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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.