An ode to Black arté, celebration of Black life, history, culture

On Black art as a vehicle for identity, expression and as a timeless demonstration of resilience.

Photo of Kyndall Elise Dowell

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Black music heals me. For me, there is no other place to start but here — to pay homage to the music that birthed and raised me, the art that sculpted me into the individual I am today and in the process of becoming.

When I say Black music, many would assume I’m talking about rap music and maybe the soulful sound of R&B — which, indeed, I am — but I must assert that Black music is also rock, country, jazz, blues, gospel, house, funk, techno, rumba and salsa, cumbia and bomba, calypso, Afrobeats, ska and reggae, South Africa’s electrical gqom music and many more. It is vital that we name the originators of these art forms — Black people — which have come to be understood as a cultural necessity. This is particularly important because Black people are routinely divorced from our humanity; our histories and the historical significance of our creations are erased via the commodification and consumption of our metaphysical trauma by the masses. african americans and diasporic Black people — those whose ancestors were involuntary participants in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, both domestically and internationally — have single-handedly tailored the art you consume and paved nearly every avenue today populated by nonBlack artists, innovators, world leaders, activists and arts and civil rights movements.

Black music fosters intimate living relationships with Black realities. Though often born from conditions of suffering and isolation inflicted by individual, domestic and systemic racism, our music has been and continues to be a means of healing, colloquial expression, communication and celebration of lifestyles. Just as food, film and written or photographic literature are universally valued, music is a vehicle that continues to connect us to one another in a way that is incredibly intimate and deeply communal. Black music has not only been a pioneer among genres, it has healed us as a people and allowed so many, including myself, to find a home within. While Black genres of music are beautifully and hungrily received by america and prized as instruments of storytelling, the same reception is not afforded to Blackness and the Black identity.

What is your name? Where are [am] you [I] from?

These kinds of questions, asked of me so often as a teenager, became a catalyst for the journey I began within myself at the age of 15. Seemingly rudimentary questions that my peers could answer with undeniable correctness and security within and of themselves, left me feeling blank and unimportant. I had no information about where I come from or even the origin of my name. The closest thing I have to family history is my grandmother’s recollections of her life growing up in Sundown Towns in the countryside of Covington, Tennessee in 1951.

While some african americans have surnames — names such as “Freemen” that Black people would give themselves following the abolition of enslavement or after they’d found freedom on their own — many inherited the last names of their ancestors’ slave owners. When Black people renamed themselves, they exercised an act of ownership over their identities, cultivating a new culture within the african american tradition while reclaiming their humanity. In the 1960s, Malcolm X, originally born Malcolm Little, became a symbol of that movement, vocalizing the irony of being a liberated Black individual, yet still carrying the last name of his ancestor’s slave owner.

This prompted Malcolm to abandon his last name and replace it with an ‘X’. In his years of activism, he exercised the notion that america was not home to the millions of african americans living in post-antebellum america. X, along with an array of notable Pan-Africanists, such as Marcus Garvey, inspired a wave of self reclamation that challenged the monolithic image of the Black identity, catalyzing a conscious movement of reimagining and redefining Blackness that gathered momentum exponentially in the centuries to follow.

In essence, my name is both the generational tie and the triumphant story of my ancestors. I inherited the last name of a slave owner: It is a double-edged sword stained with blood and sweat. Resilience is what my name is, it is the attitude of my ancestors that lives within me. Culturally, your name is more than an address; it is a reference, a pure indication of where you come from. However, with african american people specifically, our name is more than that. Due to the involuntary immigration of our ancestors into the United States, there is a sort of physical, cultural and linguistic disconnect Black americans have with our Motherland — a result of the legacy of erasure and ‘amnesia’ developed during the subjugation of an individual by ways of the institution.

These epiphanies came to me in the years following the untimely and mournful death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. Martin’s case became the epicenter of the scorn and pain that Black people, youth and mothers held toward the system that acquitted Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, of all charges, despite the substantial evidence against him. Martin’s story was immortalized as it was re-experienced and documented under the hashtag and african american proverb Black Lives Matter. This movement began to attract national attention, igniting conversations about racial profiling and police brutality against Black americans, particularly Black men. It has remained a defining moment for america and an untreated wound across the Black community.

Martin’s death wasn’t the first racially charged, nationally dividing moment experienced by the Black community. But his story and his youth reminded Black americans of where we stood on the color line, of where we were placed on the spectrum of humanity and who held the power of assigning that humanity. Before Trayvon, there was a 14-year-old Chicago boy named Emmett Till who visited family down South in 1955 and didn’t return home. Till and Trayvon’s stories and court verdicts mirrored each other in unfairness, hatred and cruelty, and both are remembered as defining moments in american history. Additionally, occurring between these tragic, racially charged deaths were the 1991 beating of Rodney King, the Rodney King Trials and the death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins that inflamed the 1992 Los Angeles Riots in South Central, Los Angeles.

Much like the moment Malcolm witnessed and experienced in the wake of a racial reckoning, at 15 years old I found myself processing Black death and the politics of identity. Unlike my nonBlack peers, I found myself at an imbalance with how I received my placement as an individual in the world, being Black, Woman, Enby/Queer, working-class and disabled. I felt as if there wasn’t a home for me, because I was lost on when and where I entered when it came to fighting for liberation. As I grew deeper within myself, home began to mean more than “home” — it became my high school community and the areas I frequented in my neighborhood. Racial tensions built walls of brick and concrete between myself and my peers at a school that was predominately of color, as I began a journey of self-discovery with little to no resources, support or community.

These feelings, though juvenile at first, have grown to become the catalyst behind my marriage to social justice and community-oriented work, and I have found refuge in spaces and conversations that continue to acknowledge, validate, nurture and encourage my existence.

Kyndall Dowell is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley from Inglewood, CA studying african american studies and education. She is a dedicated campus leader and community organizer and serves as a staff member at the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center.