After George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were killed in 2020, the national reckoning that followed sparked many needed conversations about racism in America. But as those conversations became more widespread, the polarization among Black and white Americans became more prevalent, too.
Now leaders of The Black Legacy Project are working to reduce that polarization through guided conversations and songs. Their project, which lands in Denver next week, seeks to celebrate Black history through music to advance racial equity, solidarity and belonging.
The idea for the new program emerged when Todd Mack, who has led a nonprofit that uses music to connect people for almost two decades in Atlanta, was looking for a new way to unite Black and white Americans during a time of widespread division in 2020.
“We don’t talk enough about Black history in this country. We also don’t talk enough about white folks who have worked in collaboration with Black folks to help advance equality and change,” said Trey Carlisle, who co-created The Black Legacy Project with Mack.
“We wanted the Black Legacy Project to be an opportunity for folks to revisit that history through song, see how it still rings true today, and then from that, be inspired to think about: ‘How can we continue to carry the torch and work in solidarity today to advance greater belonging?’”
In 2020, while Black Lives Matter protests spanned the country, Mack had been listening to songs written in the 1980s by Bob Dylan about the murder of Emmett Till and other injustices faced by Black people in the 1960s. He heard lyrics about racism in the 60s that still are true today. He was inspired by Dylan’s desire to stand in solidarity with Black people and call for racial equality in his songs.
Mack and Carlisle soon after created The Black Legacy Project, which seeks to close racial divisions and cultivate solidarity between Black and white Americans, through guided conversations and musical exploration.
“We wanted the Black Legacy Project to be an opportunity for folks to revisit these songs, draw strength from them, and draw strength from the stories of Black and white folks in the past working together to call for change,” Carlisle said.
The project will land in seven different communities throughout 2022 and 2023, uniting Black and white artists who will record present day interpretations of songs central to the Black American experience. Artists will then compose originals relevant to the pressing calls for change today. Community roundtable discussions will help inform how those songs are interpreted and rewritten.
The Black Legacy Project launched in 2021 in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The project moved to its second location to engage people in the Ozarks in Arkansas in May. The event will descend in Denver from Sept. 6-11 before it moves to Los Angeles in early December. Project leaders will work with participants in the Mississippi Delta in February, before traveling to Atlanta in April. The event concludes in June in its seventh community, Boise, Idaho.
The seven locations were chosen to create a snapshot of America’s diversity while highlighting the idea that Black history is American history, and Black history exists in every corner of the county, even in areas where it’s least expected. The tour includes big cities with racial diversity, small rural areas, communities that are predominantly white and municipalities that are predominantly Black, Mack said.
In each community the project travels to, project leaders have hand-picked songs that have a theme connected to the local community. The songs are examined by Black and white residents, who break off into affinity groups with others from their own racial demographic, to discuss the meaning of the song’s lyrics. The two groups come together to present what they’ve learned and then offer ideas for how they might move closer to achieving racial equality. Those songs are then reimagined and performed by Black and white artists from the area.
The selected theme for Denver participants is “walking in my shoes,” which focuses on the importance of envisioning one’s self in the place of others, to help build bridges across racial divides and curb interracial violence, Carlisle said.
Denver participants will unpack lyrics from the songs, “The Klan,” and “The Ballad of the Walking Postman,” both recorded by Walt Conley, a Black man considered by many to be the founding father of the Denver folk music scene. Community members will analyze the lyrics of these songs in round table discussions to help inform how local artists will then musically reinterpret them.
Registration is required for the free roundtable discussion in Denver on Tuesday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. The location will be announced when people register. The project will culminate with a free performance at Swallow Hill Music in South Denver on Sunday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. The event will include a screening of a docu-series that is being produced about The Black Legacy Project. Each episode depicts a location the project is traveling to and performances of the reinterpreted songs.
Dzirae Gold, a musical co-director for the Denver-based portion of the project, was surprised when she was invited to help lead the project but decided to participate to help produce music with intentionality, she said.
“Our goal is to communicate the power of music and the ability to bridge worlds to highlight differences and similarities between our world today and the world almost a century ago,” she said. “Community involvement is encouraged and is actually crucial to the success of the project.”
The theme “walking in my shoes” was chosen for Denver because project leaders identified a powerful history of interracial solidarity and activism in the city to prevent racial violence, Carlisle said.
Dr. Joseph Henry Peter Westbrook, a notable activist and philanthropist in Denver in the early 1900s, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan to help prevent violence against Black people in the Mile High City. That was decades before the movie “BlacKkKlansman” depicted the life of Ron Stallworth, a Colorado Springs police detective, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s.
Local activist Theo E.J. Wilson, an opinion columnist for the Colorado Sun, infiltrated the alt-right movement on social media in the 2000s and has since worked to create spaces where people of different racial backgrounds can have healing and meaningful conversations about shared humanity, Carlisle said.
Similarly, Dr. Clarence Holmes created the Cosmopolitan Club of Denver, which was organized in the early 1900s. The club brought Black, white, Japanese and Jewish Americans together to promote racial solidarity and social change while the Ku Klux Klan was prominent in Denver.
“There’s a big need for those stories to be told and discussed in settings where community members can hear each other and empathize with each other and see themselves in the other person’s shoes,” Carlisle said. “That is really the starting ground for where empathy can be cultivated, solidarity can be cultivated and this social change and activism can inspire.”
The Black Legacy Project is produced by Music in Common, an Atlanta-based nonprofit launched in 2005 by Mack, a singer-songwriter. Music In Common strengthens, empowers, and connects communities through music and was started by Mack after his friend and bandmate, Daniel Pearl, was abducted and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl was a Wall Street Journal reporter.
The Black Legacy Project centers on healing through music, an expressive and disarming tool that can unite people before they dive into challenging conversations about racism, Mack said. “Half the battle is getting people to the table.”
Attending the Black Legacy Project’s event in the Ozarks, however, was an easy decision for Tanya Evans, a multicultural outreach librarian working with communities of color in Springdale, Arkansas.
She attended the roundtable discussion about race and learned Springdale had been a sundown town, an all-white neighborhood that excluded people of color by using discriminatory laws, harassment, threats and other violence. Although Black people were allowed to work or travel in a sundown community during the day, they were required to leave by sundown. Older Black participants at the roundtable discussion had lived in smaller towns surrounding Springdale when sundown signs were visible around the community as recently as the 1980s, Evans said.
“I think it’s cathartic for people who’ve experienced racism in America, and for other people who do not belong to minority groups, and who are white people,” she said. “There are a lot of things that they don’t know and there were some ‘aha’ moments for a lot of people at that discussion.”
When Evans was growing up in southern Arkansas, her grandmother told her to always ask for a receipt and a shopping bag when she visited the store, to reduce the likelihood that she would ever be accused of shoplifting, she said.
“We need to examine the past, look at how far we’ve come and see how far we need to go,” she added. “I saw that it was a learning experience all across the board for all of us … Until you actually meet somebody that’s lived that and you hear the pain in their voice, or see it in their eyes, I don’t think you’ll ever really get it.”
After the dialogue, Evans told Black Legacy Project leaders that the younger people are exposed to conversations about racism in America, “the better off” and more tolerant future generations will become.
“These types of conversations won’t solve the problem,” she said. “But I think they can help in the healing process. There are a lot of people in America that have scars, and they need to heal, and just ignoring it won’t make it go away,” she said as she began to cry. “I wish every school kid in America could experience this project.”
MORE: The Black Legacy Project is sponsored by The Colorado Sun and other organizations.