|Freddie Styles, Working Roots Series #10, 1987|
|Booker T. Washington was honored on |
a "Famous Americans Series"
Commemorative U.S. Postage stamp,
issue of 1940. Image: Wikipedia
Du Bois offered an opposing perspective. Born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation in Massachusetts, he was the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University and was a sociologist constantly studying his people and his “negro” identity. Du Bois spearheaded the Niagara Movement, which was founded to create a more radical strategy towards achieving racial justice and existed in opposition to the accommodationist policies of Washington. Du Bois, unlike Washington, believed in the necessity of gaining civil rights as a primary step in the search for advancement. He too believed in the importance of education but saw the industrial/trade education promoted by Washington as limiting. Despite their many disagreements, the thoughts and ideas of these two leaders often converge — specifically in the creation and promotion of a black American cultural identity.
|W. E. B. Du Bois. Image: Hutchins Center for African and African American Research|
Washington too has a distinct relationship with black art. Rather than focusing on the spiritual self-definement that preoccupied Du Bois, Washington focused on a mechanical, utilitarian creation of selfhood in the face of oppression. Washington constantly created and distributed photographs of himself and the Tuskegee Institute and by doing so, developed agency. In the book “Booker T. Washington and the Art of Self Representation,” Bieze argues, “Washington’s widely distributed images were part of a burgeoning modern form of self-representation”. He presented an aesthetic valuing nature and hard work, deciding utility itself would be beautiful. In many ways he worked to define “the early aesthetic of the new negro” (Bieze) through his dedication to visual demonstrations of cultural equality.
|Wilmer Jennings, De Good Book Says (Church Series), 1935|
Today, in “Expanding Tradition: Selections from the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection”, we see the artistic progress that came out of this revision of American identity. The exhibition displays works by African American artists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and through this great range we get a true sense of African American art history and its continued cultural inquiry. In the painting “De Good Book Says (Church Scene)” (1935) by Wilmer Jennings, we see a lively religious scene featuring the animated expression of churchgoers under vibrant beams of light from stained-glass windows. Jennings depicts the spiritual nature of an African American community through this expressive work of art, and by doing so practices the self-definition promoted by Du Bois and Washington. In another painting on display, “Working Roots Series #10” (1987) by Freddie Styles, we see an abstract work on a red background, painted using the roots of plants. In many ways this engagement with roots parallels the engagement with cultural roots that is prevalent in works throughout the show. African American artists imagine and reimagine a rich past while engaging with an everchanging present. In this way they extend the practice of cultural agency and self-definition that once preoccupied Washington and Du Bois.