Bree Newsome discusses race and art in America

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST  Members of Smith’s Black Students’ Alliance and activist Bree Newsome speak at the BSA’s bi-annual conference.


Members of Smith’s Black Students’ Alliance and activist Bree Newsome speak at the BSA’s bi-annual conference.

Claudia Olson ’22 | Features Editor

“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

This quote by Nina Simone, an African American singer who became involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, formed the first words of Bree Newsome’s keynote address at Smith’s Black Students’ Alliance conference. Like Simone, Newsome is both an artist and an activist. She uses her art to explore ideas about African American culture and racial justice. Her short film “Wake” is based upon the macabre tall tales popular within the folk culture that she grew up in. She also directed a performance piece called “Rise Up and Go” that was showcased at the Monticello Summit, an event that explored slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s former plantation. Though she has received a multitude of awards and acclaim for her art, Newsome is best known for climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina Capitol Building and removing the Confederate flag in 2015. This symbol of slavery and oppression continued to fly in front of a government building 150 years after the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War. This act was partially in response to a tragic massacre at the hands of a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., where nine African Americans were murdered during a prayer service in their own church. “A sense of shock and demoralization overtook the movement,” said Newsome, regarding the aftermath of the shooting. By taking down the flag in the same state as this horrific attack, Newsome hoped to send a message about racism in modern America. Even in the present day, people still debate the cause of the Civil War and deny its connection to slavery. Violence against people of color is disturbingly widespread, and the roots of colonialism are still embedded in American culture. Newsome discussed how colonialism never really disappeared, but rather, it “simply evolved into a more highly organized, complex system.” The prison system that disproportionately harms people of color and the lack of aid given to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria exemplify how colonialism continues to wreak havoc in the United States. We cannot “uncolonize” to undo these wrongs because we cannot undo history, but we can “decolonize.” Newsome touched upon this idea and explained how we are in a time when great change is possible. “This is a time of great turmoil, obviously,” she bluntly stated, but in the same breath, she echoed the famous phrase: “The darkest hour is right before dawn.” We live in a time where information is more accessible than ever, and because of this, social justice movements can spread far and fast. Social media can mobilize people and subvert racism. It is a “powerful way to challenge a false dominant narrative,” in Newsome’s words. Because everyone can know about acts of racial injustice regardless of where they live, we have entered a new iteration in the progress of civil rights. The civil rights movement of the past lost its momentum as prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated, but today’s leaders are much more numerous and widespread. Everyone is capable of making social change in today’s world, and this change can come in many forms. Newsome emphasized the importance of art in the fight for racial justice. If we create and promote art told from diverse points of view, the status quo can be challenged. Newsome believes that together, we can foster “a radical imagination for a better world.” Each and every person can make a contribution with this imagination in mind. Newsome emphasized that, as a society, we need courage to make this dream come true. Courage, as she explained, is not an absence of fear. On the contrary, there can be no courage without fear. Courage is, in fact, a belief of something greater than fear. According to Newsome, it is a “fantastic blessing to be alive in this moment” because of our modern society’s consciousness of injustice, immense courage and diverse contributions being made in pursuit of our collective radical imagination. In the last words of her speech, Newsome issued a final sentiment to the audience: “I pray that you have the courage to act on your convictions.” I wish to live up to her inspiring words and make a positive contribution to this complicated and troubled world in hopes that I can begin to make a reality of my radical imagination for a better future.

Sophian Smith