SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS by Lara Downes (with commentary!):
>> Songs for Freedom: A Juneteenth Playlist (2021): Award-winning pianist and NPR radio host Lara Downes curated an excellent Spotify playlist for Juneteenth last year—a mix of jazz, classical, and soul. It is full of wonderful surprises, introducing me to the work of several African American composers, new and old, such as Wynton Marsalis’s The Democracy! Suite for jazz ensemble; a symphony by William Grant Still titled “Song of a New Race”; “Adoration” by Florence Price (originally written for organ but arranged here for violin and piano); “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by Adolphus Hailstork; and “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Jeff Scott, a French hornist who performs “urban classical chamber music.”
There are also several well-known names—Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder—and more recent popular artists like Jon Batiste and Rhiannon Giddens. Batiste’s arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” is gorgeous, and the music video—wow (see below). It features a group of Black nuns having fun around London—picnicking on a park bench, traversing monkey bars, sharing Jesus with passersby, eating cotton candy, riding bumper cars. It captures the tone of the song perfectly.
From Downes’s list I also really like the blues song “I Knew I Could Fly” by Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, excerpted in the following featurette. It’s from the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, which sheds light on African American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope.
Be sure to read the NPR article that introduces the playlist. Downes calls out nine of the musical selections with blurbs that provide some background, and throughout there is a smattering of historical photographs of Black flourishing in and around Washington, DC, from 1904 onward, taken by the Black-owned Scurlock Studio.
>> Songs to Believe In: A Juneteenth Playlist (2022): As I was formatting this post I realized that Downes just published a brand-new playlist for Juneteenth 2022. I haven’t had time to listen yet, but it looks awesome. “I offer you a collection of music that insists on the promise of freedom, however long in coming,” she writes. “Music that counters the shrieking dissonance of conflict with the radiant warmth of its harmonies, that offers us comfort in our sorrow and sustenance in our struggle. Songs that ground us with the steadiness of their rhythms and embrace us in the lines of their melodies. Music that brings us hope and faith and even joy, urging us to stand and fight another day, reminding us that what we are celebrating on this holiday is our freedom to believe, even in the hardest of times.”
YOUTUBE PLAYLIST: Juneteenth Playlist by Victoria Emily Jones. Nineteen songs of freedom and faith—gospel, pop, funk, R&B, and spirituals. I wanted to choose all live performances or music videos so that there’s a visual element to engage.
One of the songs is “Clap Praise” by Diane White-Clayton, performed by Selah Gospel Choir. It’s a setting of Psalm 47, which opens, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
Dr. Diane White-Clayton is a composer, conductor, pianist, and lecturer in ethnomusicology specializing in Black sacred music. I love the exuberance and all the body percussion in this widely performed piece of hers. I learned about Selah Gospel Choir through Bridge Projects, an art gallery in Los Angeles where they recently performed. The choir was founded in 2007 “as a space for people who want to sing gospel music birthed by the spirit of the Black church and the ancestry of Black community but are either unable to find it in their home place of worship or do not identify with being in a church at all.”
DANCE WORK: Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey: This classic thirty-six-minute work choreographed by the pioneering Alvin Ailey premiered in New York in 1960 and since then has been performed continually around the globe. This particular performance at Lincoln Center premiered online on December 6, 2020, as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s virtual season during the pandemic. “Using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.” Ailey said it was born of the “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and his affection for the Baptist church that nurtured him.
All the numbers are great, but my favorite is “Wade in the Water” (part of the “Take Me to the Water” sequence that begins at 9:41). Second favorite: “Fix Me” (5:22).
Published last month by Brazos Press, the book consists of ten chapters, each one built around a theologically charged word or concept (such as “sin,” “image of God,” or “lament”) and a twentieth-century novel or poem(s) by a Black author that is then engaged through that lens. A potential danger with this approach is that the interpretations in either direction could be forced to fit into a box, but this turned out not to be the case at all. Reading Black Books is a two-way, mutually enriching exchange between theology and literature, one that is expansive rather than limiting and that takes each discipline seriously on its own terms.
Combining literary analysis and theological reflection, Atcho shows how “God’s truth addresses Black experience and how Black experience, as shown in the literature of our great writers, can prod readers from all backgrounds toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living” (1). We are invited to inhabit the experiences of various characters and poetic voices and to be transformed as a result. As a middle-class white woman living in a Maryland suburb, I acknowledge that I move about the world with a very different set of experiences than those of people of color. With pastoral sensitivity but also directness, Atcho helps me enter into America’s racial narrative—and the narrative of the gospel!—from a different vantage point. This book is for Christians of any race who desire to be enlarged by story and to live more fully into the liberative arc of scripture.
Atcho provides enough context for each book—introducing us to characters, rehearsing relevant plot points, and highlighting specific scenes, often including quoted excerpts—that you don’t have to have read the work previously to benefit from his commentary. The book does contain spoilers, as all serious literary criticism almost inevitably will. But literature is way more than plot, and readers are encouraged to then engage with the primary texts in full on their own, equipped with frames for thinking about them and open to surprises.
I have attempted to come to this book about books as a guide who integrates my affections: my love for these stories, my love for what they say about Black experience in both trials and triumphs, and my love for Jesus and his kingdom.
Claude Atcho, p. 7
Chapter 1 examines the question “What does it mean to live as an image bearer when other image bearers try to limit your existence?” The protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (not to be confused with H. G. Wells’s sci-fi novel The Invisible Man) is not physically invisible; rather, he is rendered invisible by others’ refusal to see him. Atcho discusses the need for white sight—our warped “inner eyes”—to be redeemed.
