Borders, James 1949–
James Borders 1949–
Arts administrator, editor, actor
As managing director of the 1994 National Black Arts Festival (NBAF), a ten-day celebration and showcase of artists of African descent in more than 125 venues across Atlanta, James Borders amply demonstrated his dream for the future of nonprofit arts in America. To explain his vision, Borders borrowed from the history of basketball, which was once segregated in separate black and white leagues, each possessing a distinct style.
In the Atlanta Constitution, Borders recounted the story of these segregated leagues as they relate to the arts in the 1990s: “They merged. There was greater integration of both styles of basketball, which started to create higher standards of play. And as a result, the league enjoyed greater financial success. That’s where the nonprofit arts industry in this country has to go.… In this next goround, we want to be owners as well as players.”
As an example of nonprofit black arts, the NBAF has proven a broad success. Dubbed by Borders a “house party for half a million of your closest friends,” the festival has, since its inception in 1988 by the Atlanta-based Fulton County Department of Arts and Culture, attracted over half a million people from around the world and circulated an estimated $20 million throughout the Atlanta economy at each gathering. Under Borders’s leadership, the 1994 festival focused on the African American history of resistance to social and civil injustice through improvisational art, covering specifically the period from the June 12, 1963, assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers to the June 6, 1993, release of Haitian refugees from Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Before becoming managing director of NBAF in 1993, Borders had been managing director of June-bug Productions, the theater company that arose from a historic civil rights troupe dating from the early 1960s, the Free Southern Theater. He had also gained experience as an actor with the Free Southern Theater; a reporter for the States-Item of New Orleans; an editor of the Black Collegian magazine and the alternative black monthly the New Orleans Tribune; and as a leading student activist at Brown University.
At a Glance…
Born James Buchanan Borders IV, April 5, 1949, in New Orleans, LA; son of James Borders III (a science teacher) and Florence Borders (an archivist); widowed; children: James Buchanan, Mia. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1971, M.A.
Actor, Free Southern Theater, early to mid-1970s; reporter, States-Item, New Orleans, late 1970s; cofounder, New Orleans Tribune, late 1970s; appeared in film The Savage Bees and others, late 1970s; editor, The Black Collegian, c. 1979–86; performance curator and managing director, Junebug Productions, New Orleans, c. 1987-early 1990s; arts administrator, Center for Contemporary Arts, New Orleans, early 1990s; managing director, National Black Arts Festival (NBAF), Atlanta, GA, 1993—.
Addresses: Office —National Black Arts Festival, 236 Forsyth St., Ste. 400, Atlanta, GA 30303.
arts. Borders’s father, James Buchanan Borders III, was a high school science teacher who also played the trumpet. While still a toddler, Borders was listening to jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley for hours on end. Borders’s mother, Florence, was quoted in the Atlanta Constitution describing his father’s intentions. She recalled, “He swore Jimmy understood the music. He started sticking that trumpet up to Jimmy’s mouth when he was crawling.”
Borders’s father, however, died while Borders was still a young boy. At the urging of Borders’s great-uncle, the Rev. William Holmes Borders, the crusading pastor of Atlanta’s renowned Wheat Street Baptist Church, Borders’s father answered the call to attend dental school to prepare to help staff a health clinic planned by the Rev. Borders as an extension of the Wheat Street Church. But one year into the training in Nashville, Tennessee, he died of an aneurysm. Florence Borders then relocated the family first to Grambling, Louisiana, and eventually, to New Orleans, where she worked as an archivist for her alma mater, Southern University.
The young Borders first expressed an awakening social conscience while a junior high student in Grambling. There he boarded a bus bound for a protest march in nearby Jonesboro. But Borders found his actions curtailed by his mother; while he was sitting on the bus, waiting to depart for the march in Jonesboro, Borders’s mother heard of his intentions and immediately retrieved him. “He was angry,” she was quoted as saying in the Atlanta Constitution, but, she added, “I wasn’t ready to bury my child.”
