• catherinejiang2

The Role of Art in Our Fight For Justice (historically, and now.)

On May 25th, a white officer murdered a black man by kneeling on his neck for exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds over an alleged counterfeit bill. The victims name is George Floyd, and he is one of the countless other Black Americans that had fallen victim to the institutionalized racism the United States is founded on. The price he paid for being a Black person in America was his life, just like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark, and more had. To some who come from a place of privilege, these deaths may only seem to blur together into a haze of tragedy, and they carry on with their lives the next day like nothing happened. However, these victims were people -- they had families, friends, hopes and dreams. They were somebody’s child, father or mother, or friend. They were living, breathing human beings that walked the face of this earth, just like you and me. Many of us have forgotten the value of human life, and nothing will justify Floyd's death; no one deserves to die the way he did.

Portrait of George Floyd by Nikkolas Smith

The entire world is rightfully outraged by the murder of George Floyd, and millions of people took to the streets to protest police brutality, as well as support the growing movement of Black Lives Matter. It is now crucial to reflect, as a nation, how we have failed the Black community, and the role that race plays in our society.We have to look back and address the fact that the United States was built on the enslavement and dehumanization of African Americans. This country has profited from slave labor for centuries, and POC are still deeply effected to this day. It is found both on the large and small scale, from medical, educational, and justice systems, to the micro-aggressions in our daily conversations that we were afraid to speak up about.

This is a critical turning point in the history of this country, and activism is taking place in all shapes and sizes; from massive protests to reposting important messages on social media. One form of activism that is prominent for this movement is art activism. This includes street art, paintings, and murals that shed light onto Black Lives Matter, and the aspects of racism that many of us have looked away from. From professional painters, to graphic designers, local artists, and art institutions, the art community has once again united to support a vital cause.

Gladstone Gallery promised to match $10,000 to organizations like Black Lives Matter and the Black Visions Collective, and rose to $15,000 in 24 hours.

Mural dedicated to George Floyd in Oakland California

Art portraying Elijah McClain by @art_by_nena Graphic art shared by Naomi Campbell (Instagram) (Instagram)

This kind of activism, especially social media activism, is extremely effective, as powerful messages can be shared in a faster manner than ever before -- with each repost, hundreds of people are able to see it. However, it is not the first time art had become a key component in the fight for justice and social reform.

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of artistic and cultural explosion that is known as the "golden age of African American culture', beginning in the Harlem Neighborhoods of New York City and lasted from around 1910's to mid-1930's.

Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated writer, critic, and "dean of the Harlem Renaissance", described this era as a "spiritual coming of age" where African Americans transformed "social disillusionment to race pride". It was a period of artistic achievement that was comprised of diverse art forms such as poetry, painting and sculpture, jazz, opera, and dance.

At the end of the civil war, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans dreamed of equal economic opportunities, empowerment in politics, cultural self-determination, and a fuller participation in society. However, white lawmakers were determined to continue the oppression, and in the 1870's, racial segregation laws known as the "Jim Crow laws" made African Americans second class citizens. By the early 1900's, the economic boom in the north and midwest allowed for job opportunities for industrial workers; black people from the south recognized the great possibility of a racially tolerant environment that would allow them to live at a higher standard. People began to travel to places like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. Harlem, specifically, attracted more than 175,000 people and became the largest concentrated area of African Americans in the world. This was known as the Great Migration, and these places have attracted some of the greatest scholars and artists of the time.

From unskilled laborers to the educated middle class, they all shared their experiences in slavery, oppression, and aspire to create an identity as free people. At the peak of this movement, Harlem became the "epicenter of American Culture", where they redefined culture for both white and black people.

Josephine Baker: an American-born French entertainer, singer, dancer, and civil-rights activist.

Devoted her life to fighting for racial equality and against segregation.

The Businessmen (left slide) and The Shoemaker (right slide) by Jacob Lawrence

Langston Hughes: American poet, social activist, novelist, and columnist who moved to New York to pursue his career. His poems are known for its colorful and insightful portrayal of black life

Poets during this time period wrote with the rhythmic meters of jazz and blues, and talked about about standing up for themselves and their rights. A lot of the work written revolved around empowerment and social change.

Bessie Smith: renowned American blues singer, one of the best during the Jazz era

Duke Ellington: American composer, pianist, and leader in Jazz music. Composed thousands of scores over his 50-year long career

Ella Fitzgerald: American singer known as the "Queen of Jazz". Known for her pure tone, diction, phrasing, intonation, and more. She is also known to have a "horn-like" quality during her scat singing, and possesses great improvisational ability

Jazz music was born from the Black experience, blending African and European music styles together, evolving from slave work songs, spirituals, and ragtime. This style of music is intimately linked to equality for all, and empowered Black people. It is characterized as swing and blue notes, polyrhythms, call-and-response vocals, and improvisation, and is known for its creative freedom. Jazz became an integral part of American music and culture, and furthered many movements such as the Women's Liberation Movement, as it provided the means of rebellion against the strict standards of society.

The Harlem Renaissance brought attention to African American art, and inspired artists for generations to come. It was a "self-portrait" of Black Americans, their life, and their culture; it challenged the racist stereotypes of the Jim Crow south. This period of artistic achievement redefined African American identity, and radically changed the way others perceived the Black experience in America. Black people began to have a new spirit; they found a sense of pride and cultural identity, social consciousness, and passion for political activism, and ultimately set the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's.

The new-found sense of identity African Americans felt during this Golden Age of artistic expression empowered them to stand for equal rights for years to come, and is more relevant now than ever. Racism is still prevalent in all aspects of American life, and progress needs to take place to ensure POC can feel safe in this country; we need to be sure the right reforms are made to achieve equality in this country.

We are obligated to empower each other through artistic expression in a fashion similar to the Harlem Renaissance. It is time for change, and African Americans have a voice to be heard.






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