You hear often enough these days that race does not matter, that America is beyond race. “America is post-racial” is a popular mantra despite the fact that it is proven untrue on a daily basis. While Black Americans may not be blocked from entering schools by mobs, lynched for talking to a white woman, or beaten and jailed for sitting at a lunch counter, they are shot in the street by white police officers (or homeowners, or men filling up their gas tanks), tear-gassed when they protest, and called animals by commentators. Our parents’ and our grandparents’ mantra was “work twice as hard to get half as far”; ours is “post-racial America is a myth.”
It’s precisely in times like these that we need art; art of arresting beauty, art that makes a statement. This fall, the Hood Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show features over one hundred works by sixty-six artists who used their art to make political statements and offer emotional responses to the events that took place during the fight for racial equality in the 1960s in the United States. The work of these artists spoke to their time and it speaks to ours.
We hope the works in this exhibition bear witness to you that race in fact matters—as it once did, does, and, as far as we can see, will. Race is not just about skin color in the same way these artworks are not just about paint or sculpted material: race is about perspective. For us and in this exhibition, race is about the particular brushstrokes that color worldviews: the tones and angles that people use to resist unjust structures and forge visions of freedom. These works, like any art worth appreciating, will challenge. They speak not only for themselves, but as witness to a time when myths upon myths abound. They testify.
Jessica Womack '14, Curatorial Assistant, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
Aaron Colston '14, First Year Ph.D. student, History, Duke University
Mouth Magazine is proud to exhibit six pieces from the current Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art. Enjoy this special collaboration, featuring poetry and accompanying essays by Jessica Womack and Aaron Colston:
It Takes Two to Integrate (Cha Cha Cha), 1961
Though they are exactly the same, they have been seen differently their entire lives.
When One walks down the street, he is smiled at as he goes. The Other walks down the same street, and passersby turn up their noses, cross the street, and clutch their purses.
When One goes into a department store, he is asked if he needs any help. He says no, and is left alone to shop. The Other goes into the same department store; the same attendant asks him the same question. The Other says no, is left alone for a moment, but is followed until he makes his purchase and leaves.
When One goes to unlock his car, a police officer walks around the corner and sees him. He nods his head to the officer, and his silent greeting is returned as the officer walks by. The Other goes to unlock his car, the same make and model, and the same police officer sees him. He nods a hello, but rather than being greeted, he is thrown up against his vehicle. Stopped and frisked.
When One gets home, he checks his mailbox and ambles up the front path. He fumbles with his keys to unlock the front door, and he doesn’t even notice the woman jogging past with her dog. The woman doesn’t notice him either. The Other arrives home and goes to unlock his door. The same woman with the same dog sees him doing the same thing. She calls the police.
This goes on. Every single day. Always the same. One is never The Other. The Other is always The Other.
On the left: White killed by Black: It’s a tragedy. Criminal.
On the right: Black killed by White: It had to be done. Hero.
Neatly boxed dream of Plessy:
Equality, divided by a wooden wall down the middle,
Two dolls, set down separate despite proximity,
One painted black, one white, black tracks on white, white tracks on black
In bizarre contrast.
I think it's got to be unnerving for the dolls living in this box,
acting like they don't know the other doll is on the other side of the wall:
During the week they work in their own office cubicles and after work they drive to their children to pick them up from after school programs and then they will drive back to their own homes and eat their own dinner with their own families, during which they will never talk about the other side of the wall; and after they finish dinner they will wash their children in the bathtub–suds leap out and crawl onto the tile; their children will not brush their teeth long enough and will not want to go to bed; and when their children are finally in bed they will watch their own tv stations filled with shows with actors who look just like them; and the commercials will remind them to vote for their own candidates–and when they realize they've been napping on the couch, they will go to bed with their own partners, trying to find sleep to ready themselves for the next day of their silent existences, only to wake up suddenly in the middle of the night
having dreamt of the nightmarish face of the other:
painted, with tire tracks.
the color of their sweating hands
It seems like they've been placed as necessary substitutes
since tires wouldn't roll neatly over a human body, leaving tracks with such artful symmetry;
Instead they'd mark with smeared skin, dark red streaks of rubber mixed with blood,
And a broken system of muscle, nerve, and skeleton:
The Door (Admissions), 1969
Sixty years ago the Supreme Court declared separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. Overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark Supreme Court case that paved the way for monumental civil rights legislation. Though declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954, segregation remained mandated by local and state governments for over a decade.
