Celebrating Black History Month: Black Art as a Tool for Resistance

As we enter this month of celebration of the contributions of Black people in the United States and the larger African Diaspora, I would like to invite you to reflect on how art can be a tool for resistance. This year the theme for Black History Month is African-Americans in the arts. Art from paintings, movies, music and even food for many Black Americans and the larger Diaspora has been used as a tool for resistance and to fight oppression since the first Africans set foot on shores that were not their own.

This Black History Month’s theme is one of my favorites. I am a lover of art. I love museums and last month I spent hours wandering The Getty. I usually attend two music festivals every year as I love hearing music by Black artists. I go to comic cons and skip all the panels, going instead to the artist alleys usually trying to hunt down all the Black artists so I can buy pieces from them. I have attended fashion shows and had dresses commissioned by Black seamstresses for important events in my life. I took dance lessons for 15 years, including West African Dance and sung in concert choirs that would sing selections from Negro Spirituals. Art has also been a large part of my family - from my cousin who used to sing back-up vocals for Sammy Davis Jr., to my brother who developed youth theatre programs. Art has played a big role in my life and in the lives of many of the people I know. Many of these folks would be classified as creatives or creators due to the fact they are “making art”. Being a Black artist in many ways is a responsibility. As creators, many of my friends and family not only created for the love of adding beauty to the world but to share a message with the wider world about Blackness.

For centuries since Black people have been on American soil, art has been used as tools for resisting racism and oppression. In music, for example, many Negro Spirituals sung by slaves in some areas of America contained coded messages. Songs such as “Wade in the Water”,Steal Away to Jesus”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” often told slaves information that would be necessary for them to escape the bonds of slavery. “Go Down Moses” for example was known to be used by Harriet Tubman as a coded song that indicated that she would be leading bondmen and women on the underground railroad. Yet this type of resistance in music is not just limited to slavery times. Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” talks about lynching.  Dionne Warrick recently told stories from her years on the road as a younger artist and how she would add lyrics to songs such as Ray Charles “What I Say” to call for integration. Then there is “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone that talked about the murder of Medgar Evers. Even recently, songs such as “Formation” by Beyonce or “Courageous” by Common were used as protest songs to police brutality and systemic racism.

Oral historical stories of Black artistry being used as a tool of resistance have been shared for many years. There are stories that braids were used to smuggle seeds from Africa or used as maps for slaves trying to escape plantations. Historical stories of Black American Quilts that were created to depict maps of plantations and used to help fund the Underground Railroad exist in many oral Black histories. While it is hard to substantiate these stories as many of the activities were intentionally clandestine and the history of Black Americans in many aspects has been lost or downplayed intentionally it is likely that many of these oral history traditions are rooted in fact.

After the death of George Floyd and during the protests of 2020 murals were painted and streets were painted with the words “Black Lives Matter” building on the rich legacy of black visual artists. Writers like James Baldwin and many Black Poets would write on the struggle of what it means to be Black in America and spoke on the injustices they and people like them had experienced. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s even sparked the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s which gave us more Black plays, poets and films.  This movement would inspire future Black filmmakers and give birth to films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” to speak on what the Black urban experience in America is like.

I could go on giving examples of Black art being used as a tool to shine a light on bigotry, oppression, and used to resist slavery and systemic racism. Yet what I would rather challenge you to do is to go see Black art yourself.  If travel to DC is in your near future I encourage you to visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture. However, if you aren’t traveling this February join us for our celebration of Black art. This Black History Month the San Jose Public Library in partnership with San Jose State are highlighting Black artistry in a series of programs. Join us to see the Art of the African Diaspora Satellite Exhibit at the Alum Rock Branch Library, learn about current trends in Black hair, ask how about how funds were raised on the Underground Railroad, Listen to African drumming, see and learn about Black Quilts.

Whatever your plans are this Black History Month I encourage you to take time to take in Black art. I challenge you to look beyond just the surface of it being beautiful to ask what message the artists was trying to convey or what emotions they want you to feel. Art moves us in different ways and often can be a catalyst to inspire corrective policies, and protests against racism. Black art has served Black people in many ways from a way to be resilient to a way to resist, but more importantly, it shines a light on a truth that our country often shies away from. I hope you have a chance to experience Black art this month and I hope to see you at some of our events.

Happy Black History Month!