An article by Hadley DeBello for the Harvard Political Review.
“At its best, what art does is, it points to who we [are] as human beings and what we as human beings value. And if Black Lives Matter, they deserve to be in paintings.” –Kehinde Wiley
From the charged photograph of a woman defying police during a Black Lives Matter protest to the refined criticism of Kehinde Wiley’s work in the Met, the African American community has galvanized a new era of civil rights activism by retelling the black narrative on black terms. Much like the Harlem Renaissance influenced political movements during the early 20th century, today’s fight for racial equality is playing out in the artistic realm—a black renaissance is reemerging. Building upon a legacy of artistic dissent, the many voices of this movement are demanding that issues surrounding modern black oppression receive a closer look.
In American history, the arts are one of the few domains where the African American community has exercised complete control over the public’s perception of black identity. The stories told within these works are synonymous to those written upon a protest sign; they engage the audience by asserting a physical, political, and cultural presence. As Wiley puts it when referring to his mug shot series, “I will be seen the way I choose to be seen.” African American art is not a passive summary of the politics of racial inequality; the art is an active combatant.
Starting with the Harlem Renaissance, black storytellers began using the emotive power of art as a tool to define black identity for an interracial audience. Caught in the wind of a cultural movement that spread as far as Paris and the Caribbean, the New Negro Renaissance, as it was called, was the beginning of a campaign “against segregation through better representation of black people in and through art,” explained University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Maureen Honey in an interview with the HPR. “Artists today are aware of their predecessors and appreciative of their pioneer efforts and successes in terms of breaking through a white establishment.”
A century later, the legacy of this period endures. One can still hear the sleek sounds of Duke Ellington complement the words of Claude McKay. The work of artists participating in the Harlem Renaissance was not simply an act of self expression; it was a proclamation, a declaration of the growing collective black consciousness that is epitomized in seminal paintings like Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series.”
“The Migration Series” is not a single painting, but an epic saga of 60 paintings that tell the story of the exodus of African American people from the rural South to the industrial North over the course of the 20th century. This piece, which depicts the greatest geographic movement of people of African descent since the height of the slave trade, captures, too, the free movement of African Americans towards their ambitions for the first time in American history.
The Great Migration ushers in a new era. Just as the exodus of Moses and the Israelites was a critical stage in the formation of Jewish culture, the Great Migration marked the beginning of the modern African American community. The mass movement of people of color became part of the heroic folklore of a new, emancipated class.
The artist Kerry James Marshall highlights the importance of such cultural narratives: “For black people in the western hemisphere, if you can’t generate a mythology that creates models of heroism and power out of the mythology that you had, then that means … the mythology you had was not only feeble and weak, but that you are ultimately a powerless people.”
Great historical paintings unify people through the glorification of a shared past. Jacob Lawrence’s piece doesn’t just record a demographic shift; the work transforms the Great Migration into a cultural touchstone. As a result of his effort and those of others, the Harlem Renaissance led the urban black community to coalesce around a set of shared experiences, both past and present.
The Harlem Renaissance produced art from a black perspective but it is not solely a black story. The work of Harlem artists (Harlem here used as a cultural marker rather than a geographic one) is a tale of urbanization; of a post-war generation; of a modernizing world. The stories of the Harlem Renaissance are stories of a collective human experience albeit told through a novel perspective: the “American Negro,” whose voice was never solicited until he raised it himself.
As explained by Harvard professor Sarah Lewis in an interview with the New York Times, “When we celebrate black culture, we are celebrating American culture.” The legacy of this shared culture continues. Black, white, brown, and yellow, American history is a story that encompasses both the oppressed and the oppressor.
In modern times, the arts have risen again to craft the black identity. Today, artists such as Marshall, Wiley, and Kara Walker build upon the precedent of Lawrence by chronicling the history of the African American community as they see it. However, now, the aim is different. Instead of working to codify the “new negro,” contemporary artists are highlighting the pluralism of black identity. Through conversation with the past, today’s art scene offers a diverse interpretation of the future.
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