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Art

Visual Politics

UMBC show looks at the visual culture surrounding the civil rights movement

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Photo: , License: N/A


For All The World To See

Through March 10 At UMBC’S Center For Art, Design, And Visual Culture

 

Forty-five years before Barack Obama’s election as president, James Baldwin was in San Francisco speaking to schoolchildren when he said, “There will be a Negro president of this country.

A black novelist, playwright, and essayist, Baldwin was famed for both his criticism of racial discrimination in the U.S. and for being an openly gay man long before the phrase “marriage equality” existed. In 1963, he assured a group of black junior high school students that, one day, any one of them could be president, albeit in an America that “will not be the country we are sitting in now.”

Baldwin’s assertion comes from a clip of the PBS documentary Take This Hammer, just one of myriad items in For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, the exhibition now in place through March 2013 at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture. Dolls and toys, posters, books, postcards, newspapers and magazines, newsreels, television and film clips, and photographs make up the exhibit, itself divided into sections corresponding to significant moments in the history of the civil rights movement: when black athletes like Jackie Robinson and Cassius Clay gained popularity; images from marches, bus boycotts, and lunch counter sit-ins; footage of the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and the Four Tops performing on late-night television variety shows.

“It really takes the broadest possible view of how visual culture operated and what forms of visual culture were in fact employed to change prevailing ideas about race in America,” says Maurice Berger, now in his 20th year as research professor and chief curator at the UMBC Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, as well as the mastermind behind For All the World to See.

It’s a sprawling exhibition, something Berger started thinking about in early 2004. Since the show’s first opening in 2010, at the International Center of Photography in New York, more than 750,000 people at venues in Chicago, Memphis, and Washington, D.C., have toured For All the World to See, including Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. As Berger pieced it together over six years, the exhibition’s scope—condensing nearly half a century of civil rights history into a comprehensible format that wasn’t overwhelming—got away from him, so to speak, to the point where it led him “down so many different paths,” he says, that he “realized there needed to be different levels of detail.”

In 2006, Berger—who received his Ph.D. in art history from the City University of New York in 1988—consulted Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture, from which several items in the show are loaned. A companion book by the same title accompanies the exhibit, along with an online exhibition and film festival and a smaller road show sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which will continue touring cities nationwide through 2018.

For Berger, however, For All the World to See is more than a history lesson on wheels.

“I’ve been thinking about [race relations] since I was a child,” says Berger. “Understanding that my white skin had a lot of power and a lot of meaning.”

The son of Jewish parents, Berger grew up in two different low-income housing projects—one in Brooklyn and another on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—that were “predominantly black and Hispanic,” he says. His father was “really profoundly moved” by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and would often talk to him about race relations in the U.S.

By the time Berger was enrolled at Hunter College in 1974, he had found a topic that consistently piqued his interest, despite black artists and cultural figures being largely invisible for a 20th-century, contemporary art scholar to study, he says.

In this exhibition, using images—not just still photographs—enables Berger to show the many ways rank-and-file black members of the civil rights movement took hold of American society’s representation of blackness in a type of cultural self-determination reserved, for much of this nation’s history, by the white population.

For years, blackness was something determined by white projections of who black people were: the galumphing Uncle Remus from Walt Disney’s Song of the South; the unassuming and sometimes drunken Joe, played by Paul Robeson, in Show Boat; a white family’s subservient black maid known solely for her antics; Aunt Jemima, only good for dispensing syrup and salt. (All of these are found in For All the World to See.)

But the sheer invisibility of black men and women in mainstream magazines, newsreels, newspapers, and television was even more difficult to overcome.

While images in popular culture depicted quite plainly what black people were not supposed to be—a 1942 lithograph included in the UMBC exhibition shows a classroom of white male students, with a caption reading “where every boy can dream of being President”— any meaningful portrayals of what black Americans could be were absent from the mainstream media.

“This show really argues . . . quite intensely that African-Americans took most of the visual representation into their own hands to determine their own destiny . . . to represent themselves in a positive, self-determined way,” Berger says.

The photograph of Emmett Till’s mangled, unrecognizable black face stands as a powerful image of black cultural self-determination.

In August 1955, at age 14, Till was lynched in Money, Miss., for reportedly flirting with a white woman. Lynchings were demonstrations of white power and terror—events that were, effectively, tools to keep blacks in the American South in their place.

No mainstream print publication at the time would publish the photo of Till’s lynched body, but black periodicals nationwide did. On display in For All the World to See is one of the issues of JET magazine with Till’s face on the cover, something “very hard to find,” Berger says, and an image that actually gives For All the World to See its name.

Upon agreeing to have her son’s mutilated face printed on the magazine’s cover, Mamie Till Bradley, an aggrieved and heartbroken mother, said only one thing: “The whole nation had to bear witness to this.”

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