Chapter 2 explores how systemic sin exacerbates personal sin through the controversial character of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a Black man from 1930s Chicago who commits two murders (the first one accidental). Is Bigger a victim or a perpetrator? The question is too simplistic. Bigger is both trapped by Sin and an agent of Sin, Atcho says. Atcho’s explication of Sin with a capital S and sin, little s, is sophisticated and illuminates for me broader discussions going on in contemporary culture. Sin is not just personally experienced and personally enacted; it is also a dominating force that’s been set loose in our world and that has become embedded in systems.
The focus of chapter 3 is James Baldwin’s semiautobiographical debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, “a critical generational portrait of the toxic Christian practice that emerges from belief in a loveless God” (40). Baldwin gestures toward true religion through negation—by presenting the character of Gabriel, the protagonist’s minister stepfather, as a promiscuous and abusive binge drinker with a lust for power.
Chapter 4 visits “Christ Recrucified” and the nine-hundred-line “The Black Christ” (read the first stanza here) by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, unpacking the picture they paint of a Jesus who suffers for, like, and with us. Published in the 1920s, both poems compare the crucified Christ to a lynched Black man.
In chapter 5 Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, a folkloric retelling of the book of Exodus, opens up a quest into the doctrine of salvation. Atcho discusses salvation from and to, which story and script forms us most (the old empire or the coming kingdom?), the significance of the promised land, and Christian social concern as a biblical imperative.
The deliverance of the exodus elides the false dichotomy of a truncated salvation. Hurston’s Moses points in the same direction—toward imagining a fully orbed salvation, as did our enslaved ancestors: revelation and liberation.
Is it our attention, then, to be fixed on the sin of slavery or our slavery to sin? Personal piety in the power of the Spirit or social change in Jesus’s name? Liberation or revelation? In the exodus, the Lord frees his people so that they might exist in freedom for him. It is liberation through revelation and atonement. God’s revelation (Exod. 9:4, 16, 29; 10:1–2; 11:7; 14:4), the necessity of atonement (13:13, 15), the urgency of liberation (2:23–25), and the subsequent call to holiness (31:13; Lev. 20:8) cannot be isolated. In the exodus, each motif exists in relation, forming the full melody of salvation. The song of salvation is not played in only one key. The contextual pressures of human experience can force us, understandably at times, to prize piety or liberation when truly salvation expands and contains both—and more. (84–85)
Nella Larsen’s Passing—which was adapted into an acclaimed film last year—is the subject of chapter 6, on racism. The novella delves into the psyches of two light-skinned Black women in 1920s Harlem, one of whom passes for white in all settings as a means of survival, and the other of whom does so only when convenient. Atcho talks about the need to combat colorism with affirmation (e.g., “Black is beautiful”), with denial, and through the flesh of Christ.
Chapter 7 spotlights Beloved, a gothic novel by Toni Morrison that combines the historical and the supernatural to tell the story of a devoted mother named Sethe who is seeking freedom from enslavement. At one point she escapes with her children, but when the authorities find them she kills her two-year-old daughter (who is unnamed in the novel and referred to as “Beloved,” the sole word on her tombstone) rather than relinquish her to a life of slavery. Sethe is ultimately able to get away to an Ohio farmhouse, which becomes haunted by Beloved’s ghost.
Atcho discusses the traumas of enslavement that continue to compound and haunt the body, mind, and soul even after one becomes “free”; the need for righteous rage; enfleshment and bodily liturgy; chattel slavery’s theft of the mother-child relationship; memory as a muscle that needs to be exercised transparently, communally, and redemptively; new creation and anticreation; and exorcism, rescue.
One of the most compelling characters in the novel is Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. A shepherdess of bodies and souls, she creates a new space in the woods near the farmhouse where she enacts weekly liturgies of healing. She directs her people, in Atcho’s words, “to move and be in the sacred humanity that they are and that has so viciously been attacked by those who enslaved and debased them” (117). A key passage in Beloved describes this communal gathering:
After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.
“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.
Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. . . .
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh . . .”
Baby Suggs then goes on to list various parts of the body—eyes, skin, hands, mouth, neck, liver, heart—contrasting what “yonder” men do to those parts (gouge, flay, chop, beat, hang, expose and feed to hogs) with each part’s innate belovedness. Atcho’s comments on this passage—a passage that has stuck with me ever since I first read the novel some fifteen years ago—are among the best in the book.
Chapter 8 is on the theme of lament, and it considers that biblical practice in relation to the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” by W. E. B. Du Bois while also looking at the Psalms and the cross. “There is . . . power in lament that names injustice for what it is,” Atcho writes. “By naming it as such and placing it before God as counter to his moral will, lament teaches us to make no peace with injustice or oppression” (137). Bearing true witness against evil, the poem was written in response to the three-day reign of racial terror that white men unleashed on a Black community in Atlanta in September 1906, killing, maiming, and destroying homes and businesses. It opens, “O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days— / Hear us, good Lord!”
Chapter 9 takes a look at another novel by Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground, published for the first time last year, sixty-one years after the author’s death. (Publishers rejected it during Wright’s lifetime.) It follows Fred Daniels, a Black man who, after being picked up by police and relentlessly tortured, confesses to a double murder that he did not commit, then flees into the city’s sewer system. “The underground” confers on him a new knowledge of the world’s foundations of falsehood and injustice. At the end, he meets his demise.
To imagine a more just world, one must reckon with the world that is.
Claude Atcho, p. 145
Even though the novel promotes a worldview that is bleak and fatalistic, reading it can still be constructive, Atcho says; as Christians, we carry our hope to bleak texts. What would it look like to see this senseless world reconfigured into wholeness and justice? Atcho calls us to action, away from discrimination, violence, and power abuse and toward the pursuit of justice for all people on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s fitting that the last chapter centers on hope, particularly as expressed through Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People.” Atcho describes the poem as “a living history, an ode, an exhortation, a lament, a prayer” that “embodies the fiery passion of a communal hope, a bond of persons and destiny” (160, 166). While the majority of the poem addresses Walker’s Black kin, at the end she expands “my people” to embrace all of humanity, “all the adams and eves.”
