"Artists are the Gatekeepers of Truth": Paul Robeson's 125th Birthday Celebration​

For the second year in a row, The Humanities Truck partnered with several community groups to host “Artists are the Gatekeepers of Truth: Paul Robeson’s 125th Birthday Celebration.” Parked on the corner of Georgia Ave and Kansas Ave, the truck powered a community forum.  The forum featured special guest and artist Uzikee Nelson.  He was joined by others who came together to celebrate black art, community, and culture.

The History

UZIKEE

Allen Uzikee Nelson was born in 1938 in Tupelo, Mississippi. Uzikee, as he is known around DC received a Bachelor of Science, in Engineering Technology from the Southern Illinois University in 1965 and served as a faculty member at UDC, both of which helped to shape the foundation of his artwork.  In 1970, Uzikee created  a fifteen foot steel sculpture commissioned by the NAACP for a neighborhood park in Peoria, Illinois.  His work in DC follows suite with many of his iron sculptures shown right. When describing his artistic philosophy, Uzikee says “all art is representative of culture.”

Gamma Xi Phi, an all gender fraternity for artists are creators of which Uzikee is a member, describes his works as “icons [that] are intended to rejuvenate our ancestral memory, to educate, to improve the self-esteem of African-Americans and to infuse African design and aesthetics into the subconscious culture. His sculptures are designed to bridge the gap between African ritual and abstract art, as well as bridge the gap between African and Western culture. As a sculptor who works primarily with weathering steel and stained glass,UZIKEE’s works are free standing pieces. According to UZIKEE, “all of my works are three dimensional, yet a the same time flat in characteristics and usually Janus-faced.”

PAUL ROBESON

Born in 1898, Paul Robeson was an incredible actor, musician,  athlete, author, and political activist. His career and work were influenced by his commitment to anti-colonialist and black nationalist activism, which was identified as a national threat by McCarthy. Robeson lost rights to travel after his passport was suspending, causing great strain on his career. After a lifetime of persecution, Robeson retreated from the public eye and eventually passed in 1976.

PBS describes Robeson’s legacy saying: “To this day, Paul Robeson’s many accomplishments remain obscured by the propaganda of those who tirelessly dogged him throughout his life. His role in the history of civil rights and as a spokesperson for the oppressed of other nations remains relatively unknown…If we are to remember Paul Robeson for anything, it should be for the courage and the dignity with which he struggled for his own personal voice and for the rights of all people.”

"HERE I STAND"

“Here I Stand” is one of Uzikee’s iron sculptures located in the Petworth Neighborhood of DC at the corner of Georgia Ave & Kansas Ave 

The sculpture is meant to honor Paul Robeson and provides space for neighbor residents and visitors to reflect on his legacy.

It also provides an opportunity to re-center social justice, activism, and racial equity, in the spirit of Paul Robeson. 

The event

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ARTISTS ARE THE GATEKEEPERS OF TRUTH

Streamers, Happy Birthday signs, and sweet treats were set up in the park. The Humanities Truck team set up a stage directly in front of “Here I Stand.” Paul Robeson’s birthday party had begun!

Throughout the afternoon, many artists and speakers spoke about their activism, the significance of art, and the importance of preserving history, especially black and ancestral history. 

In addition to the featured speaker, Uzikee Nelson, the forum speakers included poet CeLilliane Greene who opened the gathering with her poem, “I am Perfectly Black.”  Other speakers included Michael Anthony Brown, from Howard University, who reflected on the intersections of art and activism.  Peter Stebbins, from the Lilly and Earl M. Pilgrim Foundation, led a book raffle, and Dan Kerr, from the Humanities Truck, addressed the relationship between  oral history and movement building. 

 This year was the event’s second iteration, hopefully with more to come. 

To start the program, CeLillianne Green performs a poem entitled “I am Perfectly Black.”

Dr. Anthony Michael Brown joined the line up to talk about the intersection of art and activism. 

and finally, as a featured speaker and special guest, Uzikee Nelson talks about his work and framework as an artist. 

Sources:

History

Meet Uzikee Nelson – One of DC’s Greatest Artists

Paul Robeson Biography

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