Witness: Then and Now

Barbara Jones-Hogu
Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite, 1971, silkscreen with ink on wove paper, 22 1/2 × 30 in., Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund © Barbara Jones-Hogu

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.

Struggles of Desegregation in David Hammons’ “The Door (Admissions Office)”

David Hammons The Door (Admissions Office), 1969 Wood, acrylic sheet, and pigment construction 79 x 48 x 15 in. California African American Museum, Los Angeles, Collection of Friends, the Foundation of the California African American Museum, EL113.030. © David Hammons
David Hammons
The Door (Admissions Office), 1969, Wood, acrylic sheet, and pigment construction, 79 x 48 x 15 in.
California African American Museum, Los Angeles, Collection of Friends, the Foundation of the California African American Museum, EL113.030. © David Hammons

As I was walking around the Blanton, the free standing door with the handprints and inkblots that read ‘Admissions Office’ immediately caught my eye. Just a simple observation of the door made it clear to me that it was from a school from long ago. The door was probably taken from a building and painted by the artist. The artist applied black paint on himself and pushed himself against the door while rolling his face, in order to get the print we see. As I got nearer, it became clearer what was on the door. Handprints and an impression of a body were on the glass in acrylic paint. The symbolism of African- American struggle to attend school in the American South was vibrant at this point. We fully see the African- American individual fully pressing their body against the door, hoping to get in and have the same opportunities as everyone else.

If we look in history books we can find numerous instances where African- Americans faced adverse situations in everyday life in the American South in the 1960s. They faced trouble walking on the sidewalk, sitting in a public bus, going out to the movies and in numerous other everyday tasks. Even when they wanted to attend school to obtain an education, it was met with violent and sometimes deadly reactions. The Door (Admissions Office) simply shows how hard it was for African- Americans to attend school. The prints of a face and even the body as a whole clearly show the amount of force was put onto the door. The admissions office was a huge deterrent in the way of countless individuals in the American South. It was a metaphor of southern society blocking African- Americans from progressing and being able to garner even their most basic rights. No matter how much one could bang against, lean against or even try to break down that admissions door; it often refused to budge. It has been said that putting African- American children in the same classrooms as white children was the most drastic and potentially far- reaching aspect of the civil rights movement (School Desegregation).

In some instances we saw the admissions office ‘barrier’ be fortified by white southerners who literally stood in the way. When two African- American students attempted to enroll at the University of Alabama, Governor George Wallace physically placed himself in front of the door. Governor Wallace stated “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” (Wallace). Despite Governor Wallace’s stance, the students stood their ground and fought for their rights.

When James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi it was met protest and violence. Like Governor Wallace in Alabama, Governor Ross Barnett in Mississippi promised to block James Meredith from enrolling at Mississippi. Those protesting were met by the Mississippi National Guard under the orders of President Kennedy. Despite all this Meredith was defiant and believed that he was at war fighting for his civil rights as an American citizen and that the University of Mississippi was his battleground. Meredith showed, in my opinion, total bravery and fought for justice in the unjust society he was living. His act of courage is one that not only every Mississippian but also every American should know.

One did not have to be alive in the Civil Rights era to be touched by the profound artwork in the exhibit. What happened in the 1960s was about equality among all races. This concept is vital because lessons from the civil rights era can be spread far and wide. It is valuable to consider the events that unfolded during the civil rights era because it helps us understand race issues in the current world we live in. Being able to see the work in this exhibit is almost like entering a time portal to the past. One can almost feel like they are the student being denied admission to the school of their liking by an imposing admissions door with a body print on it of a student pressing against the door, almost trying to go through it and have the chance to earn an education that is civil right for all.

Zohaib Qadri is a Sociology major at UT. Besides David Hammons’ The Door, he was struck by Pauline Boty’s Countdown to Violence. His favorite book is Of Mice and Men. When he isn’t studying, you can catch him watching House of Cards.

Works Cited

Elliot, Debbie. “Integrating Ole Miss: A Transformative, Deadly Riot.” NPR. NPR, 01 Oct.         2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Elliot, Debbie. “Wallace in the Schoolhouse Door.” NPR. NPR, 11 June 2003. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

“School Desegregation and Equal Educational Opportunity.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The Leadership Conference, 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.




