A day of remembrance

Birmingham ’63 (Jack Levine, 1915-2010)

When I started writing this post yesterday, it seemed like the perfect time to share these powerful paintings which I saw during my visit to San Francisco’s de Young Museum last summer. At first I hesitated to include Jack Levine’s piece, above, because it felt like such a negative image.

This painting commemorates the Birmingham Campaign, a series of direct actions, marches, sit-ins, and boycotts organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in 1963 to protest segregation in the city’s stores. Birmingham’s notoriously racist commissioner of public safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered the police and fire departments to unleash dogs and fire hoses on the marchers. The resulting violence helped to change public opinion and contributed to President John F. Kennedy’s decision to actively support civil rights legislation.

Jack Levine’s use of white attack dogs, whose leashes are held by unseen figures outside the painting, involves viewers directly in this brutal act of aggression. Arrayed shoulder to shoulder, the five Black protestors embody the statement “We shall not be moved,” from the famous civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome” — de Young Museum information card

But early this morning I happened to see part of a TV documentary on Martin Luther King, Jr. as it talked about these very events — which happened during my lifetime — and I suddenly realized that I had been focusing too much on the dogs rather than on the people in the painting. It’s hard for me to imagine how much bravery it must have taken to stand firm and to stay calm in the face of so much hate, to remain committed to nonviolence in the face of so much aggression.

Going back nearly 30 years, the piece below is also powerful but in a much more subtle way.

Created for the Texas Centennial celebration of 1936, Aspiration conveys modernist Aaron Douglas’s perception of an empowering link between Egyption and African American cultures. He depicts a historical progression from slavery to freedom, and a geographic progression from the agricultural labor of the South to the industrial labor of the North. The shackled arms of enslaved Africans, rising from wavelike curves, evoke the horrific trans-Atlantic Middle Passage of slave ships. The five-pointed stars represent Texas — the Lone Star State — but also recall the North Star that guided those who escaped enslavement.

The symbolic figure of Egypt, holding an open book, and the silhouettes of pyramids (formed by the triangular spaces between the lower points of the stars) represent the cultural contributions of ancient Egyption civilization. The two 20th-century African American men hold attributes of education and gaze at a city upon a hill, whose futuristic skyscapers symbolize human aspiration — deYoung Museum information card

Categories: art, history, museums, San Francisco

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