Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Ernest Withers, I am a Man: Sanitation Workers Demonstration in front of Clayborn Temple in Memphis Tennessee, 1968
I have been thinking about the emerging shape of the class at the graduate center in the time we have left, after a discussion with Naia. 

I think that perhaps the best way to take advantage of the time we have left is if those of you who have not had a chance to present anything in class, were to divide up the readings and the materials we have left and lead discussions on them in class.

This is our remaining schedule. We have refined our readings down to more precise units. Devoting our next two classes to Barbara Ransby's book about Ella Baker and Danielle McGuire's book.  We will spend May 5th, talking about our final writing projects--which will involve presentations from each of you, provided you are ready to do so.

These presentations will include Maribi Henriquez, who is registered with me for MALS thesis advisement, who has completed the writing of "La Feminista Nuyorquina" --Contextualizing the Latina Experience in the Space of Radical U.S. History: Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Presence in New York City."
Then we are making a field trip Thursday, May 15th to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (March 7-July 6) in the Robert E. Blum Gallery on the First Floor.
See the following link for directions to the museum on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I use to live right around the corner and as I recall you can get there on the #2 train:
Our final session will be Friday, May 16th, at the same time as our regular class, 4:15-6:15, which is a university designated snow day. The plan right now is that this session may be devoted to the music of the civil rights movement, and a special presentation still being prepared by Rev. Lowell Coleman, from my CCNY class. Damelle may or may not participate since we plan to combine this with our farewell festivities. Perhaps we will adjourn to a local Korean Barbecue place, depending on how wealthy we are feeling.

I will also invite students from the other class to join us although it might be difficult for most of them.

To continue with discussion of the field trip to the Brooklyn Museum, you are free to come and go as you please. I will be at the museum, myself, from 1-6, and available to meet with you and guide you through the exhibit in two rounds. We will meet in the cafeteria the first time at 1 p.m. and the second time at 4:30.

There aren't a lot of women artists included in this show and it certainly has no feminist intentions that I can discern but it is the most inclusive exhibition of art and photography (in terms of racial, ethnic and gender diversity) from the the 60s that I have ever seen. I believe it may be indicating a future direction worth pursuing in art museums. Since it is at the Brooklyn Museum, which is located in a black neighborhood, who knows if it will indicate a trend? But this is the museum of choice of JayZ who is known to be a collector of art now.

There are little plans at present for this exhibition to travel but there is still time.

Just for your reference, there are 12 women artists in the show (8 of whom are African American, 2 Latina and 1 Japanese):

1. Faith Ringgold(my Mom)--Study Now (1964), and Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1967), oil on canvas;
2. Virginia Jaramillo (Mexican American), Divide (1964), mixed media on canvas;
3. Barbara Chase-Riboud, Monument to Malcolm X No. 2 (1969), Black Bronze and Wool, Newark Museum Collection;
4. Marisol Escobar, LBJ (1967), pain and pencil on wood, Collection of Museum of Modern Art;
5. Emma Amos, Three Figures (1966), oil on canvas;
6. Betye Saar, Whitey's Way (1970), Assemblage in box and Jim Crow Really Dead? (1972), Mixed Media Assemblage;
7. Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968), Cedar Sculpture and Negro es Bello II (1969), Silkscreen, Collection of Hampton University Museum.
8. Nancy Spero, Child in Sky/Victim in River (1966), Gouache,
9. Jae Jarrell, Urban Wall Suit (c. 1969) Printed Silk, and Ebony Family (1968) Cotton Velvet;
10. Yoko Ono, Voice Piece for Soprano (1961), print on paper;
11. Barbara Jones-Hogu, Unite (1971), silkscreen and Nation Time (1970), Silkscreen;
12. Pauline Boty, Countdown to Violence (1964), oil on canvas;
13. May Stevens (1970) Big Daddy Paper Doll, Acrylic on Canvas and Honor Roll (1963), oil on canvas.
My rough count of men in the exhibit (there isn't any checklist and I suspect that everything in the catalogue is not actually in the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum) is about 57 including many, many very well known artists, whom I will leave to your discovery and our discussions at the museum.

