I am a straight, white, cisgender man.
It is a disgrace when individuals who share my identification refuse to acknowledge their inherent privilege in the United States (and beyond).
I want to acknowledge a few truths: (1.) I am guilty of not consistently speaking up regarding racial disparities that I see in the world, (2.) I enjoy privilege based on who I am and how I present myself and I will never understand the experiences shared by those who are not afforded the same luxuries as I am, and (3.) although I do not believe that I am racist, racism is so thoroughly ingrained in my society and culture that, on some level, I certainly am.
In light of these truths, I want to do my part to destroy the system of oppression that people like me have benefited from and perpetuated throughout history.
I am by no means innocent. And, if you are like me, I want you to really take a serious moment to consider your position in society and reckon with your privilege and how it has benefited you. We can only improve if we acknowledge and address our individual injustices and actively advocate for a system that no longer allows a pattern of pain and oppression for minority communities.
I’ve grown up in middle-class white suburbia. This has allowed me, both consciously and unconsciously, to turn a blind eye to the racial injustices across the country. This is not okay. We are in the midst of what is considered to be the largest civil rights movement in history. In the last week, all fifty states and at least eighteen countries from around the world have joined in to condemn the broken systems that plague this planet.
Due to where I’m from, I have never been educated on artists of color.
However, that is an excuse.
In modern society, in which we are brimming with technological opportunities to learn, I have no excuse for why I have not researched or studied works by people of color. I want to correct my mistakes.
It is important for me, and everyone else, to understand that just because I research people of color, my work is not done and I cannot return to my prior complacent lifestyle. It is not enough to be not racist. We must be actively anti-racist. Learning about artists of color, and especially raising their voices, is an important step in being actively anti-racist.
For this post, I want to center my focus on black artists and lend my position in society to raise their voices. I ask that you do the same. Now, let’s do some learning together!
Some initial thoughts about studying art (in any medium): (1.) Art history has long been dominated by white individuals, and it is important to change the narrative of this history by focusing on the people that it is often appropriated from, (2.) art has long been viewed as a vehicle for change, and (3.) we can gain new perspectives and establish a greater understanding of the world through an artist’s product.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This is but a small list of highly important and often under-appreciated individuals. I encourage us all to continue learning more from other artists of color, too.
I have included hyperlinks to learn more about these artists–just click on their name! All of these works belong to their creators, I take no credit.
Ringgold was born in 1930 in Harlem, New York. She is a painter, sculptor, performance artist, writer, and teacher. As an artist, she was initially inspired by African art in the 1960’s and traveled to Nigeria and Ghana in the late 1970’s to see the tradition of masks that act as a great influence on her pieces.
Ringgold creates story quilts as a means of publishing her own unedited words and they have developed into a unique medium and style. Her first was Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? and it jumpstarted her into creating many more.
As an author, Ringgold published the award winning book Tar Beach in 1991. It won more than 20 awards including one for the best-illustrated children’s book of the year. She has published several other books as well and you can find the list of them if you click on her name above.
(Click on an image in the gallery to expand it.)
Bradford was born in Los Angeles, California in 1961. He is known for transforming materials scavenged from the street into large, wall-sized collages and installations that respond to networks in society, such as underground economies, migrant communities, or appropriation of an abandoned public space.
His work is shaped by his personal background as a third-generation merchant as there is a tradition of abstract painting there. His works refer not only to the streets and buildings of downtown L.A., but also the images of crowds protesting issues such as civil rights and immigration.
His work has received a variety of awards and recognition. He has also been showcased in major art exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, REDCAT in Los Angeles, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.
Walker has gained national and international recognition for her unique style of cut-paper silhouettes that depict historical narratives that are haunted and defined by sexuality, violence, and subjugation. She uses drawing, painting, text, shadow puppetry, film, and sculpture to showcase perpetuating themes of psychological injury brought on by the legacy of slavery.
She was born in Stockton, California and worked around the United States to develop and install her pieces. She has continued to use both the silhouette and cyclorama forms to explore race representation and the narratives behind contemporary art. She often interrogates the representation of the black body by Modernist artists.
Walker was one of the youngest individuals to ever receive a MacArthur Fellowship and utilized this opportunity to become the U.S. representative to the Biennial de Sao Paulo. In 2012, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and letters.
Drew was born in Tallahassee, Florida in 1961. His sculptures are often mistaken for accumulations of found objects, but in reality, they are made of “brand new stuff.” He uses materials such as wood, rusted iron, cotton, paper, and mud that he purposefully subjects to processes of weathering, burning, oxidation, and other means of decay. His pieces often enjoy challenging the architecture of the space in which they are shown.
He draws inspiration from the memories of his childhood surroundings, such as the housing project where he lived or the neighboring landfill. Striving to move past what he deems to be comfortable, Drew investigates how to challenge the comfort of himself and those around him in his pieces by constantly asking “what if…”
Drew has been awarded various prizes and grants throughout his career. He has been featured at SCAD Museum of Art, DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Artpace, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Blaffer Gallery, Sikkema Jenkins, Centro Art Contemporanea, Siena, The Fabric Workshop, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Saint Louis Art Museum, Carnegie International, MCA San Diego, and Biennial Dakar.
By the time Simpson made her way through the graduate program at San Diego in 1985, she was already widely considered to be a pioneer of conceptual photography. She hoped to engage in and shape the vocabulary surrounding photography at the time.
She became known for her large-scale photograph-and-text works that confront and challenge the narrow and conventional views of gender, identity, culture, history, and memory. Simpson also began experimenting with large multi-panel photographs that depict sexual encounters. Over time, she has transitioned into film and television mediums.
