Re-Accessing the Power of Art in the Discipline of Pan-African Studies

By Johnson, Pearlie M. | Journal of Pan African Studies, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Re-Accessing the Power of Art in the Discipline of Pan-African Studies


Johnson, Pearlie M., Journal of Pan African Studies


Introduction

This essay begins with a brief overview of the Civil Rights movement, which led to the Black Power movement that simultaneously gave rise to the Black Arts movement. Drawing from the writings of a number of different scholars, including sociologists Clovis E. Semmes (1985) "Minority Status and the Problem with Legitimacy" and Fabio Rojas (2007) From Black Power to Black Studies, and art historians Nell Painter in Creating Black Americans: African-American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2006), Sharon Patton in African American Art (1998), and Lisa Farrington in Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists (2005), the essay examines the role visual arts played in the Black Power movement and the positive impact it has had on Pan-African Studies as a discipline. Various works of art have been selected to accompany this essay, which will be discussed within an art historical, social and political context. Such works include: Charles Alston Walking (1958), Jeff Donaldson Aunt Jemima & the Pillsbury Doughboy (1963) and Wives of Shango (1968) OBAC and The Wall of Respect (1967), Elizabeth Catlett Negro-es Bello II (1969), David Hammons Injustice Case (1970), Betye Saar The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), and contemporary quilter Yvonne Wells in Being In Total Control of Herself

Although African American women and men had served in wars for freedom since the American Revolution (1770-76), those who served in World War II (1939-1945) returned an empowered people. Putting their lives on the line for the freedom of people unknown to them, and at the same time fighting racism and discrimination with fellow soldiers while abroad, African Americans were ready to take a stance against oppression in their own country--in their own neighborhoods. Hoping that their service in the War would lead to better job and housing opportunities, most Black soldiers returned to find only disappointment. The Service Adjustment's Act, informally known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, was a law established to provide returning soldiers with financial support in their efforts to adjust to civil life. One key was low-interest rate mortgages, which eventually led to suburban life for the majority of White America, but would lead to urban renewal, gentrification, and ghettoization for the majority of Black America (Herbes-Sommers, 2003).

This type of separatism continued to support the long-established "separate-but-equal" doctrine solidified in Plessy (1896). The fact was that one's residence governs where one is allowed to attend school, which often determines the quality of one's education. African American families across the country fought for equal schools and equal education for their children. Based on the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The Brown decision would eventually lead to the desegregation of Jim Crow schools throughout the South, as well as become a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

The modern Civil Rights movement is often associated with the Montgomery bus boycott. It started at the grassroots level and was organized through Black churches. Women played an important role in the boycott, which included Jo Ann Robinson, professor of English at Alabama State, Rosa Parks who willing went to jail, and ordinary women dedicated to the cause. Men and women from both the domestic and professional classes were involved; thousands of people avoided riding city buses and instead walked to work.

Post-war artist Charles Henry Alston captured their determined spirit in Walking, 1958 (Figure 1). Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was formally trained in studio art at Columbia University, where he earned his B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees (Painter, 2006, p.41718). He was a supervisor with the WPA and a founding member of the 306 Group (the black avant-garde), where African American artists (painters, sculptors, and writers) would meet to discuss and exchange ideas about what their art should be and do (Bearden, 1993, p. …

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