Reinterpretations of Freedom and Emancipation, Civil Rights and Assimilation, and the Continued Struggle for Social and Political Change

By Johnson, Pearlie M. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Reinterpretations of Freedom and Emancipation, Civil Rights and Assimilation, and the Continued Struggle for Social and Political Change


Johnson, Pearlie M., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

The role of visual arts in understanding periods and events in our history sometimes goes unexamined. "Fine art from any period tends to capture and portray the social and cultural mores of that [particular] period" ("The Collection," 1989, p. 25). This article examines various ways in which African American artists reinterpret ideas related to freedom, emancipation and equality. It is important that today's students and readers remain conscious of the fact that many of the privileges currently enjoyed are rooted in a history of struggle that began centuries ago. This significant discussion that marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will include works of art that celebrate three historical periods: 1) The Civil War era and the fight for freedom and emancipation. Art selected for this period includes the Spirit of Freedom by Ed Hamilton, which honors Black soldiers contributions to the war, Andrew Jackson Smith by Nancy Dawson, which celebrates Smith's courageous efforts in the Battle at Honey Hill, and Emancipation by Meta Warrick-Fuller that depicts African American sentiment and reaction towards being emancipated in a free society; 2) The Civil Rights movement, Freedom Summer and assimilation in the workplace. Art for this period includes Fannie Lou Flamer by Calvin Burnett, which recognizes Hamer's tenacious activism in securing voting rights for Black people in Mississippi and My Flair by NedRa Bonds, a work narrative of assimilation in the United States; and 3) The continued struggle for social and political change in American society today. Selected art narrative of these ideals will include Sentiments Am the Same by NedRa Bonds, Being in Total Control of Herself by Yvonne Wells and the Obama Quilt by Nancy Dawson.

The Civil War Era and the Fight for Freedom and Emancipation

Being in bondage in a free society has been confusing for hundreds of thousands of people since the Continental fight for liberation during the American Revolution. Many folks, especially Black people, viewed slavery as an injustice against humanity. One humanitarian and civil rights activist during this period was Frederick Douglass (1817-1895). During and since American slavery, African Americans have endured degradation, humiliation, segregation, and exclusion from American civil society. Often the mere thought of freedom and education would result in bodily harm and death (Painter, 2006). Douglass, an orator, editor and statesman who seized his own freedom in 1838, describes his fight for emancipation in his 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. The United States Constitution's proposal that all men were created equal with inalienable rights to justice, equality, and liberty was an interpretation that Douglass took seriously and sought to bring into existence for African Americans. As such, Douglass called Black men to war, a fight that most were unsure of - yet compelled to join in.

African Americans in nineteenth-century America understood that their freedom was directly linked to the outcome of the war between the North and the South. As soon as the war started in September 1861, their attitudes began to change towards their owners, as well as how they viewed themselves (Painter, 2006). President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 with the goal of freeing Black people in Confederate states. Although most White Americans resisted the idea of freeing Black people from slavery, most African Americans were empowered by this very notion. According to foremost historian Painter, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children worked tirelessly in the Union Army, helping them expand their locations in Southern territory, which was vital to the Union's victory. At the war's end, it is recorded that 179,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army and 9,600 served in the Union Navy (Painter, 2006). It must be acknowledged again and again, however, that African Americans were not given their freedom--they fought for it. …

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