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Uncovering America

Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, Teaching Tolerance

Let’s Talk!, Teaching Tolerance

Native Knowledge 360°, National Museum of the American Indian

Code Switch, NPR

Talking About Race, National Museum of African American History & Culture

Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (New York: Little, Brown, 2020)

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon, 2018)

Race in America

Four people with black skin are squeezed into a narrow boat on bright, turquoise-colored water that nearly fills this stylized, square painting. All four sides of the unstretched canvas are lined with six gromets spaced along each edge. The boat approaches a carnival-like tunnel near the upper right corner. Cartoon ghosts loom at the tunnel entrance and a translucent, veil-like ghost hovers over the left half of the painting. The horizon comes almost to the top of the canvas, where white clouds float against an azure-blue sky. A long, lemon-yellow line curls back and forth in a tight, curving zigzag pattern that widens out from a tiny sun setting on the horizon. A red cross on a white field floats near the upper left. At the top center, the word “WOW” appears in white letters within a crimson-red, bursting speech bubble with long trailing tendrils, like an exploded firework. Below the boat and against the water to our right, the word “FUN” has been overlaid with a white square so the tall, white letters are barely visible. The words “GREAT AMERICA” appear in a curling banner across the bottom half of the painting.

Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2011.20.1

How does art both shape and reflect understandings of race in the United States?

How do power and privilege affect the way we express ourselves?

How might art help us build more just, equitable societies?

In his painting Great America, Kerry James Marshall borrows imagery from an amusement park ride to explore the trauma of the Middle Passage. Four individuals packed into a car recall the horrific experience of millions who were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean. The head of a man bobs in the water, a reminder that many died during the journey and were thrown overboard. The figures emerge from a tunnel filled with cartoon ghosts—evoking Ku Klux Klan costumes—and into a scene packed with symbols. Marshall incorporates words associated with theme parks, like “wow” and “fun”; but he covers up the word “fun” and “wow” drips red. The Red Cross at upper left is a crossroads, simultaneously representing distress and rescue. Veves, symbols of West African and Haitian religions, adorn the cramped vessel. A large, transparent cartoon ghost overlays the left half of the painting, perhaps suggesting how enslavement haunts the United States’ past and present.

As an African American child growing up in Los Angeles, Marshall visited art museums, but he rarely saw people who looked like him on the gallery walls. He now endeavors to make works that address this absence by celebrating African American life and history in multiple art forms. He paints his figures with black and gray pigments to emphasize their Blackness. “When you go to an art museum,” Marshall says, “the thing you’re least likely to encounter is a picture of a black person. When it comes to ideas about art and about beauty, the black figure is absent.”

Marshall’s painting asks us to confront our shared histories, power structures, and institutional systems. Whose stories are told and celebrated—and why? What is deemed important and how? And what role do we have in validating or questioning these stories?

Race is a social construct, meaning there is no biological difference among people of different skin color. Yet race and racism—prejudice, conscious or unconscious, directed against people from a different ethnic or racial background—is ever present and real in the United States, especially for people of color. The legacies of slavery, Indian removal, and discriminatory practices against various peoples are still with us today.

These legacies are reflected in the National Gallery of Art: approximately 1 percent of its collection is by US artists of color. As a museum historically focused on American and European art, colonialism, racism, and discrimination permeate the institution in ways that the museum is actively working to acknowledge and address. Much of the art featured in this unit was acquired in the 2010s, and most works are by artists of color. Some artists, including Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker, examine history and address the absence or misrepresentation of Black people. Others, like Rupert García and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, use color and symbolism to speak to injustice, agency, and power. Portraits by Emma Amos and Byron Kim, both realistic and abstracted, connect more directly to identity.

The works of art in this unit are by no means comprehensive, but they were selected to help inform and open up conversations about race and racism. As you examine these works of art, consider what emotions and questions they evoke, as well as your own position and voice. What actions are you spurred to take to help build a more equitable society?