Gotta Talk About It! Gotta Put a Stop to It: Slavery and Its 21st Century Legacies
“We Must Talk About It”, 62” x 48”, mixed media (Mirror, paper, acrylic, molding paste), 2017-2020 by Johnnie Maberry
This work starts the conversation with the urgent need to talk about topics that many individuals do not discuss enough. Failure to have a conversation about certain topics creates a wall of separation between individuals and serves as a breeding ground for negative intellectual and social qualities. We are a society living behind deeply destructive walls of racial separation and have created a platform for anger and alienation. We make the wall thicker and taller when we fail to have honest conversations about white supremacy. But when we speak honestly, the wall of separation opens and the light of knowledge enters along with courage, hope, forgiveness, love, and more. The visual arts help to create a platform and start the conversation that many people resist and others banish.
“We Must Talk About It” is a visual representation of the importance and urgency of speaking freely.
Johnnie Mae Maberry (a Southern artist) and Donald Walker (a Northern artist) talk about freedom and equality in the African American past and present. What did freedom and equality look like in the past? What does freedom and equality look like in the present? The works created by these two artists and their provocative discussions create clarifying conversations that illuminate the variety of African American experiences - some heart breaking and some inspiring.
Unlike traditional exhibitions, these artists invite you to immerse yourselves in this virtual presentation. You, the viewers, have a unique opportunity to engage with the multiple perspectives of freedom and equality these artists present. Their powerful works of art invite you to share in their visions of past and present drawn from historical memories, personal experiences, and testimonies that span generations.
African American women have struggled with assault on the spirit and body since the beginning of slavery. These two works juxtaposed together give a dramatic example of how these assaults takes place. Some assailants are white while some are black.
“Linda Brent, Seven Years Seclusion” (1992) by Johnnie Maberry
“Tribes in the African American Family” (2020) by Donald Walker
“Linda Brent, Seven Years Seclusion” is based on the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs named Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1813-1842 (1861). Linda Brent, Jacobs’ pen name, spent seven years hiding in a pent roof, covered with only roofing shingles, in a space that was nine feet long and seven feet wide. The highest point was three inches high. She recalled, “The air was stifling; the darkness total…I heard the voices of my children. There was joy there and was sadness in the sound. It made my tears flow…the continued darkness was oppressive…yet I would have chosen this rather than my lot as a slave.” After seven years of hiding, Linda was able to escape her Massa to a life of freedom in New York. She later freed her children.
“Tribes in The Afro-American Families” expresses his deep concern when African American people take advantage of their freedom to create division among ourselves. The woman in this composition embraces the memory of a Linda Brent’s struggles and others like her. Being free to walk in one’s own dignity is a human right. That right should not be judged by anyone.
When there was nothing else, the hope of salvation through worship and prayer was sometimes the only dependable hope. Faith, religion, and rescue are as relevant today as they were during slavery.
“The Prayin Hole” (1993) by Johnnie Maberry
“Rendezvous With Salvation” (2020) by Donald Walker
During the Depression era between 1936 and 1938, Franklin D, Roosevelt created the Workers Progress Administration (WPA) Writers Project. Journalists were sent to seventeen states to interview and document life stories of once enslaved people. Their interviews resulted in Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. “The Prayin Hole” illustrates Ellen Butler’s story about her life of enslavement: “Massa never ‘lowed’ us slaves go to church, but they have big holes in the fields…they git down in and pray. Us used to pray for freedom…” Others, such as Charlotte Martin, recalled how her oldest brother was whipped to death for taking part in a religious ceremony; and Sarah Ross said that in most cases, their work consumed so much of their time that they had little opportunity to congregate. The price for salvation, freedom, and rescue was beyond measure.
Walker had a similar idea in creating “Rendezvous With Salvation” after his visit to the slave camps of Goree Island on the coast of Senegal. He could imagine the cries of anguish and prayers for deliverance in a space where men and women could not stand up straight. They essentially were trapped in holes of confinement. An appointment with destiny was inevitable then. Today, many societal ills (e.g., racism, unjust laws, murders, inequality) carry the burdens of history on their backs on their faith or religion; waiting for a date with salvation.
