By: Jamé Jackson
“Okay class, line your artwork up on the walls and come stand on the other side so we all can see.”
I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I picked up my portrait and laid its frame against the banister of the chalkboard among my classmates. The task had been fairly simple: Create a piece of art that you felt described you. I had mercilessly released my ink and paint onto a blank canvas, feeling, among other things, a sense of accomplishment and self-fulfillment of the piece that had come from long hours and much coffee. I waited with anticipated breath as my professor searched my work.
My eyes widened and I stepped out of line from my classmates.
“Is something wrong, Professor?”
“No, nothing’s wrong. Per say. It’s just…I don’t see how this piece of art signifies in any way that you are Black. And as an artist, that’s your job.”
I felt my face get warm and the whispers amongst my classmates. The anticipated excitement had died off, and instead had been replaced with anguish erasure. Was my artwork not Black enough?
This conversation has been something long discussed in the Black community. From the days of Langton Hughes and Countee Cullen, the role of the Black artist has always been one tossed up in the air, not lightly handled by the masses and certainly not by artists themselves. While Hughes argued that it is the responsibility to push push push ‘Black’ in all artwork from Black artists, Cullen argued that there was no need to do all that. That somehow labeling oneself as a ‘Black’ artist was a hindrance.
I find myself daily straddling the fence between these two unique spectators on the topic, even now in the 21st century amongst a new form of artistry and social media. With campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MyBlackIsBeautiful or even #BlackGirlsWhoBlog, I can’t help but pay tribute to my race as I discuss prevalent topics in my writing, topics such as racism, sexism, and inner workings of the community. I find now, more than ever, my pen and paper MUST exhibit a sense of racial pride in my community and ancestral roots; inevitably, I am proud of the person I am and will no longer bow down gracefully to a society that has never bowed to me.
Like Hughes, I believe it is the Black artist’s role to execute the inner thinking of our society: I paint what we think, write what we wish we could say, and musically liberate what we’ve always wanted. I am unapologetically Black and I have never shined down my name on a resume or my background to ever sell myself to another community.
And then there’s Cullen, whose thoughts present an argument I also agree with. As an artist, I want my artwork to touch lives and humankind. Not one particular race, genre, creed or color. As an English major, I look at word usage and placement. Calling myself a “Black” artist means that the word “Black” is an adjective that then describes my noun, “artist”. I find two things in particular wrong with this decree.
Number 1, if my artistry must be described as “Black”, what are “Black” things specifically? So what exactly makes for “Black” art? As you will find, the definition of “Black” art ranges even amongst the Black community. Do we count Kenny G as creating of “Black” art because he performs Jazz, which is indigenously an African/African-American art form? Or Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote many stories we know today but who ALSO had a white woman sponsor her career and has constantly been criticized for the possibility of exacerbating information to continue funding?
Do I have to talk about slavery, the Civil War, Harlem Renaissance or the Civil Rights movement? I am always astounded by how many people talk about slavery as Black art, forgetting that our history and legacy began thousands of year before someone of another race ever stepped foot on Africa. What makes “Black” art? What is that specific adjective?
Secondly, my other problem is the limiting factor I feel it can present. As an artist, the goal is to be able to touch mankind in a way that leaves an impact. If I label myself a “Black” artist, do I then categorize myself away from someone who is just an Artist? Why do they get to stand on the grounds of simple ‘artistry’ while I have to find an adjective to describe mine?
Furthermore, if my work is simply “Black” art, does that then exclude all that don’t fit into my category or genre? Do I then lose the other races, age and socioeconomic demographics? No. I want my artwork to mean something to the inner city 9 year old black boy. I want it to mean something to the 69 year old white man who has money galore but has a heart of stone. I want the work of my hands and my mind and spirit to touch all it comes into contact with, and if my artwork can do that, why do I have to put labels on the kind of artist I am?
In a day and age where race is a hot topic as well as gender (and sex), I’m left constantly on a tightrope as African-American women try to find the balance between our racial community and our gender community. If I paint a crying woman on a park bench, why does she have to be one thing or another? Why can’t she just be viewed and seen for the dimensions in which she exists?
There’s no easy answer to the role of the Black artist. Some may agree with Hughes, some with Cullen. Some may find themselves in the middle like myself, wanting people to know they are unapologetically who they are without having to necessarily shove it down someone’s throat. Whatever the role, we all know that it is our duty to liberate with our art and to bring together a new social consciousness that has been built on from generations before. I can not imagine what this world would be like without the sacrifices of the artists during the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, Black Arts and social movements that took place to shape the world how it is today.
Perhaps no matter our stance, we’ll always remember in whatever we do, to think back on the words that kindly remind us each day our role: Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!