Her pieces have been featured in a variety of collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and Haus Der Kunst in Munich.
Parks is a professional photographer who started off his career shooting fashion for a department store in St. Paul, Minnesota. Upon doing so, the experience he gained from the job made it possible for him to photograph for local newspapers and document Chicago’s impoverished South Side.
As his career progressed, Parks would go on to win a Rosenwald Fund fellowship that allowed him to work with Roy Stryker’s FSA team of photographers. This gave him the opportunity to photograph the Tuskegee Airmen Fighter Pilots.
When he joined Life magazine as a staff member, he was considered a critical asset to the team and worked as both a fashion photographer and photo documentarian throughout his tenure.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone’s talent as a musician was evident when she started learning how to play the piano by ear at just three-years-old. She was raised in the church and her parents played a crucial role in her upbringing, teaching her right from wrong and to carry herself with dignity and tenacity.
She studied classical music with an Englishwoman who had moved to their small southern town. From then on, Simone developed a lifelong love of Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert that shaped her musical endeavors.
She graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class and studied at Julliard in New York City. Following this, she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but her admission was denied, largely due to racial disparity. Throughout the rest of her career, she continued to fight against racism as an activist and enjoyed an astounding degree of recognition. She sold over one million CDs in the final decade of her life, making her a global catalog best-seller.
Washington was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1954. He discovered his passion for acting when he took the stage at the age of seven and appeared in a talent show at this local Boys & Girls Club. He and his older sister were sent to a boarding school after his parents divorced when he was fourteen.
He made his feature film debut in A Carbon Copy (1981) and appeared in a number of off-Broadway productions before being cast in the television medical drama St. Elsewhere. Over his career, he has earned five total Oscar nominations and has won for Best Supporting Actor in Glory (1989).
Over his career, Washington has earned both popular and critical acclaim. Some of his most noteworthy roles include Glory, Malcolm X, Training Day, and Fences. Below are trailers for each of these films.
Monet defines herself as a surrealist blues poet, storyteller, and organizer who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She was the youngest poet to win the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café GrandSlam poetry award title. She enjoys following in the tradition of poets who participate and assemble in social movements.
Her first full collection of poems is titled My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter. Many of these pieces, and others, explore gender, race, migration, and spirituality. If you click on her name, you will find a wealth of pieces she has created that exemplify these ideas.
In 2018, Monet was nominated for a NAACP Literary Award for Poetry and in 2019 she was awarded the Majory Stoneman Douglas Award for Poetry for her work in South Florida. She also created a political safe-haven for artists and organizers called Smoke Signals Studio. She currently lives in Miami where she is developing her next collection of poems entitled, Florida Water.
Stevensen is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. He has worked tirelessly to win major legal challenges eliminating the excessive and unfair sentences of individuals, exonerating death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and children prosecuted as adults.
He has argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court, including a ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children aged seventeen and younger.
He has also initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge inequality in America. He created two cultural sites that chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and their connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias. He has also published a book titled Just Mercy (adapted into a film of the same name) about the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevensen is also a popular public speaker in which he often addresses the injustices in the United States.
Thank you for joining me as we learned about just a small handful of wickedly talented black artists in the world.
Here is my commitment to you: I will continue to educate myself on the injustices and racial disparity throughout the United States (and the world) every day. I will do this by researching more black artists and their creative pieces. By doing this, I will better understand their perspectives and serve as a better ally to their community. I will continue to use my voice to amplify the voices of those that have been systemically oppressed for centuries. And, I will continue to be aware of my privilege and work as hard as I can to fight for justice in my community by protesting, donating, sharing information, speaking up, and VOTING.
I welcome you to make a commitment, too. Heck, you can take mine and we can hold each other accountable for it together. Real change is possible if we continue to work with love for one another and stand up to the corrupt systems that perpetuate racism in the United States. If you are interested in conducting further research on additional black artists not featured in this post, I have curated a list to get you started:
Nina Chanel Abney, Painter; Kehinde Wiley, Painter; Aaron Douglas, Painter; Tomashi Jackson, Painter; Robert Colescott, Painter; Kerry James Marshall, Painter; Doyle Lane, Sculptor; Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor; Renée Green, New Media; David Hammons, New Media; Wangechi Mutu, New Media; Carrie Mae Weems, New Media; Nick Cave, Performance; Kalup Linzy, Performance; William Pope.L, Performance; Claudia Rankine, Writer; Morgan Parker, Writer; Danez Smith, Writer; Audre Lord, Writer; Kevin Young, Writer; Margaret Walker, Writer; Hanif Abdurraqib, Writer; Rainey, Writer; Robin Diangelo, Writer; Michael Eric Dyson, Writer; Ibram X. Kendi, Writer; Mira Jacob, Writer; Isabel Wilkerson, Writer.
The best way to begin your research is with a simple Google search!
Keep learning and keep fighting.
Oh, My Word! Share this post on social media to help spread the knowledge we gained together. The best way to keep this movement moving is to share information. If you know other black artists that you want to bring into the light, write a comment down below to share with everyone!
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Oh, My Word! is a weekly updated blog featuring fiction, poetry, drama, and essays for the world. #OhMyWordWednesdays
This is a great article with a myriad of interesting information. I liked the variety. However, what I liked most is your attitude. Your willingness to take steps to educate yourself, voice your opinions, and change. All of those choices are awesome. If everyone would make the same choices, along with spreading their love, as you suggest, the world would definitely change for the better. Thank you for raising my awareness. I think, though, that we need to make sure that we focus on all people and all injustice, not just black injustices.
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