Elizabeth Eckford was yelled at as she walked alone, attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957. Eckford was fifteen years-old, and members of the angry crowd screamed, “two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate” and threatened to lynch her. Ordered by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, members of the National Guard barred her entry into the school.
Ernest Green was, like Eckford, a member of the Little Rock Nine, the nine Black American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School. Green was the only senior in the group. After enduring daily harassment, Green was the first African American student to graduate from Little Rock Central High School in the Spring of 1958. The next school year (1958-59), Faubus closed all of Little Rock’s high schools, attempting to derail the federal government’s plans of integration. Over three thousand high schoolers did not go to school that year.
Ruby Bridges was six years old when she became the first African American child to attend a white elementary school in the South. U.S. Marshals escorted Bridges both to and from New Orleans’s William Frantz Elementary School as people threw things at her and screamed profane things she was too young to comprehend. Because she began attending the previously all-white school, her father lost his job, her grandparents lost their land, and her family could no longer shop at their usual grocery store.
James Meredith was an Air Force Veteran who decided to apply to the all-white University of Mississippi. He was denied twice because of his race, so, supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he sued the University. After over a year of legal proceedings, harassment, and threats, Meredith became the first African American student to attend the university. In April 2014, three members of the University of Mississippi’s Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter tied a noose around the statue of James Meredith on the campus.
Eckford, Green, Bridges, and Meredith are just four of the brave individuals who endured ferocious mobs, threats, and physical attacks to integrate public schools.
In the late 1960s, artist David Hammons began creating what he called “body prints” by smearing his body with grease to create an impression of his form on a selected surface. After leaving this impression, Hammons used graphite or pigment to color his profile. This was Hammons’s technique of choice for his 1969 The Door (Admissions). Using his own form to evoke a young black student, Hammons constructed a work which visually asserts the difficulties Black Americans faced to attend public schools in the south, despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
What you don’t see in this image of The Door (Admissions) is the object’s other side. Viewable in the round, the door’s reverse gives just as powerful a commentary of the inequalities Black Americans faced on a daily basis.
While the front reads as a black student being kept out of a segregated, “Whites only” public school, the back asserts a vision of a black student being kept in a segregated, “Blacks only” school. And of course, separate is inherently unequal. Rather than a delicately aged door like that the front view presents us with, the reverse features green paint of a putrid hue, unevenly applied over the door’s numerous cracks and craters. From this side the student’s face and body are also plastered against the Plexiglas pane at the work’s center; however, the letters are backwards. This unnamed student aches to get out, but he is trapped: in a school with insufficient resources to teach him; in a city that wants to harm him; in a state that wants to sequester him; in a nation that isn’t meant for him.
Eckford, Green, Bridges, Meredith, and countless other activists endured hardships and violence for racial equality and equal opportunity. However, due to a number of complex issues, including but certainly not limited to the 1974 Supreme Court decision of Milliken v. Bradley which declared busing black children to public schools in white suburbs unconstitutional, subsequent flight of white families to suburbs, and the decision of Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell that ended all federal desegregation orders in 1991, public schools are more segregated now than they were in the late 1960s.
While David Hammons’s The Door (Admissions) was created in 1969 to critique the systemic denial of an equitable education available Black youth, this work has the same, if not more, potency today.
This door reminds me of a story.
One Saturday my mother, feeling historical, decided to take me to the Ronald Reagan presidential library
And I don't think either of us knew who he was
And what he didn't do for black people,
In fact we were the only black people that Saturday who were there,
Probably the only black people who will ever set foot in there.
We looked at his old films and his old photographs
And the old Air Force One
And a bucket of Jelly Beans, which he liked, apparently.
"I like Jelly Beans," my mother said.
The whole thing was interesting, like getting into someone else's mind, conveniently forgetful.
We noticed people pointing outside--and there it was,
A piece of the Berlin Wall, which I had heard about on a TV special I think.
It was enormous, and they had kept the graffitti on it, which people had put in protest.
My mother and I stood there looking at that block of cement,
The triumph implied by the exposed shattered sides,
Evidence that this is a sign of division
But this door here is wall-less,
Its graffitti a body inked, pressing against it.
