The Works of Ernie Barnes

Freedom Center Voices

The Works of Ernie Barnes

During my work day, I like to spend about 20 – 30 minutes checking out the exhibits. Of course being that the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection is our newest temporary exhibit, I’ve been spending time seeing rarities I know I’ll probably never have the opportunity to see again.

As I’ve worked my way to some of the last pieces of the exhibit, I come across paintings from an artist by the name of Ernie Barnes. Something about his work titled “Slow Drag” seems quite familiar to me as I carefully examined the elongated figures on the paintings. As I get on the elevator to head back to my desk it suddenly comes to me. The figures look just like a picture my late aunt had in her home. Once I’m at my desk, I google “Works of Ernie Barnes” images and I see just what I envisioned from my memory – a picture of his most famous painting “The Sugar Shack”.

Seeing that image along with his pieces in the Kinsey Collection brought back so many memories of spending time at my aunt’s home. I also began recalling other places I saw the painting that included other homes and black-owned, mom-and-pop businesses. From this realization I came to appreciate how much of an impact Barnes has had on Black culture, (even learning that Marvin Gaye used the image for his 1976 “I Want You” album cover). It was especially interesting learning that he was an actor and a football player. He used his art to convey the Black experience in America, especially in a feature he used in his paintings in which the figures had their eyes closed. He says “We stop at color quite often. So one of the things we have to be aware of is who we are in order to have the capacity to like others. But when you cannot visualize the offerings of another human being you're obviously not looking at the human being with open eyes”, as the reason behind this preferred feature in his work.

Many people tend to overlook the small yet significant stories African Americans have contributed to not only Black culture, but American culture. This little jewel learning about Ernie Barnes and the impact of his work will be something I’ll always cherish as it is exactly the message the Kinsey’s want all guests to take away – learning about the subtle but meaningful impacts and contributions African Americans have made to this country.


Will Jones
Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Posted in Uncategorized.