Tag Archives: WitnessVoices

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.

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.