From W.E.B. DuBois to Gordon Parks, Mickalene Thomas, and Vaginal Davis, these artists have used art to fight racism, injustice, and inequality, but to also celebrate the strength, beauty, and resilience of Black people in America
The cover image is Gordon Parks, “Untitled, Harlem, New York” (1963), courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation
The fight for Black Liberation did not begin with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, or the 1,274 of the Black men, women, and children killed by police officers since 2015. It did not begin with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or the Black Panther Party, all systematically targeted for destruction by the US government. It did not begin with the death of Emmett Till or the 4,743 lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1882-1968.
The fight for Black Liberation started long before the nation was born, at the dawn of the Transatlantic Slave Trade which in the 15th century would force some 12 million Africans into slavery over the next 400 years. By the time the first enslaved Africans landed on the shores of the British Colony of Virginia in 1619, Europeans had already accumulated a century of generational wealth from human trafficking.
The fight for Black Liberation began with the slave rebellions throughout the Western hemisphere, though American history and media have all but erased its powerful legacy. When Haiti became the world’s first Black republic in 1804 after the enslaved rose up and defeated the French, the West quaked in fear of righteous retribution for their crimes against humanity. The Black Liberation Movement is a response to racism, which is inextricably intertwined with capitalism and imperialism – and it will not end so long as the agents of empire create and maintain systems of power to oppress, exploit, and deny people the universal human rights.
In the US, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, of the press, peaceful assembly, and protest – all of which are being revoked with impunity by police and the National Guard in response to uprisings taking place in more than 140 cities across America in the wake of killing of George Floyd on May 25, the nation’s Memorial Day. It is no coincidence that Memorial Day began one month after the fall of the Confederacy, when a group of 10,000 people, mostly Black residents newly freed from bondage, came together on May 1, 1865, to honor the Black Union soldiers who gave their lives to fight for Black Liberation during the Civil War.
“Question your teachings, and why you may not know of Black artists who have transformed the nation without properly receiving their due”
Today, as hundreds of thousands of Black folks gather in their hometowns to protest police brutality and government corruption, they are putting their lives and liberty on the line during a pandemic disproportionately affecting their communities across the United States. As of May 26, 21,878 Black Americans have died of COVID-19 – a mortality rate more than double that of Asians and Latinx and 2.4 times that of whites. At the same time, unemployment rates in the wake of the coronavirus recession have reached an all-time low, as less than half of Black adults now have a job. This lethal combination of forces underscores the fact that the United States has long been a tinderbox ready to blow.
Yet within the extraordinary history of devastation, trauma, and tragedy, the light of art, innovation, and creativity reigns supreme. Black arts have held the world spellbound, its musical traditions giving birth to virtually every genre of song and dance of the past century. While popular culture openly embraces Black music, the white-owned institutions have historically excluded it from its academies, museums, and galleries, further underscoring the false dichotomy of high and low art for political and economic gain.
Since the death of Mike Brown, which brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the fore, and more openly after the election of Donald Trump, many art institutions have scrambled to shore up their collections and polish off their reputations by belatedly embracing the work of Black artists. Yet institutions could barely muster a response to the government sanctioned violence perpetrated against unarmed protesters over the past week outside of choosing to go silent the day after Trump invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 – a federal law that governs the ability of the President of the United States to deploy military troops within the United States to suppress civil disorder, insurrection, and rebellion.
Clearly, there is work to be done. We all have a role to play. Now is the time to make that start. Question your teachings, and why you may not know of Black artists who have transformed the nation without properly receiving their due. We present to you just a few of the extraordinary works made over the past 160 years, a mere sprinkling of genius that underlies the Black American experience.
BEARING WITNESS THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY
In March 1863, an enslaved man named Gordon escaped from John and Bridget Lyons’ Louisiana plantation. He fled from slave catchers and bloodhounds over the course of 10 days until he reached the Union camp near Baton Rouge and was granted freedom.
The scars on Gordon’s back were a testament to all he had endured by the hand of overseers, who earned the name “cracker” from the sound the whips made. Abolitionists distributed carte de visite photographs of Gordon titled “Whipped Peter” throughout the country and overseas to draw attention to the abuses of slavery. That July, the photograph was published in Harper’s Weekly, the most widely read journal during the Civil War, becoming one of the earliest published works in the service of Black Liberation.