Throughout Atcho’s book we see the legacies of racial oppression in America—how it manifests today. Though the most recent of the featured literary works is from 1989, they all speak into our current moment. I appreciate how Atcho defines terms that show up a lot in public discourse, such as liberation and justice, comparing cultural definitions with biblical ones. But he leads with story. While in the public square our tendency is often to arm ourselves with arguments to bolster our views and defend against attacks, story has a way of disarming us. Abstract concepts become incarnate in the lives of characters. Literature can teach us the discipline of listening and can develop our empathy and understanding. It may prompt us to assess our own prejudices or complicities and impel us to repentance and real change.
Reading Black Books demonstrates the power of great literature to form us spiritually, regardless of the faith commitments of its author. Atcho presumes no theological agenda on the part of the writers, but rather chooses to read these works theologically—which can unlock more nuanced interpretations or deepened meaning. Applying a theological framework, Atcho draws out themes from the works that cannot be addressed quite as well, I’d say, without theological language. He connects our collective human story to God’s story.
The back matter includes discussion questions for each chapter.
Though I had previously read and studied all four poems Atcho discusses, I’ve read only one of the seven novels—and this despite my being an English major in college! This book makes me want to read more for sure. I’ve already stocked up my library accordingly. I’m grateful to Atcho for reactivating my interest in fiction and for extending it in the direction of these seminal African American novels.
JULY PLAYLIST: The songs I’ve compiled this month on Spotify include Audrey Assad’s rewrite of a classic patriotic hymn [previously], a Bach partita with added words by Alanna Boudreau inspired by Dante’s Inferno, a Sotho interpretation of Psalm 23 by the Soweto Gospel Choir, a celebration of God as artist written and sung by a Franciscan friar from the Bronx, a song of testimony performed by blues musician Elizabeth Cotten and her great-granddaughter Brenda Evans, a multilingual song setting of Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers . . .”) (again, with multigenerational participation!), Psalm 103 sung in Hebrew with ancient Middle Eastern instruments, and more.
KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Great Cloud by Nick Chambers: This is one of the creative projects I donated to this week. Chambers writes, “For over a decade, I have written music for the Church without much concern for the songs reaching beyond the particular place and people to which I belong. Now I want to release and share this music more widely. And you can help.
“I write songs to help give voice for people to pray, question, confess, doubt, lament, give thanks, and praise. Because I owe so much in this to the many faithful voices of history of the Church, this first record will be a collection of prayers of the saints—faithful voices such as Ephrem the Syrian, Teresa of Avila, Howard Thurman, and more.
“I have been planning with producer Isaac Wardell (The Porter’s Gate, Bifrost Arts) to record in early September in Paris near where he is currently based. The Porter’s Gate will be recording the same week, which means your support toward my $15k goal will go toward my record and travel costs, as well as allowing me to contribute in person to the next Porter’s Gate project.”
Here’s an example of Chambers’s singing-songwriting—a setting of Psalm 22:
There’s a thing that worries me sometimes whenever you talk about creativity, ’cause it can have the feel that it’s just nice, you know; or it’s warm or it’s something pleasant. It’s not. It’s vital. It’s the way we heal each other. In singing our song, in telling our story, . . . we’re starting a dialogue. And when you do that, healing happens. And we come out of our corners. And we start to witness each other’s common humanity. We start to assert it. And when we do that, really good things happen.
>> “‘Stop Working Me’: Jesse Pinkman as Child-Prophet in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad” by Mary McCampbell: Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, played by Aaron Paul, is one of my favorite TV characters of all time; I think I can truly say I’ve never been more emotionally invested in, or rooted harder for, any other. Mary McCampbell, author of the forthcoming book Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: Empathy, the Arts, and the Religious Imagination (Fortress, 2021), writes about Jesse’s role as “child-prophet,” who sees and exposes with increasing clarity and conviction the amoral decay of the empire he helped Walt build. (Note: the article contains some series spoilers.)
>> “Revealing the Father: L. M. Montgomery, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Doctrine in Art” by Alicia Pollard: This article examines how the doctrine of God the Father shows up in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables and Dorothy Sayers’s play The EmperorConstantine. The former chooses “the way of whimsical unorthodoxy”; the latter, “the way of passionate orthodoxy and reenchanted dogma as a living agent of truth.”
SONG: “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (abolitionist version by A. G. Duncan, 1843): I wanted to post this for Juneteenth, but alas, I’m two weeks late. Just twelve years after Samuel Francis Smith wrote “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” a scathing rewrite by abolitionist A. G. Duncan was published in Massachusetts in the book Anti-Slavery Melodies. Exposing the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaimed life and liberty for all and yet perpetuated the evil institution of race-based chattel slavery, it’s a call to lament—“let wailing swell the breeze”—as well as an anticipation of coming liberation, God be praised. (Again, this was 1843, almost two decades before the Civil War.) This vocal arrangement and performance using Duncan’s alt lyrics is by Chase Holfelder, who sings the song in a minor key. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
My country, ’tis of thee, Stronghold of slavery, of thee I sing; Land where my fathers died, Where men man’s rights deride, From every mountainside thy deeds shall ring.
My native country, thee, Where all men are born free, if white’s their skin; I love thy hills and dales, Thy mounts and pleasant vales, But hate thy negro sales, as foulest sin.
Let wailing swell the breeze, And ring from all the trees the black man’s wrong; Let every tongue awake; Let bond and free partake; Let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.
