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Common Cause

New Reggie exhibit explores intellectual and artistic connections between blacks and Jews

Photo: Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, License: N/A

Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Professor Ernst Borinski (above, at right) teaching at Mississippi's Tougaloo College, ca. 1960, in an image from .

Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges

Through Sept. 26 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum

Toward the end of this thoughtful exhibition, two painters offer each other one of the finer compliments two artists can give each other: They create a dialogue in their work. Viktor Lowenfeld’s “The Negro’s Burden” hangs right next to John Biggers’ “The Gleaners”; both date from the early 1940s. Both are richly colored oil paintings of working life. In Lowenfeld’s, a shirtless African-American man carries a large bundle on his back, the actual burden of manual labor functioning as a symbolic burden of the weight of exploited labor. In Biggers’, women pick up coal from around the railroad tracks. They ostensibly live in the wooden shacks located right behind them, close to the factory seen in the canvas’ upper-right quadrant and in the shadow of the city seen in the background.

In any overview of mid-century social realism, these two canvases would be rather unremarkable examples of the form. That’s not to imply that they’re not impressive—Biggers’ palette is especially effective—but American examples of this type aren’t the form’s best-known works. What makes this pairing poignant is that Lowenfeld was Biggers’ art teacher at the Hampton Institute, Virginia’s historically black college now know as Hampton University. Lowenfeld was an Austrian Jew who fled Europe during the Nazi’s 1930s rise, and started working at Hampton in 1939. Historically black colleges were one of the few places European Jewish intellectuals could find academic employment.

Beyond Swastika explores this relationship explicitly, drawing parallels between the racism Jews and African-Americans faced in Europe and the United States, and demonstrating how these two communities not only came together but thrived. It’s a dense but engaging exhibition, one where images of hate—a klansman’s white robes, a 1938 photo of a sign above the gate entrance to the University of Erlangen, Germany that reads jews are not wanted here—are offset by the overwhelming successes of this cultural exchange: The exhibition concludes with an array of 24 portraits of prominent African-Americans, such as Biggers and former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, who were taught by Jewish refugee scholars at historically black universities, a coda that suggest that the effect of those years continues to this day. The exhibition, an expansion of the 2000 PBS documentary From Swastika to Jim Crow, debuted at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage last year, and consists of numerous historical documents, letters, photos, and various other seemingly mundane items.

These otherwise ordinary objects are what give the exhibition its resonant edge. As Elizabeth Abel’s recent Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow (University of California Press) acknowledges, paralleling African-American and Jewish otherness isn’t that new; nor is the cultural, economic, and historical analysis behind the causes and effects of Jim Crow laws. Since the early part of the 21st century, what is starting to become difficult is visualizing what the Jim Crow South looked like. Photographic records exist, but the formerly very visible traces of this repugnant era in U.S. history have been removed from the movie theaters, diners, drug stores, water fountains, etc.—in short, the public, commercial, and social spaces of the segregated South. Signs specifying “white” or “colored” tried to translate the incorrect 19th-century “science” of racial difference—such as rooting the subjugation of a man in purportedly measurable data such as skin color, brain size, degree of hair curl, etc.—into the language of social order. And Signs of the Times argues that understanding the ongoing revolutions of American racial relations requires understanding how they get shaped and influenced by the social space.

Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow is a reminder that at these historically black colleges—many of them in the Jim Crow South—African-Americans and refugee Jews created public spaces that were completely antithetical to the social norms of their time. And these spaces are best seen in the exhibition’s minutiae: snapshots of Jews and African-Americans living and working together, class photos, school yearbooks, newspaper clippings, and various household ephemera. In these items, dating from the late 1930s into the 1960s, Beyond Swastika presents its most potent pieces, reminders of people offering each other one of the greatest compliments human beings can give each other: sincere respect.

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