Kim McMillon is currently completing a Ph.D. in World Cultures, at the University of California, Merced, with an emphasis on the Black Arts Movement and African American Literature. She is the visionary behind the Black Arts Movement Conference at Dillard University. She and I spoke briefly about the importance of New Orleans being a host city and more:
1) Why is the Black Arts Movement so important to you?
I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, the daughter of one of the many African American men that joined the Air Force in the 1950s hoping for a better life. I went from an eight-year-old African American girl living in segregated 1960s San Antonio, Texas to being the only Black face in a sea of color, beautiful people of every race, but Black. The images of Blackness were the ones I saw on television or when going to the military base. We didn’t often go to Waikiki; my father preferred the beautiful beaches of Oahu. Near the time we were returning to the mainland after a three-year tour of duty, I saw young Black hippies with big, beautiful afros flashing the peace sign with so much pride in their Blackness. I was enthralled. I wanted to be one of those beautiful Black people with a big Afro, and hand raised in peace or a fist raised, demanding Black Power. I felt so powerless in worlds that saw Blackness as “other.” The Black Arts Movement was and is important to me because of the art, literature, and theater that proclaimed that “Black is Beautiful.” We celebrated our hair, bodies, and facial features. The joy of Blackness represented by BAM profoundly affected how I saw myself and opened a new world of possibilities of what it meant to be Black in America. I fell in love with the plays of Amiri Baraka, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, and the words of Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, Ishmael Reed, and Nikki Giovanni. Words colored my world. When Blackness is beautiful, life is richer, colors more vibrant as your being is validated. This celebration of the Black body is a personal love story that is rich in hue and speaks to the promise, the truth, and the beauty of Blackness. That is why the Black Arts Movement is important because it opened so many doors to self.
2) Why was it important to you to have the BAM Conference in New Orleans?
In 2014, I was not planning a BAM Conference in New Orleans. I was planning to rent a large bus with BAM professors, artists, and musicians and tour the country. We would stop in cities across the United States and speak at colleges and community centers about the history of BAM. We created study guides to work with community leaders on educating the public about BAM. The issue was the cost of the BAM Summer Tour. It was staggering. When I came down to earth, I called a professor that I knew at Dillard University and spoke to her of my dream, but the lack of funds. Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy generously suggested that I come to Dillard University, or I might have asked, and so the birthing process for the 2015 Dillard University BAM Conference took form. Over the next year, I found that organizations, nonprofits, and grant-makers were not as eager to give me money as I had envisioned. In fact, I was not able to raise a dime after about a year, and so determined that I needed to change the date to September 2016. While I was not able to create any funds, I was able to interest a great many BAM icons into taking part in the conference.
3) How do you think BAM has influenced Black Lives Matter?
Just as the Black Arts Movement was labeled the artistic wing of the Black Power Movement, Black Lives Matter represents the heart of BAM. BAM illustrated the creativity, artistry, and beauty of Black Bodies. Black Lives Matter speaks to the heart of BAM by saying that Black Lives Matter in all shapes and forms. You do not have to be artistic. You do not have to be creative. You do not have to be anything but your beautiful Black self, and you matter. Your beauty is the mere fact that you exist.
4) What are you most looking forward to at the BAM Conference?
I am looking forward to students attending this conference as it is free for students so that the information and knowledge brought forth by the men and women of BAM continues. Just as the great James Brown shouted, “Say it Loud, I’m Black, and I’m Proud,” we have an obligation to say these words to every cell in our bodies, for our healing as a race begins by acknowledging the gift of our Black Bodies.
BrassyBrown.com Editor, Kelly Harris, will be a panelist on Saturday’s “Black Woman Artist, Community, and the Rendering of Identity” panel.