Art and Race from the Christian Perspective

Langston Hughes, the famous poet from the Harlem Renaissance, wrote an essay in 1926 called “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. In it, he wrote a story that is both amusing and disturbing of the issues surrounding race and the Christian church.

“A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs. But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear ‘that woman,’ Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs. And many an upper-class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services. The drab melodies in white folks' hymnbooks are much to be preferred. ‘We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don't believe in 'shouting.' Let's be dull like the Nordics,’ they say, in effect.”

Race issues have always been around, but they have recently become more prominent. In late 2008, the people of the United States elected Barack Obama, a man who is racially mixed (a white mother and a black father), as their President. For all intents and purposes, he is considered “black” by most people, and therefore, on January 20, 2009, the world watched history being made as the first black President of the United States was inaugurated on the steps of a capital building that slaves of African heritage built. His ability to lead this great and proud nation remains to be seen, and the next four or eight years will surely contain their share of presidential triumphs and missteps.

Political debating aside, Obama’s campaign, election victory, and inauguration have brought out some interesting questions for American society.

-Are blacks and whites finally treated as equals in America?
-Does it still make sense to have programs such as Affirmative Action?
-Can every baby born today on American soil have an equal chance to become President, or are there some who are “more equal than others?”
-Is race really a dividing factor in the U.S., or is socio-economic status what really divides? Or is it gender? Or something else?
-Not including churches that have services in languages other than English, why is Sunday morning still the most segregated time in America?
-Is it OK for a woman to lock her car doors when a black man approaches, or is that considered racist? What is more important, safety or equality?

Artists have long been more sensitive to the social breezes that blow (and often are creating work that addresses questions society isn’t ready to address as a whole yet). Many artists over the ages have entered this dialogue. Below is a smattering of artists who have done work addressing the more current racial questions floating in society.

Howardena Pindell has been an activist since the 1970’s and has even pushed (and chided) galleries and museums for under-representing artists of color.

One of her famous works is a video piece titled “Free, White, and 21,” produced in 1980, in which she tells stories about her experiences with racism. One of the stories she tells on the video is about being denied a place in her school’s “accelerated” program to make a space for a white student. She tells of her school taking her name off the ballot for student body officer because school officials considered it “inappropriate.” She also tells of being part of a wedding party and experiencing ostracizing as guests shook hands with everyone in the party but her, and later at the reception, stared at her as she ate food as if her basic human function was a spectacle to behold. While she tells these stories and more, she wraps her head in white gauze bandages to make her “white-faced.” Between each story segment, a white woman with a blond wig, a stocking over her head, and dark glasses (also portrayed by Pindell) reprimands the black Pindell for being paranoid and ungrateful. White Pindell then says, “But then, you’re not free, white, and twenty one.”

Pindell was raised as a Christian (although she is also part Jewish), but has pursued Buddhist and Hindu spiritual practices as an adult.

Adrian Piper, a light skinned black woman, has used her art to discuss race. In a 1988 video piece called “Cornered,” she confronts attitudes about race and tells white America that there is a collective blackness due to the legacy of slavery (almost everybody in America, she claims, has some black blood somewhere in the lineage). She is also known for passing out calling cards at art exhibition openings saying things such as, “I am black. I am sure you didn’t realize that when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark.” In the 1990’s she made a series of fuzzy photographs of black men and wrote across them, “Pretend not to know what you know.” Her work is a sledgehammer to many people, and instead of subtle nudging, she attempts to awaken people’s perceptions and attitudes about race and racial issues by confrontation. Perhaps her most famous work is “Self Portrait Exaggerating my Negroid Features.”

Spiritually, Piper espouses East Indian ideas, and discusses this openly. She studied with a swami in the 60’s, became a svanistha and later a brahmacharin (levels of achievement in yoga studies). Her website for the Adrian Piper Research Archive has more information on yoga than it does about her art.

William Pope.L (above; name is not a misprint) is a fairly prominent artist who has received recognition with some of his works that raise the issues of race and racism. One of his landmark shows, “E-racism,” has gained him recognition throughout the artistic community. He consistently pushes the bounds of what art is.

It is difficult to discern Mr. Pope.L’s spiritual leanings. He is not very public about his religious beliefs.

Valerie Soe is a media artist from Arizona who is currently residing in the Bay Area. One of her pieces is a video installment called “All Orientals Look the Same.” Another is called “Mixed Blood,” about interracial coupling between Asians and non-Asians. New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, CA teamed up with Soe and sociologist Russel Jeung to create a 60 minute documentary titled “Oak Park Stories” about a group of low-income immigrants. Despite this collaboration, Valerie Soe once mused about the similarities between church and the movies. When discussing gathering together to watch a movie in a theater, Soe said, “Human beings like that, they need that. Must be sort of like why people go to church. I don't go to church but I go to movies.”

