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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Mary Rizzo on Baltimore, the Black Arts Movement, and Doing Public History


Dr. Mary Rizzo is an Associate Professor of History at Rutgers-Newark (SAS-N). She specializes in public humanities and 20th century US cultural and urban history. Her most recent book, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), examined how policy makers and cultural producers battled over the image and meaning of Baltimore since the 1950s.


Q: How does your research inspire your teaching?


A: While researching my last book, Come and Be Shocked, I came across a poetry magazine called Chicory that was published in Baltimore from 1966-1983. When I went down to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore to look at it, I was blown away by how it captured the day-to-day experiences of working-class Black Baltimore residents. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement and vernacular traditions in African American literature, Chicory’s editors didn’t edit what folks submitted. They either published it or didn’t! It didn’t matter if the author was a 6-year-old child, a social worker, or an incarcerated man. They all wrote for Chicory.


As I delved more into the history of the Black Arts Movement, I became fascinated by the question of how artists use arts and culture for activism. This inspired me to create the class, "The Black Arts Movement and Black Cultural Activism" at Rutgers-Newark, which is a History and African American and African Studies course. In it, we look at examples of Black artist-activism from the Free Southern Theater, a theater group that travelled throughout the rural South during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, to Beyonce performing at the Super Bowl dressed to evoke the Black Panthers. We delve into the debates around Black Arts in the 1960s and 1970s. What does it mean to create revolutionary art? What defines Black art? How does art and culture fit alongside economic, political and social issues?


I particularly appreciate teaching these topics at Rutgers-Newark, where people of color are the majority of our students. They tell me repeatedly that they’ve never learned this history before coming to Rutgers-Newark. And they ask hard questions! I’ve had great, productive conversations in class about what it means for me, a white woman, to teach Black history.


Q: What is one innovative or unique teaching practice you’d like to share?


A: As a public historian, I try to expand my classes so that we’re working collaboratively on a project of public importance with communities outside our classroom. My most ambitious recent project was the co-creation of a traveling exhibit, Soul of the Butterfly: Chicory Magazine and Baltimore's Black Arts Activism, in 2021-2022. In Fall 2021, undergraduate and graduate students in The Black Arts Movement and Black Cultural Activism course collaborated with high school students participating in the DewMore Baltimore and Writers in Baltimore Schools [WBS] programs as well as students from Bard High School Early College. Through zoom listening sessions, we learned what our Baltimore partners wanted to see in an exhibit about how Black Baltimoreans used art for activism through Chicory magazine. Rutgers students conducted research in primary and secondary sources and crafted panels reflecting the themes we agreed upon. We used an iterative process where the Baltimore students gave feedback on Rutgers' students drafts of the exhibit. In the spring, the Baltimore students took over, adding their own voices to the exhibit, drawing out the connections between past and present.


The exhibit premiered at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in June 2022. It will travel through the Baltimore library system until August 2023. Find the tour schedule here.


Q: How does this work advance the university's mission as a publicly-engaged anchor institution?


A: Because Rutgers-Newark has a stated commitment to publicly-engaged scholarship, I feel supported in taking the risks to do the public history projects I do, which can be more complicated than working on a single-authored monograph or article. While I also publish in mainstream publications and give talks to the public, probably the most important thing to me is that my students see themselves as active producers of history, not simply consumers of it.


Follow Dr. Rizzo on twitter: @rizzo_pubhist

To learn more about Dr. Rizzo's work, you can also:

  • Visit her website.

  • Learn more about the Chicory Revitalization Project by following the projects's Instagram account, @Chicory_Baltimore.







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