Category: African American

My Country Right or Wrong

My Country Right or Wrong - Painting by Cliff Joseph
African American artist, Cliff Joseph, was the co-founder of the 1960’s Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in New York, an artist’s group involved in creating socially conscious artworks. Joseph’s oil on canvas painting, titled My Country Right or Wrong was created in 1968 at the height of America’s war on Vietnam. The artwork derided the blind patriotism that made the war possible, but it was also a stunning indictment of the apathy found on the home front. In Joseph’s painting, flag-blindfolded citizens wander through a desolate landscape of crushed skeletons. Gore stains the feet and ankles of the individuals traversing the endless fields of massacred people. They stumble through the forsaken battlefield like the zombies from George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (which came out that same year). In the background of Joseph’s painting, Christian and Jewish grave markers can be seen - alluding to American sacrifices on the battlefield. Joseph said this about his work, “My art is a confrontation. Among the many realities of art expression, this remains the most constant purpose of my aesthetic. It is, of course, a social art, based on my ‘gut’ perceptions of our worldly conditions; but it draws upon each viewer to confront himself in consideration of his role in affecting those conditions.”

My Country Right or Wrong was specifically focused upon America’s intervention in Vietnam, but there’s an eerie resonance with America’s current political atmosphere. A vicious war is being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the casualties continue to mount - Americans at home seem oblivious to it all. We find ourselves in the very landscape Cliff Joseph painted in 1968. In a 1972 interview conducted for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Joseph said “My work does reflect our times, perhaps all times, and power structures. I think that’s been throughout our history. Power structures have vamped on people, and I am a product of a great deal of vamping. So this is what I talk about in my paintings. My work is anti-war - not just the Vietnam War. I feel my statements on war speak out against all wars destructive to human life, and certainly against social injustices. So that my work does have a lot to say about what’s happening in America today and what’s happening in the world.” Joseph and his compatriots in the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition actively labored at creating a community based, socially relevant art, and at their height they numbered around 200 working artists. But where today can a similar effort be found in artistic circles? It seems the majority of contemporary artists have joined the legions of those wearing blindfolds. See nothing - hear nothing - say nothing.

New York Exhibit on Malcolm X

Having grown up in the 1960’s, few people had as much influence upon me as Malcolm X. He had already been assassinated when I began to read his writings as a teenager, but his words jumped off the printed page and forever became a part of me. He once said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock - that rock landed on us.” The man was full of one liners that flew to the heart like a flaming arrow… but he could also present the most complicated analysis and critique to people in a way that was entirely understandable. As the war in Vietnam raged and the US was tearing apart, the words and analysis of Malcolm X provided clarity and focus. “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” Ossie Davis, the now deceased actor, provided the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral. In that oratory he referred to Malcolm as “our shining Black Prince who didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us so.” But Malcolm wasn’t just a hero to African Americans… he was my Black Prince as well.

Celebrating the eightieth anniversary of the birth of Malcolm X, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is mounting a major exhibition on Brother Malcolm. It will be the first time that a major exhibit on the life and times of Malcolm X will have been presented to the public. The exhibit, titled Malcolm X: A Search for Truth, presents memorabilia, photographs, and documents that were hand written and typed by Malcolm (also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). The exhibit includes photos of Malcolm taken by well-known photographers Robert L. Haggins, Richard Saunders and Laurence Henry, depicting the leader as he traveled abroad and throughout the US. The documents from the Schomburg Center include journal entries, speeches with hand-written notations, personal letters and recordings. Some 250 artifacts will be displayed, many of which have never been shown in public before. Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz’s six daughters, said of the exhibit: “This sensitively curated exhibition by the Schomburg Center permits the general public access to our parents in ways previously impossible. These pictures, letters, and artifacts detail the evolution of their quest for social justice. We see them purely, plainly, and simply committed to giving back to the world what their parents had given to them: thirst for knowledge, love for humanity, and passion for justice.”

