Building bridges: Black Arts Matter aims to bring community and campus closer together

BY , Isthmus

Shasparay Lighteard hit upon the idea for the Black Arts Matter (B.A.M.) Festival after noticing a division between Madison’s black community and UW-Madison. Keeping in mind the vibrant black arts community back in her hometown of Austin, Texas, she set out to pull together a week of events to bridge that gap.

Lighteard, an acclaimed poet and UW-Madison First Wave scholar, hopes Madison’s first B.A.M. Festival, held March 3-9 at multiple venues, will help form personal connections between black artists on campus and those based in the city. She specifically wants to highlight artists who aren’t recipients of the First Wave hip-hop scholarship. Those undergraduate scholars have opportunities to perform, including at the always-profoundLine Breaks Festival (this year’s will be April 3-7), or as part of their other independent projects.

“I wanted to help break that gap between the campus and community,” Lighteard says. “There’s a big presence of hip-hop and rap, but we don’t see the other arts from black artists that much, at least on the community scale.”

The festival also features a crowd-judged poetry slam March 8-9 at Madison’s Central Library. Local and regionally based spoken-word poets will compete for the chance to perform in the finals alongside a showcase of performers in other genres. It’s a chance for newcomers in the poetry scene to see how their work stacks up against published authors, including Deonta Osayande, the Detroit-based author of the poetry collection Civilian.

“When I heard about a slam festival built for us, by us, I couldn’t help but throw my hat in the ring,” Osayande says. “We often all get lumped together, which is fine. I understand that there is only so much stage time, but a festival that focuses on the variety of black poets sounds like a fun and delightful time.”

One of the up-and-coming poets competing is Matthew Bogart, who sometimes writes about the racial dynamics of being adopted by white parents.

The first B.A.M event is the March 3 performance of Alice Childress’ 1955 Trouble in Mind. The play-within-a-play about racism on Broadway is directed by UW Afro-American studies professor and writer Sandra Adell. On March 4, Lighteard kicks off the rest of the festival by hosting a panel of artists and singers.

Black Arts Matter is also pairing up with Cinesthesia, the Madison Public Library’s free film series, for a screening of Spike Lee’s controversial 2000 satire Bamboozled, about a television show featuring African American performers in blackface. Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman just won the 2019 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

Lighteard says the decision to include a movie about the perseverance of blackface and minstrel shows was a coincidence and not tied to the recent headlines from Virginia, where several photos have surfaced of white politicians wearing blackface.

“Unfortunately, Bamboozled works really well with conversations that are happening right now,” says Lighteard. “If anyone is at all uncomfortable with a space like this, you’re the person who needs to come and be in a seat.”