Our father’s God! to thee, Author of Liberty, to thee we sing; Soon may our land be bright, With holy freedom’s right, Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
It comes, the joyful day, When tyranny’s proud sway, stern as the grave, Shall to the ground be hurl’d, And freedom’s flag, unfurl’d, Shall wave throughout the world o’er every slave.
Trump of glad jubilee! Echo o’er land and sea freedom for all. Let the glad tidings fly, And every tribe reply, “Glory to God on high,” at Slavery’s fall!
Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981) was one of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance. He’s best known for his paintings of urban Black culture, especially the Chicago jazz scene and other nightlife, and he was also a wonderful portraitist.
His final painting, however, shows none of the carefree conviviality that was characteristic of much of his work. On the contrary, it’s nightmarish. Begun in 1963 and reworked over the course of a decade, The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do chronicles race relations in the United States from the Civil War to the civil rights era. It’s the most overtly political painting in Motley’s oeuvre, and once completed, he didn’t paint for the remaining nine years of his life.
The “one hundred years” in the title refers to the period since the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, changing the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans to “free.” The Civil War ended May 9, 1865, and slavery was officially abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18 of that year. But the legacy of that institution was still felt throughout the next century, in which Black people suffered disenfranchisement, segregation, lynchings, and a number of other injustices and terrors.
Motley visualizes the Black struggle for freedom and equality through symbols and vignettes.
At the top of the painting are the death masks of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom were assassinated as they sought to advance the rights of African Americans.
Below King’s visage is a Confederate flag, hanging from the front porch of a crumbling Southern manse. The red is replicated in the blood running out the house’s downspout, a horned devil (who surveys the domain he’s claimed), the blood-drop cross insignia of a Ku Klux Klansman, and the tongue of a snarling police dog.
At the bottom right a traditional African mask lies beside a human skull, alluding not only to physical death but also to the fragmentation or loss of cultural identity experienced by those who were abducted from their homeland and brought across the Atlantic to live in captivity, separated from their families and communities and ways of life and even given new names by their oppressors. This wound is also felt by the enslaved persons’ descendants, who are unable to trace their lineage.
Above this still life is a Black person on horseback, operating a plow right next to a coffin. Besides the obvious reference to plantation labor, the vignette also evokes the African American spiritual that goes, “Keep your hand on the plow, hold on”—a song of endurance through hardship.
In the center of the painting the Statue of Liberty stands in ironic contrast to a lynched man, the color of her freedom torch echoed in the burning cross of the KKK. Just behind this dead Black man who hangs from a tree is another dead man hanging from another tree: Jesus on the cross. (For more on how these two symbols mutually interpret each other, see theologian James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree.) The hill of Calvary is the brightest part of the entire composition, which I imagine Motley, a practicing Catholic, intended to signify hope, enlightenment, and a call to repentance. The cross illuminates our sin and the love of God that compels us to love our neighbors. I will address this further, in relation to an MLK sermon, below.
In the shadow of the cross is a sea of protest and counterprotest signs. Alongside slogans like “We Want to Vote,” “Black Power,” and “We Shall Overcome” are swastikas, “America for Whites, Africa for Blacks,” and “Go home, niggers, and get your relief check.” To the left of this activity, a white police officer beats a Black man with a baton, and a fireman turns a high-pressure hose on Lady Justice. This vignette evokes the chilling news footage from May 1963, when Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful Black protesters, including children. The force of the jet streams ripped off boys’ shirts and pushed girls over the tops of cars. It was an assault on Black bodies and on justice itself.
Birmingham, Alabama, was, and still is, one of the most racially divided cities in the US, and in the 1960s it became a center of civil rights activism. From 1947 to 1965 it was the site of fifty racially motivated dynamite explosions, earning it the nickname “Bombingham.” The bombing that caught the most international attention was of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. The blast killed four girls who were leaving Sunday school: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Motley alludes to this terrorist act with the stained glass window wherein the face of a white Jesus is blown out, as that’s actually what happened at Sixteenth Street Baptist. (“The absence of the face,” said James Baldwin, “is something of an achievement since we have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ.”)
In the center foreground, emerging from the phantasmagoria, is another faceless figure, his form and features undefined. He’s a specter, really, walking toward us—or is it someone in a dream state? Motley mixes historical scenes of violence and terror with contemporary ones, showing how the ghosts of our nation’s past are still haunting us.
Scattered throughout the painting are animals that represent ill omens or evil: a bat, a vulture (who feeds on death), a black cat, a serpent, a scorpion (on the right, crawling across the door marked “1863”). The latter two call to mind Luke 10:19, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy . . .” A dove of peace, the only nonsinister animal presence, perches on the margins.
Church, listen up: we have the call and the power, in Christ(!), to tread on racism and every other evil that erects itself against the kingdom of God. Don’t let the Enemy have a stranglehold. Let us be active in confronting the evil of white supremacy and dismantling it—in our own hearts, our congregations, our government, and in all the other systems it operates in—so that the supremacy of Christ and his gospel of freedom and reconciliation can be made known.
Where Are We Today?
I encountered The First One Hundred Years through the 2015 retrospective Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist and have been sitting with the image ever since, thinking: What progress have we made? Do I recognize this scene? What will “The Next One Hundred Years” look like in America?
