Social Justice in Black Art: The Role of Art/Artists in Redemption or Perpetuation

by Robert Bain
At age 70 with a lifetime of study; to say nothing of firsthand observation, I know that if there are 50 or 150 or 1500 people in a room there can be 50 or 150 or 1500 views/interpretations/variations of any given subject announced in that room.  Currently, I’m in the room alone at my workstation and here offer only my isolated view on a subject that I both expect and sincerely hope has alternative viewpoints; as it the subject to reflect upon and not so much my assessment that really counts.
If we raise the subject of the Middle Passage or Trayvon Martin, Somalia or Civil Rights, Darfur or Garveyism, Gullah Jack/Denmark Vesey or MLK; no matter the subject, we we will get a variety of outputs largely due to a variety of inputs — some nuanced and yes, some nonsense.  That’s the real versus ideal world.
This evokes Carter G. Woodson and the essential purpose of Black History Month: the imperative and crucial element being Woodson’s concept of mis-education hinged upon the education system’s failure to present authentic Negro history.  And for those that might argue Dr. Woodson’s point of our being mis-educated [and I would also argue our being un-educated], we need only to remember that it was no one less than President Woodrow Wilson who said “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”  That said considering our current times and circumstances, we can turn to the eloquent antidote offered by Dr. Benjamin Chavis in stating “A people who will not put the highest priority on the education of their children are a people doomed to social and economic hardship and subjugation.”  Further, we have the observation of Frederick Douglass that “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
Invoking Black History Month and Dr. Woodson as a segue into a discussion of social justice in art; the role of art/artist in remediation or perpetuation of the status quo (or not) is both appropriate and thereby timely.  As a post-Black History Month commentary, it is critically important that we pause and give tribute to the the position that a people that don’t know their true history can’t know themselves and so it would seem that a people that can’t know themselves also can’t be themselves; a people not educated, but rather mis-educated.  People not themselves but rather, if you will, someone else’s selves.
From my perspective, last year’s film Black Panther offered a fundamental historical Black question about how we might view social justice in light of viewing a film where you are left with a conscious choice of which side of the fictive fantasy do you side in the battle between T’Challa and Killmonger as heir to the purpose of Wakanda.  The film’s imagery is both confounding and confusing as we are first introduced to young boys on an Oakland, California basketball court when one of the boys (a youthful Killmonger) notices a strange object in the sky and later we learn of that young boy’s connection to his homeland called Wakanda that is then led by T’Challa.  Wakanda is a technology-lead world purposely hidden away from the rest of the world in order to preserve their isolation from the disruptions of the rest of the world.  Specifically hidden from “real-world communities like Oakland, California where expatriate Killmonger now lives, but with knowledge of the ability of Wakanda to escape the strife and turmoil all too well know elsewhere on the planet.  These two: T’Challa and Killmonger represent the struggle between what is best for all of us versus best for some of us and who’s vision should and will prevail.

“Gullah Jack” by Najee Dorsey

This question is precisely right when we consider images that are created by our artists, be they writers, dancers, painters, film-makers, etc. if there is a matter of who’s vision should and will prevail.  I opened with a list of various  subjects that could come up and implied our decidedly different takes within a room of the 50 or the 150 or the 1500.  Noted together purposely was Gullah Jack and Denmark Vesey as the intention was to say that Denmark Vesey would not exist in the history books without Gullah Jack and the important social justice question is why not [note: artist Najee Dorsey created a Gullah Jack series] when historically we know of Denmark Vesey without any comparable knowledge of Gullah Jack who should loom large in our awareness if the struggle for social justice is what Denmark Vesey represents.

Sharecropper, Elizabeth Catlett

In that regard, I’d ask just what is the social justice [read social benefit] of Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper or Jacob Lawrence’s To Preserve Their Freedom and what could that possibly have to do with what we could today think of Black Lives Matter or the Civil Rights Movement or any of the tangible situations that face a subjugated Black community.  I would claim that we derive our sense of justice from what values we take in that then become the basis for how we then assess the secretive Wakanda’s versus reality Oakland’s and again, it is largely it has been our cultural artists that have created our social vision(s) and thereby our values.

Given the mere two paintings noted, we can observe that within the otherwise despicably thought of a history of sharecropping that a decidedly dignified person/persona is offered by Catlett that reminds us; even if only on a subconscious level, that we always rose above our dire circumstances and remained superiorly human.  Lawrence’s painting reminds us that the Haitian everyman/everywoman stood up and fought for their freedom and thereby actually, by their own hand, became the first nation in the world to upset and overturn slavery; despite the fact that only a handful of names become associated with our defeat of the French enslavement.  These are important images and when they and images like them are displayed in our homes and offices they project both consciously and subliminally to ourselves and those around us what sensibilities we attribute value to.

Jacob Lawrence’s To Preserve Their Freedom

Carter G. Woodson’s seminal work yet being his 1933 publishing of The Mis-Education of the Negro; the thesis of which is that we were being culturally indoctrinated, rather than taught, in American schools.  This conditioning, he claimed, causes us to become dependent and to seek out inferior places in the greater society of which we are apart.  He challenges readers to become autodidacts and to “do for themselves” regardless of what they are taught.  Clearly Woodson imparts that we learn what we are taught and conversely do not learn what we are not taught.  Thereby what art [think: cultural values] that we chose and those depictions chosen for us become what we are taught and, as a particularly visual people, we must always countenance that while words can go in one ear and out the other, the visual world does not go in one eye and out the other and we, and those around us, are taught consciously and unconsciously by what is shown to them. It invokes Dr. Samella Lewis’s words that “Art is not a luxury as many people think – it is a necessity.  It documents history – it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.”
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect. It seems reasonable to suggest that we are faced with the T’Challa or Killmonger vision when we decide what and what not to provide as visual/cultural  enhancement to our homes.
In closing, I’d like to offer yet another citation: Arlene Turner Crawford, one of the original AfriCobra artists said in summation of my broad intent above: “I am because we are was a hue and cry seen in several works by AfriCobra artists.  The African aesthetic is grounded in purpose, the African term for art is not separated from function.  Within the Black Arts Movement the image makers functioned for cultural nationalism.  Our art should help define ourselves, identify our customs and values and direct us to a higher consciousness”.

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Robert Bain VIEWPOINT 

Born: 1949 in Harlem, New York.  Attended the State University of New York at Binghamton majoring in African and Afro-American Studies and was awarded a SAGE Graduate Fellowship to Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center.  In 1976, left upstate New York headed to Washington, DC hoping to work with Randall Robinson at TransAfrica but instead ended up in research, media, marketing and advertising; including Research Analyst at Arbitron, National Advertising Director for Black Enterprise Magazine, Media Director for UniWorld Group; with too many etceteras to list.  Avid art collector since the 70’s and unabashedly hooked on reading, writing and (no) arithmetic.  Married artist Brenda Joysmith January 1, 1994 and have been an active participant in major art venues such as the National Black Fine Art Show and Art Off The Main, etc. as Joysmith/Sunsum Gallery (offering contemporary  African, African-American, Asian, Caribbean, Latin-, Native, and South-American artists; along with antique tribal arts and fabrics from across Africa), and mainstream venues as Gallery Sunsum Contemporary Fine Art.

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(Cover image: Unite by Barbara Jones Hogu)