Vital Statistics

Lawdy Mama
Barkley Hendricks
Lawdy Mama, 1969
Oil and gold leaf on canvas
53 3/4 x 36 1/4 inches
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Bold. Protective. Empowered. Fearless. Holy. Beautiful. Raw. These words instantly came to mind as I focused my attention on Barkley L. Hendricks’ painting, Lawdy Mama from 1969. It would be easy to assume the flashy background, which is composed of real gold particles, is what automatically captures your attention; however, the simplicity in the woman’s attire contradicts her intense stare. The woman’s eyes scream, “bring it on” steals the show. Her posture, positioning of her left hand over her right elbow and her eye contact are beyond intriguing.

Her posture is firm. She is standing her ground and not slouching in defeat, shame or fear. The strategic positioning of her arms portray a woman who is instinctively protecting herself; shielding herself from the hate this toxic world continuously throws her way. Those eyes. Her eye contact is direct, piercing through your skull. She is not afraid. She will not tolerate oppression anymore. She is worthy. She is human. She is equal.

Additionally, the shape of the image is powerful. The woman stands in an arch-top shaped window. This image mirrors the backgrounds saints are commonly pictured in. Her afro simulates a halo. She is saint-like and holy, but, unlike saints, she stares directly at you. She exposes herself to the inevitable criticizing and injustice that will be inflicted upon her. Lawdy Mama portrays an everyday African American woman. She is not a heroic, well-known leader. She is not Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates or Harriet Tubman. Hendricks paints her with attire that is not fancy or elegant, but in dress commonly worn by women at that time. She isn’t plastered with make-up or covered in jewelry. Hendricks’s painting emphasizes that “Black is beautiful” but rendering her naturally. Here, an everyday Black woman has the potential to elevate herself fearlessly in society.

The Civil Rights movement took place between 1954-1968. It was a time of violence, injustice and hatred. African Americans lived in fear, segregation and inequality. The torture they experienced resulted in “psychological and physical pain such as forced migration, condemned separation, weakening of the mind, and severe abuse” (Taylor). It is important to recognize that the Civil Rights era isn’t just about the leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rosa Parks, and other well-known names. The Civil Rights Movement “existed independently of its most notable leaders, and thousands of people mustered the courage to join the struggle, very often risking their lives” (Southern).

Today, many people only remember the heroic figures of the Civil Rights and the “lack of black presence in paintings” is ubiquitous; therefore, Barkley Hendricks “became a pioneer of black portraiture that pairs art history with questions of personal identity and cultural heritage” (Barkley). He yearned to make the unknown known. Barkley Hendricks portraits capture the everyday life of African Americans. He focuses on encompassing their life, struggles, and culture. Hendricks’s use of colors, physical features such as arm positioning or eyes, and external factors like clothing are interrelated elements that make his artwork fascinating and awe-inspiring.

Racial discrimination continues to be omnipresent and pervasive. We see it everyday in the news outlets and other media, court cases, or workplaces. What I find most mind-boggling is the presence of such discrimination even in demography. Race is such an ‘x-factor’ when studying demography. Black mortality rates in comparison to whites or Hispanics or Asians or any other race for that matter, are undoubtedly unequal.   According to a lecture by sociologist Dr. Shannon Cavanagh “life expectancy of Blacks is nearly 5 years lower compared to whites” (Cavanagh). As discussed in lecture these “differences begin at birth” with “twice the infant mortality rate”- a “gap that is increasing over time” (Cavanagh). The reasoning behind such inequality in demography consists of a compilation of different factors such as social class, culture, geographical location, etc. All of which are ultimately shaped by race and opportunity. When analyzing statistics or graphs of mortality rates or life expectancy for Blacks in comparison to other races, I get an indirect feeling of oppression, inequality, and injustice. Demographics reflects the continued racism. Demography does its job and captures the sharp differences in population, income, education, fertility rates, mortality rates, etc. between races, and Blacks are clearly at a disadvantage.

