PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 7: Remember2019, Memory and Reflection on Mass Lynching in Phillips County, AR

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the sixth in a series of blogs profiling the USDAC’s Policy Prototype projects, seven projects across the U.S. receiving micro-grants to document their work related to the proposals in “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”

The proposal submitted for a one-off USDAC Policy Prototype micro-grant by Ashley Teague, a theater director with extensive community experience, focused on the critical issue of commemorative justice (as did the STICK + MOVE project featured earlier in this series). Partnering with Mauricio Salgado, co-founder of Artists Striving to End Poverty and Arielle Julia Brown, founder of The Love Balm Project, Remember2019  lives in South Phillips Country Arkansas where in “1919 arguably the largest mass lynching in American history, took the lives of more than 230 African Americans in less than 72 hours….,”

Remember2019 was developed in response to Bryan Stevenson’s (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative) call to action when he said, “Formalizing a space for memory, reflection, and grieving can help our communities recover from this traumatic history of mass violence.”

In the Remember2019 proposal, Ashley wrote:  

As we approach the centennial of the massacre in South Phillips County, our goal is to partner with individuals and organizations throughout the region to create a theatre event that unearths this erased and contentious history and considers how it has affected the communities past and present. Furthermore, we will raise Dr. Martin Luther King’s timely question—where do we go from here?— tour the play during the 2019 centennial year, organize an annual residency that will continue after the theater event, offering local artists opportunities to create their own self-determined work around issues of  memory, reflection, belonging, and cultural citizenship."

Three Platform points were referenced:

  • Point 2. Support A Culture of Justice and Equity

  • Point 3. Redeem Democracy with Creativity

  • Point 5. Invest in Belonging and Cultural Citizenship

The work touched on all three, but as Ashley explained when we spoke, “we ended up doing more work towards point five, investing in belonging in cultural citizenship. That's where this long-term artist residency came from, working with community-based centers to reuse abandoned or underused spaces and some of our focus with the young people.”

“We believe that culture influences policy,” Ashley wrote in her proposal. “Therefore, it is our responsibility to reframe our cultural narrative so that it inspires just policies. This project begins by recognizing a history that was intentionally devalued and disposed of in order to entrench a normative white supremacist culture. In order to do that, this project will embody equity and participation by prioritizing the leadership, stories, and talents of community members that have been historically ignored. Our model is flexible, scale-able and nimble enough to adapt to the specific context and goals of the community, while still based in well-researched frameworks and proven methodologies.”

 Healing the Land Ceremony in Elaine, AR, October 30, 2017

Healing the Land Ceremony in Elaine, AR, October 30, 2017

Remember 2019 is a long-term project, as Ashley explained when I interviewed Mauricio and herself:

The big picture is that we're producing six residencies over six years. The first two are trailblazed by Remember2019, beginning with a blues event featuring local musicians using their music to synthesize personal stories and testimony with the rich history of the blues in the Delta. The next residency is the original, full-length play featuring community testimony and community and professional actors on stage. Then the next four will be determined by local artists. We are part of funding those residencies and getting a group of local folks together to take on those residencies past our involvement in the community, creating a long-term artist residency in the neighborhood.

“Another way of thinking about this long-term project, Mauricio added, “is that we are supporting local efforts to build an ecosystem of art spaces and work. At the moment there are a couple of spaces where folks engage in visual or performing arts—aside from churches, I think there are only two. There are local artists like Kyle Miller at the Delta Cultural Center who are hoping to build out a community of art spaces and art makers and that's what we're trying to do. How else do we build that ecosystem but by creating opportunities for performance and for sharing?”

Ashley agreed. “In this community there are a lot of vacant spaces that used to be for commerce. One part of our conversation is if there is a way to repurpose these as creative spaces. Is there a way to take on these underused or unused spaces in the blues festival performance and also in other residencies moving forward?”

The team’s time on the ground in South Phillips County was revealing and catalytic, as Ashley explained:

During the two months we were in South Phillips County we found ourselves wondering, “Where are the young people?” There’s nowhere to hang out. There's no public space  to let loose and relax and see friends other than going to church. How can we create space for that? How can we provide food and entertainment and make a space where people can just hang out and commune?

 A major goal is to create and perform in 2019 a play grounded in the experiences and voices of local people who have been affected by the massacre of 1919. Mauricio explained:

All of our work, both the story-sharing institute as well as the current blues festival, has conversation at its core. We are interested in reflecting on the story-sharing practices that remember that moment in time and how that has been affected and where that has been channeled. There's some research at the institute that the blues changed in response to the red summer of 1919, for instance. So all of that's in the mix of thinking about the dream for the play next year.

