Thursday, February 23, 2017

Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and “Expanding Tradition”

Freddie Styles, Working Roots Series #10, 1987
Following the end of slavery and the Civil War in the United States, two primary yet opposing figures emerged as leaders and thinkers in the African American community. Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963) pushed for the advancement of their people after over two hundred years of state-actualized oppression and degradation. Working against the failures of the Reconstruction period, Washington and Du Bois came to be the heads of polar-opposite ideological movements fighting for the same end. Finding themselves in the midst of this turmoil and striving for life and newness out of darkness, these two leaders helped forge African American — and, indeed, American — identity. The exhibition “Expanding Tradition: Selections from the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection” on view from January 28 to May 7, 2017, showcases works by African American artists and depicts an engagement with African American cultural identity, a practice that can be linked back to these two seminal leaders.

Booker T. Washington was honored on
a "Famous Americans Series"
Commemorative U.S. Postage stamp,
issue of 1940. Image: Wikipedia
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Hale’s Ford, Virginia and became free while still a child. Young Washington worked in mines and as a “house boy” and was eventually able to attend the Hampton Institute where he learned the importance of education. Washington became a teacher and gifted orator, and in July of 1881, he opened the Tuskegee Institute, an establishment that would serve as both headquarters for, and living proof of, the Washington ideology for the betterment of the race. Washington promoted what he called “the dignity of labor” and stressed the importance of hard work. He believed the progress of his people would come about through economic self-reliance and maintained that this was achievable, within the existing system, through trade education and diligence.

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 
Although this desire manifested itself in different ways, both Du Bois and Washington saw art as a means of forging an identity out of the darkness of slavery and Jim Crow–era South. In his NAACP speech “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois addresses the importance of discussing art and deems it inseparable with beauty and truth. He describes art as a means to “face our own past as a people” and concludes, “Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be” in its inextricable tie to truth. He also emphasized the need for self-representation during this time, as he recognized that what was depicted in the artistic record would very much be the future’s recollection of his people. He saw the creation of art as autonomy and hoped for his people to tell their own stories on their own terms. To Du Bois, art was a means of depicting the truth and one’s true self, an inherently radical idea in a country dominated by the white perspective.

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.

Jamie Brener
Publications Intern

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