This moment is a civil rights nexus. With the public response to the police shooting of an unarmed young black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, MO; the subsequent rise of the #blacklivesmatter hastag; and the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday; race, civil rights, and police brutality are on the national conscience. Enter the Blanton’s Witness exhibition. At the University of Texas at Austin, the Blanton Museum commemorates the Civil Rights Struggle with art that runs the gamut of media. From photographs, paintings, videos, sculpture, and even clothing, the collection presents different perspectives of the lives of African-Americans in mid-century America, their struggle for equality, and the often-violent response they received. Some, such as Pauline Boty’s painting Countdown to Violence, offer an unflinching commentary on the backlash against anyone who spoke out against injustice. Others, like Barbara Jones-Hogu’s Unite, are bright, joyous affirmations of unity in the Civil Rights movement among women and the people of the so-called Third World. Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture Homage to my Young Black Sisters relates the primacy and importance of black women in the black community in the struggle for civil rights. The opportunity to visit the Witness exhibit offered me a perspective on the Civil Rights movement that was frightening, honest, funny, and at all times, human.
Many of the images in the Witness exhibition depict the violent backlash civil rights activists experienced in a frank manner. In her 1964 painting Countdown to Violence, Pauline Boty memorializes those who have been killed for standing up to injustice. The top of the painting reads “3-2-1-Zero” above images of the assassinated presidents John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, both known for their progressive, at the time, stances on racial equality. Below them is a flag-draped casket on an unhitched trailer. The largest image at the bottom center is a woman’s hand holding scissors cutting a rose. The bottom of the painting has the largest and most violent images on the canvas. On the left is the famous image of the self-immolating monk who was protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. The flames from his fiery body burns to the right towards a photo of Birmingham civil rights protester being attacked by a police officer and police dog simultaneously. The bottom of this painting speaks to the violence that the US uses to respond to any sort of conflict in the world, including at home.
However, there are also pieces with a political edge that make a sharp point in a fun pop manner. In Joe Overstreet’s 1964 painting The New Aunt Jemima, the racist pancake syrup mammy logo is turned on its head when Jemima brandishes a machine gun. Larger than life (over seven feet tall), painted with bold reds and purples, this pop art-style Jemima is a triumphant figure with agency and power; this Jemima is no one’s mammy. Still smiling, she holds the gun, firing over a depiction of the globe as pancakes tumble around her from a canister styled like a hand grenade. Quite literally, this is a depiction of Black Nationalism, while its wit and humor take all the force from a very hurtful stereotype that has been used to dehumanize black women for centuries.
As I entered the last section of Witness, I saw pieces that celebrated the “beloved community” and the shared struggle for racial equality. There was a beautiful and eye-catching painting with the word UNITE repeated above the raised fists of a crowd of African-Americans. Barbara Jones-Hogu’s uplifting 1971 painting simply titled Unite, underscores the shared struggle of all African-Americans and the power of unity. With this on my mind, I moved toward the exit, with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech playing in the background. I passed a cedar wood carving of a woman with her fist defiantly and determinately held high. Elizabeth Catlett’s 1968 cedar carving Homage to My Young Black Sisters stands almost six feet tall. Obviously a woman, the figure has breasts and has a hollowed-out abdomen where this negative space puts emphasis on the womb. Being mothers (biological or otherwise) to the next generation, black women are the foundation of the black community and center of the struggle for equality.
Reading the headlines, it seems today’s civil rights situation can be summarized “same as it ever was.” African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white, law enforcement continues the use of racial profiling, and our schools are just as segregated today as they were prior to the Brown decision. But exhibits like Witness give me hope. As the next generation learns what came before them and the current generation of college students assesses their position in relation to history, we can move forward with wisdom and the unity of shared history. And our shared humanity.
Liz Garlow is an American Studies Senior at UT-Austin. She will begin her thesis on the women’s spirituality movement in Fall 2015.