— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) May 29, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.