The heart is a small organ, barely the size of a fist. But, we cannot live without it. Freedom of the heart is having a heart that can relate to the suffering of others. Looking into the history or slavery and other crimes against humanity causes one to ask about the consciousness of those who participated and embraced those crimes. More importantly, we ask if the heart is free to love, why does it not love all?
“Last Time We Saw Momma” (1993) by Johnnie Maberry
“Dance With My Heart” (2019) by Donald Walker
“Last Time We Saw Momma” is about broken hearts, broken families, and broken spirits. The painting illustrates a scene described by Mary Prince in book The Classic Slave Narratives edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (2012). Prince wrote: “The great God above alone knows the thoughts of the poor slave’s heart and the bitter pains which follow such separation as these. All that we love taken away. When the sale was over, our mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing.”
“Dance With My Heart” sums up the many experiences of broken hearts, broken families, and broken spirits through the symbolism of dance and movement.
Imagine what it is like to work from dawn to dusk while receiving no income. Imagine being a contributor to a nation’s wealth but barely receiving a small fraction of that wealth for generations. Some call it capitalism while others call it inequality. Artists call it another truth revealed in the history and today’s economic reality of millions who do not have a share in America’s wealth.
“Aren’t I a Woman” (1992) by Johnnie Maberry
“We Owned This” (2021) by Donald Walker
“Aren’t I a Woman” is part of Sojourner’s Truth story but it also a story shared by many enslaved individuals. A viewer may or should have questions about the baby that is on the back of the woman in the image. The field of cotton appears endless. Cotton was the gold of the south. Before the patenting of the cotton gin, these vast fields were cleared by slave labor. Truth said she could pick cotton better than any man and she had also seen her children sold into slavery. In 1850, Truth spoke at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts (another story about her activism).
“We Owned This” is an expression of how African American continue today to contribute to the wealth of this country. From being forced to do free labor to building generational wealth, it is time now to claim what we rightfully owned.
The Poor Peoples Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is led by William Barber II and Liz Theoharis. They lead the masses as we sing in unison “Everybody Have a Right to Live.” In 2022, the fight for human rights for justice continues.
“Black Man’s Saga”(1992) by Johnnie Maberry
“To Be Equal” (1999) by Donald Walker
“Black Man’s Saga” illuminates the somber, sad state of Olaudah Equiano living as an enslaved man in his autobiography, Reflections on the State of My Mind (1789). The painting gives the viewer a face-to-face encounter with Equiano’s pleading eyes. The narrative that is attached to the painting and seen in the doorway features a small section of Equiano’s lengthy saga: Well may I say my life has been one scene of sorrow and of pain; From early days I griefs have known, and as I grew, my griefs have grown (Gates 2012). Victims of mass incarceration, unfair labor practices, and other forms of modern-day slavery can relate to Olaudah Equiano.
“To Be Equal” features the US Constitution as the background document that proposes a fair and just society. Pictured in the foreground is an Olaudah Equiano striped of clothing and having an awareness that he is excluded from the document that promises “justice for all”. The saga of the black man’s injustices continues today.
The artist Romare Bearden once said that it is forgetfulness that sometimes makes living possible. Forgetfulness can be a temporary cure for painful experiences. However, it is best not to forget circumstances in history and the present that awakens the spirit to awareness, action, and higher callings.
“Home Sweet Home” (1993) by Johnnie Maberry
“I am Amos and He’s Andy” (2022) by Donald Walker
“Home Sweet Home” illustrates the description of Ellen Butler’s home from the WPA slave narratives. Butler said “…lil log house with one room-floor dirt-house made jes like they usta make tater house-lil window in the back…” Julius Lester in To Be a Slave (1968) describes his couch was a 12” wide x 10” long plank and his wood pillow. The journey from being huddled in one-room shacks to comfortable homes have been progressive. But even today in the Delta regions of the South, poor housing and minimal living conditions exist.