Dr. Paul LeClerc, President of The New York Public Library, said “This is one of the single most important collections to come to The New York Public Library in the last decade. And it is one of the only significant collections of archival materials on this galvanizing leader. The path blazed by Malcolm X led African Americans to greater freedom and respect in our society. It is important that the history of his efforts be preserved and made accessible to future generations.” In conjunction with the exhibit, several interesting programs will be held. On Friday May 20th, a panel discusssion will be held on the legacy Brother Malcolm and its impact on the arts and humanities, as well as an examination of its influence on ethnicity and religion. On May 21st and 22nd, the one-character monodrama Brother Malcolm X: Reminiscences of a Black Revolutionary will be performed. The two-act play features dramatist Duane Shepard as Malcolm X. This important exhibition runs from May 19th, 2005 to December 31st, 2005. Admission is free to the public. For details on program information, exhibit hours and location, visit the New York Public Library website.

Black Panther Artist: Emory Douglas

Art of Emory Douglas

Malcolm X was assassinated 40 years ago on February 21st, 1965, while addressing a meeting in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, -he was 39. Malcolm’s fiery Black nationalism and advocacy of armed self-defense for African Americans, combined with his call for winning liberation “By any means necessary”, cleared the way for an entire new generation of young Black activists. A year after Malcolm’s death, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party, an organization that would be on the frontlines of Black struggle in the US for the next 20 years.

Emory Douglas joined the Panther Party in 1967 and became its Minister of Culture. His confrontational graphics defined the party’s agenda and served as front and back covers for The Black Panther, the party’s official tabloid. Throughout the late sixties, tens of thousands of his posters were wheat-pasted on walls from California to New York. Douglas developed a crude and exaggerated cartoon style that excoriated and humiliated racist politicians, landlords, capitalists, and police, portraying them as de-humanized pigs. In fact his inflammatory graphics so popularized the epithet of “pig”, that the insult became a lasting part of the American lexicon.

In July 2004, the Sargent Johnson Gallery in San Francisco mounted a major exhibit of Douglas’ artworks called A Retrospective on the Black Panther Party & the Art of Emory Douglas. Alden Kimbrough, the archivist who provided historic prints to the exhibit, said this about the show, “Only a small percentage of art actually reflects real social and political issues -even less ever gain acceptance by the dominant art culture which determines critical and public interpretations of art, especially by black artists.

The art of Emory Douglas stresses themes of resistance, struggle against racism, oppression and exploitation, as well as the joys that life offers and the richness of a people’s cultural heritage and history.” The It’s About Time Committee is a group of Panther sympathizers and alumni who promote the legacy of the Black Panther Party (BPP). They maintain a website where you can find a gallery of Douglas’ works, plus historic texts.

The Collage of Theodore Harris

Bout With Patriotism -by Theodore Harris

The Hurford Humanities Center has an online exhibition of photo-montage works entitled The Truthoscopic Collage Art of Theodore Harris. The contemporary African American artist works in the tradition of John Heartfield, the German artist who in the 1930’s fused collage art with social criticism. In Harris’ 1995 collage, Bout With Patriotism, we see three unrelated images of violence intertwined in such a way as to make them inseparable. A photo of an automatic rifle is juxtaposed with an image of a Marine carrying a flag draped coffin, and a picture of Muhammad Ali throwing a punch against a backdrop of fire.

The pictures recombine to become metaphors bursting with new meaning. They also conjure up historical memories of Vietnam. In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused induction into the Armed Services on religious grounds, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.” Ali was stripped of his championship title and his boxing license, his passport was revoked, and he was threatened with a 5-year prison term. The brutality of war is certainly evoked in Harris’ collage through the image of the automatic rifle, but since it is clearly aimed at Ali it also represents war’s accomplice and co-conspirator… political repression.

Harris’ images are replete with startling depictions of African Americans trapped in a horrific modern wasteland. Even the torn edges of the collaged photos hint at the violence done to Black folks. But Harris’ art is also about defiant Blackness and the will to carry on.