TAKING THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE
By the turn of the twentieth century, world fairs were all the rage as global tourism took hold and every major international capital. Totems of empire, these glitzy spectacles of “civilisation” shamelessly exalted imperialism with exhibits across Europe that included human zoos populated by indigenous peoples of the Global South. W.E.B. Du Bois, acclaimed sociologist, author of The Souls of Black Folk, and co-founder of the NAACP, was intent on subverting that image with the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exhibition – a story fully detailed in the book Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition by Redstone Press.
Along with Booker T. Washington and a prominent lawyer named Thomas J. Calloway, DuBois curated a striking selection of photographs, cutting-edge infographics, books, pamphlets, and unique objects illustrating African-America achievements in the years following emancipation. DuBois’ graphs of Black accomplishment, not intended as art, prefigure the movement towards abstract art by decades, though they went unrecognised as such until recent times.
SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER, THEN AND NOW
From 1920 to 1938, a massive black flag hung outside the national headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City bearing the words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” The flag was made after the 1916 lynching of 17-year-old farm hand Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, who was chained by his neck, dragged, stabbed, beaten, castrated, strung up from a tree and raised into open flames over a period of two hours while a crowd of 10,000 gathered in celebration. Afterwards his body was dragged and parts were sold off as souvenirs. The NAACP was forced to stop flying the flag in 1938 when their landlord threatened eviction unless it was taken down.
In 2015, Dread Scott: remade the flag after South Carolina police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott in the back after a daytime traffic stop. The flag hung outside Jack Shainman Gallery in 2016, just a few blocks west of the old NAACP headquarters. In a rare arrest and conviction, Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison on the charge of second-degree murder in 2017.
WRITING HISTORY IN REAL TIME
From 1910-1970, more than six million Black people moved from 14 states in the South across the United States to escape acts of homegrown terrorism including lynchings, murder, church bombings, and apartheid under the Jim Crow laws. One of the largest, most rapid movements in history, the Great Migration brought Southerners to every corner of the nation.
In The Migration Series (1940-1941) an extraordinary sequence of 60 paintings, Jacob Lawrence documents the first wave, 1910-1930, as 1.6 million people left rural areas for industrial cities only to encounter the scourge of de facto segregation. A harrowing sequence from start to finish punctuated by rare scenes of hope and joy, the work was first published in a 1941 issue of Fortune magazine, then split with the even-numbered panels going to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the odd-numbered panels sent to the Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, DC.
TAKING ON THE SYSTEM, FROM THE INSIDE
While apartheid raged in the South, Gordon Parks became the only Black photographer to break the colour barrier in the North making fashion photographs for magazines like LIFE and Vogue in the 1940s. But Parks longed for something deeper. “Photographing fashion was rewarding but for me somewhat rarefied,” he wrote in his 2000 memoir, Half Past Autumn. “Documentary urgings were still gnawing at me, still waiting for fulfillment.”
In 1948, he made his first pitch to the editors at LIFE for a story of Leonard “Red” Jackson, the 17-year-old leader of the Midtowners, a Harlem gang caught up in a decade-long turf war. Avoiding the hyper stylised noir aesthetics that defined popular depictions of gang life at the time, Parks created an intimate portrait of the harrowing reality for Black families systematically cut off from equal opportunities for employment, housing, education, and health.
But the truth about Black lives did not resonate with his editors, who reframed the piece around a sensationalistic narrative of “urban violence” which still persists today. It wasn’t until 2017, 11 years after Parks’ death, that the work was finally reexamined in Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument (Steidl), a book exploring the vast discrepancy between the media’s distorted, fear mongering edit, and the artist’s vision, which had been erased.
HONING THE PROPHETIC POWER OF ART
Like Picasso’s “Guernica”, Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die” (1967) is a monumental meditation on the horrors of war, prefiguring the Long, Hot Summer of 1968 when 110 cities rose up after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated by James Earl Ray – although many believe it was the US government who was responsible.
The work was the final piece in a series of 20 paintings titled The American People that allowed Ringgold to examine what was going on during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. “I became fascinated with the ability of art to document the time, place, and cultural identity of the artist. How could I, as an African-America woman artist, document what was happening around me?” she said. “I was... terrified because I saw ‘Die’ as a prophecy of our times.”
Ringgold’s intuition prefigured not only the era in which it was made, but in the cycle of violence that occurs as a result of injustice hone unaddressed throughout the nation over and over again.
HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE PRESS
In 1967, Emory Douglas, then 24, became the “Revolutionary Artist” and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. He redesigned The Black Panther newspaper, which had a peak circulation nationwide of 200,000 per week, using web press, which allowed for the use of coloured printing and graphics, which defined the era of Black Power on the street.
Douglas’ depictions of strong Black families stood in sharp contrasts to images disseminated by the media. He created a new iconography to portray Black men, women, and children liberating themselves by mastering the use of their Constitutional rights – an army of fearless leaders and warriors set to defend themselves against the police, who appeared as anthropomorphised pigs.
“The art is a language, communicating with the community,” Douglas told The New York Times. “The sense of urgency shown comes from what we had seen and we’re doing. The fact was that we could be wiped off the map at any given time. The urgency in the artwork was a reflection of the urgency in the race and the fear that people had. You had to be accessible to the community and interpret them into the art like making the people heroes on the stage.”
“The urgency in the artwork was a reflection of the urgency in the race and the fear that people had” – Emory Douglas
CALLING OUT POLICE BRUTALITY
Brooklyn native Michael Stewart was just 25-years-old when he was killed by New York City Transit Police Officer John Kostick for allegedly writing graffiti in an East Village train station on September 15, 1983 at 2:50 am. Witnesses testified that Stewart was brutally beaten, shouting “someone help me, someone help me!” before being hog-tied and thrown in a police van. He arrived at Bellevue Hospital comatose, never regained consciousness, and died on September 28. In 1985, an all-white jury acquitted the six NYPD officers charged in the killing of Michael Stewart
“It could have been me,” Jean-Michel Basquiat repeatedly told his friends, recognising the harrowing reality Black people face in this country everyday. A couple of months after Stewart’s death, Basquiat painted “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)” on the wall of Keith Haring’s downtown studio. The work became the subject of a 2019 exhibition by Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black person to curate an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, who has spoken openly about the racism she experienced at the hands of the institution throughout the run of the show.
UNITING THE PEOPLE WHILE SUBVERTING THE ESTABLISHMENT
By 1990, hip hop culture openly embraced Pan-Africanism, a global movement that inspired Black leaders from Toussaint Louverture to Malcolm X that advocated for solidarity between members of indigenous and diasporic groups of African descent in the shared dream of restoring power to the people and the continent.
That same year David Hammons created the “African-American Flag”, fusing the Old Glory with the Pan-African flag adopted by Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in 1920. Just as the Stars & Stripes symbolise the 13 original colonies and the 50 states of the union, the colour of the Pan-African flag signifies red for the blood, black for the people, and green for the land.
In its straightforward simplicity, Hammons’ work is a testament to both the erasure of a people’s history before, during, and after slavery as well as the ghastly and ghoulish hypocrisy of the American flag itself. In 2017, the art world finally recognised its value, with one in the edition of five selling for $2 million – an act that can be unpacked for its implicit irony for years to come.
EMBRACING ALL ASPECTS OF BLACK IDENTITY
Like COVID-19, Aids has disproportionately ravaged the Black community. According to the Center for Disease Control, although African-Americans account for just 14 per cent of the US population, nearly half of the people living with HIV and dying from Aids are Black. Gay and bisexual men face the greatest risks, both today as well as in the 90s, when the pandemic was at its peak.
The art world was hit particularly hard, cutting short the lives of groundbreaking icons including choreographer Alvin Ailey, fashion designers Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly, disco star Sylvester, DJ Larry Levan, drag legend Dorian Corey, and groundbreaking model Sterling St. Jacques. As Aids activism came to the fore, it brought with it the spirit of multiculturalism that openly embraced sexuality and genderfluidity on the world stage, transforming the conversation around the rigid boundaries policing signifiers of Black masculinity.
In 1994, photographer Lyle Ashton Harris exhibited The Good Life at Jack Tilton Gallery in New York, a landmark show that introduced a new visual language around race, gender, and sexual identity. “Visually, I understood at an early age the power of the image to control or to liberate,” Harris told Dazed. “I don’t want to engage that binary exclusively because I think it is more complex than that, but I do understand energetically how people can be transformed by the image, not only in the art world but on a larger scale. Whenever we speak truth to power through the image, it is a language.”