It's a door without a great stretch of solid cement to demolish with the eyes of the world watching,
A sign of division that precisely because it has no hinges on its dry wooden frame, it can be hinged
Can be made a part of any home or any school,
Can be found in every prison, every street where police patrol,
Corporate office, mortgage office, deportation office, admissions office,
You-need-an-ID-to-vote office, congressional representative office, oval office,
All of which I bring up to say that we had to be foolish
To think that we could solve all our problems in less than fifty years
Lawdy Mama, 1969
Her dress reminds me of one owned by my grandmother. Her hair reminds me of my mother’s from her teenage years. The background reminds me of the glistening gold mosaics I saw in Rome.
I remember the first time I went to vote. My mother and grandmother had already voted earlier in the day, so I drove down to our district’s polling location by myself after school. When I returned home, my mother and grandmother made a big fuss, talking over each other asking me how my first time voting went. They were excited for me for reasons I didn’t understand in the moment. Instead of accepting and joining in, I muttered a curt “fine” and slinked off to my bedroom. As I retreated, I heard my grandmother’s heavy satisfied sigh, followed by, “Three generations of black women voting.”
This memory, specifically my behavior and the way I shrugged off my grandmother and mother’s celebrations, embarrasses me now. In my eighth grade civics class, I was taught that voting was a right that every American could and should exercise. While in the polling booth I thought nothing of what I was doing. I cast votes for candidates I had done a bit of research on, walked out to my car, and drove the three minutes home singing along with some song that came on the radio. I didn’t think about what that polling location, a local public elementary school, looked like in 1959. My grandmother would have been thirty-one then, and my mother wasn’t even a thought.
In 1959 New Orleans, I would not have been at the polls. Or if I did have the audacity to go, I would have been hunched over one of the literacy tests that were administered to black voters in the state of Louisiana trying my best to answer impossible questions like, “draw five circles that one common inter-locking part” or, “divide a vertical line in two equal parts by bisecting it with a curved horizontal line that is only straight at its spot bisection of the vertical” (excerpts from Louisiana 1964 Literacy test). Or, I would have been verbally and physically assaulted by people who opposed my attempt to vote. According to them, I didn’t belong. I wasn’t American. I wasn’t human.
The subject of Hendricks painting may similarly seem like she does not belong. As an Art History major, I studied countless Early Christian icons of saints, Christ, and the Virgin Mary. The subject of these icons were haloed, attenuated, racially white figures, often depicted on golden backgrounds that made reference to the splendors of Heaven. Like these icons, the strikingly beautiful woman Hendricks depicted is rendered in front of a flat gold background. She is neither white nor attenuated; her curves are apparent, and her skin is almost as radiant as the gold that shines from behind. Her full afro crowns her head as opposed to a flat, disk-like halo. Hendricks uses the visual language of Christian icons in a subversive manner, asserting something I always grew up knowing as I looked to my strong, beautiful mother and grandmother: Black womanhood is divine.
She stands as if taking one long last look in the mirror before leaving for work
and I wonder if she hopes stray hairs won't stretch out and ruin
The careful sculpture of her Afro, the round surface of which casts faint streaks of shadow,
And I wonder if she's thinking about her shirt--is it ironed enough
Are the sleeves too short showing too much skin
Or not enough skin and who gets decide that anyway
They can go to hell just like the people who decide you can't vote because you have a felony
Or the people who decide to spike up the rent just because white people suddenly want to live in Harlem
Or decide to tear gas pregnant women
Or the people at work who decide that the way you dress and the way you talk
I wonder if she thinks all this only because her hand rests just above the bend of her elbow
which suggests that to make it out of the house she's saying to herself
the same thing the shimmering gold canvas behind her is telling me
The first protest against injustice
Is to love yourself
Urban Wall Suit, 1969
After I tried to climb,
Press and push against the wall,
Pound with my fist against the wall;
After I sang hymns
Marching to the left and right of the wall;
After I joined rallies and sit-ins
And locked arms beside the wall,
I didn't know what else to do besides take
patches of fabric
and my paintbrush
and swirl it in a bucket with my hometown,
curses made against my friends, scars left on their bodies,
My mother's maiden name,
My dream school, my dream job,
My freedom dream
And paint and paint and paint
And sew the fabric I painted on
into a suit.