Lawdy Mama is not just a beautiful image; it is a historical piece that captures the status of African American women, empowerment, and Civil Rights history. Today, as we continue to battle African American oppression and inequality “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope” because despite our differences physically and mentally, we are all still human (King). Unfortunately, racial discrimination in the United States is still very much alive. In the famous words of one of the most important leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I hope I live long enough to witness such equality one day.

Virginia Saenz,is a senior from Brownsville studying Sociology and Business Administration at UT Austin. Saenz enjoys worshiping, reading, working, listening to Ludwig van Beethoven, and spending time with her beloved. She relishes the opportunity to write publicly about feminism and the empowerment of women.

Youth and Violence in Jacob Lawrence’s “Soldiers and Students”

Witness Voices

Some people use art as an escape, others make a social statement. The works of art in the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties are mostly of the latter. Although I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time at the exhibit (I will be returning to soak it in fully), one piece stood out to me. Painted by Jacob Lawrence in 1962, Soldiers and Students is a vibrantly colored work that shows one of the most terrifying experiences of the Civil Rights Movement.

Believed by curators and art historians to be painted about the desegregation of schools, and based on the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Soldiers and Students shows several young African American students being led by three larger figures (New Frontiers). Their intimidating demeanor and weapons indicate that they are armed guards, or soldiers. There is a group of protestors blocking the students’ entry into a school. The books in their arms suggest they are students eager to learn. Looking closely, a protester painted green holds a rock in his/her hand. At the top right of the painting, there is also a protestor holding an effigy of an African American in his/her hand. Effigies are small models of people usually made in order to be damaged or destroyed as a protest or expression of anger. It could have been used as a tactic to intimidate the Black students, as the use of effigies has occurred since the Civil Rights Movement. During the desegregation of Mansfield High School in 1956, after the Supreme Court Ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, protestors hung an African-American effigy to the flag pole and set it on fire (A History). Recently, in 2014, effigies were hung as if being lynched on the UC Berkeley campus (USA Today). This is a clear symbol of racism and the negative views held by many about desegregation.

Jacob Lawrence uses bright colors and partially filled in characters to further add to the intensity of the painting. These techniques help portray not only intensity, but also movement. He used large brush strokes and “cubic” nature of the people portrayed in many of his works. Lawrence was influenced by the Cubist painting tradition, which used broad brush strokes, strong lines, and abstract objects to present several viewpoints of the same subject matter (Rewald 2015). Lawrence paints the faces of these figures in a cubic style, simultaneously showing several different emotions, including sadness and fear.

Like many of the artists featured in Witness, Lawrence was a social activist, who used his work to portray the struggle of African-Americans throughout the 20th century (African American Registry). He is most famously known for his Great Migration series. The Great Migration was the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II. This series contained more than 60 works of art, and Lawrence used a distinct technique throughout. He would paint only one color at a time First, all the red elements then the blue ones, and so on. He did this to ensure tonal consistency and balance.

In the year that Lawrence painted this work, 1962, the Ole Miss Riot took place. Segregationists were protesting the enrollment of James Meredith, a black US military veteran, at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, Mississippi. Two civilians were killed during the night, including a French journalist. Over 300 people were injured including one third of the US Marshals deployed (Sitton 1962). These types of protests were not uncommon as the desegregation movement took full force during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Especially terrifying, much of the violence and anger during this time, was directed towards young children attempting to go to school. This work and many others of its kind show the struggle of African-Americans as they fought for their right to equal education and to obtain other fundamental rights, guaranteed to them by the Constitution.

Geetika Rao is a third year Human Biology and Business Foundations major from Coppell, Texas. She is very involved at UT; working in a cancer research lab, as well as being a member of the 2016 Texas 4000 for Cancer team. She loves to play and watch sports and to read for fun. Her favorite work of art is The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. She remembers it fondly from her high school Spanish classroom.

Works Cited

“A History of Racial Injustice.” A History of Racial Injustice. Equal Justice Initiative, 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Effigies of Blacks Found Hanging by Nooses at UC Berkeley.” Voices from Campus. USA Today, 13 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

“Explore Voting Rights with Your Students This Year.” New Frontiers 18 (2014): 7. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Web.

“Jacob Lawrence, An Artist of African American History and Heritage.” African American Registry. African American Registry, n.d. Web.

