Black Arts Today
By Andy Blacker
Students across the UIUC campus had the opportunity to register for a new FAA course this fall titled Black Arts Today. New courses typically take years to develop and implement, and this course was no exception. However, the faculty involved in development were not seeking to create a single new course when they began exploration. The 2017–2021 College Strategic Plan established the goal to develop new courses which met the university’s U.S. Minority Cultures General Education course requirement for all undergraduate students. By fall 2017, only four courses offered in the college met the criteria for this requirement, and while a few more were added, the college struggled to make substantial progress. Professor Lou Turner, an experienced researcher, teacher, and curriculum expert who joined the college as a clinical professor, was asked to “assist Undergraduate Academic Affairs in growing the college’s course offerings in U.S. Minority Affairs.”
Turner who holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and offers courses in community planning and engagement brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to this task. As an undergraduate student, he studied music and experimental theatre which led to his further exploration of the roles and practice of performance in cultures. He traveled to India to study Kathakali, the classical dance drama of Kerala, and pursued the study of Polish lab theatre and the Chinese art of Tai Chi. Growing ever more involved in civil rights and policy, Turner served as a journalist and editor for a labor and civil rights paper in Detroit and Chicago before being named the director of research and public policy at Chicago’s Developing Communities Project, where he began work that continues to advance equity today through efforts such as the MBTA Red Line Extension project. Before joining FAA, Turner began his tenure on the UIUC campus as an academic advisor and instructor in African American Studies and was instrumental in the department earning the right to grant Bachelor of Arts degrees.
Over the 2018–2019 academic year, Turner met with FAA faculty interested in developing such courses. In a report on these conversations, Turner identified over a dozen prospective courses faculty had expressed a desire to develop. The majority of these, though not all, lay in Black Arts traditions. While the arts of Africa and the African diaspora have long been foundational to every discipline served by the college, FAA offered few dedicated, regularly offered courses in this area.
Turner identified a number of barriers to realizing these courses, and to the college’s broader realization of its “racial justice vision and mission.” Chief among these, faculty with considerable ability to advance curricula with a racial justice focus faced many obligations that prevented them from focusing on new course design and offerings. Many students have likely graduated without knowledge of the Black creators and traditions that mark their own professions, disciplines, and communities. Those that did gain this vital knowledge likely did so through the teachings of Black faculty who did this work beyond the scope of their courses. Through collaboration and support from Dean Kevin Hamilton, exploration for creating the new course began through conversations with faculty and the review of another multidisciplinary course developed by Art and Design Professor Molly Briggs.
Based in Black aesthetics and traditions, Turner designed the course to draw from the college’s many disciplines to create a picture of racism and white supremacy in the United States while also profiling the deep and rich counter-visions offered by Black artists, designers, performers, scholars, architects, and activists. He developed the Black Arts Today course for asynchronous online delivery in order to meet the needs of FAA students across a wide variety of course schedule constraints. Inspired by Professor Briggs’ course design and lively Zoom conversations with faculty, the course developed around a series of 14 mini documentaries based on interviews with FAA faculty, collaborators, and alumni with an aim to interview more than one person at a time, in the spirit of modeling the dialogic nature of the course material. While the course had content and structure, it lacked a cohesive delivery format for the materials. To host the videos along with vital contextual material, Turner and Hamilton authored a digital textbook or eText to serve as the essential foundation of Black Arts Today. In light of struggles with rightly recognizing, crediting, and compensating Black creators, as well as larger overwhelming precedents of appropriation and theft of Black creations by white artists, it was especially important that this project’s video interviews live within a textbook where the text not only surrounds those videos with explanatory references and definitions but prepares viewers to watch them through a procession of important histories and concepts. Turner’s exhaustive research and reading in current Black Arts scholarship yielded the surprising finding that there are no textbooks in existence that cover the present text’s disciplinary span. As such, what began as an experiment in media and course design may well end up one of the only such documents of its kind – even without the video interviews.
Black Arts Today opened for fall 2022 enrollment and quickly filled to its capacity of 50 students. The course earned dual general education designation for Cultural Studies (U.S. Minority) and Humanities (Literature & Arts).