A few years later, as a member of the class of ’71 at Brown University, however, Borders made headlines and helped change the nearly all-white face of the student body. He helped organizing a walkout of the school’s 48 black students, leading to a pledge by the university for better recruitment and the expansion of the number of black students to about 200 in the class of 1974 alone, according to class of 1974 alum Karen McLaurin, who was serving as a dean of the school in 1994.
As a theater major, Borders also contributed to the cultural life of the university. He cofounded the student theater group, Rites and Reasons, and played a crucial role in bringing George Houston Bass, poet Langston Hughes’s literary executor, from Harlem, New York to direct. Still active in 1994, the theater group was praised by John O’Neal, distinguished actor and long-time theater collaborator with Borders, as “a flagship organization in black theater circles,” according to the Atlanta Constitution.
After earning an undergraduate degree in theater and a graduate degree in creative writing, Borders began acting with the Free Southern Theater (FST), a touring company that provided free theater and promoted civil rights consciousness in black communities across the South. “This brave group of actors performed without charge in fields, barns, churches and schools for spectators who could not pay a penny,” wrote Langston Hughes in Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in Entertainment, cowritten with Milton Meltzer, in 1967.
The company was cofounded in late 1963 by O’Neal, a young African American actor from Southern Illinois University, and Gilbert Moses, a 22-year-old African American actor who graduated from Oberlin College and who had acted in Cleveland’s Karamu Theater and off-Broadway. Both staff members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key organization in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, O’Neal and Moses gathered people together and began touring in the summer of 1964 with Martin Duberman’s play In White America. Soon they brought in Richard Schechner, editor of the Tulane Drama Review, as a director and established a base in New Orleans.
Although Borders did not join the troupe until after he graduated in 1971—just a few years before the Free Southern Theater’s decline—he nonetheless took part in an institution with a significant legacy. Reflecting in 1987 on the impact of the theater on southern black communities, one participant involved from 1965 to 1970 registered its effects and mourned its loss. In The Drama Review in 1987 the writer Tom Dent was quoted as saying, “The FST spurred the development of local community theaters in the South, but almost all these have died. If I had $100,000 to put into black theater in the South now, I wouldn’t divide it up among eight towns. I’d put it into one company that would once again go out on tour.” In the mid-1970s the theater found its grant support drying up and its audience often drawn instead to the greater spectacles then available.
Still, the FST did not officially fold until 1980. O’Neal kept at acting, however, and produced the one-person show Don’t Start Me to Talkin’ or I’ll Tell You Everything I Know: Sayings from the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones. He followed with two Junebug sequels, performed around the country, and founded the theater group Junebug Productions, based in New Orleans. During the late 1980s, Borders joined that theater as performance curator and managing director.
Between acting with the FST and directing Junebug Productions, Borders explored an alternate career as a journalist and editor. He reported for the States-Item of New Orleans, then cofounded the alternative black monthly the New Orleans Tribune and edited the Black Collegian magazine. As editor of the Black Collegian, Borders wrote on such topics as changing employment opportunities in defense industries and a CEO survey on the state of affirmative action in the early 1980s. Remaining at the magazine for seven years, Borders was also one of the few reporters to interview rock star Prince. “It was like pulling teeth,” Borders confided to Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Constitution.
During these years, from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, however, Borders did not abandon acting. Between stints as a reporter and editor, he sampled screen acting, appearing in bit parts in low-budget movies such as The Savage Bees. He preferred journalism to acting, though, and only returned to the theater to accept the position as managing director at Junebug Productions during a period of success and growth for the company. Furthering his career as an arts administrator, he also worked for a brief time with the Center for Contemporary Arts in New Orleans. From there he moved to Atlanta to become managing director of the National Black Arts Festival in November of 1993.
In Upscale, Borders was quoted describing the NBAF as a great “conscious party.” As reported by Msingi Auset, Borders elaborated: “Conscious party is not a new term. It generally connotes gatherings of people who are thoughtful, positive, and committed to the uplifting of black people, people of color and people of African descent throughout the diaspora… [and people who] understand that working in unity and celebrating in unity we can overcome the obstacles before us. The NBAF is one opportunity for us to do that at least every two years for 10 days.”
