The Black Legacy Project is coming to Denver

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, the ensuing national toll has sparked many needed conversations about racism in America. But as these conversations have become more widespread, the polarization between black and white Americans has also become more widespread.

Today, the leaders of the Black Legacy Project are working to reduce this polarization through guided conversations and songs. Their project, which lands in Denver next week, seeks to celebrate black history through music to advance racial equity, togetherness and belonging.

The idea for the new program came about when Todd Mack, who runs a nonprofit that has used music to connect people for nearly two decades in Atlanta, was looking for a new way to unite black and white Americans in a era of widespread division in 2020.

“We don’t talk enough about black history in this country. We also don’t talk enough about white people who have worked collaboratively with black people to advance equality and change,” said Trey Carlisle, who co-created The Black Legacy Project with Mack.

“We wanted The Black Legacy Project to be an opportunity for people to revisit that story through song, to see how it still rings true today, and then from that, to be inspired to think about, ‘How can we continue to carry the torch and work in solidarity today to advance greater belonging?

In 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests swept across the country, Mack listened to songs written in the 1980s by Bob Dylan about the murder of Emmett Till and other injustices suffered by black people in the 1960s. He heard words about racism in the 1960s that are still true today. It was inspired by Dylan’s desire to stand in solidarity with black people and to call for racial equality in his songs.

Mack and Carlisle soon after created The Black Legacy Project, which seeks to bridge racial divides and cultivate solidarity between black and white Americans through guided conversations and musical exploration.

“We wanted The Black Legacy Project to be an opportunity for people to revisit these songs, to draw strength from them, and to draw strength from the stories of blacks and whites from the past working together to call for change,” Carlisle said.

The project will land in seven different communities throughout 2022 and 2023, bringing together black and white artists who will record current renditions of songs central to the black American experience. Artists will then compose originals relevant to today’s pressing calls for change. Community roundtables will help inform how these songs are performed and rewritten.

The Black Legacy Project was launched in 2021 in the Western Berkshires of Massachusetts. The project moved to its second location to engage residents of the Ozarks in Arkansas in May. The event will be going down to Denver September 6-11 before moving to Los Angeles in early December. Project leaders will work with participants in the Mississippi Delta in February, before traveling to Atlanta in April. The event wraps up in June in its seventh community, Boise, Idaho.

The seven locations were chosen to create a snapshot of America’s diversity while emphasizing the idea that black history is American history, and black history exists in every corner of the county, even in areas where you least expect it. The tour includes racially diverse big cities, small rural areas, predominantly white communities and predominantly black municipalities, Mack said.

In each community the project visits, the project leaders have hand-picked songs that have a theme related to the local community. Songs are reviewed by black and white residents, who separate into affinity groups with others of their own racial demographic, to discuss the meaning of the song’s lyrics. The two groups come together to present what they’ve learned, then come up with ideas on how they might move closer to racial equality. These songs are then reinvented and performed by local black and white artists.

The chosen theme for the Denver attendees is “walking in my shoes”, which emphasizes the importance of seeing yourself in the shoes of others, to help bridge racial divides and fight violence. interracial,” Carlisle said.

Denver attendees will unpack the lyrics to the songs “The Klan” and “The Ballad of the Walking Postman,” both recorded by Walt Conley, a black man considered by many to be the founding father of Denver’s folk music scene. Community members will analyze the lyrics of these songs in roundtable discussions to help learn how local artists will reinterpret them musically.

Registration is required for the free roundtable in Denver on Thursday, September 6 at 7 p.m. The location will be announced upon registration. The project will culminate with a free performance at Swallow Hill Music in South Denver on Sunday, September 11 at 7 p.m. The event will include a screening of an in-progress documentary series on The Black Legacy Project. Each episode describes a place where the project goes and performances of the reinterpreted songs.

Dzirae Gold, co-musical director for the Denver-based part of the project, was surprised when she was asked to help direct the project, but decided to join in to help produce music with intentionality, she said. declared.

“Our goal is to communicate the power of music and the ability to connect worlds to highlight the differences and similarities between our world today and the world nearly a century ago,” she said. “Community participation is encouraged and is in fact crucial to the success of the project.”

The “walking in my shoes” theme was chosen for Denver because project leaders identified a powerful history of interracial solidarity and activism in the city to prevent racial violence, Carlisle said.

Dr. Joseph Henry Peter Westbrook, a notable activist and philanthropist in Denver in the early 1900s, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan to help prevent violence against black people in the Mile High City. It was decades before the movie “BlacKkKlansman” depicted the life of Ron Stallworth, a Colorado Springs police detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s.

Local activist Theo EJ Wilson, opinion columnist for the Colorado Sun, infiltrated the alt-right movement on social media in the 2000s and has since worked to create spaces where people of different racial backgrounds can have healing and meaningful conversations about shared humanity, Carlisle said.

Similarly, Dr. Clarence Holmes established the Cosmopolitan Club of Denver, which was organized in the early 1900s. The club brought together black, white, Japanese, and Jewish Americans to promote racial solidarity and social change while the Ku Klux Klan was prominent in Denver.

“There is a great need for these stories to be told and discussed in contexts where community members can hear and empathize with each other and see themselves in each other’s shoes,” Carlisle said. “It’s really the starting point where empathy can be cultivated, solidarity can be cultivated and that social change and activism can inspire.”

The Black Legacy Project is produced by Common music, an Atlanta-based nonprofit started in 2005 by Mack, a singer-songwriter. Music In Common empowers, empowers and connects communities through music and was started by Mack after his friend and bandmate, Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

The Black Legacy Project centers on healing through music, an expressive and disarming tool that can unite people before they get into difficult conversations about racism, Mack said. “Half the battle is getting people to the table.”

However, attending the Black Legacy Project event in the Ozarks was an easy decision for Tanya Evans, a multicultural librarian working with communities of color in Springdale, Arkansas.

She attended the roundtable on race and learned that Springdale was a sunset town, an all-white neighborhood that excluded people of color using discriminatory laws, harassment, threats, and other violence. Although black people were allowed to work or travel in a community at sunset during the day, they had to leave at sunset. Older black roundtable participants lived in small towns surrounding Springdale when signs of sunset were visible around the community as recently as the 1980s, Evans said.

“I think it’s cathartic for people who have experienced racism in America and other people who aren’t from minority groups and are white people,” she said. “There’s a lot of things they don’t know and there were ‘aha’ moments for a lot of people in this discussion.”

When Evans was growing up in southern Arkansas, her grandmother told her to always ask for a receipt and a shopping bag when she visited the store, to reduce the risk of her ever being charged with theft. she said.

“We have to look at the past, look at how far we have come and see how far we need to go,” she added. “I saw it was a learning experience on all levels for all of us… Until you met someone who’s been through this and heard the pain in their voice, or you saw it in his eyes, I don’t think you ever really understood.

After the dialogue, Evans told leaders of the Black Legacy Project that young people are being exposed to conversations about racism in America, which “better off” and more tolerant future generations will become.

“These types of conversations won’t solve the problem,” she said. “But I think they can help in the healing process. There are a lot of people in America who have scars, and they need to heal, and just ignoring them won’t make them go away,” she said, breaking into tears. “I wish every school kid in America could experience this project.”

AFTER: The Black Legacy Project is sponsored by The Colorado Sun and other organizations.

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