Article by Michael “Quess?” Moore
Dr. Doris Derby is a small woman, a small woman who left a big imprint. Standing barely over 5 feet tall, the first thing that jumped out at me were her enthusiastic eyes. She’s got schoolgirl eyes. They’re all lit up behind her thick eyeglasses like an excited 6th grader on the first day of school. Replete with her eager-as-the-first-day persona, she even donned a book bag on the Hidden History tour that we went on the day after I met her. When I first approached her the night prior, or was introduced to her by John O’ Neal, her co-founder of the Free Southern Theater, she looked up at me with those inquisitive eyes like she was amicably sizing me up, exchanged pleasantries with me over our shared regional heritage—she must have heard the NY in my accent—and promised me a sit down before the weekend was over. That sit down was never to take place, as her time was in high demand throughout the weekend. That Saturday was especially busy for her because it was the evening that her documentary photographs, depicting the activities of five civil rights organizations in Mississippi including the Free Southern Theater, were going to be featured in a Grand Opening Exhibition and Reception at the McKenna Museum of African American Art.
That weekend was jam packed with activities and visitors because it was the weekend designated to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the aforementioned Free Southern Theater, a community theater group founded in 1963 whose artistic creations paralleled and informed the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Derby was not only cofounder of FST, but the original progenitor. While I have been working under her cohort, John’s mentorship for some time now, I had never met her. I had only heard Dr. Derby’s name in conversation before this past weekend. When we finally caught up over the phone after she’d returned home to Atlanta, she graciously allowed me to pick her brilliant brain for some gems of wisdom and some history. Here’s what went down.
For video footage from the weekend, visit HowlRound.
Can you tell us a little bit about your back story?
In college I was trained to be a cultural anthropologist and educator. However, as a youngster growing up in New York, from early on I saw my mission in life as one who would identify, document, associate with, and learn from black artists, dancers, writers, musicians, actors, poets, and historians to gather information and get it out to our people in whatever form I could because it was sorely lacking in our community and wasn’t readily available in mainstream textbooks, magazines, newspapers, movies or on TV. In addition to gaining wisdom from my elders and extended family members, church and community members, I knew I needed multiple resources to draw from and learn about black history, our contributions to America, and to learn about our glorious African past. I first became aware of African culture in elementary school because my great aunt was a missionary in Liberia, a pioneer, and she wrote letters to my grandparents about her work, which they shared with me. This inspired me to learn about Africa from as many sources as possible. From junior high school on, I sought out and was exposed to black cultural thought and cultural output. I was around black artists, dancers, writers and intellectuals from the U.S., Caribbean, and Africa. I frequently visited Harlem where my aunt lived, and where there was the Liberation Bookstore, the Schomburg Library Collection, the Harlem YMCA, where I studied African Dance in the Katherine Dunham Dance Class, and the Liberation Day Parade —all in the interest of gathering information for our people.
See The Nations’ Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by The D.C. Everest High School Oral History Project for more on Dr. Derby’s life story
What was your impetus behind starting FST?
Along with John O’Neal and Gilbert Moses, I saw the need for the creation of a cultural artistic tool that could be used to involve, inspire, enlighten, and galvanize black people to critically think and create for themselves, within the context of the Civil Rights Movement in the segregated and closed society of violent Mississippi, and to work for and create social change, social justice, equal opportunity and citizenship regardless of race.
Given the genius of black people throughout the centuries, it was thought that a theater, a repertory theater company that could travel throughout the state and incorporate all of the arts might be able to develop a cultural format as it interacts with the people in the movement and the grassroots people who have suffered the most. It would be a vehicle that could be used to inform and perhaps reveal new creative strategies to deal with the institution of segregation. We needed to look into ourselves in order to empower ourselves and reclaim the freedom we did not have in Mississippi and other southern states. That freedom was and is our birthright. We need to have tools that we own. The center is always there in us. This notion of exclusivity is not what we need. We have to look into ourselves and develop what we need to free ourselves and give ourselves what we need. This [artistic contribution] was needed to expand the potential empowerment of the movement. The deepest part of the cultural well was in the rural South. Our cultural strongholds in other regions drew on these cultural wells and they took on different forms, layers, shapes and textures (e.g. the Harlem Renaissance in Harlem, NY) within their own context.
What brought you and other native Northerners down South during the 60s?
A war on the home front had been started. It was a wakeup call. It was a call for all hands on deck, whether from the east or west coast, north or south, whether black or white, old or young, grassroots or professional. People from different [ethnic] groups and abroad participated in and were committed to the movement, but mostly black people because it was us who were most directly impacted by the evil goings-on in the South. I spent the summer of 1962 in Albany, GA working in the Civil Rights Movement, and the following spring was recruited as a teacher to work at Tougaloo College during 1963 to 1964 in a trial adult literacy program designed to help develop literacy materials programmed to prepare black people to pass the required discriminatory literacy test for voter eligibility in Mississippi. John O’Neal and I worked together in the Literacy Project. It was during that time that we cofounded the Free Southern Theater, with Gilbert Moses.