Rewald, Sabine. “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Cubism. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Sitton, Claude. “3,000 Troops Put Down Mississippi Rioting And Seize 200 as Negro Attends Classes; Ex-Gen. Walker Is Held for Insurrection.” How Race Is Lived in America. The New York Times, 2000. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Belonging and Demographics in Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs)”

Installation view of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

The work in Witness that mesmerized me most was the Norman Rockwell’s oil on canvas, New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs). It is the first painting displayed in the exhibition. The painting depicts five characters: two African-American children and three white children staring each other. One African American boy in a white long sleeve shirt and plaid shorts holds a baseball glove; and a smaller African American girl stands right next to him. She looks a bit worried as she holds onto a white cat. She wears a pink dress and a matching hair tie and socks. On the other side of the canvas, one white boy, as tall as the African-American boy, has a bit of attitude and is in a yellow long sleeve shirt and jeans, also holding onto a baseball glove; there is a shorter white boy next to him, who is in a baseball uniform leaning towards to take a closer look at the African American children; and a white girl in a pink hair tie, who is standing right behind the two white boys. The white children have a black dog that looks directly at the African-American children as well. Behind the children, an adult is busy moving items out of a moving truck. Beyond the moving truck, parts of average suburban houses not too far from each other, hinting at the kind of neighborhood this is . Grass is green, and the some of the furniture is out on the yard. The two African-American children are standing closer to the houses, suggesting that they are the ones moving into the neighborhood. The painting is realistic. Its tone is not too bright or too dark but resembles natural light on a regular day. A bit of tension between the two groups of children can be felt through the work.

Norman Rockwell gained his success early. He was hired as art director of Boy’s Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of American, when he was a teenager (2). Starting at 22, Rockwell worked for The Saturday Evening Post. In 1963, Norman Rockwell left his iconic position as an illustrator at The Saturday Evening Post because the magazine refused to publish his more socially engaged work. Rockwell moved to the Look magazine where he started illustrating his concerns and interests including civil rights, America’s War on Poverty, and the exploration of space for the next 10 years. New Kids in the Neighborhood was reproduced in 1967 in a Look magazine article on integration in the suburbs (2).

This artwork resonated with me, because it reminded me of when I first moved to the United States at age 9. The way that the black girl is looking at the white kids is essentially how I felt when I first moved to the US. I felt separated. I felt like the white people were watching me closely because I was different. The tension between the two groups of children reflected to me the tension I felt when I was interacting with other racial groups as a young girl. Rockwell’s realistic figures in a suburban setting contributed to my connection. In addition, learning about the artist’s life story and his belief in racial equality made me appreciate the artwork more. Knowing Rockwell’s background and the choices he made to produce more socially-engaged work made me consider this painting as even more powerful that I initially thought.

New Kids in the Neighborhood illustrates segregation in the 60s. Segregation is any practice that separates a population based on race, religion, or ethnicity. Under Jim Crow Laws , there were two separate societies: one black and one white (4). At this time, African-American could not ride the same rail car, sit in the same waiting room, share the same theater, or attend the same school as white folks. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared segregation in the public schools as unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education case. After this, bus-riding Freedom Riders, marchers, boycotter, and other protesters started fighting against racial inequality not just in education, but also in everyday living, through the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s (4).

Rockwell used many different techniques to draw attention to the issue of segregation. First the physical separation of the two races is illustrated through the gap between them. The center of the painting is an empty space and the main characters are facing each other from the opposite side. This amplifies the tension between the groups. He used the suburbs as the setting to illustrate the fact that segregation is not only a problem in the urban area, but extends throughout the country, including the suburbs. The artist’s decision to use children was deliberate as a way to suggest innocence. The baseball gloves in the hands of both white and African-American boys allude to the great American pastime. Also the girls in this painting are both wearing a pink hair tie. Together, these aspects illustrate the commonality between the two raced groups. I believe that Rockwell used these subtle techniques to portray the state of the nation at the time and his belief that both race share common values and together make up the nation.

In sociology, segregation can explain inequality and demonstrates how external forces change demography. As mentioned earlier, segregation was a major problem facing the society in the 60s –and continues to be a problem today.. The economic and social impact of extreme segregation could be why the African American children in Rockwell’s painting moved to the suburbs,. An area where effects of segregation are imagined to be positive and not as harsh as in other places.

