Ridin’ On the Groove Line with Bing Davis
Dr. S. Alexis Anderson
The year was 1959. Greg Webster and the Ohio Untouchables had just formed, and Bing Davis was graduating from college at DePauw University. Little did they know that Bing Davis would soon be a world-renowned artist and educator and the Ohio Untouchables would soon be the world-famous Ohio Players; their hometown of Dayton, Ohio would soon be known as The Land of Funk. Everyone has their “thing” that inspires them or gets them in the mind frame to create. Without hesitation, Bing responded to my music inquiry. He charmingly said, “You know where I am don’t you?” I laughed and said, “Yes, sir, Dayton, Ohio.” He chuckled and charmingly said, “Lady, you know where I am. This is the Land of Funk.” What was I thinking? It made perfect sense that his go to music would be from artists like Lakeside, the Ohio Players, Zapp & Roger, Heatwave, and Slave. Dope music for a cool cat with a funky, laid back vibe.
At 80 something years old, Bing has as much charm, quick-wit, and “swag” as I imagine he had as a young, art major attending DePauw University on a track & basketball scholarship in 1955. As we talked about moments throughout his life, both as a student and an educator, I wanted to find out more about his childhood years growing up in 1950s Dayton, Ohio. Usually, how we maneuver through life as adults has a lot to do with our childhood environment. When listening to Bing talk about his childhood years as if they were just yesterday, missing is the angst one would expect to hear in the voice of a Black man growing up in East Dayton – a largely Appalachian community with Black families sprinkled throughout. While those uncomfortable, racially motivated moments were undoubtedly there, they just didn’t seem to be what shaped Bing’s outlook on life. This is particularly interesting considering that Bing is an African American who grew up in the ‘50s yet his only experience with a black teacher was in preschool. He had none throughout elementary school, middle school, high school, or during any of his post-secondary studies. I was curious about how that could happen, particularly during such a racially charged time in America. So, of course I asked him. Unbothered, he said, “Too many bus rides to get to the black school – Paul Laurence Dunbar High or Roosevelt, so I went to my neighborhood school. It was mostly white, and there were 5 Black students in my graduating class.” I was curious about whether he found it difficult to never have any teachers who looked like him even through undergraduate and graduate school.” His limited exposure to African American artists shaped his own commitment to students. Never having been exposed to African-American art until he taught himself, he was passionate about making sure his students had what he didn’t have and the universe has not stopped placing those opportunities directly in his path.
As we began to continue our talk about the significant absence of the African-American presence in his educational experience as a youth, he reflected on the way it all balanced itself out – largely because his self-esteem was constantly being reinforced by the adults in his life. Bing describes his childhood as a “tremendous experience.” The pictures he creates with words are as beautiful as the ceramic pieces and sculptures he creates with his hands. Our sidebar here was that clay is his favorite medium because it’s a medium that allows him to work directly with his hands. It is then that he feels most connected to the ancestors. He describes the feel of his childhood neighborhood as if it were just moments ago – the memory felt fresh. He says, “There was a small enclave of African-Americans in my community. We had that extended family concept. Kids in the neighborhood belonged to everybody. Adults could chastise and discipline us and then take us home for more. I grew up in that kind of an atmosphere.” Davis points out that it was because of this healthy, village-style atmosphere that he had a strong sense of self. He went on to say, “I was aware of who I was and who I belonged to as a people. I was aware of my heritage so it gave me the strength to be able to navigate and work in any situation.” It was this secure, supportive environment Bing experienced as a child that would soon allow him to move through the halls of DePauw University as 1 of 7 black undergraduate students and later as the only Black faculty member on the campus. By the time he arrived at DePauw for college in 1955, diversity and inclusion were not particularly big initiatives for the university. Although the 7 African-American students on campus were spread across different departments and were at different phases of their journey, they bonded and formed lifelong friendships. Atlanta attorney and activist Vernon Jordan was attending DePauw on a debate scholarship during the time that Bing was there. Though Jordan was a year or two ahead of Davis, the two connected and remain friends to this day.
