Rutgers-Newark students and faculty collaborated with Baltimore community members to present an exhibit on the Black Arts Activist magazine, Chicory, whose 1969 poetry anthology was dubbed “the most authentic microphone of Black people talking ever devised.”
The exhibit, called Soul of the Butterfly: Chicory Magazine and Baltimore’s Black Arts Activism, tells the story of how Black people in Baltimore have used art for activism since the 1960s. It opens in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library on June 24 and runs through July 11, before traveling to library branches throughout Baltimore for the next year.
Created through a collaboration between the Chicory Revitalization Project, Rutgers University-Newark, Dewmore Baltimore, Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS), Bard High School Early College Baltimore, Enoch Pratt Free Library and former editors of Chicory, the exhibit provided an opportunity for young Baltimore writers of color to explore the work of earlier generations of local artist-activists and Baltimore’s history.
Students from Rutgers University-Newark, led by public historian Mary Rizzo, worked with Baltimore students to develop the themes and topics on the historical part of the exhibit through listening sessions on Zoom. Rutgers University-Newark students conducted research in Baltimore, African American history and in Chicory to write the exhibit script.
Rizzo, who is an associate professor in the departments of History and American Studies, said she rediscovered Chicory in the Pratt library's special collections, where it had been since it ended in 1983, while doing research. “As soon as I read the first issue, I knew this was an important resource because it recorded the voices of average Black residents of Baltimore. I wanted to be sure to reconnect the magazine with its community, and helped found the Chicory Revitalization Project with three of the magazine's former editors and four Baltimore cultural and educational organizations.”
The Magazine for People Who Don't Like to Write But Have Something to Say
Chicory magazine was created by late Baltimore poet Sam Cornish and was published from 1966-1983 by Pratt Library. It was digitized and made publicly available in 2017. Originally funded through the federal War on Poverty, the library recognized its importance to the community and continued publishing it for decades.
"Chicory magazine was born out of the Black Arts Movement, the largest cultural upsurge of Black people in the twentieth century,” says Melvin E. Brown, Chicory Editor from 1971-1980. “Informed by the Black Arts Movement, Chicory poets and writers spoke truth to power, and often bridged the gap between literature and activism. It is important for young people to know Chicory writers as progenitors of the creative expression of today, who often faced the same issues decades ago."
Because of the tumultuous time period it spanned, the magazine documents the voices of everyday Black people, from children to elders, from social workers to men in prison, about everything from the civil rights and Black Power movements, the 1968 riot after Martin Luther King’s death, the beginning of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration to daily life in Baltimore.
While there were a lot of small magazines published during the Black Arts Movement era, Chicory was for regular people to express themselves. As it said in an early issue, "Chicory is the magazine for people who don't like to write but have something to say." It published everyone from elementary school aged children to incarcerated people to elderly people in nursing homes. When an anthology of Chicory poems was published in 1969, the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper called it, “the most authentic microphone of Black people talking ever devised.”
Soul of the Butterfly: A Conversation Across Time Periods
Soul of the Butterfly uses Chicory to examine how artist-activists responded through their art to the structural racism hurting Black communities in Baltimore since the 1960s.
The exhibit is divided into four sections. One details the history of Chicory and highlights the involvement of Lucille Clifton, former Poet Laureate of Maryland, who mentored several Chicory editors and writers, wrote an introduction to a special issue about all-girls Eastern High School, and judged a poetry contest for the magazine. Chicory was also a launching pad for several people who became professional writers, from poet, playwright and educator Afaa Michael Weaver to first Black presidential speechwriter Terry Edmonds to journalist Rafael Alvarez.
A section on mental health examines how poetry can be used as a tool for personal healing from the stresses caused by structural racism. It shows how Black communities responded to increasing drug availability and incarceration starting in the 1970s. Many Chicory poets celebrated the resiliency and beauty of the Black community, which is described in a subsection on Black joy.
The environment section discusses Baltimore’s shameful history of housing segregation and displacement of Black communities. The exhibit examines how poets, muralists, and others have used art to raise awareness of these issues and claim space for their community.
It’s not just an echo, it’s a conversation that’s happening across time periods. Chicory is a living testament of that possibility.
A section on opportunity looks at education and Black institutions. This section tells the little known history of the SOUL School, a Black cultural nationalist school in West Baltimore in the 1960s and early 1970s, that taught young Black people about their cultural heritage as a way to empower them.
“The kind of writing that appears in Chicory is poetry but I read it as reportage, authentic, feet-on-the-ground responding to what’s not necessarily covered in the mainstream,” said Patrick Oray, faculty in literature at Bard Baltimore, and advisor for the exhibit.
Baltimore youth became content creators, placing Chicory’s themes in the present.
“I’m excited to be part of this project, I really am. It gives me a chance to let go and just be myself. It gives me freedom,” said Taye Caldwell, a 7th grader involved with WBS.
“I never participated in a collaborative project as extensive as this one. The Baltimore students showed up to the meetings excited and ready to give constructive feedback. Their passion for revitalizing Chicory magazine inspired me to show up as much as I possibly could,” said Jamisha Montague, an African American and African studies major and Honors Living and Learning Community alumna at Rutgers University-Newark who graduated in May 2022.
Young Baltimore writers added their own components to the exhibit showing the connections between the history and their lives in present-day Baltimore.
“We can look at how the conversations and the content are so similar between what was in Chicory and today, but it’s not just an echo, it’s a conversation that’s happening across time periods. Chicory is a living testament of that possibility,” said Victor Rodgers/Slangston Hughes, artistic coordinator for Dewmore Baltimore.
Rizzo agreed. “Since 2018, we've sponsored events and worked on projects to connect young writers of color in Baltimore today with the words of those who came before them. This exhibit is the biggest project so far and I couldn't be more excited to see it when it opens at the library."
Soul of the Butterfly: Chicory Magazine and Baltimore’s Black Arts Activism exhibition opens at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on June 24, 2022. It will be on display until July 11. It will then travel to other branch libraries in the city for the next year.
Soul of the Butterfly was created with the generous support of the Whiting Foundation, Rutgers University-Newark, and Pratt Library.