The 4th of July is known and celebrated as the Independence Day of the United States of America: the day that the Declaration of Independence was read to the colonies to proclaim that the United States was an independent nation. However, this proclamation did not reach to all Americans. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865–two years after Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation–that slavery was officially abolished in the state of Texas.
This day is remembered as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day across the country. At Crystal Bridges, we celebrate the works of modern and contemporary African American artists. Take some time to explore some of these artworks that focus on themes of black identity in the United States.
Painted in a colorful and mildly distorted style, the image vividly evokes the racial and economic injustices of the Jim Crow era in the United States.
John Biggers’s personal life experiences heavily influenced his work. In a career that spanned over 50 years, he drew inspiration from the people in his life and his community. The Garbage Man, painted in 1944 at age 20 while Biggers was serving in the US Navy, reflects an example of the artist’s early work that focused primarily on racial inequities. He later earned his PhD in art education and founded the art program at what is now Texas Southern University in Houston.
In the 1940s, the Harlem Hospital was the only facility in New York City that admitted black patients; consequently, ailing blacks waited significantly longer to get medical treatment than did their white counterparts. In this Harlem street scene, ambulance attendants lift a stretcher carrying an ailing figure covered in white sheets. A paramedic stands by, monitoring the victim. Surrounding this trio is a densely packed crowd of spectators, whose downcast eyes and sad expressions suggest that they are not anonymous onlookers but rather a close-knit community of neighbors, friends, and family.
In this tapestry, Kara Walker reproduces an etching from an 1863 issue of the newspaper Harper’s Weekly that documents the burning of a “colored orphan asylum.” Infuriated by newly imposed draft requirements during the Civil War, a mob of New Yorkers took to the streets, attacking both black and white innocents. The silhouette of the hanged woman over the tapestry grabs the attention of the viewer. Walker’s usage of this traditionally Victorian art form to create irony in how African Americans were treated.
This series of photographs by contemporary artist Hank Willis Thomas takes viewers on a journey of vision and struggle to find contentment with conflict. At the same time that minstrelsy, an American form of entertainment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where white performers would put on shoe polish on their faces and act out scenes of black life filled with stereotypes, many black Americans still struggled to be seen as human beings and citizens. The figure in the photographs is dressed in a top hat and coattails, a similar style of dress. Contemporary artists like Thomas utilize images of how black Americans have been portrayed to raise questions of identity and representation in American media.