Art and activism are intertwined, fueling inspiration and generating dialogues reciprocally. The visual arts, in all their various configurations of form and subject, have been and continue to be central to Black activism in the United States.
Titus Kaphur, Yet Another Fight for Remembrance, 2014 (Image source: Artforum; posted under Fair Use)
In some cases, Black art demands greater visibility through confrontation. Emory Douglas' work for the Black Panther Party was striking and confrontational, disseminating sharp messages such as “We will not hesitate to either kill or die for our freedom.” His work circulated in the Panthers’ newspaper and branded the movement with a bold, militant style.
Other artists, such as David Hammons and Betye Saar, have taken a more satirical approach through reappropriating American iconography, drawing attention to the insidious racism embedded within the fabric of our country. Hammons, for instance, reclaims the American flag in African American Flag (1990), re-coloring the traditional red, white, and blue with the colors of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag: red, black, and green.
Activist art can also be commemorative and celebratory without compromising its subversive power. Artists such as Faith Ringgold explore this through technique, material, and narrative. Adapting a historic African American tradition, Ringgold creates massive quilts that center Black figures and Black stories.
Since the colonial period, Black writers have sought to lay claim to America, and to define an America that includes them. This was true even when, like Phyllis Wheatley, whose book of poems was published three years before American independence, African American writers were themselves enslaved. It continues to today, when inaugural poet Amanda Gorman recites, "Being American is more than a pride in what we inherit, / It's the past we step into and how we repair it." By laying claim to "My America" in the title of her book, Kim Johnson places herself in this powerful lineage of African American writers and thinkers. Johnson cites in particular the influence of Langston Hughes, and a poem that begins, "I, too, sing America." Hughes (1901-1967) was a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance; his poetry was translated and influential across the globe, and helped inspire Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. He was a social activist targeted by the House of Unamerican Activities Committee who also wrote novels and newspaper columns during the Civil Rights Era.
Photograph of Langston Hughes by Ole Fossgård, Used under a CC BY-NC-SA license
This poem was written in 1925. Below is an image of Hughes's own copy of the poem, from the Beinecke Library (source). Listen at the link below to Langston Hughes reading this poem and discussing its wider appeal in Latin America.
After the end of slavery in the United States, white Americans continued to exploit African American people's labor through convict leasing and other forms of forced labor. Today, laws and policies that uphold mass incarceration (and convict labor) continue to disproportionately and unfairly target African American communities. It is in this context that prison activism through art has a long and storied history in the U.S., from art and poetry to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." In a recent book, UOregon professor Michael Hames-García "argues that writings by prisoners are instances of social theory that seek to transform the world. Fugitive Thought reinvigorates moral concepts like 'justice,' 'solidarity,' and 'freedom' through focusing on writings by black and Latina/o lawyers and prisoners to flesh out the philosophical underpinnings of ethical claims within legal theory and prison activism" (book jacket).
In Spring 2019, the UO Prison Education Program hosted an exhibition showcasing the work of students from Oregon's prisons. It was called Emergence: Art From Inside. Click the link below to learn more and to view the art.
A screen capture of three pieces of art from Emergence: Art From Inside. Used under fair use for educational purposes only.