It’s been almost fifty years since Motley completed the painting, and blood still flows. Black people are still being lynched (Ahmaud Arbery, killed by white vigilantes while out on a jog, is one example). Some people and businesses are still flying their Confederate flags. And racist hate groups are as active as ever. Last October the Department of Homeland Security named white supremacist extremists the country’s number one domestic terrorism threat, a threat that came to fruition January 6 when a mob of radical Trump supporters, catalyzed by the president himself, stormed the Capitol equipped with climbing gear, riot helmets, shields, gas masks, bear spray, flex cuffs, lead pipes, and baseball bats, attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results by force. The insurrectionists erected a functional gallows and noose on the lawn and shouted and graffitied death threats. A Confederate battle flag was marched through the halls of Congress, as were other neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, and nationalist symbols, along with crosses, the Christian flag, a “Jesus 2020” banner, “Make America Godly Again,” etc. (Christian nationalism, on flagrant display at the Capitol, has been widely and publicly denounced by American Christians these past four years, so I won’t get into it here.) The mob was a mishmash of different groups and individuals united around Trump’s claims of election fraud and trying to hold on to (white) power.
Law enforcement’s completely deficient planning for the white-led protest (and thus inability to properly respond when the protest turned into a siege) stood in stark contrast to the way Black Lives Matter protests in DC were handled last summer, with militarized officers at the ready, low-flying helicopters, and eight-foot-tall fences. Peaceful Black protesters in the streets were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, whereas January 6’s white protesters were able to invade the Capitol with little resistance.
Why the woeful lapse in security, despite clear intelligence that right-wing extremists would be gathering there the day Congress was convening to ratify Biden’s democratically won victory? Because despite the DHS’s recent Homeland Threat Assessment, white people are, in general, not perceived as dangerous; Black (and brown) people are. And because white people know the system works for them, those who stormed the Capitol felt empowered to do so with impunity. They weren’t scared of the police. They didn’t even try masking their identities; on the contrary, several posted photos and videos of their crimes online. After trespassing, assaulting police officers (one of whom died), and vandalizing and looting while federal legislators ran and hid in fear for their lives, the insurrectionists were gently told by President Trump to “Go home. We love you.” Only a few were detained. Investigations have since been launched and more and more arrests are being made. But I bring this all up to show just one recent instance of racial disparities in policing as well as the rise of white nationalist fervor, which are just two of the many symptoms that prove that America does indeed still have a race problem.
The Trump presidency has really brought white supremacy to the fore, forcing us to confront a national sin that perhaps we thought was mostly behind us. “Reckoning” is a word I’ve been seeing a lot. Activist and author Ibram X. Kendi says that if we can be thankful to Trump for anything, it’s this: “He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality.”
The Need for Enlightenment
The two subtitles of Motley’s painting are both quotations of Jesus, which together indict sin and ask God for mercy. “He amongst you who is without sin shall cast the first stone” (John 8:7) was spoken to pierce the consciences of a mob of religious elites who sought to stone a woman for adultery; it exposed their two-facedness, their eagerness to punish another’s sin but not to examine their own. Motley is thus urging viewers to confront the ways in which they themselves have violated God’s law, how they have said, by their words or actions (or inaction), that Black lives do not matter. Admit. Admitting sin, admitting that there’s a problem, is the first step in rooting it out.
“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) was spoken by Jesus on the cross. As he hung dying, he prayed to God on behalf of his killers, recognizing in them a spiritual blindness. Forgiveness is a nuanced concept whose complexities I won’t discuss here, but Jesus’s prayer expresses his goodwill toward his enemies, a spirit of wanting to see them reconciled to God. Jesus recognized that even as sinners hurt people, they themselves are also hurting. They don’t even realize how their sin binds them and blinds them.
In a ca. 1962 sermon on this text, Martin Luther King describes his oppressors (and Jesus’s) as suffering from an “intellectual and moral blindness . . . an ill which man inflicts upon himself by his tragic misuse of freedom and his failure to use his mind to its fullest capacity. There is plenty information available if we consider it as serious a moral obligation to be intelligent as to be sincere. One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.” King describes how slaveholders sought to rationalize their beliefs, drawing from “science,” history, and biblical interpretation, and segregationists were doing the same, ignoring all evidence that contradicted what they sincerely believed to be true. These days we’ve seen how those who benefit from white privilege seek to explain away racial inequalities or even simply refuse to believe they exist, because who wants to give up power? And of course they find online communities or curate social media feeds that bolster their view that everyone is treated equally in America, that skin color does not grant any unfair advantages, and so when another unarmed Black person is killed by police, they interpret it through the white lens of “Well, he must have been doing something wrong . . .”
Maybe as you read this very article you’re tensing up and want to tell me X, Y, and Z regarding why white privilege is a fallacy or how I’ve been taken in by a “liberal agenda,” or how my narrative of the recent event at the Capitol is completely off—it wasn’t an insurrection, and it had nothing to do with white supremacy, and those weren’t really Trump supporters (yes, I’ve actually heard people say that). Maybe you think it’s me who’s blind.
King talks about the need for enlightenment.
Light has come into the world. There is a voice crying through the vista of time calling men to walk in the light. Man’s earthly life will be reduced to a tragic cosmic elegy if he fails to heed this call. “This is the condemnation,” says John, “that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.”
John’s saying, King says, is demonstrated vividly at the cross, which shows God at his best and humanity at its worst.
We must continue to see the Cross as a magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and light overcoming darkness. But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to that Cross because of human blindness. Those who crucified him knew not what they did.
In what ways are we nailing Christ to the cross afresh, so to speak, unaware of what we’re doing? In what ways are we resisting the work of the Holy Spirit to expose sin, both personal and collective? In what ways are we closing our ears to the cries of our hurting Black brothers and sisters, and to the calls to action from those who are continuing King’s legacy of nonviolent resistance? I’m speaking to white American Christians in particular, here. We all want America to heal. But the sin of racism must be acknowledged and confessed, and repentance undertaken, before healing can proceed.
