Art of War:
Clarifying Black Expression in a Time of Conflict
by D. Amari Jackson
“Every day that you sit back silent, refusing to use your power, terrible things are being done in our name.” – Audre Lorde
What if, upon joining a nation’s military services, soldiers were required to list their artistic passions alongside their health profile, physical prowess, and height and weight requirements? What if every one of these soldiers were then required, by international law, to engage in this identified artistic endeavor with their potential opponent or victim prior to a looming conflict?
While these designated opponents are spending an entire day together singing, painting portraits of each other, or playing instruments, what if it was obligatory for their families—their parents, their children, their loved ones—to attend as well? And what if these relatives were required to share in these artistic exercises along with exchanging food from each of their cultures?
Would it have an impact? Could it alter or avert a horrific outcome from occurring by initiating a mass refusal to kill another creative, now-familiar human? Could it end or stop an active conflict from continuing?
Perhaps such a line of creative reasoning is naïve, particularly given that war is too commonly violent theater, replete with constructed precipitating events, ulterior motives, media-made villains, and convenient heroes. That acknowledged, art has certainly had an impact upon the realm of warfare both past and present, exerting a powerful and clarifying lens, be it positive or negative, polarizing or inspirational.
But what actually is the role of art in times of war? Particularly for the African-American artist?
For visual artists like Kara Walker, not one to shy away from controversy, the answer is apparent. Walker was recently an early signatory on an open letter from thousands of visual artists, writers, and actors demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and calling for “the end of the complicity of our governing bodies in grave human rights violations and war crimes.” Originally released on October 19, the list of signatures has since grown to over 8,000.
Black writers have weighed in as well, endorsing numerous and similar statements denouncing the ongoing genocide in Gaza that has now conservatively claimed more than 10,000 lives, almost half of those being Palestinian children. They include award-winning poets and authors like Saul Williams, Amanda Gorman, Edwidge Danticat, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander. On November 1 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Coates and Alexander participated in a panel discussion entitled “But We Must Speak: On Palestine and the Mandates of Conscience.” The poignant discussion, organized by the Palestine Festival of Literature, called for a ceasefire and an end to Israeli apartheid in the region while urging people to speak out against the United States-backed war on Palestine. Alexander, who introduced the forum, reported how hard it was to find a venue for the event given numerous area colleges and institutions refused to host it.
Such tactics are far from new. For African Americans likes Alexander and Coates—the latter who recently traveled to Palestine and Israel to experience what many pundits have labeled a “complicated” situation—they trigger a tragic and far too familiar sense of clarity.
“…it became very, very clear to me what was going on there,” Coates told Democracy Now, of his recent trip. “And I have to say it was quite familiar… I was in a territory where your mobility is inhibited, where your voting rights are inhibited, where your right to the water is inhibited, where your right to housing is inhibited. And it’s all inhibited based on ethnicity.”
“And so,” continued Coates, “the most shocking thing about my time over there was how uncomplicated it actually is.”
Other Black artists from the worlds of music, stage, and film have also risked backlash and censorship to speak truth to power. In late October, a list of recording artists and actors sent an Artists4Ceasefire open letter to President Joe Biden and Congress to stop the killing in Gaza.
“We urge your administration, Congress, and all world leaders, to honor all of the lives in the Holy Land and call for and facilitate a ceasefire without delay – an end to the bombing of Gaza, and the safe release of hostages. Half of Gaza’s two million residents are children, and more than two thirds are refugees and their descendants being forced to flee their homes. Humanitarian aid must be allowed to reach them.”
Among the petition’s many endorsers were Jordan Peele, Sarah Jones, Ryan Coogler, Jesse Williams, Boots Riley, Drake, Wanda Sykes, Killer Mike, Lena Waithe, Vic Mensa, Miguel, Lupita Nyong’o, Mahershala Ali, and other performers of color.
Whether advocating for peace or supporting a particular cause, there have long been examples of African descendants employing art as a tool for making statements within the context of war. In 1778, Phillis Wheatley—only three years removed from slavery, despite being a nationally-renowned poet for almost a decade—penned her compelling Revolutionary War poem, On the Death of General Wooster, simultaneously advocating for the end of the conflict and the institution of slavery:
“… With thine own hand conduct them and defend/ And bring the dreadful contest to an end/ Forever grateful let them live to thee/ And keep them ever Virtuous, brave, and free/ But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find/ Divine acceptance with th' Almighty mind/ While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace/ And hold in bondage Africa’s blameless race; Let virtue reign – And those accord our prayers/ Be victory our’s and generous freedom theirs…”
Almost a century later, during the Civil War, emerging artist Edmonia Lewis was training in sculpture at a Boston studio in May 1863 when she witnessed the departure of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first Black regiments to serve in the war. From that experience, the talented Lewis was commissioned to sculpt a marble bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s white leader who died in battle alongside his men. At the base of the bust, Lewis included the inscription, “Martyr for Freedom.”
When is taken land no longer stolen by Fabian Williams
Some Civil War-era resistance took on a different artistic form. Enslaved Africans on plantations throughout the South upon the region’s imminent defeat, wrote Jennifer Van Horn in her article The Dark Iconoclast, “destroyed, defaced, and creatively reused their white masters’ portraits; some displayed paintings in their cabins, and at least one former slave turned an ancestral portrait into a fire screen.”
