community, as well as interviews like this. Filmed in 1972, Angela Davis discusses her recent acquittal, as well as her views on prison reform, racial equity, and economic inequity. The language we use today about social justice, such as defunding the police and prison abolition, is so clearly informed by the work of Davis and her contemporaries. And her words on the extricable link between race and economic exploitation are particularly prescient.
I couldn’t help but notice how many of the issues in this program from 1968 remain relevant. For instance, we’re told that “the current median income for negro college graduates is just under $6,000. The white graduate earns over nine.” What most excited me, however, was the focus on Black Americans living comfortably, going to social events, and giving interviews in immaculately decorated living rooms. One woman talks about an integrated social gathering and the conversations such events facilitated, the good they could do in humanizing Black families in the eyes of their fellow Americans. But it’s also simply enjoyable to see Black people living well, when so often we are only shown images related to their trauma during that decade.
This is some of the most important footage I’ve ever seen. These recordings were made for “The Murder of Emmett Till,” an episode of the docuseries American Experience. All the interviews are impactful, necessary viewing, but I would like to direct you specifically to the full, uncut footage of Mamie Till Mobley describing the indescribable horror visited upon her son, as well as the events that followed in 1955. I can’t tell you when I first became aware of Emmett Till; that knowledge feels like something I was raised with. To my knowledge, his story isn’t regularly taught in schools. It felt like ancient history, an issue that had been “fixed” so that my own Black childhood was now protected. If the recent high-profile white supremacist murders of Black children weren’t enough to dispel that conception, there’s the fact that these interviews were recorded in 2003, when I was 13. One part that struck me comes when Mobley is asked how she coped with the death of her son. She replies: “The Lord said, ‘I’ve taken one [child], but I will give you thousands.’”
Once I realized the scope of the AAPB was basically unlimited, I started searching for more personal topics, looking for things related to my hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. While I was unsurprised to find results related to Ernest Hemingway (another Oak Park native), I was surprised by a 2005 radio interview with James W. Loewen about his recent book on sundown towns. These were American localities operating under the threat of “When the sun goes down, we better not find you in town” against Black Americans. The concept of a sundown town wasn’t news to me, but I was stunned to learn that Oak Park — a lauded bastion for mixed-race families and racial harmony — was one until 1947, when a Black couple purchased a home there. That kind of historical context does a lot to help one understand contemporary issues with discriminatory policing, the treatment of Black and brown students in schools, hate crimes against Black-owned businesses, and moreover the personal experiences so many of us have had with our white neighbors, ranging from microaggressions to outright bigotry.
Every utopia is a social experiment, the artist suggests in this commission for the Performa performance art biennial, and we’re ultimately the guinea pigs.
“You can’t live in a house that’s built upon your back.” This is one of the more memorable phrases spoken by the scripted lovers of Tschabalala Self’s Sounding Board, what Performa describes in its promotional materials as an “experimental play.” That phrase, uttered by one romantic partner to the other, operates as guidance, warning, dictate,…
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