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Protest Art of the Civil Rights Movement

Little Rock, Delores Francine (1926-2006), Oil on canvas, ca. 1950, Gift of Emery Nemethy, 59.390

Delores Francine makes deliberate choices in her 1950s Little Rock piece which reflect the changing goals and perspectives of Black art, moving away from the art of the Harlem Renaissance, towards that of the Civil Rights Movement. In order to fully understand the impact and significance of those choices, we must first understand how they differ from the popular Black art that characterized the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, which in many ways acts as a foundational point for the Black art that came about by the 1960s. While the 20s were remarkable in that Black artists began to regularly portray Black subjects, which was hitherto unprecedented, these depictions still worked within the confines placed upon them by the white society.1 These confines included the place Black people occupied in the white avant garde imagination, which in the 20s, became one of a symbolic identification with the quest for personal freedom and escape from traditions.2 The Black art of the 20s reflected the mythologized version of Blackness that existed in the white imagination, with depictions of lower class Black life, without the demand for racial justice which would come to characterize the art of the 60s.3

By 1940, Black thinker Alaine Locke eloquently summarizes the main problem with the Black art trends of the 20s, stating the need to go beyond “superficial pictureesquness of the negro color, form, and feature” which appealed to white people,  into a “penetrating social vision which goes deeper than the surface show and jazzy tone and rhythm of negro folk life…it must be solid and instructive with an enlightening truth.”4 This “enlightening truth” refers to the unapologetic expression of Black lives, history, and passions, determined by Black people, for Black people as a mass art, in direct opposition to the historic denial of those aspects of Blackness.5 

Through her subject matter and style, Francine communicates these newly fermented goals and ideals in order to elevate it from a mere documentation of a moment in the Civil Rights Movement into a broader demand for racial justice and an indictment against white society. The startling negative space surrounding the three figures is the omission of the howling crowds that the Little Rock Nine faced in 1957 as they struggled to integrate into the Arkansas public highschool. This choice forces the viewer to take the place as the crowd, drawing us in as the same spectators that protested against integration that day. Francine turns her painting into a virtual mirror, making the audience contemplate their own actions and thoughts, causing us to ask ourselves what we would do in that situation. It’s chilling because it forces the viewer into the role of the bystander, creating the “the great silence” made by “the people that don’t speak up.”6  Black art was no longer the imposition of a mythologized identity, but a tool to show white people the reality of their own identity in this country, specifically as a mechanism of oppression. 

Stylistically, Francine archives this by forgoing compliance to the traditional expectations of Black art, as established by the Harlem Renaissance. She withholds any exoticized features of her Black subjects which would play into the white fantasy of escapism and the allure of primitivism.7 There are no colors or forms that relate to the jazzy rhythms of Black life, which white people so adored — rather, her depiction is pared down to its bare essentials, omitting any imposition of meaning by the dominant white culture onto Black people. Once that is taken away, we are left with the deliberate condensation of form and color in her Little Rock, creating a “likeness truer than mere imitation.”8 Francine chose this style which emphasized simplification and narration despite the fact that the media coverage of this style, especially when done by Black people, reduced it to amateur art, as seen in the media depiction of the 1967 Wall of Respect, which is a collaborative mural depicting the faces of the Civil Rights Movement.9 She also keeps the forms grounded in reality, as opposed to many of her Black and white contemporaries who experimented in increasingly total levels of abstraction. In her painting, the viewer cannot ignore the subject matter of Blackness, it is concrete and inevitable, and she does this in order to “re-create and maintain” Black voices “as a truly self-conscious, self-determining entity, to interpret and focus” their  whole lives and history.10 The level of pure abstraction of Rothko, for instance, cannot achieve the outcry for racial justice and a reassertion of identity that Francine and the artists of the Wall of Respect achieve.  

[1] David C. Driskell “The Evolution of a Black Aesthetic, 1920-1950″ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (1976): 9

[2] David C. Driskell “The Evolution of a Black Aesthetic, 1920-1950″ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (1976): 59

[3] David C. Driskell “The Evolution of a Black Aesthetic, 1920-1950″ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (1976): 61

[4]  David C. Driskell “The Evolution of a Black Aesthetic, 1920-1950″ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (1976): 76

[5]A  Baraka. “The Black Arts Movement: Its Meaning and Potential” Journal of Contemporary African Art, 29 (Fall 2011): 28

[6] Ernest Green “Interview with the Little Rock Nine” Oprah 1996 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExWmMI2gEKw&t=2s&ab_channel=OWN

[7]Julie L McGee. “”The Evolution of a Black Aesthetic, 1920-1950″: David C. Driskell and Race, Ethics, and Aesthetics.” Callaloo 31, no. 4 (2008): 1177

[8] David C. Driskell “The Evolution of a Black Aesthetic, 1920-1950″ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976: 71

[9] Jo-Ann Morgan.  The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture. Routledge Research in Art and Race. (2009): 31

[10] A Baraka. “The Black Arts Movement: Its Meaning and Potential” Journal of Contemporary African Art, 29 (Fall 2011): 31


Written by Claire Goldsborough, Everhart Intern, Fall 2020.

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