Realities of the past become masked in comedy. “I am Amos, He is Andy” shows the forgetfulness of “lil log houses with one room.” It also symbolizes how weekly reality shows are culturally damaging. This image is a constant warning and reminder to not allow our children or ourselves to be mesmerized and confused by false realities draped in comedy.
The work days were long and salaries were practically nonexistent. For example: When a black overseer on Jefferson’s Monticello plantation named George Granger Sr. received a wage of $65.00 a year, it was only half the wage of a white overseer.
“Labour” (1993) by Johnnie Maberry
“Picasso You Peepin Tom” (2019) by Donald Walker
“Labour” is a painting that presents two views of labor: manual work and birthing a child. During slavery, expectant mothers worked in the fields until they felt labor pains. It was not uncommon for babies to be born in the fields. The caption for the painting reads: “Poor Hetty, my fellow slave…delivered after severe labour a dead child” and it derives from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1813-1842. Those who labored hard received no reward for their labor.
By comparison, “Picasso You Peepin Tom” prompts questions: How much labor did it take for Picasso to achieve fame and fortune as the “creator” of cubism (an art style that abstract images into geometric shapes)? From elementary school through college, students are educated on the brilliance of Picasso with no reference to his creation being inspired by African Art. What do you think would happen if schools taught the reality of slavery? Students would learn about the courage and tenacity of the victims and become impressed with the creativity and craftmanship that evolved from gifted hands in despite being conditioned to what is considered art for the masses. Just as Picasso is celebrated today, the same can be true of African American history.
Before being kidnapped, sold, and transported to other countries, Africans men, women, and children were identified by their family names, their profession, and status among their people. Suddenly, kings, queens, master artists, scientists, and any profession or craft that you may name were transported across seas to be abused and identified as SLAVES.
“Meal Time” (1994) by Johnnie Maberry
“The Beginning and Ending of Identity Crisis” (2017) by Donald Walker
“Meal Time” for Francis Black was a little tough. She said they did not know “nothing” about spoons and forks based on an account from the WPA slave narratives. Also from the WPA slave narratives, Charity Jones said: “Jes’ fo de oberseer would blow dat konk, a big pan of milk an’ bread was carried in the yard an pured in de trough made of a big log hollowed out and had legs under it. We chilluns all had a wooden spoon an we got round dat trough and et dat bread and milk…my uncle made all de wooden spoons on dat place.” The revelation of kinship on the plantation was seen when children gathered around the trough at meal time. Physical conditions of slavery determined and shaped the identity of those enslaved.
Like Ms. Black and Ms. Jones remark about their new experiences with utensils, the lack of representation determines and shapes identities today. “The Beginning and Ending of Identity Crisis” is about growing up and seeing Walker’s heroes as Superman, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger on television. My grandchildren also experienced identity crisis. Society continues to be brainwashed in believing that superheroes are white men. Why were there no superheroes that looked like Walker? Let’s talk about Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, the late Congressman John Lewis, the hidden figures of the space mission (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn) and more.
This concept can refer to documentation, or simply something clearly written. Black and White throughout history has been the dividing line between races and representative of skin color.
“The Soul is All Black or White…” (1994) by Johnnie Maberry
“In Black and White” (2020) by Donald Walker
“The Soul is All Black or White” is a linoleum block print that is included in a series of works from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. Anthony Dawson, featured in the artwork, was 105 when he was interviewed. The print features one of his wise quotes: The soul is all black or white, pending on a man’s life and not his color.”
“In Black and White” is about color. It is an extension of the meaning of black and white. It is a composition about racism. What is it that thing which evolves out of a ‘black is not good and white is better’ mentality? The bold heading on the newspaper and demonstrators bearing posters are reminders of the heartbreak caused by spirits of racism. Just as racism has a beginning, it can also have an ending. Our conversations can put racism on notice with awareness and a message that love prevails.