Ashley explained that the playwright, Clos Sirah, “has gone several times to the community for interviewing and story-gathering, including one time when we were all there together for weeks. We've been having meetings with our community partners—community-based organizations, community-based centers in the area—as we shape what that play will be to make sure we're getting community feedback at every stage. Ultimately it will be a performance that is inspired by and based on community testimony and will involve community in the making and performance. One idea is that it may travel around the community so that part of the experience is really being present in the space, really being aware of generations stacked up on this land and here we are now as a community moving through our space together.”

 Team photo, July 2018 Staged Reading of  Scapegoat  by playwright Christina Ham in Helena, AR

Team photo, July 2018 Staged Reading of Scapegoat by playwright Christina Ham in Helena, AR

Mauricio noted the nuances and controversies that commemorative justice projects can entail.  “The Elaine Memorial Foundation is putting up a memorial and there are a series of events that are being organized for next October. And so how are we doing something that adds to that conversation? That puts up against it? That isn't just the same thing? How is our work refracting, reflecting on, reckoning with the conversation that is already happening in light of the memorial that's being created?

The past is always in dialogue with the present in such work. “Something we heard often from our partners and from folks we'd meet in the community,” Mauricio told me, is ‘We're not just what happened in 1919. We're a lot more than that, and who's interested in that? It seems like folks are only interested in the hype around that one moment. How do we broaden our understanding of that story so that we can tell that side of ourselves too?’ That's only possible if there are several conversations happening simultaneously that can use the events of a hundred years ago as a jumping-off point.”

Ashley and Mauricio explained that their team has been in conversation with all kinds of local groups, from Waves of Prayer to the Delta Community Center to the Boys and Girls Club, local educators, social service organizations, and beyond.

What binds our work and theirs is a desire to have this story told on a national level, to give voice to these stories, and understanding that art and theater is the way to do that. People tell us “We're trying to move our community forward and we need this story to get out and we need attention to come here. We need jobs to come here. We need work to come here,” and the understanding is growing that theater as a vehicle for storytelling can serve those purposes as well.

This type of long-term relationship-building grounded in art calls on Citizen Artists to be open to sharing their gifts in a spirit of flexibility and generosity. For instance, Mauricio noted that he’d been helping folks from the Delta Cultural Center write a grant proposal for an after-school music academy, and the person he was working with

…says to me, “I feel funny. I don't know what this has to do with your work.” And I said “Listen, Kyle, we are in for the long game of supporting the development of the arts in the area. So helping you write this grant is also my work.” We are showing up as much as we can for the community and the community's needs, checking at the door our own particular agendas or even our own abilities. In that way I think this project will continue to morph. We will continue to produce these events, and that will be a centerpiece of our work. But also a whole lot of other things, because it’s going to take participating in many things.

Remember2019 has received funding from Alternate ROOTS, the Highlander Research and Education Center, The MAP Fund, and the Network of Ensemble Theaters to support this long-term cultural development in the service of commemorative justice.

In fact, a keystone event made possible with this funding is coming right up: in Marvell, Arkansas on 29 September 2018 and Elaine, Arkansas on 2 October:

Remember2019 Collective members Carlos Sirah and Mauricio Salgado are collaborating with James “Gone for Good” Morgan, Marcus “Mookie” Cartwright, and Vera White to present Black ‘n da Blues: Stories and Songs from the Arkansas Delta. The event is free to the public and will include a reception with food.

In Black ‘n da Blues, Phillips County musicians explore the relationship between legacies of race and artistic expression – locally, nationally and beyond. The event is being produced in partnership with The Delta Cultural Center, The Elaine Legacy Center and The Boys, Girls, Adults, Community Development Center (BGACDC).

Major events like these emerge from a fabric of community dialogue and story-sharing. For example, Remember2019 Collective members Arielle Julia Brown and Carlos Sirah convened a two-day story-sharing institute on 18 and 19 June, inviting local people to share “freedom songs, delta blues traditions, oral histories, meal centered oral traditions, story circles, testimonies, gossip, folklore, interviews and more,” culminating in a Juneteenth Freedom Celebration in a local park.

Specific activities also emerge from a convergence of interests in which the artists’ desire for commemorative justice—for their work mattering to people and serving as a vehicle for everyone’s liberation—connects with local desires and aspirations. Mauricio recalls being asked by a community leader

"What's your investment in the work?" She would question us whenever we would say “We’re here for you.” Towards the end of our last time together, she heard us start to say “We're here because we want. We want." She says, “I only trust people who are here 100% for themselves because how do I know that you're committed unless you too realize there's something here for you?" That’s the level of commitment we’re being asked.

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at hello@usdac.us. While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world if you have a project that promotes one of more of the Platform points, so call on us.