Repenting of sin is a foundational Christian practice; it’s in the church’s DNA. And yet with this particular issue, there’s been a lot of unwillingness among Christians to see and to act. These past four years have been for me a time of self-examination and also critical examination of the evangelical tradition I grew up in and which you might say I’m still a part of. In addition, I’ve spent a lot of time relearning history, locating my privilege, unlearning biases, rereading the Psalms and the Prophets, repenting, exploring more deeply the witness of the Black church and all-around diversifying the voices I listen to, and slowly (admittedly, hesitantly!) wading into the waters of civic engagement. I have a long way to go, to be sure, but I’m on the journey.
I see Motley’s painting as a lament for all the racial injustices perpetrated in the US but also a statement of hope, as the cross beckons us to persist in (or join) the freedom struggle. It’s a prayer that the scales would fall off the eyes of white America—that we would shed willful ignorance—and that people of all races would walk together not only in the light of “liberty and justice for all” but, as King preached, in the light and Spirit of Christ.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “At the Whipping Post” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last year the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) ran a major retrospective on Djanira da Motta e Silva, “a central artist in Brazilian mid-century modernism” (Rodrigo Moura). ArtWay’s editor asked me to choose a painting of hers to write about—I chose the one she submitted to the 1955 “Christ of Color” contest, showing Jesus as an enslaved African being scourged in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia, the first colonial capital of Brazil.
LECTURE: “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” by Dr. Vince L. Bantu: I first encountered Vince Bantu in a Conversing (Fuller Studio) podcast episode on African American identity and the church. (He joined the Fuller faculty last year as assistant professor of church history and Black church studies.) In this video from January 2018, he returns to his alma mater, Wheaton College, to discuss the history of Christianity in Africa—which some people are surprised to learn predates colonialism. “To study ancient African history is to study Christianity. They go together,” he says. “If you want to study Ethiopian literature, . . . you’re going to be reading a whole bunch of Christian literature. Same thing in Nubian. Same thing in Coptic.” While the Anglo-Saxons were still worshipping Odin and Thor, Bantu says, Black Africans were building churches, establishing seminaries, and writing Christian theological treatises!
The talk starts at 11:34 and really kicks into gear at around 24:00. Q&A starts at 52:40 and includes discussion of a three-point spectrum of approaches to culture, mission as “cultural sanctification,” and internalized theological racism. Take note of Bantu’s response, at 1:09:35, to the question “What do we do with this information?”
“Christianity is and always has been a global religion,” Bantu reminds us. Unfortunately, people tend to associate it most with western Europe. That’s because Rome, the dominant culture for some time, essentially said, “Christianity belongs to us,” instituting a theological hegemony. The West proclaimed itself the guardian of the Christian faith, declaring heretical churches in other regions that didn’t express theology the same way they did, with no regard for differences in language and philosophical frameworks.
I appreciate how Bantu teaches Christian history in part through art and architecture, which are material witnesses to the faith and sometimes even modes of theology. He shows photos of churches and monasteries and their interior decoration. Most fascinating to me is a tenth-century wall painting he photographed at the Great Monastery of Saint Anthony in Old Dongola (present-day Sudan), a Nativity scene that shows Africans wearing animal crest masks and worshipping Christ with traditional instruments. (You can view some photos here. See also The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongolaby Malgorzata Martens-Czarnecka, or the freely accessible essay by the same author, “The Christian Nubia and the Arabs.”)
Great is your name, Lord Jesus Christ Praise to your name, Lord Jesus Christ Power to your name, Lord Jesus Christ Praise to your name, exalted Jesus Christ
Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelujah Praise to your name, exalted Jesus
“I Am Thine (Plague Hymn)”: Made especially timely by the current COVID-19 pandemic, this hymn text was written in 1519 by Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli while convalescing from the bubonic plague, having caught it ministering to others. This year Zac Hicks wrote a new melody for it, and it’s sung here by Leif Bondarenko. Released by Advent Birmingham.
BIBLICAL ART DATABASE: Visual Midrash: “Visual Midrash is an online bilingual (Hebrew and English) collection of Bible art and commentary, sponsored by the TALI Education Fund in Israel. At present, the site contains more than 1100 art images relating to 33 different subjects from all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible – including such figures as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the women of the Book of Judges, the scrolls of Ruth and Esther and much more. Among the images are objects from the Ancient Near East; frescoes from the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos; medieval illuminated manuscripts; paintings, sculptures, lithographs, and nearly 100 other art media from Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Chagall to contemporary artists.” I’ve had fun browsing! Below is just a small sampling of images from the site.
This week I’ve been editing and captioning a backlog of photos from my camera, and I’ve come to a batch I took last August from Every Day: Selections from the Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a reinstallation of the museum’s contemporary collection centered on black artistic imagination. I thought I’d share some of these photos here as a way to introduce you to some of today’s leading black American artists.
In the first gallery, an untitled neon sculpture by Glenn Ligon confronts the viewer, consisting of two black lightbox letter signs lying face-down on the floor, which each read, with some difficulty, “America.” They emit a flickering white light that pulsates at random. The piece is part of a series of variations on that word—a word, Ligon says, that means different things to different people.
He said his “double America” motif was inspired by the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .” The wall text continues: “Dickens used a series of opposing statements to capture a moment in European history [1775–92] in which wealth coexisted with poverty, war with leisure and comfort, and aspirational ideals with harsh realities. Ligon sees similar extremes at work in the twenty-first century: ‘There is this sense that America, for all its dark deeds, is still this shining light.’”
In the age of MAGA I’m reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes published in July 1936, “Let America Be America Again,” in which he laments that as a country, we’ve never been what we’ve aspired to be: a place of liberty and justice for all. He loves America and the ideals on which it was founded but is forced to reckon with its failures, pointing out the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaims in its founding document that “all men are created equal” while segregating, disenfranchising, and brutalizing African Americans. (And the poem goes on to cite inequalities experienced by other groups too.) It’s very much in the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s speech less than a century earlier, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
. . .
