Tag Archives: Witness Voices

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.

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)”

Witness
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.