The 60s and the 70s were a time of great systematic political activism among artists particularly in New York, which is when I met most of the women included here by the side of my Mom, who was a very militant activist in the art world then.

To look at this exhibition and the catalogue that accompanies it makes me proud to see that the activism of artists is finally being recognized. Even in those cases in which the work, itself, might be viewed as without political content, it is interesting to see that the artists, themselves, often encoded messages of protest against racism and in support of the Civil Rights Movement or Black Power within their work. These works are included alongside more overtly political works such as those of my mother's. This exhibition brings all of these works to the fore alongside photographic work, which helps to connect it all to the events of the movement, itself.  Without such clarifications, in which culture is linked to the political context in which it occurs, history becomes inscrutable and incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't lived it. This is why I made so many mistakes in writing Black Macho. Even for me, having lived through it, events went by in a blur, and even the culture that was being produced in and around my own house was ultimately as inscrutable as if I had been born in Kansas. I had to learn. I had to teach myself. I had to study. And I was there.
Okay maybe its a bit of a stretch to put Robert Rauchenberg, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Catlett and the Africobra Collective Artists who did street murals in Chicago together, but I saw and knew them all. Moreover, it seems to me an art exhibition is forced to resort to a kind of shorthand for the times that produced them.
Also at the Brooklyn Museum, of potential interest is a longterm installation in the 5th Floor Lobby: Revolution: Works from the Black Arts Movement, a collection of 44 works from Africobra; also Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the 4th floor, as well as a vast array of African, Asian and Native American art all over the building. It's a wonderfully walkable museum still.
The photographs are great although they don't really begin to describe the role of photography in the Civil Rights Movement.
You can be helped in this endeavor by following this link to an online exhibition by Maurice Berger called For All the World To See:, which traces the role of visual images in racial thought from the 50s through the 70s. I served as a consultant for this exhibition and wrote many of the texts for the online film festival that was included. That was fun.
Also via Maurice Berger, his lens.blog posts for the New York Times located at
which includes columns on Leonard Freed's photos of the March on Washington, Gordon Parks, James Kareles, as well as photos of Malcolm X, who we should recall was murdered in 1965, and as such belongs more to the Civil Rights Movement than the Black Power Movement (the Black Panthers) and Black Cultural Nationalism (Amiri Baraka), although I don't always distinguish the three since they are all branches of the same tree of the struggle over racial inequality.

You may view the exhibition and visit the museum in any sequence you wish. Since we are going on a Thursday, which is a late night in which the museum is open until 10 and the admittance fee is pay what you wish, you have leeway. By the way, the fee is always pay what you wish.
What we have left are readings of McGuire
​, chapters 1-4​
and Baker
​, chapters 7-11.​
  Not sure who hasn't yet presented but you know who you are.



Black Feminism and The CRM: Not A Winning Combination

Michele Wallace in office at City College of New York pondering. by Stacy Long.

I am just now at the CUNY Graduate Center waiting for someone who has become one of my favorite students, Maribi Henriquez. I think this may be a name you may be hearing a lot. She is sitting in on the Black Feminism class and has enrolled with me for the completion of her MALS thesis.  She is, herself, Dominican American, and is interested in the role of East Coast Latina women in the Civil Rights Movement and/or the Women's Movement. Such an interest turns out to be more daunting than I thought since in the Women's Movement apparently the most active and the most quoted and published Latina women have been Chicano.  Until meeting and talking with Maribi, and now reading her thesis, I hadn't realized that. She needs papers signed today because she plans to graduate in May, so I thought I had better read her draft, which she sent me perhaps two weeks ago, and it was so wonderful and so educational for me. I am planning to ask her if perhaps we can share it with people in the class.

