In a memory quilt by Hystercine Rankin at the Mississippi Museum of Art, National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson found a touchstone for a phrase that echoed throughout her recent Jackson visit: “the opportunity to live an artful life.”
“It’s always available to us,” Jackson said, and not limited to designated places but alive in opportunities to make, teach and learn, and even in traditions handed down in families. “That quilting tradition, and how it shows up — from a living culture to something that is hung with so much pride on the walls of an esteemed cultural institution — there’s something in that, that demonstrates the breadth of what can encompass an artful life.
“If we have artful lives, and we’re able to see each other’s humanity, it’s such a pre-condition for all of the other things we say we want to do as a nation of opportunity and justice,” Jackson said.
National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Shelly Lowe, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, found a welcome grounding at the Choctaw Chahta Immi Cultural Center in Philadelphia, the first site in her first visit to Mississippi. Conversations about the Choctaw dictionary project, and the importance of maintaining their language and cultural teachings, resonated. As did the commitment of smaller organizations she visited, such as the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, to confront and share histories that can sometimes be hard to face.
“This is what the humanities does,” Lowe said. “It helps us take this information, take difficult histories, and it allows us to pause and really think about those histories. To process that. The humanities, and I would argue the arts, give us the strength to move forward.”
Their recent visit, in company with leaders of other national and regional arts and culture groups, offered a firsthand look at work in Jackson and central Mississippi that fosters creative pursuits, cultural celebration, connection, conversations and community cohesion.
The 50th anniversary reconvening of the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, Nov. 1-4, was the core attraction, with its roster of illustrious Black women writers, including Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez, who were also part of the original conference Margaret Walker organized at Jackson State University in 1973.
The 2023 conference at JSU and the Jackson Convention Complex pulled in the next generation of prominent Black women writers, with Jesmyn Ward and Angie Thomas among a host of keynote participants. With intergenerational conversations a big draw, the festival tapped elder wisdom and contemporary voices and vigor, to inspire and energize listeners in the continued uplift of Black excellence, and as a force to reckon with injustice and trauma both past and now.
The convening amplified arts’ and humanities’ central role in daily life in Jackson and far beyond, said Phoebe Stein, president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. “Not a luxury, but central to how we understand ourselves, and how we relate and live in community with others.”
Difficult histories — unpacked, discussed and shared to unite and strengthen — were as much a thread as celebration and support during leaders’ jam-packed itinerary. Both endowment chairs were part of the poetry festival’s closing panel, a tribute to Margaret Walker, and their twin presence in Jackson offered a prime chance for show-and-tell by Mississippi’s cultural leaders.
Mississippi Arts Commission’s David Lewis and Mississippi Humanities Council’s Stuart Rockoff built out “Chair-a-paloosa,” as they informally dubbed the gathering, with a robust schedule highlighting grantees in action.
In addition to the poetry festival, tours and stops took in Sipp Culture in Utica, the Utica Institute Museum, the Choctaw Chahta Immi Cultural Center in Philadelphia, and in Jackson, JSU, the Two Mississippi Museums, Smith Robertson Museum, Mississippi Museum of Art, Tougaloo College, the Asylum Hill Research Project and more. At Tougaloo’s historic Woodworth Chapel, they saw a preview of New Stage Theatre’s “Anne & Emmett’ Arts in Education production, a “meeting in memory” between Anne Frank and Emmett Till.
It’s rare to get that many national arts and humanities figures together, and rarer still to host them in such a small-town setting, noted Carlton Tucker, co-director of Sipp Culture, which harnesses food and story to reimagine their community and outfit it for the future. “For them to take an interest in a small, rural community and the work that we’re doing there, is remarkable, but it’s also remarkable for the state of Mississippi, because it just shows that there are a lot of things happening here that don’t necessarily show by the way that people think about the state from a national perspective.”
South Arts President and CEO Susie Surkamer praised the “incredible amount of really substantial work going on, and in all types of settings” in Mississippi, “and such high quality.” In much of it, the importance of involving the community also stood out. “That doesn’t always happen with every institution or organization, so that is wonderful to see.”
For the cadre of arts and humanities leaders, it was a chance to connect outside of a Zoom room or formal meetings, have cultural and historical experiences together “and really sit with the arc of American history and Mississippi’s place in that, and really consider the implications on our own work today,” said David Holland, co-chair of the Creative States Coalition and deputy director of WESTAF (Western States Arts Federation). “It really puts it into context … the significance of arts and culture to people’s lives, to healing, to understanding our history, to moving forward in a more just future together.”
“It is a treat for them and an opportunity for Mississippi to be a backdrop for larger conversations about our nation,” Lewis said. Plus, the showcase of daily arts-related work in both rural and metro settings in Mississippi can “really be a beacon … for the rest of the country.”
As well as the profile boost, it can bring benefits later on and inspire organizations to apply for funding, Rockoff said. “We hope, down the road, that it results in more grant funding coming to Mississippi.
“We’re a poor state. … In other states, there are plenty of other funders for these types of cultural activities. So, to have that support from the national endowments — that relatively small amount of money goes a long way here.”
There’s payoff, too, in the favorable impressions festival participants and visiting leaders pack up, take with them and spread back home.
On Lowe’s flight from Atlanta to Jackson last week, it was clear half the plane was bound for the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, she said. “This festival brought in so many young African-American women — scholars, artists, poets, writers — who are all across the country, but they’re here in Mississippi,” sharing the impact of the people, the place and the program here.
“And, they’re all going to leave here, right? Talking about how they were here in Mississippi and how Mississippi is playing such a big part in their lives,” Lowe said. “Things like that are a very good way to say, ‘This is our history. This is the power of what we’ve done. This is where we’re going to continue to keep doing it.’”
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