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
. . .
Hear Ligon discuss his art practice in the “A Closer Look” interview from the BMA, below, and zoom in on some of his artworks at Google Arts & Culture.
Behind Ligon’s neon sculpture was a large gouache by Kara Walker titled Terrible Vacation. It was impossible to get a decent photo with the glare on the glass, so here is a professional photo of the painting, unframed, from Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Best known for her room-size tableaux of cut-paper silhouettes addressing the history of race in America, here she pays homage to J. M. W. Turner’s 1840 Slave Ship, the Romantic painter’s abolitionist response to the Zong massacre of 1781, in which the captain of a British slave ship en route to Jamaica threw 133 sick enslaved people overboard to collect insurance on them as property “lost at sea.” Human and elemental violence converge in Turner’s painting, as a ship sails through a stormy ocean filled with flailing human limbs in chains.
Walker’s painting after Turner brings this mass murder to the attention of a new public, and though it references the past of England in particular, America, as a fellow player in the transatlantic slave trade, is implicated too.
On the left wall was a story quilt by Baltimore artist Stephen Towns [previously], one is a series paying tribute to Harriet Tubman.
Titled We Shall Pass through the Combahee, it records the historic military operation, led by Harriet Tubman, known as the Raid on Combahee Ferry, which succeeded in freeing seven hundred-plus slaves. During the Civil War, on June 1–2, 1863, Tubman guided two of Lincoln’s gunboats, peopled with Union Army soldiers, along the Combahee in South Carolina to strategic points near the shore where slaves awaited rescue, avoiding rebel torpedoes along the way.
Towns modeled the scene after Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, set during the Revolutionary War, but he recasts Tubman as the American hero, bravely leading her people and her nation to victory. The church in the background likely represents the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, where the escapees gathered after the raid, further up the river, before being relocated to St. Helena Island. It is illuminated as if by divine light because Tubman always said it was God who gave her direction in making certain critical moves during her many rescue operations—as Underground Railroad conductor and as military leader.
Towns describes the piece, and his complicated relationship to history and patriotism:
New York–based Afro-Dominican artist Firelei Báez examines through her art the historical narratives of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, focusing on the politics and cultural ambiguities of place, writes ArtDaily. May 19, 2017, 6:05 p.m. (an idiom playing out its history) at the Baltimore Museum of Art commemorates New Orleans’s removal of the monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, erected in 1884, from “Lee Circle.” “It’s a gesture that reacts in time both forward and backwards, almost like a prayer, in solidarity with the people who had to suffer through that space and the resistance moving forward,” Báez said.
Katie A. Pfohl, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, writes about the series to which this piece belongs, which focuses on key chapters from New Orleans’s past:
In these new paintings, Báez overlays figures, symbolic imagery, and calligraphic gestures onto architectural surveys from the 1930s-era Historic American Buildings Survey, a project of the Works Progress Administration, of significant sites across New Orleans. Blurring the lines between past, present, and future, Báez paints new imagery upon these archival drawings, and in the process overwrites the often divisive history these older documents represent. Báez carries portraiture into a space where identity is rooted in history, but can likewise become untethered—and liberated—from it.
Another Báez piece in the BMA’s collection is Convex (recalibrating a blind spot), which consists of a diagram of the American Sugar Refinery in New Orleans overpainted with vibrant colors.
In the same gallery as the previous four pieces was a photograph diptych by Dawoud Bey, from his Birmingham Project series.
On September 15, 1963, four young black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Fifty years later, Dawoud Bey worked with Birmingham residents to memorialize them, to pay “tribute to those who were in Birmingham at that difficult moment and those who have been born since.” He photographed adolescents the same ages as those who had died, and men and women in the fifties and sixties, the ages those young people would be had they lived.
Over and over again, white supremacists have sought to terrorize black communities by setting fire to black churches. The 1990s saw an increase in such terrorist acts and images circulated widely of burning churches, past and present. In this drawing, Gary Simmons blended his recollections of these images into a composite picture of a single church, repeated three times. He used his fingers to smudge trails of charcoal dust across the paper, creating ghostly impressions of flames of smoke. “I do this as a way of creating a feeling of something familiar but displaced,” the artist explains. “The image is intended to hang in one’s memory . . . the further one gets from an experience, the more it becomes abstracted.”
Ernest Shaw, a local artist and art educator, points out how the white frames around the paper create crosses, representing crossroads as well as black spirituality:
How long is a chain?
How long is a change?
How heavy is a chain?
How heavy is a change?
—Melvin Edwards, 1970
In Scales of Injustice, a steel platform resembling one half of a weighted scale holds a tangle of barbed wire. It is suspended over a length of chain sprawled out on the floor, and the whole scene, sited in a corner, is separated from the viewer by a barbed-wire barrier. This conceptual sculpture by Melvin Edwards is an adaptation of a site-responsive work he exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 1970, Corner for Ana, the title a reference to his young daughter and to the notion of “timeout.”
The materials—steel chain, barbed wire—evoke brutality and oppression. Perhaps it’s change, in a larger sense, that hangs in the balance, precarious and unsure.
Edwards said this re-creation was in response to the death of Pateh Sabally, a twenty-two-year-old Gambian refugee who drowned in the Grand Canal of Venice on January 21, 2017, as onlookers taunted and filmed his struggles and offered no help.
For this video, Lorna Simpson recorded fifteen professional singers separately humming along to jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s haunting interpretation of Rogers and Hart’s “It’s Easy to Remember.” Simpson then combined the recordings to create a choir of voices. This layered tune becomes the soundtrack for a grid of moving images, each focused tightly on one singer’s lips. The individuality of each participant emerges in variations among the mouths, a part of the body integrally linked to expression and physicality. The video demonstrates that even within a collective experience, including one of songs and the emotions they conjure, independent voices persist and disrupt.
