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Ruby and Maya Remind Us: The Arts Helped Blacks to Survive

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

That poem, among the most famous by Langston Hughes, was written in 1951. A prelude to the civil rights movement, it is among the quintessential examples of how arts and entertainment have historically documented and affected black life and progress in America.

Angelou-Medal of Freedom
Maya Angelou receives the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. (

The recent deaths of icons Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou remind us that we must never forget the role of the arts in black history and progress. Poetry, the performing arts and music have been absolutely essential to our cultural heritage.

Who can forget James Brown's "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud"; the beloved music of the Jackson Five along with those bouncing afros; the spellbinding performances of the iconic Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier; the moving lyrics of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" and Stevie Wonder's compelling "Happy Birthday" song to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And, yes, the soul-stirring poetry of Hughes, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, among others, not to mention the novels of Richard Wright.

From the "Negro spirituals" of slavery to the Harlem Renaissance to hymns of the civil rights movement like "We Shall Overcome," the arts have always been a way to affect black life, somehow providing a sense of relief by simply acknowledging and expressing the pain of oppression.

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Playwright A. Peter Bailey, coauthor of Revelations, the autobiography of choreographer Alvin Ailey, says he agrees with the renowned Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, "who was a tremendous expounder of the belief that our people would not have survived in this country without music."

Modern-day writers, filmmakers, entertainers and poets are continuing this impact even in 2014. Over the past 30 years, films like Malcolm X, The Butler and Twelve Years a Slave have continued to tell the story of black people in America in a compelling way.

And some of those iconic American poets, like Nikki Giovanni, are still impacting generations. She was a renowned revolutionary writer, especially during the 1960s. I recently discussed her new book of poetry, Chasing Utopia, written after the death of her beloved mother. Now a writing professor at Virginia Tech, she said even with Facebook, Twitter and other social media, writing isn't that different today.

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She enjoys doing slams and jazz with her students because they're all art forms and they're all fun. But, she added, "I don't think that anything is going to take the place of a poem on a page. I just don't think that's going to happen."

Upon the death of the unconquerable Maya Angelou in June, I'd have to agree with Nikki. On that note, I'll end this piece with an excerpt from one of Dr. Angelou's most famous poems that still inspire us all, "Still I Rise":

...Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


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