The theme of the 1994 festival, which ran from July 29 through August 7, was “The African American Improvisational Tradition 1963-1993, 30 Years of Struggle Toward a Vision of Salvation.” Events planned included an art exhibit entitled “Malcolm X: Man, Ideal & Icon,” featuring portraits of the civil rights leader; documentary films on the lives and works of the poet Audre Lorde and the leading intellectual and sociologist W. E. B. DuBois; jazz performed by the Art Ensemble of Chicago; poetry read by Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni, and the Nuyorican Poets; and appearances by singers Nancy Wilson, Abbey Lincoln, and Cassandra Wilson, percussionist Vinx, and jazz musician Roy Hargrove.
The festival also incorporated two special programs: one for children and one for community service. The Kids Eye View Program introduced a select group of children to a variety of communication arts, including photography, film, and video. The ArtReach Program, with the theme “Take the Art to the People,” featured 64 presentations at over 25 locations to bring the festival arts “to special populations, including kids, people who are incarcerated, senior citizens and people with special disabilities,” Borders explained in Upscale. He added, “We ask artists to bring their work to the community, to the parks, day-care centers, senior citizens’ homes and community centers. We also bring these special groups of people to performances and regular festival venues.”
From a smashing kickoff in 1988, the NBAF has grown into an economic boon for the city of Atlanta. Funded with $1.5 million by the Fulton County Department of Arts and Culture, Atlanta’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts, the 1988 festival featured a world premiere by a Pulitzer Prize-winning play-wright, Charles Fuller, and a new musical directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner George Faison. The 31-member National Blue Ribbon Panel for the festival included such prominent artists as dance luminaries Alvin Ailey, Geoffrey Holder, and Katherine Dunham, director Spike Lee, and actors Danny Glover, Lloyd Richards, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee.
Since 1988 the festival has been coursing roughly $20 million through Atlanta at each convening. “One thing we have to pay more attention to in our community is the business of art,” Borders explained to Auset of Upscale. “In general, arts activities return to the economy $13 to every one dollar that’s invested.”
How did Borders assure that every aspect ran smoothly for a festival billed by Upscale as “positioned to become one of the largest and most influential conscious parties in the world?” He logged much overtime and threw himself into it with great confidence. Former technical director of the NBAF Tommie Butler credited Borders with inspiring self-assurance in others by his own faith in himself. Butler said to Emerson of the Atlanta Constitution, “There isn’t anything like this in the rest of the country, and it’s getting bigger, and it ain’t scarin’ him? Whew.” NBAF president Harriet Sanford attested, “I saw him after he’d been here for 30 days, and it looked like he’d been here 30 years.”
According to Emerson, Borders was working 75 hours each week—and placing on hold his personal life. A widower, he visited his 6-year-old daughter, Mia, occasionally on short visits to New Orleans, where she was in the first grade and living with her grandmother, Florence Borders. His 16-year-old son, James Buchanan Borders V, nicknamed Che after the Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara, attended the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. Wearing khakis and a determined expression, Borders’s mix of pragmatism and passion stead him well for the task of administering the NBAF. Although he looked forward to being able to spend more time with friends and loved ones, he is unconflicted in his love of his work. Emerson, for one, felt that Borders’s description of what the NBAF was ultimately all about applied equally to the man behind it. “It’s about fun and games, but it’s also about survival,” Borders revealed with characteristic matter-of-factness.
Hughes, Langston, and Milton Meltzer, Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in Entertainment, Prentice Hall, 1967, p. 195.
Atlanta Constitution, April 17, 1994, p. N1.
Drama Review, Fall 1987, pp. 120–25.
Nation, October 19, 1964, pp. 254–55.
New York Times, January 31, 1965, p. X3.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24, 1991.
Upscale, August 1994, pp. 100–02.
Variety, March 23, 1988, pp. 124, 128.
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