These projects emerged out of a two-semester course at Barnard College from Fall 2015 to Winter 2016. The first semester involved reading works by playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, her contemporaries, as well as works by and about the Black Power/Black Arts Movement. In the second semester, we partnered with the International Center of Photography to acquire the digital skills necessary to create each student’s individually devised, planned, and executed final project. The class maintained a blog throughout both semesters in which they shared their thoughts about Shange, black girlhood, music and movement (sometimes even Beyonce’s Lemonade, or what it felt like to be stopped in our tracks by Shange’s “What Do You Believe A Poem Shd Do?” in the New York City subway. The students’ projects largely aimed to synthesize how a particular issue or text of Shange’s or the Black Arts Movement at large affected them personally, and how it could be refashioned with new media to become relevant to contemporary audiences.
Worlds of Ntozake Shange is part of a crucial intervention into Black culture, arts, and politics as it is carried out in Barnard’s new Harlem Semester program. In this public humanities initiative, educational institutions and departments, like the International Center of Photography, the Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Department of Africana Studies at Barnard College, have partnered with Harlem’s historic cultural institutions, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to develop a critical curriculum that centers black politics, black activism and black cultural actors like Ntozake Shange. This model is being developed across liberal institutions with equal investment in fostering interdisciplinary forms of learning with and beyond the text. Professor Renee Charlow of Bowie State University met with the class and has taken up digital storytelling in her own course on Shange’s literature and its legacy.
Students have benefitted from a wide range of tools to develop projects that syncretize the digital, the conceptual, the physical, and the archival. Following their research inspirations, students individually explored the Shange Collection at Barnard and multiple collections at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, took walking tours of Harlem, and discussed afrospirituality and black feminist self-care with faculty in Harlem. They were also uplifted and energized by Meshell Ndegeocello’s work-in-progress tribute to James Baldwin at the Harlem Stage and the Alvin Ailey Dancers’ celebration of Dianne McIntyre, Shange’s friend and collaborator.The International Center of Photography has been a crucial site of discovery and with the guidance of ICP faculty Bradly Treadaway, students were encouraged to engage in creative picture-making and storytelling practices. Across this multi-disciplinary plane of learning, students have made truly critical and creative insights into Shange’s work. At the end of the semester, students were given editorial feedback from a postproduction team–Nia Ashley, Mei Suet (Michelle) Loo, Tiana Reid–that also checked for consistencies across the site.