As I slid my arm through the sleeve,
I realized that all along I wanted the wall,
with its cold bricks cemented together– blocking me,
to love me
and keep me warm.
Now I walk downtown with my suit on
And people's feet shuffle awkwardly as they try to get out of my way;
Thinking that I can't see them, their eyes shuttle up and down, left and right
like bricks getting pulled out of a wall
Thrown to the ground
Shattering into countless pieces.
The aluminum foil, painted black like the side of a volcano, tears open
And reveals a sepia photograph of a German Shepherd biting onto to the sleeve of a black man's sweater.
Between two rows of dagger-sharp teeth the sleeve holds. and holds. and won’t detach. And won’t free this black man. this poor black man.
I can't help but think of how cruel the situation was
Because that man had to have had other clothes to wear that day,
Maybe a cotton button-down shirt, the sleeve of which would have torn, but he wore
That sweater, and there had to be hundreds of copies of that sweater made that season,
But he bought and he wore that one.
And what's more, beyond what the ordinary microscope can see,
On the quantum level, particles behave in fields of probability,
In other words if it had been the same dog and the same man and the same sweater
But a different day, the sweater would have torn
and the man would have been free.
So the thing that's so tragic about this photograph is that
There's no reason the sleeve holds together other than the fact that it holds together.
I would hate to be stuck there like him, my hand maybe a foot away from a dog's mouth
All because the last threads which stubbornly refuse to tear
Lock: our backs bent,
Lock: my feet and lock: its paws to the ground,
Lock: our gaze into each other's pupils,
Both of us paralyzed by fear just as much as anger
Unable to escape each other into the mob rushing around us,
The wild curtain of bodies
The wildness of Birmingham 1964.
Wives of Shango, 1969
I first started studying Cuban Lucumí (better known as Santería), an Afro-diasporic religion from present-day Nigeria brought to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade, during sophomore year. Since my first exposure to the religion, Ochún has always been my favorite. In Cuba, the Lucumí pantheon is comprised of innumerable deities (called orishas) with distinct powers. The orishas each have personal narratives: intricate stories that explain their characteristics and dispositions. Ochún—the orisha of love, the river, and the protector of women and children— is typically represented by yellow/gold and a peacock. Ochún ranks high in the Pantheon, and her irresistible beauty, charm, and allure make her arguably one of the most revered and worshipped female orishas. Ochún is the pinnacle of femininity: graceful but energetic, demure but forceful. While Ochún can be generous and loving, practitioners of Lucumí are careful not to spite her. In the myths featuring the female deity, when someone commits a wrong against her, Ochún is sure to get revenge, and she’ll laugh sardonically while doing it.
In Donaldson’s Wives of Shango, Ochún is out for blood. He depicts her on the right of the work in her signature yellow dress, outfitted with artillery and one of her most iconic accessories – a small fan— that she holds at her hip. Ochún was one of three of wives of Changó (spelled Shango in Yorùbá, the dialect used in Nigeria), the deity of lightning and war. Like the title alludes, the other two women in the painting are also Changó’s wives. Obba, the orisha of the home, stands on the left dressed in pink, one of her ceremonial colors. Oya, protector of the cemetery and deity of powerful storms, is at the center. While Oya is traditionally represented by nine colors, Donaldson dresses her in a white blouse and a brown skirt here (two of her nine colors).
Though, in the mythology, Oya, Obba, and Ochún compete for Changó’s affections, the animosity they share for one another is not depicted here. In fact, Changó has been relegated to the background. The male deity is only alluded to by the double-headed axe, his symbol, painted in faint white at the work’s top left. Instead of fighting each other, the three women come together, outfitted with bandoliers, rifles, and daggers, to dismantle the system of oppression that has affected them all. Here, they are not just wives. They are warriors.
During the Civil Rights Movement, many activists expressed a Pan-Africanist sentiment, looking to the culture of various African nations and peoples to encourage unity and solidarity among people of African descent around the world. According the ideology of Pan-Africanism, uplift for all black people is contingent upon economic, social, and political agency. By using subjects from a religion West African in origin, Donaldson illustrates that the American Civil Rights Movement does not exist in isolation. In line with Pan-Africanism, Donaldson asserts the belief that all Africans and people of the Diaspora are connected and the quest for black liberation is a global effort.