What is the importance of the arts in relation to movement building, organizing, and battling oppression?
In terms of the individual, involvement in the arts develops character, self confidence, commitment, critical thinking power and creative expression. All of these characteristics are in turn crucial to movement building, organizing and battling oppression. When individuals of a similar mindset, purpose, spirit and overlapping goals come together, they can collectively bring the power of critical thinking and creative expression through the arts to assist in and inspire social change, and reveal the need for action for social justice. Inspiration and motivation is necessary for participation in problem solving, strategizing, conceptualizing and taking action. Critical thinking and creative expression, within the context of cultural specifics—the time and place, the people, the reason for—all are needed for grounding, as a common base of operations. Both are needed for the development of new ideas and for learning how to deal with the areas of political life that require many levels of understanding. Alternative means of expression and understanding are needed so that as many people as possible participate and contribute whatever they can to elucidate the issues. The mind is needed for assessment of the situation and the practical side of dealing with what is and what can be. The creative spirit is needed to present alternatives, ones that emanate from the soul and are rooted in historical, communal knowledge, alternatives that are not clouded by lies and deceit, repetitive, worn out ideas or evil people who feed the selfish interests of themselves and other takers.
At USSF 2010, [Native American activist, poet and philosopher] John Trudell said that the beast we face today is far greater and more dangerous than the one we faced in the 60s. Oppression on steroids if you will. What do you say are the differences between struggle then and now? What can today’s youth learn from your generation’s successes and failures?
I don’t know that looking at the differences between then and now is really the big question—it’s what are we facing now? It’s largely the same with a veil over it. What we had to go through back then was just as big a giant as what we have to go through today, in terms of how we were able to gather resources, get the slingshot, take on and slay the giant. Today we’re facing a mighty giant too. It’s a question of what are we to learn from the past and how can that help us in moving through the present and dealing with the future. With the complex problems we face, the question is what new solutions are we going to come up with? The problems are too big to take them on all on at once. They are not manageable. You simply have to start somewhere, focus on something that you can manage and apply all of your intellectual, creative and academic faculties to tackle the problem. Everything is so complex. You have to examine things in terms of where you are, start somewhere and work on that bit by bit. There is a role for everyone to play in this struggle, to get in where they fit in. You can’t generalize the plan.
On the Hidden History tour, the question of Reform versus Revolution was presented as a point of ideological debate that permeated the Civil Rights Movement and by extension, FST. What do you have to say on the topic?
There is no one answer. You have to have facets involved in both areas at the same time. Both terms are too broad to begin with.
Any closing comments for the people?
The FST in its development has taken many twists and turns. But it has survived and made a mark. By looking at its history, people can tune in to whatever part they want. Just like stops on the Underground Railroad, FST, Junebug Productions, the FST Institute, etc. and the Performing and Visual Arts Council (PVAC), with its Readers Theater, that I started with students at Georgia State University in 2008—these are all creative destination points along the creative track of the Civil Rights struggle. The important thing is that that railroad track keeps getting extended by the young people, working inter-generationally.
Word. Anything else you want to say, with respects to your background or on the anniversary specifically?
Well when I worked in Mississippi, I did more creative work than just a visual artist as John and Gilbert thought. I was a dancer at the time, and gathered Tougaloo college students to meet and practice creative dancing in preparation of bringing dance into the plays of the FST. I taught, and wrote poetry, some of which was published. As for as the anniversary, it really offered me chances to connect with people, influential pieces in the puzzle of life of the FST and it stirred up memories, thoughts and even some new ideas.
Awesome. Well speaking of new ideas, what can we expect from you looking forward?
The Urban Bush Women are considering incorporating my photography into their dance. Hunter College Alumni Association wants to do a story on me. And I’m considering doing workshops with Alternate ROOTS. I also want to support the work of and keep in touch with poet educators Kalaamu Ya Salaam as well as Jerry Ward, among others. Finally, I’ll soon be publishing a book of my documentary photographs, entitled, The Black Arts Movement: the Power of Black and the Civil Rights Struggle.
Michael “Quess?” Moore is a poet, educator, and an actor in that order. His writing and work with youth as a poet led him to the classroom where he most recently spent four years as an English teacher. He is a founding member of Team SNO (Slam New Orleans), New Orleans’ first slam poetry team since Hurricane Katrina, and the only national championship team the city has ever produced having won competitions in 2010, 2012 and 2013. His accomplishments with Team SNO have earned him honors from the Mayor of New Orleans as well as from City Council. He’s also a member of VOIC’D (Voices Organized in Creative Dissent), a collective of actors spawned by Junebug Productions with a focus on social justice, whose last production, “Lockdown,” received critical acclaim and sold out audiences several nights in a row. He has produced a self-titled CD, “A Scribe Called Quess?” and his debut book of poetry, Blind Visionz, can be found at www.lulu.com.