Race, along with income, education, place, and gender, is a social location. A social location indicates an individual’s particular chance at being “at risk” and shapes the contours of illness and disease once a person becomes sick (1). As studied in Dr. Sharon Cavanagh‘s Population and Society class, segregation leads to chronic stress due to unfair treatment. This can lead to many health problems that have a tremendous effect on the fertility and mortality rates of the population (1). Because the main characters of New Kids in the Neighborhood are children the weathering effects of living in a race-conscious society as African Americans have not yet reached the population at that age, it might not be immediately apparent that there are health disparities among the children. Fertility and mortality rates are important processes in population changes, which have a huge impact on the development of the population. In order to understand population change, it is necessary to see how population is impacted by forces such as segregation.

Julie Choi is a third year public health major at the University of Texas at Austin.  She was born in South Korea and moved to San Antonio when she was 9. She enjoys being outdoors, hiking, hanging out with friends, and playing music. 

Works Cited

Cavanagh, S. “Week 4 Lecture.” SOC 369K Population and Health. The University of Texas at Austin, Austin TX. 12 Feb. 2015. Lectur

“Norman Rockwell.” com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Rockwell, Norman. New Kids in the Neighborhood (Negro in the Suburbs). 1967. Oil on Canvas. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin Texas

“1960’s Civil Rights Movement.” Historybits. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.


History and Health Disparities in Witness

Installation view of Witness

Currently, the Blanton Museum of Art is holding Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, a special exhibition including artworks ranging in media from paintings to photographs to textiles. Through this experience, I was able to enter into the Civil Rights Era, which can be hard to grasp today. Yet, the effects of inequality fought during that time can still be seen today.

Through sociological lenses, I was reminded of the history of negative social effects on African Americans during that time and today. Two pieces of art, varying in medium, caught my attention during my tour of the exhibition due to their connections to two important events of the Civil Rights Movement: the 1898 Plessy V Ferguson court ruling which upheld the ‘separate, but equal’ standards of segregation and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Both were important events and also hold relevance to the racial inequalities in the health of African Americans today.

The piece Hold, Separate, but Equal (1969) by Malcolm Bailey resembles a schematic drawing of a slave ship with an overview and cross section of the boat. Inside the outlines of the ship are strong, uniform white and black figures segregated by color. Placed one after the other, a few are in a constricted sitting position while most are prone. The sections are labeled A, B, C, D, and F, with the E section missing. This representation of a slave ship is expressed on a blue background like the ocean that the ship would have traveled on. Bailey alludes to the ways enslaved Africans were seen as products or cargo, rather than human beings. The missing E section made me consider the people who did not survive the trip to the Americas on the slave ship. Given the historical continuity of racist violence, the missing section could be related to those who died during the Middle Passage or in the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

As mentioned before, the piece is ironically titled after the famous 1898 Plessy VS Ferguson, the controversial court case on segregation. Importantly, this ruling was overturned by the outcome of Brown VS Board of Education in 1954. Yet the visual imagery of the ship represents another time altogether, the slave trade era. By merging elements from different moments, the artist connects these events and histories to bring light to the continuous injustices African Americans have faced since the Middle Passage, including the Great Migration and the struggle for civil rights to the present day.

Through Bailey’s painting I can sense different histories that have affected African Americans since they arrived in the Americas on the slave ships and the pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Era. These histories have contributed to the negative health disparities established by the social location of African Americans today based on the sociologically informed model of health and mortality (Cavanagh, Week 5A). Based on this model, the social location such as socioeconomic status (SES), education, and income are “important contributors to racial differences in disease” (Williams & Jackson 2005). These in return affect health practices such as smoking, diet, physical activity and those who have a lower SES are “less-likely to reduce high-risk behavior,” and experience higher chronic stress levels (Williams & Jackson, 2005). Bailey’s painting represents the inequality that African Americans have experienced since they came to the US, and reflects the ways the model demonstrates the separate, but not so equal health outcomes.

