The Role of Artists: A Call to Action

By Carlton Turner, Executive Director, Alternate ROOTS (Utica, MS)

This presentation was first given on August 6, 2014 at ROOTS Week Annual Meeting and Artists’ Retreat, held in Arden, North Carolina. The photos throughout are of Katina Parker’s photographic installation, One Million Strong: Photos from The Million Man, Atonement Day, Million Women, Million Youth, Million Family, and Millions More Movement Marches (1995-2005), which she installed at ROOTS Week. 

Fifty years ago our nation was locked in a struggle to prove it could walk the talk of its founding fathers and provide equality for all of its citizens. In 1955, the murder of a young black boy named Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi put the nation on alarm that times had to change. In 1963, the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama took the lives of four little black girls and called for heightened national awareness of the effects that systematic oppression and racism had on the lives of children. From the War on Poverty and Freedom Summer in 1964 to the Voting Rights Act and Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1965, the nation was being challenged to keep up with the demand for justice and equal opportunity. Two decades after the murder of young Emmett, the seeds were planted on the side of a hill in east Tennessee at the Highlander Research Center, a foundational institution of southern movement building, which would grow into Alternate ROOTS. A small group of artists and theater makers had gathered there to ask the question: What is the role of the arts and artists in fostering social justice? What is the role of the South in a progressive movement for change in this country?

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“One Million Strong,” Katina Parker. Photo by Melisa Cardona. August 2014.

38 years later, these questions are just as relevant. The advances of the Civil Rights movement have been eroded and in some cases reversed (as with the Voting Rights Act). Young African American children are being legally murdered in Florida and across the nation, their killers protected by lopsided laws that are unjustly applied across race and class. We recently witnessed the murder of Eric Garner on the streets of New York City. Record deportations of undocumented immigrants, mass incarceration of black, brown, and red people, and privatized, for profit prisons have turned the Prison Industrial Complex into the newest form of economic development and 21st century slavery. In 2014 there is still a debate within our elected leadership regarding climate change. The country’s thirst for fossil fuels is causing earthquakes to rattle Ohio, Oklahoma, New York, Virginia, and Georgia, polluted water in West Virginia, Ohio, and Louisiana. There is a crisis at our borders, where the most vulnerable of our species are being herded like cattle, caged like dogs, and declared illegal. And then there are the heightened global tensions that have put us closer to World War III than we have been since the Cold War, none more frightening than the atrocities being committed in Gaza. We are in troubling times.

But contrary to what the media would have you believe, our communities are not being silent, they are responding in the form of the Moral Monday, Nation Inside, and New Jim Crow movements, and the development of youth movements like the Dream Defenders. And this movement is not without us, the artists, the culture bearers. We are there, we are here.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

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“One Million Strong,” Katina Parker. Photo by Melisa Cardona. August 2014.

I attended the Cucalorus Film Festival, led by our own Dan Brawley, a couple of years ago. While there I saw a film about domestic abuse and this one quote has stuck with me since that day. “The only way to enforce a lie is with violence.”

This charged and poignant perception helped me to develop a stronger and more nuanced analysis of the military and prison industrial complex and its relationship to occupation of indigenous land and the violence we see on our media devices, newspaper headlines, on our streets and in our communities. It is no coincidence that our local law enforcement agencies are being armed and trained like occupying military forces — they are charged with enforcing a 500 year old lie.

It is our role as artists and cultural workers to carry the traditions of our culture, to perform the rituals of our ancestors. We welcome birth through song and dance, we practice healing through our stories and pictures, we celebrate unions and the changing of seasons with our words and chants, we ease the journey to the other side through our mourning dirges. We seed dreams through practicing our creativity. That is our natural place.

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“One Million Strong,” Katina Parker. Photo by Melisa Cardona. August 2014.

But what happens to creativity when the culture that we are submerged in is repressive and drenched in blood? We become entertainers and perpetrators of that culture through our art. This is where we are, and this is what we, as culture bearers, must resist.

We are in a moment of shifting global balance and, in this time of transition, our role as artists committed to justice is clear. We are the truth tellers, the dreamers, we are the future, we are now.

As an organization “striving to be allies in the elimination of all forms of oppression,” Alternate ROOTS is in position to significantly contribute to the interconnectivity and sustainability of progressive movements in the South. Through the creation of art with both strong aesthetic quality and historical context that is grounded in justice and equality, we can work together across dividing lines and sectors to build partnerships with impact that is longer-lasting, connected to allied efforts, and directed towards sustainable policy shifts.

Let’s make a better world.

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“One Million Strong,” Katina Parker. Photo by August 2014.


Carlton Turner 2014Carlton Turner is the Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, a regional non-profit arts organization based in the south. Carlton has been a member of Alternate ROOTS since 2001 and has served on the organization’s board as a Regional Representative, and as an officer. Carlton Turner is also co-founder and co-artistic director, along with his brother Maurice Turner, of the group M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction) ( M.U.G.A.B.E.E. is a performing arts group that blends jazz, hip-hop, spoken word poetry and soul music together with non-traditional storytelling. Carlton is the husband of Brandi Turner and the father of Jonathan and Xiauna Lin.

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.