We posed some questions to Avi Santo about how the Birth of an Answer project was conceived, how it evolved and what he hopes it accomplishes. His responses took the form of this interesting narrative:
When I took over as director of the Institute for the Humanities two plus years ago, I revised the institute’s mission to place greater emphasis on public outreach and community engagement through an initiative called “Humanities in Hampton Roads,” which looks to generate critical conversations among Tidewater residents through engagement with the arts and popular culture.
Among the first discussions I had about projects connected to this initiative was a film and music effort wherein local musicians might compose and perform an original score to a silent film. I had seen this done to great effect in Austin, Texas where I went to graduate school at a venue called the Alamo Drafthouse. It created conversation between local tastes and sensibilities and iconic works of art.
I wanted the initiative to focus on African American cinema and musicians because I felt as though there was insufficient attention paid to the accomplishments and desires of that community despite the fact that over 40% of Norfolk’s residents are Black.
In hammering out details, I learned about the centennial of “Birth of a Nation” in 2015 and, more importantly, about the myriad ways that the film had been challenged locally, including pressures on City government to ban the film and the Hampton Institute’s response. I thought this would make for a wonderful way to give focus to the otherwise broadly defined film and music project, allowing for not only a conversation between local and national sensibilities, but also for a crucial conversation between the past and the present when it comes to challenging racist representations in and through popular media.
Birth of an Answer was conceived prior to Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson and the slew of despicable violence that has been perpetrated on black bodies since then, but what remains clear is that there remains a deep-seeded fear of African Americans (and in particular African American men) that is in part reinforced through popular media, wherein the mere perception of threat – often unwarranted – is used to rationalize violence.
While “Birth of a Nation” did not invent stereotypes of dangerous black men, it very much popularized those images. At the same time, the rise of grassroots organizations like Black Lives Matter, who have skillfully utilized social media to make us aware and enraged about the treatment of many African Americans in the US, serves as a modern day corollary to efforts by the NAACP and the Hampton Institute to counter prejudicial depictions in “Birth of a Nation.”
In other words, while “Birth of an Answer” was not developed to directly engage with these current happenings, it has become all the more prescient an event that potentially creates a space for conversations both about media stereotyping’s implications then and now, but also how African American artists, filmmakers, musicians, and activists have used media then and now to challenge misrepresentation.
It’s certainly my hope that the event will engender that kind of conversation and can create opportunities for new collaborations that seek to use the arts and popular culture to promote much needed dialog.
You can learn much more about the Birth of an Answer project, as well as reading much more about the history that inspired it, at the project’s website at BOAAevent.com. It includes biographies about the participants, as well as profiles of all the amazing collaborators and partners who made it possible. You can also buy tickets to either night of the event online through the site.
Friday, September 18, 2015 at the Attucks Theatre
7:00-7:30 African American filmmakers poster exhibit on display lobby of Attucks Theatre
7:00-7:30 I. Sherman Greene Chorale perform spirituals in lobby of Attucks Theatre
7:45-8:00 debut Our Nation
8:15-9:30 Within our Gates
9:45-10:30 multigenerational panel
Monday, September 21, 2015 at Chandler Recital Hall
8:30-8:45 Our Nation
8:45-10:00 Within Our Gates