Metropolis: The art of building culture in Atlanta

Faith Carmichael and Jelani Cobb launch a movement they hope will rival the Harlem Renaissance

I swear I'm not making this up: There is culture and intellectualism in Atlanta. The problem is that we can't have those rare commodities without a corporate stamp. If it ain't good for bidness, Bubba, fergit it.

Consider Atlanta's long, long, ever-so-long-overdue civil rights museum. Or, more precisely, consider Birmingham's, and its grand, emotion-wrenching juxtaposition to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 an infamous Klan bombing killed four little girls.

In Atlanta, the planned museum won't have any geographic relationship with the Civil Rights Movement – it won't be close to Auburn Avenue, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Center, or, for that matter, the old site of Paschal's Restaurant.

For reasons that make sense only in Atlanta, the civil rights museum is going to be planted on ground sanctified by the Coca-Cola Co., and by Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus. The World of Coca-Cola and Bernie's aquarium found a little corner for a tiny bit of civil rights – with the underlying idea that maybe the new museum will drive traffic to the neighboring tourist traps. Such a deal!

Cynics just might sneer that real estate-wise, the museum will be seated in the back of the bus. Recalling the crass excess of commercialism at the 1996 Olympic Games, some bright fellow might even come up with a scheme to Photoshop MLK holding a can of Coke in a depiction of one of the 1960s marches. Or, perhaps a bit of computer-spiced-up video, in which King proclaims: "I have a dream that someday, yes someday, one humongous hardware store will put all of the little hardware stores out of business."

You can never be sure when the "Atlanta Way" is the deciding factor. Or, rather, you can be sure: Commercialism trumps culture. In the case of the civil rights museum, potentates huddled, a secret decision was made and, voila!, we have a location for the civil rights museum that befuddles almost every thinking person in this burg.

So, it is really refreshing when we see occasional outbreaks of culture and original thought in Atlanta. And, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against corporate patronage. It's blessedly essential – a hallowed tradition dating back to the Renaissance popes, the Medici family and many American titans of industry. It should be applauded, at least when the money lets the minds do their work unfettered.

Here's a hand clap, then, for developer Egbert Perry, who on an evening last month threw open his Renaissance Walk residential development on Auburn Avenue to a decidedly non-corporate-looking group of artists, writers, musicians and others you might describe as "public intellectuals."

The event, dubbed NEXT!, was the brainchild of Faith Carmichael, who is many things, one of which is arts activist. She has this idea that with all of the burgeoning African-American creativity, we might be on the verge of something resembling the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s.

"It came about at a house warming given by Spelman College history professor Jelani Cobb," Carmichael recalls. "We were sitting around discussing art and politics. I'd come upon little pockets where true artistry happened, and wondered what would happen if we could bring all of those into one space. What would happen to our city? During that conversation, Jelani turned thinking into action when he said, 'So, what are we going to do next?'"

Part of the answer was that Cobb and other intellectuals ran for delegate slots at the Democratic National Convention – and won. The other outcome was NEXT!, which featured "jazz 'n' roll" band Daysahead, photographer Shannon McCollum, spoken word artist Ayodele Heath and Cobb, who when not teaching or politicking is a darn gutsy writer.

Cobb has taken on the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, in one essay referring to Jesse Jackson, Andy Young and John Lewis as "a sort of civil rights old boy network – a black boy network – that has parlayed its dated activist credentials into cash and jobs."

Living in NYC in 1999, Cobb encountered author Pete Hamill at a bookstore. "I talked to him about my New York versus his New York. We each had a fragment of what New York meant. A twentysomething black man in Manhattan and a sixtysomething Irish guy from Brooklyn. When I moved to Atlanta, I've tried to create a similar conversation about what it means to live here. Atlanta is a metaphor for our times, for the country and the South. Places resonate at different times, San Francisco in the 1960s, for example, and I believe Atlanta now."

He pauses, then reflects, "Is Atlanta a progressive city? Not necessarily, especially when it comes to the arts. We need places to assemble, like the big public library in Chicago. And we also need people taking up the conversation."

Cobb does not exactly look like a sensitive writer. He's big, football lineman big, with hands the size of dinner plates. His own sport is boxing, however, which he picked up from his father, a semi-pro pugilist, who is honored and recalled in Cobb's in-progress novel, The Ballad of Black Ben Brawley.

The story of the boxer is clearly a metaphor – the underdog who rose up and knocked out the unbeatable champ. But, with a bit of irony, one passage foreshadows what happened at the NEXT! event on Auburn Avenue. It reads:

"In time it became one of those events with 10,000 eyewitnesses, though there were scarcely 200 people in attendance. Few saw it and none of them knew exactly what they were seeing."

More NEXT! events are planned. See www.mustardseedcommunications.com. Jelani Cobb's website is at www.jelanicobb.com.

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