“Can Black Culture Survive as a Platform for Constructing Power? And Why Rush Arts Needs Us ASAP! by Debra Hand”

By Debra Hand
In the top left image, the young man staring into the camera claims my attention. His expression seems to say, “My future depends on you.”
In reality, other thoughts are probably crowding his young mind as he explores his imagination through art, but I know in my heart that my assumption is still true. His future does, in fact, depend on me. And not just me—it depends on every person with the heart and consciousness to understand that his future is in great jeopardy unless we maintain stepping stones, blueprints, and safe passages for him to find his way through childhood, through his teen years, and into his adulthood and beyond. His future depends on those who understand the place of culture in helping him to build internal power, and it depends on the readers today who ask themselves this simple question knowing what our youth are up against: How can we assure that these young people can explore and develop their potential?
This is where we as a cultural group must have this young man’s back. As I look at his photo, knowing what will be required of his psyche for him to avoid or overcome the systems awaiting him, we of good conscious know that he cannot survive them alone. It’s true that “it all starts at home.” But not every home functions ideally. Some are not functional at all. Not every child even has a home, or parents, or people in their corner who care if they survive. Yet, every child deserves a chance to discover their potential and to thrive. This is where a cultural group must move collectively with intention to ensure their survival. In my opinion, a cultural group that cannot assure the survival and success of its youth is effectively null and void because the first duty of culture is the establishment of rituals and activities aimed at collective survival. 

When there is a threat to our cultural platforms—especially those created specifically to invest in the mental and creative development of our youth—we must come together and fight for them.   

Being a product of Black culture, I know firsthand the incredible talent that abounds in our communities. I love our creativity and the improvisational skills that enable us to this day to make something from nothing no matter where life finds us. I love being from a cultural group whose natural rhythmic tunings allow us, during celebrations, to report to any dance floor, unrehearsed, and move as one unit in perfect synchronization. I love the sharp observations of Black elders who can sum up whole volumes of life-lessons, condensing them into a few unpretentious words that cut to the heart of the matter.     

The late Dempsey Travis was excellent at this. He was a well-known Chicago businessman who said two things that have stayed with me from the moment I heard them. One of these statements was made by Dempsey during an interview about his life where he said he always wanted to become someone that the boyhood version of hisself would have looked up to. Waking up each day with that as a goal must have certainly informed Dempsey’s journey and his success in life. He became the hero in his own story.

The children in these photos are at the beginning stages of who they will become in their own stories, and they are beginning to explore some of the tools and talents they possess. They are being taught constructive ways to express themselves and to use their time. They are being mentored, tutored,  guided and reenforced along their journeys. They are learning through determination that there is value to be uncovered within. Through art and other activities, they are building habits of determination, the determination that will be used to help shape their futures. These are activities that are vital for a cultural group to provide. And we all know that our communities will be shaped by how their futures play out.    

When it comes to culture, once again, Dempsey Travis has left us a profound lesson summed up in a few words. I mentioned these words in my previous article and they are worth repeating. Dempsey always referred to Black cultural institutions and platforms as “a place to be somebody.” This saying was presumably inspired by the play A Place to be Nobody. In Dempsey’s lifetime, as now, inbuilt systems offer the Black man plenty of “places to be nobody.”  Understanding this, Dempsey knew how vital it was for us as a cultural group to create and sustain “places to be somebody.”  The creation and maintaining of these places is work that has to be done with great intention. Some among us have to roll up their sleeves specifically for this purpose. This takes me to another saying of my own that is worth repeating.     

“The business of art—and the building of culture—are two different things, even when these activities overlap.” 

Not everyone in the business of Black art is concerned with the well-being of Black culture. As I’ve said,  “Art is the connective tissue of Black culture.” That being the case, we are in big trouble if we fail to maintain “places to be somebody” that can feed the minds and hearts of our children. The renowned artist Danny Simmons and the Rush Arts Philanthropic Foundation have passionately done this work for decades. The photos of children you see in this article are all taken from platforms that Rush Arts has long provided for young people, as well as emerging adult artists. In fact, many famous Black artists who now stand proudly on world stages, showered by vigorous applause, have been discovered or helped along by Rush Arts.