In any case, Maribi's plan is to go on to do her Ph.D. in Women's Studies at one of the few places in the country where this is possible, at Rutger's University where Women's Studies began and has continued full strength.  Maribi was among my students in this class who were present last week at our symposium event, Black Feminism, the Civil Rights Movement and African Anti-Colonial Struggle. I expected that it would be videotaped or streamed or at least audio recorded, as are many events at the Graduate Center but sadly it was not to be although there were world class black feminist scholars presenting--Barbara Ransby, the author of books on Ella Baker and Eslanda Robeson, as well as the Editor of Souls, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, author of Gender Talk, and so many other works in Women's Studies as well as the former Director of the National Women's Studies Association, and Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book on Rosa Parks as well as numerous other works on women in the Civil Rights Movement.

That there is so little record of what was said was disappointing but this is what happens when you count on others, particularly when the others have anything to do with CUNY.  For a variety of reasons Women's Studies is generally not well regarded in the Academy, and particularly at the CUNY Graduate Center although the same is very much true at the City College of New York where I teach as well.  The reasons for this are many and complex, and some of them I would not even dare to say out loud much less write about it on my curriculum blog for the world to see should they choose to do so.

In any case, I did manage to have some documentation including many photographs taken by photography friend and student Stacy Long, who is also a member of the Black Feminism class at CCNY, as well as a few short films of some of the talks. My co-convener Funke and I had quite a time pulling this program together, including her panel on African Anti-Colonialism, given our demanding teaching schedules (3/3).  Although I wasn't particularly gratified by the reception of the Graduate Center (where there are always a million things going on simultaneously in any case), I was deeply moved by the attendance and support of my students from both the Graduate Center and the City College of New York.  I imagined that it would be an opportunity for them to meet one another--since the two classes are so different in strengths and constituency.  The overwhelming majority of all of my students were able to attend, perhaps a total of about 25.  And I think now that it was important to have such an event even though it was in a sense "hidden in plain sight.

One thing I liked about it a lot was the chance to see Barbara Ransby, Beverly Guy Sheftall and Jeanne Theoharis in action.  They were superb, each in her own way.  I would love to see all three featured at a real event focused on Feminism and the Civil Rights Movement. Since I have been teaching this topic, I have noticed from time to time events that have been given with a focus on women in the Civil Rights Movement and now I will continue to pursue this interest. As the author of Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman, such topics are of continued interest to me and I am still learning. 

We are just about to leave for our Spring break and when we return we will only have a few more classes.  We will want to do something focused on the music of the Civil Rights Movement, with singing and live accompaniment by Rev. Lowell Coleman (who is sitting in on the class at CCNY) and something on photography and visual art, maybe even a field trip either to Carrie Mae Weems' show at the Guggenheim Museum or Witness at the Brooklyn Museum.  All I know is tht I am exhausted but everything having to do with this subject matter energizes me.


Black Feminism, the Civil Rights Movement and African Anti-Colonialism

Our symposium on this topic last Thursday left me drained, exhausted in particular by the breathe of knowledge shared by the women gathered in a short period as brief as as a half a day.

I pondered most of all the difficulty of recognizing the vital contribution women leaders have made to the advancement of revolutionary struggles in the U.S. And Africa. The conversation turned to the portrayal of Winnie Mandela in the new film Mandela, which was said to be insufficient to her actual contribution. So I decided to watch this film this evening to see for myself. I find that Winnie Mandela occupies a large role.

The biopic, such as in the case of this movie, is a very difficult genre of feature film to execute well. The very process of concentrating the portrayal of historically and cataclysmic events in the form a biography of a single extraordinary individual as though change was the product of great men rather than the interactions of many great people forging a chain out of a series of events over time.

As such, this film does more than fail to tell the story of Winnie,. In general it is difficult to understand how events around the world led to majority rule and the freedom of Mandela, the man we now all revere. One thing that strikes me that this is truly the tale of a revolution in the sense of the American Revolution. It did not bring freedom for all or even well being for most but it began the discussion.