“Whenever we speak truth to power through the image, it is a language” – Lyle Ashton Harris
TAKING THE PISS WHILE TELLING IT LIKE IT IS
Hailing from South Central Los Angeles, Vaginal Davis is a true American original. Davis, the originator of the homo-core punk movement was conceived when her mother, a Black Creole “femme lesbian separatist”, had a one night stand with a Mexican-American Jew during a Ray Charles concert at the Hollywood Palladium in the early 1960s.
Born intersex at a time when doctors ordered parents to choose a single sex, Davis’s mother rebelled, allowing her child the freedom to be both. Adopting a name in homage to Black radical feminist scholar Angela Davis, Davis became an underground star fronting art bands like Black F*g, Cholita! The Female Menudo, the Afro Sisters, and Pedro Muriel Ester (PME).
In 1995, PME reunited for the Queercore festival in Chicago and released their first full-length album, The White to Be Angry, which took up the issue of white supremacy with Davis’s customary aplomb and spirited whimsy. Each music video was made in the style of famed white directors including Woody Allen, Clive Barker, and Bruce LaBruce, telling the ugly truth about white supremacy, homophobia, and the inherent violence of capitalism with a tongue firmly planted in cheek. The exhibition Vaginal Davis: The White to be Angry will be extended at the Art Institute of Chicago when the museum reopens.
TAKING A TRIP THROUGH TIME
Carrie Mae Weems received her first camera at 21 as a birthday present from her then-boyfriend and decided to use it as a tool for expressing her political beliefs, with the understanding that photography can be used to champion activism and change.
In 2003, Weems created The Louisiana Project in response to the impending bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of 2,140,000-square-km for $18 per square mile from Napoleon, who abandoned France’s empire building efforts in the Americas after Haitian independence. Tragically, the sale resulted in the vast expansion of slavery across the American South, fomenting the tensions that eventually led to the Civil War.
In this series of photographs, Weems dons period clothing of the working class and places herself within the story of the antebellum South to explore the complex relationship of Black women to the American landscape, both then and now.
UPLIFTING BLACK HEROINES
One of the most heartbreaking signs in the current protests reads, “All Mothers Were Summoned When George Floyd Called Out For His Momma”. Black mothers, whose reputation precedes them, aren’t just parents to their own children. True matriarchs, they tend to the entire community, taking care to make sure young and grown folks act right.
Throughout her career, Mickalene Thomas has uplifted her mother, Sandra “Mama Bush” Bush, in her work, drawing inspiration and wisdom from her mother’s style and strength. A model who crossed the colour line during the 1970s, Mama Bush raised Thomas and her brother alone and created a community for friends and family in the warmth of her home.
In her later years, Mama Bush became one of Thomas’s muses, inspiring a series of rhinestone-encrusted collage paintings, a video, and the short film, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother, which premiered just two months before her death in 2012. After her death, Thomas discovered a box of Polaroids of Mama Bush and her friends made in the 1970s, which inspired Better Nights an immersive installation that opened at the Bass Museum during Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2019, selections from which are currently on view online.
“She wasn’t a party girl. She was quite reclusive and shy, but she was also very warm and giving,” Thomas told AnOther. “Even if you just came over to say hello, she made you feel like you are a part of the family. She was very much a matriarch and people wanted to share their lives with her on many levels. She had this great magnetism.”
REMEMBERING HOW WE GOT HERE
First exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial and tragically overshadowed by Dana Schutz’s scandalous monstrosity, “Open Casket”, Henry Taylor’s painting “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!” is a harrowing portrait of Philando Castile at the moment of his death by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez on July 16, 2016 at 9:37 pm.
Yanez mistook Castile for a suspect in a robbery, ignoring the fact that the beloved 29-year-old nutrition services supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul, Minnesota was traveling with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter. Two minutes after he approached the car, Yanez fired seven shots at Castile, five striking and killing him, while Reynolds streamed the deadly encounter on Facebook Live.
Castile was just one of the 957 people killed by police in 2016, though Yanze was one of the few officers to be charged with a crime. In 2017, Yanez was found not guilty of one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm.
The killing of George Floyd touched a raw nerve in the Twin Cities of St. Paul-Minneapolis, a wound that remains unhealed, not just with the death of Philando Castile and so many more, but for the injustices that have been occurring at every level of the government for hundreds of years. What many do not know is that very little has changed since the days Gordon courageously fled slave patrols – for those organisations were the very foundation upon which the present-day American police system was built.
Henry Taylor’s book is available here