Installation view of Witness

Another visually stimulating piece from the exhibit, is Red April painted by Sam Gilliam in 1970. This abstract piece is on stained canvas and brings out feelings of chaos through the vibrant red paint splatters. These splatters resemble blood with tones of yellow, blue, and brown in the background. The artist made this piece in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, two years after the crucial event occurred. I found this piece to be not only a personal reaction, but also a work of art to represent the feelings many experienced going through mourning the death of a prominent civil rights leader who was taken too soon. The uncertainty of the future and anger of the event is translated by the abstract style of the artist.

Gilliam was known as a color field painter who has stated “I’ve learned to get rid of rules, which is the best form of creation” (Biography: Sam Gilliam). King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where he was attending a strike of sanitation workers.The painting reflects the chaos and stressful death of Martin Luther King Jr. It parallels the feelings and reactions to violence still affecting African Americans today and taking a drastic toll on their well-being. In the racial disparities of health for African Americans, social aspects affect the negative health outcomes including higher rates of heart disease to cancer. Other factors include higher homicide rates and residential segregation, which is a “neglected, but enduring legacy of racism in the United States” (William & Jackson, 2005). In fact, “racism acts as a classic chronic stressor,” and these “social determinants,” such as residential segregation are the social forces that have created racial disparities in health for African Americans (Drexler, 2007).

Although there are still health disparities affecting African Americans disproportionately, the Civil Rights movement allowed for some reform and freedom that has led to better health outcomes than if the movement did not happen at all. The artwork of the exhibit was diverse in its presentation, but each captured the social injustice happening during the Civil Rights Era. The events that took place during that time have impacted the health of African Americans then and their effects can still be seen today. The artists in Witness present that moment in creative, thought-provoking ways with different views of a controversial time. Through the artwork, we are able to become aware of the social inequalities still present today that we often forget in our day-to-day lives. Significantly, the art in this exhibition reflected on social issues considered to be history, yet the effects of racism on the health of African Americans continues to be very apparent.

Cassie Davis is a Senior Anthropology major from Shreveport, Louisiana who plans to attend graduate school for Public Health in the fall. You can catch her enjoying live music throughout Austin, hiking in the greenbelt, or painting in her backyard in her spare time. One of her treasured memories is being able to admire her favorite painting, Picasso’s Guernica in Barcelona.

Tumblr post from blantonmuseum

They called her the “High Priestess of Soul.” Her voice was so rich, so anguished, and hypnotic that she could fill you—completely overwhelm you—with the spirit of pride and unparalleled struggle. There was inextricable power in the music of Nina Simone. She became the voice of a generation of African Americans fighting for equality in the face of segregation, discrimination, violence, and death in the American South of the 1960s, and her legacy continues to this day.

Songs like “Old Jim Crow” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” were authored at the height of civil rights turmoil in America. “Mississippi Goddam,” which was written in response to the Birmingham church bombing, is featured in a dedicated gallery in our current exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.

Tagged with #WitnessVoices on Tumblr by blantonmuseum.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black: The Civil Rights Legacy of Nina Simone

Nina Simone, 1969. (Courtesy of Getty Images)
Nina Simone, 1969. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

They called her the “High Priestess of Soul.” Her voice was so rich, so anguished, and hypnotic that she could fill you—completely overwhelm you—with the spirit of pride and unparalleled struggle. There was inextricable power in the music of Nina Simone. She became the voice of a generation of African Americans fighting for equality in the face of segregation, discrimination, violence, and death in the American South of the 1960s, and her legacy continues to this day.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon to a North Carolina Methodist minister and a handyman preacher, Nina Simone came to prominence in jazz bars of Atlantic City, transforming popular tunes of the 1950s into unique jazz and blues renditions. Following her first records in the late 1950s, her 1959 remake of “I Loves You Porgy,” taken from George Gershwin’s famous opera “Porgy and Bess,” was a Top 10 hit and introduced television audiences to her mastery of the piano and her exquisite, arresting vocals.

While she was at first apprehensive about speaking out on issues of discrimination and black struggle, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama overwhelmed Simone so deeply that her music would never be the same. The tone and cadence of her lyrics shifted, her attitude and confidence was impassioned like never before, and, rather than angry, her vocals became deeply anguished.