I, myself, have stood proudly on one such stage inspired and created by Rush Arts when I became a Chicago winner in the sculpture category during their national search for the “Next Great Artist.” The great painter and sculptor Gerald Griffin was also a Chicago winner in the painting category that same year. Winners were flown to Miami during Art Basel for a phenomenal exhibit. In another year, these contests brought the work of contest winner, Hebru Brantley, to town during Art Basel where Brantley’s work caught the eye of the rapper and art collector Jay-Z. Jay-Z purchased Brantley’s work. Rush Arts’ contest also used Black Galleries throughout the nation to host the contests, thereby expanding exposure to Black galleries nationwide. 

When it comes to building youth empowerment through culture, or building community through culture, or helping to build the careers of Black artists, Danny Simmons and Rush Arts have long been there, working in the trenches. This is why the name “Rush Arts” shows up so often in the early years of the resumes of so many critically-acclaimed Black artists being celebrated globally today: artists such as Kehinde Wiley, and stars on the rise like Derricks Adams and Lavette Ballard, have all stood on platforms “scaffolded” into existence by the hard work and sweat of Danny Simmons and the resources of Rush Arts.

While Danny could have easily chosen to be somewhere solely devoted to his own obvious talents and art career, instead, he dedicated himself to culture-building, as opposed to only the business of art. As I said, “The business of art and the uplifting of culture are two different activities, even when those things overlap.” And we can easily find proof of this statement in the fact that Black visual art, Black music, Black movies, Black dances, Black fashion trends, etc., are generating record profits and attention, but our cultural group is not being equally uplifted alongside and our communities are seldom the real benefactors of our cultural production when it comes to the business of art. To sustain ourselves, we have to move with intention to make our culture serve our youth and (ourselves) as a platform for empowerment. 

Danny Simmons and Rush Arts has long been investing the time, resources, and finances to provide Black children with, not only a place “to become somebody” but also a place that can alter paths leading to “places to be nobodies.” They have been creating detours away from those pathways, and saving them from those paths that the inbuilt systems have predetermined for them.

Seeing photos of young people at Rush learning through their tutoring, creativity, mentoring, or exposure to goal-setting— we can all ask ourselves:

  • Where would these children be at this moment without those safe, constructive spaces provided by Rush Arts?
  • What might these young people become without culture-building institutions like Rush Arts to provide a place where they can explore their potential?
  • And where will we be as a cultural group without such places of consciousness, doing the work to create and sustain using our culture as a platform for creating self-esteem and self-empowerment?

I wish this was a moment where I could simply close this article with a Thank You to Danny Simmons from all of us. But, instead, this story takes a hard turn. Rush Arts is faced with the possibility of closing their doors. Right now, Rush needs our help to continue the work of serving our children, our artists, and our culture. They need us to step-up for “us.” They need us to step-up financially and give whatever we can…to say that the building of our youth through culture is “Too Big to Fail!” 

They need each and every one of us to do what we can, and they certainly need the support of the many big-name artists Rush Arts has supported during their early careers to come through with donations. Yes, I know…As big-name artists, you have managers with carefully curated plans to place your artwork strategically to maximize your market, but if those plans, or the reps and assistants around you, result in prohibiting you from coming through for the youth coming behind you in your communities, then maybe it’s time to turn to your inner child and ask, “Are you proud of me now? If not, what can I do to become your hero in this particular story where my cultural group and community need me?”

Remember this: Once, it was Rush Arts that helped you to have a “place to be somebody.” Now you are somebody.  The question is: Will the children in these photos become products of a cultural group that is committed to their excellence because of you? Are you that somebody? Are we those somebodies? 

The young people in these photos await our answer. 

To help save Rush Arts, here are 3 ways to donate:  To give through the Rush Arts website donation page, please click https://rushphilanthropic.org/donate/

To give through the Facebook donation page, please click  https://www.facebook.com/donate/377943951098679/5429928600402347/  *be sure you’re logged in

To send a check, mail check to: Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation c/o Danny Simmons,                                                       PO Box 3401, Philadelphia, PA 19122

To hear Danny Simmons and other community members speak about Rush Arts passion for building culture and community, please see this powerful YouTube clip https://youtu.be/ohNtkOxQbsI  

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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer.  She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park.  Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma;  Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.  She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first

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