David Hammons grew up in Springfield (Illinois), studied art in Los Angeles, and then settled in New York City in 1974, where he still lives. Traveling is one of his many “basketball drawings,” which he made by bouncing a Spalding around the streets of Harlem and onto a nine-foot-tall sheet of paper, creating atmospheric gray pebbling that resembles clouds in the sky or light and shadow on the ground.
I love the love of place this piece promotes. “Harlem dirt” is listed as the primary material! Hammons is sanctifying the dust of his neighborhood (“the ephemeral stuff of black urban experience”) by bringing it into a high-art context, essentially saying, “My background, my experiences, are worthy.” Martin Herbert, writing for Frieze, discusses the multivalence of the title:
The title of this work, Traveling, evokes many things: the eponymous rule of basketball that says you can’t take the ball and run with it; Hammons’ own movement across the Atlantic and that of the grimy orange sphere across the room; the upward mobility of dirt-into-art, and its direct social analogue—the ‘coming up from the streets’ dream/boast of a million aspiring rappers and pro-court players in environments where, as hip-hopper Mos Def put it, ‘you can either get paid or get shot’.
The artwork juts out from the wall at a slight angle, and one discovers propped behind it a thin brown suitcase.
About Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between, Sherald writes,
I wanted the environment to be in what would be perceived as an American landscape. These two figures are witnesses of a very American moment in history. . . . One key thing to note in all of my paintings is that the figures in the work will never be passive participants. Eye contact plays an extraordinary and crucial role in human connection. The figure gazing off at the rocket as she holds her friend’s hand solidifies the moment, as the second figure looks back to meet the gaze of the viewer.
I’ve appreciated how conscientious the Baltimore Museum of Art has been, in the past two years especially, in expanding its collection to better reflect the city it’s in. In 2018 it deaccessioned redundancies in its contemporary holdings to enable the purchase of new works by female artists and artists of color. Such acquisitions “enhance our ability to tell the uniquely varied and layered narratives that exist across the history of art and into the present,” said BMA director Christopher Bedford in a press release.
I also appreciate the video interviews with artists that the museum has been producing, which I hope to see more of.
STATION 4.Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich is a whimsical coral reef assemblage made out of everyday household cleaning supplies—sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, plastic gloves, and plungers, a rich biodiversity. Sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and snails are among the animals evoked.
Playful though it is, this bricolage of commercial products, arranged to represent an underwater ecosystem, creates a crass juxtaposition of natural and unnatural that makes the piece tragicomic. The subtext is ecological concern—in particular, for the endangerment of coral reefs. Let’s clean up our oceans, the work seems to say. The assignment of Ocean Eden to station 4, “Jesus meets his mother,” reinforces the traditional conception of nature as mother. Here we meet Mother Nature, who grieves our mistreatment of her.
Station 4 is sited at the Keizersgrachtkerk, a church built under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper just two years after the 1886 schism of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Kuyper led the conservative offshoot, the Doleantie.) Aldrich’s assemblage is visible from the street through the main glass entrance doors and so can be viewed even when the church is locked. Luckily, a staff member was there to let us in after hours through a side entrance, so we could see the work closer up. It’s located in a small lobby that dips between stairwells on either side.
STATION 5. Next on the route is the Amsterdam Museum, whose building complex served from 1580 to 1960 as Burgerweeshuis, the city orphanage. Before that it was a monastery. To mark this change of function, a large entrance gate was built in 1581 off the Kalverstraat, which, as Marleen pointed out to me, features a relief sculpture of a group of orphans gathered around the Holy Spirit, entreating passersby for help:
Wy groeien vast in tal en last. Ons tweede vaders klagen
Ay ga niet voort door dese poort, of help een luttel dragen.
We grow steadily in number and burden. Our second fathers ask with heavy hearts:
“Do not go forth through this gate without helping us a little in our care.”
Their “second fathers” are, of course, their new caretakers, who run the orphanage. These children are asking for someone to help them carry their burden (poverty, hunger, sickness, lack of education, lack of prospects for the future, feelings of abandonment, longing for love, etc.), which the fathers are helping to shoulder but who can do only so much with their limited power. This sixteenth-century sculpture and inscription resonate with the fifth station of the cross, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.”
But this is only supplementary to the main artwork we’ve come to see: Out of History by Iris Kensmil, located in the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery). Part of the Amsterdam Museum, this gallery is a covered passageway that visitors can enter for free, featuring portraits of Dutch citizens through the centuries. (Admission to the rest of the museum is €15.)
An artist of Surinamese descent committed to highlighting black contributions to Dutch history, Iris Kensmil was commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum in 2013 to create a new work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. (The Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.) She chose to depict three strong black figures from eighteenth-century Surinam (a former Dutch colony in the Guianas) who rose above colonial oppression to secure a position and a future for themselves.
The left panel of this triptych shows Elisabeth Samson (1715–1777), who, through her business acumen, became one of the richest women in Surinam. After this socioeconomic rise, she then successfully petitioned the Dutch government to be allowed to marry a white man, and became the first black woman in Surinam to do so; this consolidated her power. But despite overcoming huge obstacles, Elisabeth’s legacy is somewhat controversial because she amassed and maintained her wealth the same way the rest of the Dutch of Surinam did at that time—through slavery. (She owned a coffee plantation and some forty slaves.) Hear Cynthia McLeod’s super-entertaining TedX talk about Elisabeth Samson, which is just fifteen minutes long. (I could listen to this woman teach me history all day long!)