As diverse as the United States of America is, our recording and presenting of its history is not nearly as reflective of the myriad individuals and groups that contributed to the nation’s political and sociocultural framework. The standardized discourse and timeline of American history have ensured that Black and Indigenous narratives are footnotes in comparison to the white colonial hegemony.
There is a dire need to shift the course of American history towards a replete and equal representation of the perspectives, actions and experiences of non-white and non-colonial groups. Fortunately, there are already some great frameworks in place to ensure that this type of transformative change becomes a reality. Historians, such as Howard Zinn (see: A People’s History of the United States) and W.E.B du Bois (see: W.E.B. Du Bois’ Visual Lessons About the Black Experience in Academic, Professional and Everyday Life) have compiled invaluable primary sources from Black and Indigenous American history that describe both quotidian and significant events; many of which are in contrast to the mainstream historical doctrine that has become a part of our collective consciousness. Recent efforts, such as the 1619 project and the Zinn Education Project, seek to supplement history curricula by addressing the lack of foundational, factual and appropriate pedagogical methods (see: Sawchuk, 2018) for teaching the history of slavery and the oppression of Black and Indigenous Americans in K-12 classrooms.
Art can also inform us about marginalized histories. A compelling work of art implores us to respond with our senses as well as our emotions. When we view works of art, we are simultaneously connecting the experience to a whole spectrum of feelings (see: Noy and Noy-Sharav, 2013). Art prompts the viewer to exhibit further introspective and communal engagement. Embodying the emotional and thought provoking qualities within a work of art, can help us build awareness and empathy for what people with viewpoints, identities and backgrounds that are different from our own are experiencing. For these aforementioned reasons, a work of art about underrepresented narratives can be successful in eliciting a profound social, emotional and cognitive understanding and criticality towards acknowledging the need to change the paradigm for the way history is recorded and taught.
There are a number of contemporary artists that mine historical archives and utilize primary sources to make expressive works of art that speak to past and present concerns about equality, equity and social justice. Ligel Lambert is an artist and educator who was born in Haiti and currently lives, works and teaches in New York City. The ongoing treatment and portrayal of African Americans has informed his poignant body of painterly work that he calls Made in America. Lambert started this series in response to the epidemic of violence against Black men and women, which spurred peaceful protests and civil rights activism throughout the Summer of 2020.
Lambert’s work requires slow and careful observation. He utilizes layers of material and content as an aesthetic, conceptual and pedagogical tool, which reveals the multifaceted forms of injustice and misinformation that have shaped the United States’ white supremacist hegemony. With a nod to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Lambert’s paintings are embedded with mixed media such as newspaper clippings, fabric and American flags, and bound together with layers of acrylic paint. These sources are all consciously chosen for their literal and symbolic references to systemic racism and travesties including the lack of justice and accountability in state sanctioned violence against Black individuals. In George Floyd and the Endless Grief Over Black Bodies in Pain (2020), an upside down American flag is covered in translucent red paint, which was fluidly applied to make an association to bloodshed. The painting’s border is formed by a collage of New York Times headlines, excerpts and images describing current events related to the murders of Black men and women. In the middle of the canvas, a label resembling a name tag reads “say his name, George Floyd,” echoing chants at recent civil rights marches where participants recite the names of victims of police brutality.
Relevant content from sources like the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project inform the composition Golden Borders, the 1619 Project (2020). Lambert cut and collaged text and imagery from a long-form journalistic essay in the New York Times Magazine by Nikole Hannah-Jones in collaboration with writers from The New York Times, which formed the framework for the 1619 Project. An American flag, which could also resemble bars of a prison, is superimposed over some of the magazine text. On one of the flag’s stripes, Ligel wrote #BlackLivesMatter.
Throughout this ongoing body of work, Lambert depicts the American flag as a symbol of unity and liberty, as well as alienation and oppression. This dichotomy and paradox is indicative of the unbalanced and biased reflections and presentations of American history. It is hypocritical and dangerous to express blind allegiance to our country and claim to live in the land of the free, while upholding and espousing white supremacist ideals and policies. We can make complimentary remarks about the progress that this country has made, but we must also acknowledge that acts of grave injustice and oppression are enduring.
As Lambert’s work suggests, American identity is not easily defined, nor are all Americans afforded safe and advantageous opportunities to thrive. The United States is not a melting pot, but rather an amalgamation of diverse individuals who are living side-by-side with other diverse individuals while still retaining their own cultural identity. This pluralism is what gives the United States the potential to be a real democracy or republic. In order to get close to this desired societal achievement, our nation must acknowledge its unequal, unethical and unjust treatment of marginalized groups, and move beyond simple tolerance. The culture at large must ensure that they have equal civil rights, historical representation and contemporary precedence. We have a long way to go in terms of overcoming systemic racism and other prejudices, but educators and artists have significant opportunities to develop foundations that will prompt and scaffold emotional and critical responses, which can become catalysts for long lasting progressive change.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Noy, Pinchus and Noy-Sharav, Dorit. “Art and Emotions”. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. 10 (2), 2013. 100–107.
Sawchuk, Stephen. “How is Slavery Taught in U.S. Schools? Not Well, Says Study.” EducationWeek, 6 February, 2018. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/how-is-slavery-taught-in-u-s-schools-not-well-says-study/2018/02