Tag Archives: University Voices

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.

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.