In 1946, amidst a second global conflict over a three-decade period, World War II steward’s mate Jacob Lawrence received a Guggenheim Fellowship to paint the War Series, a fourteen-panel series depicting the unfolding narrative of the war effort in fluid, largely abstract form. The acclaimed series, notes the Whitney Museum of American Art, “describes first-hand the sense of regimentation, community, and displacement that the artist experienced during his service in the United States Coast Guard.”
Two decades later, Black Dialogue magazine—a California-based literary publication devoted to the emerging Black Arts Movement—published a July 1965 editorial criticizing American involvement in Vietnam while rallying Black artists, activists, and organizations to get involved in the antiwar movement:
“Black Dialogue, along with millions of other American people, is vigorously opposed to the United States military presence in Vietnam. We believe that our government action in that country is insane, unrealistic, inhumane, and immoral. We believe the vicious and completely unnecessary killings of untold thousands of Vietnamese people and hundreds of American G.I.s are without justification— and fault certainly must be placed somewhere (someone is responsible!) We believe that our country is the villain in this human tragedy and therefore urge all Black People to actively oppose the U.S.’s continued military action.”
In 1969, printmaker and large-format collagist Kay Brown produced one of her most popular works, “The Black Soldier.” The political piece was inspired by the large numbers of Black men being drafted and sent to Vietnam from communities across the country without a justifiable or recognizable cause. Along with images of the recently slain Martin Luther King Jr. surrounded by young African-American soldiers, Brown included the image of a member of the Black Panther Party to stress the lack of protection for the Black community here in America and the need for militant self-defense.
Black music sounded off on the antiwar effort as well, including Motown Records’ release of Edwin Starr’s “War” in 1970, ultimately one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. A year later, Freda Payne released “Bring the Boys Home” upon recognizing the disproportionate number of young African-American soldiers dying in Vietnam. Payne’s song rocketed up the Billboard music charts and garnered a lot of radio play nationally before being banned by the American Forces Network, who felt the popular tune “benefitted the enemy.”
In 1972, incomparable Motown artist, Marvin Gaye, was nominated for two Grammy Awards for his version of “What’s Going On,” which included in its lyrics a soulful critique of the Vietnam War. Gaye revised an earlier version of the song to incorporate the critical words after discussing the bloody conflict with his brother, who served in the military.
Two decades later, in 1991, art doubled as patriotism as then 27-year-old vocalist, Whitney Houston, delivered her rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl 25 in late January. The country had just entered the Persian Gulf War, and Houston, at the height of her career, was credited with igniting a deep sense of patriotism amidst a controversial war campaign by way of her incomparable artistry.
In the aftermath of 9/11/2001, iconic rap group Public Enemy released “Son of a Bush” in the summer of 2002, one of the earliest antiwar songs protesting President George W. Bush’s initiation of and clamor for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The song further paralleled the hawkish actions of Bush with the similar actions of his father a decade prior in the Persian Gulf. World-renowned actor-activists Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover would continue this critique on February 15, 2003 while addressing one of the largest global antiwar protests in history. Involving 800 cities around the world, this “global mobilization” for peace was highlighted by the two actors’ impassioned pleas for an international solidarity against war and American imperialism:
“We stand here today because our right to dissent, and our right to participate in a real democracy, has been hijacked by those who call for war,” proclaimed Glover, to a massive crowd on an icy New York afternoon. “We stand here at this threshold of history, and we say to the world, ‘Not in Our Name’! ‘Not in Our Name!'”
Also in the early 2000s, a young, emerging artist named Kehinde Wiley—simultaneously inspired by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the history of equestrian portraiture—produced a series of paintings entitled Rumors of War, replacing mounted traditional white subjects with young African-American men in street clothes. Four years ago, in 2019, the internationally-acclaimed Wiley reintroduced Rumors of War as a public sculpture in Richmond, Virginia as a response to Confederate monuments inspired by the Civil War.
Throughout American history, African-American artists of all types have employed art as a tool for critique, acknowledgement, and resistance in times of war. These efforts have further included, and are certainly not limited to, the likes of Robert Lee Neal, Saul Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Edwin A. Harleston, Emory Douglas, Faith Ringgold, The Coup, Fred Jones, Meshell Ndegeocello, Claude Clark, Prince, Lupe Fiasco, Frank Frazier, Noname, Talib Kweli, Joseph Delaney, KRS-ONE, William H. Johnson, Geto Boys, and Adger Cowans.
So while we may not know the impact of two potential enemies in a looming conflict spending a day together painting each other’s portraits, singing, and sharing their respective cultures, we do know that, as long as there is war, there will be forms of Black artistic resistance that push us closer to a more equitable reality conducive to such a scenario. For art has always had that capacity, has ever been a way to express humanity in transparent fashion, both noble and horrific, beautiful and bare. And, in doing so, art reflects our own communal image—mirroring our hopes, our fears, our pathologies, our love—while presenting our choices for moving forward, if we indeed choose to move forward, and, either way, clarifying the stakes at hand.
For the artist, particularly in times of tumult and controversy, has been equipped with such a lens, one penetrating the fog of war to see things as they actually are.