New Book Discussion -- Art in Crisis: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory
Amy Helene Kirschke, Associate Professor of Art History and African American Studies, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, author; commentators Dolan Hubbard, Chair, Department of English and Language Arts, Morgan State University; Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director, National Museum of African American History and Culture. Organized by the Division of U.S. Studies; co-sponsored by the History and Public Policy Program, the African American Resource Center of Howard University, and the African American Studies Department of the University of Maryland.
When the renowned African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois undertook the editorship of the NAACP journal Crisis in 1910, he saw it as an opportunity to reveal the contrast between the reality of the black experience and the promise of America. While he did not have an extensive knowledge of art, he did understand the power of visual imagery. Amy Kirschke, discussing her volume on Art in Crisis, explained how Du Bois utilized such imagery as part of the struggle to publicize the issues faced by African Americans during the height of the Jim Crow era and work for changes in public policy.
Du Bois regarded the use of images not only as an opportunity for political activism but as a vehicle with which to empower African Americans as well. He understood that while people might avoid reading an article that described the sorrows of the African-American experience, they could not as easily ignore an image of that reality. He therefore featured illustrations, by then-fledgling but now renowned African-American artists such as Aaron Douglass, Romere Bearden, and Laura Wheeler Waring, of Africans surviving the horrors of the middle passage and of courageous black soldiers serving in World War I. Du Bois believed in pan-Africanism and sought to undo the stigma of being black in the United States by using African art – for example, Egyptian and Ethiopian imagery – to instill a sense of connectedness to the power and beauty of Africa.
Du Bois addressed myriad issues such as labor, women's rights, and education. The images in Crisis that Kirschke found most poignant, however, were those that illustrated lynching – the most extreme form of the racial terrorism with which African Americans often contended. Du Bois commissioned artists to illustrate this tragedy, but he also obtained actual photos of lynchings. Lynchings were indeed treated as a spectator sport in the South. Whole families went to view the spectacles, and photographs of the victim or victims amid the cheerful crowds were snapped and sent to friends as postcards. Along with the images, Du Bois printed statistics: the number of lynchings, where they occurred, and the alleged crimes of the victims. "Du Bois," Kirschke noted, "said everyone had a hand in lynching. Even if they didn't attend, they probably shook the hand of someone who did."
Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Dolan Hubbard commented on the importance of Kirschke's bringing the discipline of art history to the service of African-American scholarship, demonstrating the way in which art was employed as part of the political campaign to end lynching. Art, Conwill noted, can be tampering and disturbing, and it was in that sense that Du Bois used it to illuminate dark corners of the American experience. Hubbard commended Kirschke's work for detailing the ways in which Du Bois drew upon the "visual vocabulary of black America." Drawing upon it, Du Bois was able to weave the black experience into the American cultural fabric of which it is so important a part.
Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4147