Jacob Lawrence: Painter of History

L’Ouverture's rebel army

I first discovered the works of African American artist, Jacob Lawrence, as a teenager in the late 1960’s. Inspired by the Black Liberation movement and the rising tide of dissent all around me, I was naturally enthusiastic over Lawrence’s epic series about the great Haitian slave rebellion of 1791. Lawrence was only twenty one when he completed his forty one panel homage to Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1938.

A former slave, L’Ouverture led an insurgent slave army to victory against English and Spanish colonizers. Christened the “Liberator of Haiti”, L’Ouverture helped draft the county’s first constitution in 1800. But before Haiti could proclaim itself free, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte had the rebel leader arrested and brought to Paris in 1802, where he died in prison the following year. Still, the imperialists could not hold back the tide of history, and in 1804 Haiti became the first Black republic.

When Lawrence painted his work of genius, African Americans had little to celebrate. To say that they were second class citizens would be an understatement. The artist’s works provided the Black masses with a stirring account of dignity, heroism and resistance at a time when they were dispossessed, downtrodden and yearning for freedom. Lawrence’s paintings of the Haitian struggle were created in tempera on hardboard, each work measuring 11 x 19 inches. Some of the paintings Lawrence made into larger silkscreen prints, with his portrait of L’Ouverture becoming the most famous.

Lawrence painted his Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman series in 1938-40, sixty three tempera on hardboard panels that told the story of two of America’s greatest African American Abolitionists. In 1941 the artist created his Legend of John Brown series, twenty two tempera paintings that detailed Brown’s use of armed struggle to eliminate slavery. Lawrence’s epic Migration Series had similar scope.

Created in 1941, the sixty tempera paintings told the story of Black migration from the deep south to the north. The tour de force project presented every facet of the exodus and its causes… racism, poverty, injustice, and the hopes and aspirations for a better life. With the exhibit of his Migration series at New York’s Downtown Gallery in 1941, Lawrence became the very first African American artist to be represented by a New York gallery.

At first glance the aesthetics Jacob Lawrence employed were naïve, or “primitive”, yet his works were deceptively sophisticated and modern… always looking for the abstract essence in design and composition. Nonetheless, he never abandoned figurative realism, even during the 1950s when abstraction began to dominated the art world. With an eye towards history, Lawrence used his art to tell the story of his people, and so his narrative images informed and educated as well as inspired with their beauty.

When so much of today’s non-representational art fails to effectively communicate ideas to a mass audience… when postmodernist installation, conceptual, and video artists persist in babbling while the world burns, artists can still take the exemplary path blazed by Jacob Lawrence. You can find some wonderful artbooks about Jacob Lawrence at

Ossie Davis -RIP

Brother Ossie Davis has left us. The remarkable actor and civil rights activist passed away at the age of 87 on Friday, February 4th, 2005. He was found in a Miami hotel room while working on a new film titled Retirement. Ossie was married to actress Ruby Dee for more than 50 years, and the couple not only worked together artistically… they struggled together politically. Ossie and Ruby had been involved with the civil rights movement from the very beginning, and Ossie spoke at the funerals of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The eulogy Ossie delivered for Malcolm in February 1965 at the Faith Temple Church of God is one of the most poignant testimonials ever given… and marked a people’s transition from “Negro” to African American. With an acting career that spanned more than half a century, Ossie’s list of accomplishments in movies and television are too numerous to list. He helped combat and destroy the “color line” that kept Black folks off of America’s TV and movie screens. He combined his artistry with a fierce commitment to social justice and peace, and he remained true to those principles his entire life.

Speaking at the historic Riverside Church on March 27th, 2003, just days after the US invaded Iraq, Davis lambasted the war and its supporters by saying, “They have their sense of duty; I have mine. They are loyal to their commander in chief, and I am loyal to mine. My commander in chief is Martin Luther King Jr., and more than 30 years ago he stood in these sacred halls and gave me my marching orders.” Brother Ossie Davis was, and remains, a true man of the people, an artist’s artist.