Let me say that our conversation didn’t really take place in any specific order or chronological order; it felt more like sitting on the front porch, sipping sweet tea from mason jars on a Saturday evening while talking to my Grandpa with the funky sounds of Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” flowing through the screen door. Just like the music of James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone, and Parliament Funkadelic used rhythm and lyrics as their own social and political commentary of the times, Bing’s life story is social commentary as well – but told through the arts and education. Anyhow, I asked questions, he continued to tell stories, and the conversation just flowed. We learned that we had quite a few things in common as we talked. One of those was our love for community-based projects, particularly youth-focused projects. Even with a progressive career filled with leadership positions, international travel, and creating great art, Bing still lists his work for and with the community as being the most rewarding for him. In 1965, while teaching high school, he found himself working on a particularly interesting community program called The Living Arts Center, using arts to enhance artistic personal development and academic learning. “The work would be in the foreground of things that would happen much later with regards to education and arts integration. Bing, and a team of four other faculty members, were given one million dollars and a warehouse space to host an after school program and explore the impact of arts on the academic and personal growth of adolescents. The program included art, music, dance, drama, and creative writing. Bing served as the director of the visual art program. Each art area had its own director. This groundbreaking work that Bing and his team were at the helm of in the mid-1960s ultimately provided information on how to use the arts across disciplines and is the beginning of what would eventually lead to artists in schools and arts centered magnet schools. Every opportunity for Bing always seemed to create a foundation for opportunities that would come, in some cases, many years later. Even today, Bing travels the country teaching professional development workshops at schools about strategies to integrate arts across the curriculum. I never got back around to asking him if he had any idea that his community work in the 60s would help to prepare him for where he is today. I can’t help but think phenomenal talent combined with positive energy, a confident yet pleasant vibe, with a touch of funk are the reason’s Bing’s life has always been in what seems like perfect alignment.
By 1970, the Ohio Players had disbanded for a second time and Davis having not long before earned his Master of Education from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio had returned to DePauw as the Assistant Professor of the Art. Black Studies Coordinator and the only Black faculty member on campus. I know, all too well, that being the only Black faculty member can be a challenge – even today. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be the only Black faculty member on an entire campus right on the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. But when I asked Bing what that experience was like – being the only Black faculty member while also being on the tenure track and serving in a leadership capacity; he answered with that same kind of style and grace I had quickly been pulled into within the first five minutes of our conversation. In a smooth, raspy voice with the reminiscent of Sly Stone, he says, “ You work to make it so. You find yourself in a situation and you work to make it good not only for yourself but for others. That’s been my saving grace. It’s never been about just me, but about us.” Servant leader should be added to Bing’s already impressive cv. Though it’s easy to pick up on Bing’s laid back kinda attitude about life, it’s also easy to detect that, embedded deep within his heart and mind, there are some very specific ideas about how certain things should be. As the conversation continued, I wondered if it was possible to be low key yet live out loud at the same time. After 6 years spent on the tenure track, teaching and working in a leadership capacity to create African Art and African-American art courses, Bing was offered tenure at DePauw. Tenure is what most academics dream of. However, Bing didn’t let the possibility of job security for a lifetime deter him from taking a stand. Bing is truly a man who seems at peace with every moment on his journey; it emanates from his words, his sentences, and his tone. He never really seems to have to pause to gather his thoughts or come back from a fleeting, dark memory. So when he told me that he declined the offer for tenure, I definitely couldn’t wait to hear why. I could almost picture him leaning back in his chair and crossing his leg as he cleared his throat and said, “There were only about 40 something African American students. Not many more than the seven who were there when I attended. I was still the only Black faculty member on campus. Accepting tenure would have meant not only accepting the circumstances but accepting them with a lifetime contract and no guarantee of change.” He resigned and moved on to his graduate alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he served as faculty and Assistant Dean of the Graduate School. He was able to travel with his art, recruit graduate students, offer graduate fellowship opportunities, and bring back curricula vitae of prospective faculty. Bing’s last full-time position in academia was at an HBCU – Central State University where he was the chair of the Art Department and the director of the Paul Robeson Cultural & Performing Arts Center. He spent those years putting all that he had learned and gained through his career experiences, travels to Africa, and his own art, into the curriculum so students would have a better sense of self.
Bing Davis has paved the way not only for African- American artists but for African-American faculty and young artists coming behind him. While funk bands in Dayton were preparing to introduce the world to a new form of lyrical soul, and Godfather of Soul James Brown was shaking things up by transforming his music and “changing from the upbeat to the downbeat,” Bing was in the art studio and the field of education stepping to his own funky beat. When it comes to art, culture, and cultural preservation, Willis “Bing” Davis is truly the G.O.A.T. He navigated the rocky terrain of a road not traveled and never lost his sense of self. He now spends his time creating, paying it forward and planting seeds of knowledge for future generations. In my mind, as the conversation closed, we were still sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs, the sun had set, the ice in our mason jars had melted, and as the conversation drifted to a close, Sly & the Family Stone’s funk hit Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) was the tune now flowing through the screen door into the night. I bet if Bing could do it all over again he wouldn’t change not one single thang.
START COLLECTING ART
Sign up for our free email course on how to begin your collection.
Would you buy stock in BAIA if you could? Well we invite you to join us in becoming a monthly supporter, starting at just $3 a month and up YOU become a stakeholder and begin to help us transform lives through art. We are growing the BAIA team and will use your contributions to hire more team members for the purpose of creating more educational and marketing resources for schools and universities about african american artists both past and present.
Review our list of rewards for becoming a BAIA Patreon / patron supporter. Your monthly contribution has lasting benefits. — “What will your legacy be” – Dr. Margaret Burroughs