About Black Arts Festival

About Walter J. Leonard:

The Kuumba Singers would like to pay a special tribute to Dr. Walter J. Leonard, a distinguished scholar and pioneering admissions administrator at Harvard University, after whom our Black Arts Festival is named. Dr. Leonard passed on December 8, 2015, leaving a legacy of work that is evident on the campuses of Harvard and universities across the country.  For many institutions of higher education, the road to a more diverse student body has been long and tumultuous journey. Dr. Leonard’s passionate pursuit of this goal led to revolutionizing changes in Harvard University admissions, and established the groundwork for affirmative action policies that continue to diversify American colleges today. He is remembered as an extraordinary leader by his colleagues, serving as a critical agent of progress in the recruitment of minority students, faculty and staff at Harvard. Additionally, he is renowned for a diplomacy and patience that allowed the University to navigate tumultuous years of change – years during which Kuumba was founded – and meet the varied demands of students without compromising the academic principles and experiences of everyone on campus. His warm support of the Kuumba Singers and black students at Harvard, in a period when the University seemed like a strange and unwelcoming land, will never be forgotten.

Dr. Leonard’s varied achievements include the Harvard Law School (HLS) Medal of Freedom, the School’s highest honor; an honorary membership of Wolfson College, University of Oxford; and two fellowships held at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, created in his honor at the University of Oxford.  He is a widely published figure, dealing with topics such as student protest movements and Black capitalism, and has served on the boards of major foundations, educational institutions, and corporations. His time at Harvard was spent as Assistant Dean and Assistant Director of Admissions at HLS, Special Assistant to the President of Harvard University, and founding chairman of the W.E.B DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research. In 1976, he left Harvard to become President of Fisk University, reviving the school from near-bankruptcy.

In the words of his colleagues…

“The work he did at Harvard had a ripple effect across the nation, and his influence and impact were ultimately felt in higher education nationwide. He was a truly inspiring agent for change, and his life inspires us to carry forward, in new ways, the work he did here.”

“…with creativity, diplomacy, vision, patience and steadfast determination, he was a pivotal catalyst for diversity and for the recruitment of minority students, faculty and staff.”

We send our deepest condolences to Dr. Leonard’s family and friends.

 About “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” the 19th Annual Black Arts Festival: 

To create is to be human. When we lived in the shackles of institutionalized slavery, they tried to keep us from creating. They knew that if we did not create, we would forget our humanity. HOWEVER, the same body that they desecrated with their whips and lacerations, we used to dance. The same mouth that they deemed as mute and unintelligible, we used to sing and declare that our pain be heard. The same hand that they defiled with their orders, we used to clap and create rhythm. Art has been our source of healing many a time.

Today, we say that institutionalized slavery is no longer accepted. However, remnants of the system that was once used to denounce our humanity exist today. They exist loudly and blatantly in the systemic racism that afflict us on a daily basis and quietly and covertly in the form of our subconscious intraracial conflict. We fear that if we bring to light our struggles and our biases, it will undermine our efforts to combat systemic racism. IT WON’T!!

We are in troubled waters. Today, we, the black community, are divided and we struggle to stand strong and firm. And a house divided will not stand. What divides us are things such as colorism, classism, stigmatization of mental health, and the silencing and disrespect of black women. How can we combat police brutality, education segregation, or even mass incarceration when we are fighting with these intraracial conflicts?

We must go back to our roots and learn from our ancestors. We must dance as they try to desecrate our bodies with bullet wounds. We must use our mouths to sing and declare our dignity. We must use our hands to clap back to ignorant arguments. We must use our hands to create. What they will call vandalism, we must proclaim as an outcry from the depths of our souls. We must  paint and sculpt and photograph the proclamation “We are finished.” Most importantly, we must use our hands to collectively build bridges over the troubled waters that audaciously threaten to drown a people that will never die.


Audrey Maghiro & Makeda Daniel
Black Arts Festival Co-Chairs, 2016-2017

Mission of the Black Arts Festival:

“When asked to write about the Black Arts Festival’s history, I struggled to find a starting point. Does one start with the polyrhythmic music of West Africa or the primordial tragedy of the blues? Should one start with Paul Dunbar or Toni Morrison? I suppose the answer is that this festival began with a group of Black folk who knew that their own points of origin lay in the sustaining wisdom of Black art. We founded Harvard’s Black Arts Festival to remind our artists of their points of origin and to share those origins with our audience.

“The festival was first conceptualized as a simple fundraising event to honor the twenty-five year career of Mr. Robert Winfrey and to kickoff the endowment campaign of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. Mr. Winfrey was an institution in his own right, directing the Kuumba Singers for two and a half decades, and leading them from obscurity to prosperity. The event was conceptualized as a tribute to the rich history he created and left to us upon his retirement. However, as the event grew in size, it became clear that the Black Arts Festival (or “BAF” as it is lovingly called by those that work on it) would celebrate more than an organization’s history. It would celebrate the history and traditions of a life-force — the arts — that has sustained America’s most maligned people…”

Phillip Atiba Goff

To donate to BAF, visit our Donations Page.