Songs like “Old Jim Crow” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” were authored at the height of civil rights turmoil in America. “Mississippi Goddam,” which was written in response to the Birmingham church bombing, is featured in a dedicated gallery in the Blanton’s current exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. Jarring images of blacks being hosed, clubbed, and attacked by dogs frequently made the covers of national newspapers at the time. Simone did not wait for the gavel of justice to swing down on her black brothers and sisters before she spoke out, nor did she wait for the clarity and judgment of historical hindsight. She channeled her frustration into jazz and blues anthems dripping with beauty, rage, and self-identified pride.

“My job,” she said in an interview, “is to somehow make [black people] curious enough, or persuade them, by hook or crook, to get them more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there, and just bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means is necessary.”

The Black Power Movement picked up speed in the late 1960s, as did the early rumblings of the fight for gender equality. Black pride began to engulf African American communities across the country, from Harlem to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which had survived nearly a week of race riots in 1965. The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, or “the Black Woodstock” as it would come to be known, set the stage for a new cultural movement in America, where black musicians and artists of the African diaspora could rally their voices and share art and music with the black masses. Simone’s performance of a new song, “Revolution,” named after the Beatles hit, reinforced the real revolution at stake for blacks in America.

For every lyric about lynchings and the struggle for equality, Simone would write another about freedom and black pride, reinforcing her belief that African American men and women should know the beauty of their blackness. Overcome by the power of a photograph of American playwright and writer Lorraine Hansberry, Simone was inspired to write the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” named for a play produced by Hansberry at the time. The lyrics are some of Simone’s most captivating and proud.

In this clip that follows, which includes a live performance at Morehouse College in 1970—the same university in Atlanta where Dr. Martin Luther King was once a professor, and where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded—Simone speaks of the power of photography to captivate, and the inspiration behind the song. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” became one of the most triumphant anthems of the black pride movement in the 1970s. Nina Simone, who died in 2003, leaves behind an extraordinary and unparalleled musical legacy, the likes of which may not be seen for some time.

Evan Garza
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Blanton Museum of Art

Nina Simone’s 1965 performance of “Mississippi Goddam,” first aired on Dutch TV, is featured in the Blanton exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties”, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, and on view at the Blanton through May 10. 


Kerry James Marshall’s “Black Painting”

Forty-five years ago today on December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, an African American activist and the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was shot and killed while sleeping in his bed by eight members of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Chicago Police Department in an early morning raid. Mark Clark, a member of the Black Panther Party from Peoria and an active member of the NAACP, also in the apartment at the time, was also shot and killed. The raid, which produced no police indictments, is one of the most tragic and controversial events to take place during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

The moments before the killing are captured in Black Painting (2003), a mournful work by artist Kerry James Marshall that features black acrylic paint on black fiberglass. The painting depicts the apartment of Fred Hampton as seen from the backdoor, the location from which police officers fired anywhere from 82 to 99 gunshots.*

The painting itself is nearly indecipherable. Ghosts of dresser drawers and belongings scatter themselves across the dark tableau. Resting on a bedside table is a copy of Angela Y. Davis’s book “If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance,” a book published 2 years after the shooting, but which the artist places here for particular significance. On an opposite nightstand, a pearl necklace hangs from a jewelry stand in the form of a tightly clenched black fist, a symbol and salute of the Black Power movement. A Black Panther flag is hung limply on a corner wall, the words “POWER TO THE PEOPLE…” barely detectable.

The painting – at its very core – is the epitome of darkness. The details are nearly indiscernible, and the black figure lying in bed is a near invisible man, conjuring the title of Ralph Ellison’s famous 1952 novel describing the African American experience of the early 20th century, and a poetic compositional gesture on Marshall’s part. In bed, Hampton has propped himself up by his arm, his head turned as if listening. Is this the moment in which he was first startled, hearing the men break into his apartment? Is this just before the first shots are fired? With Black Painting (2003), Kerry James Marshall brilliantly positions himself as both artist and archivist, using blackness as both medium and subject matter.

Evan Garza, Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

Image: Kerry James Marshall, Black Painting, acrylic on fiberglass, loan from private collection, Princeton, New Jersey.

*Ted Gregory, “The Black Panther Raid and the death of Fred Hampton”, Chicago Tribune

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