Rage Against the Machine, a popular alternative “rapcore” band that has recently reunited, wrote and performed the song Maria about Mexican-immigrant workers in the U.S. The partial lyrics of the song are:

Tha sun ablaze as Maria's foot
Touches tha surface of sand
On northern land
As human contraband
Some rico from Jalisco
Passed her name to tha boss
She stuffed ten to a truckbed
She clutches her cross

Yet, this is the same group who performed the song Calm like a Bomb in which the first line is, “I be walkin’ God like a dog,” and have peppered their songs with profanity and vulgarity.

Kara Walker (above) specializes in silhouettes that often depict racist stories and images of black and white people in the antebellum South. Admired by some, criticized by others, her work is very “in your face” and makes the viewer think about how blacks have been represented and misrepresented through U.S. history. Her silhouettes are usually black against a white gallery wall, and the shadow of the viewer actually becomes part of the piece, placing the viewer in the scene and making the viewer examine his/her own views of these stories. Walker is currently the youngest person to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” which she received when she was 28 years old.

Kara Walker is not publicly outspoken about her religious views at all. It is not reasonable to attach any religious label on her.

La Joven Guardia del Teatro (above) is a theater and dance group that deals with race issues in their performances. Most of their performances are in Spanish. Originating in Syracuse, New York, this award-winning group has received recognition for its performance of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Un Senor Muy Viejo Con Unas Alas Enormes (A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings).

This troupe is, by definition, made up of several people. Some may be Christians, some may not. Their work is not overtly Christian.

Malik Sow is a drummer, composer, and choreographer who was born in Senegal but currently resides in Los Angeles. Passionate about his work, he has been in several movies, including Poetic Justice, and he composed most of the music for Spielberg’s Amistad. He has toured the world, is fluent in nine languages, and has won several prestigious awards. As a member of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Sow has worked in the Inland Empire teaching schoolchildren about African drumming.

While he was growing up, Sow went to both an Islamic mosque and a Christian church regularly. However, he did not respond to an e-mail request inquiring about his current spiritual life.

Rita Dove was poet laureate of the United States in 1993-1995 and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. In her poem “Brown,” she writes:

For once I was not the only
black person in the room
(two others, both male). I thought of Sambo; I thought
a few other things, too,
unmentionable here. Don't
get me wrong. I've always loved
my skin, the way it glows against
citron and fuchsia, the difficult
but the difference I cause
whenever I walk into a polite space
is why I prefer grand entrances....

While Dove isn’t publicly outspoken about her religious beliefs, she does occasionally quote the Bible in her interviews. The YouTube video below, from 1994, features Dove and Garrison Keillor singing the spiritual “Nearer My God to Thee”:

Just because a person does not follow Jesus Christ, that does not invalidate his/her opinions or voice. Many non-Christians have made valid points on the issue of race, racism, etc. Christians can learn from them, and their art, as long as it isn't inherently sinful, is worth examining, discussing, and understanding.

However, the question must be asked: Where are the Christian artists on this very timely, interesting, and vital subject? In the United States, it was the Quakers who opposed slavery and facilitated the abolitionists. The most famous civil rights leader was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Christian minister. Some of the Twentieth Century painters who dealt with this subject were Christians, and some weren’t, but Christian voices weren’t absent in the debate at one time. To see some of the exemplary examples of some of the Twentieth Century’s artists on this subject, do an internet search for some of these artists:

George Biddle (see his painting Alabama Code)
Adolf Dehn (see We Nordics)
Jacob Lawrence- art contained some Christian themes
Julius T. Bloch (see Prisoner)
Joseph Delaney- possibly a Christian, the child of a minister
Ben Shahn (Father Coughlin) Christian themes in his work
Robert Gwathmey (The Custodian)
Elijah Pierce (Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy Brothers)

The Bible has a lot to say about race. 1 Corinthians 12:13 says that there is neither "Jew nor Greek," or as the Message puts it, "The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive." (See also Galatians 3:20) Furthermore, Revelation 7:9 tells us that every tribe, tongue, and nation will be represented in Heaven. That includes, I believe, every group in this great nation (see also Romans 9:23). In the table of nations mentioned in Genesis 10, there are 70 nations. When Jesus sent out disciples to preach the good news, he sent out 70 (Luke 10), possibly signifying the fact that He wants everyone to know Him. More directly, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 tells us to "make disciples of every nation." In Acts 1, right before Jesus' Ascension into Heaven, He tells His followers " will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth." Samaritans were halfbreeds, half Jewish and half Assyrian, and Jesus was specifically telling His followers not to forget them. Jesus' own earthly lineage was not purely Israelite, with the additions of Rahab and Ruth. John 3:16 and other verses tell us of God's love for everyone. Moses, Joseph, Ruth and Boaz, and several others in scripture are positive examples of interracial and intercultural marriage (there are negative examples as well). Finally, on the subject of evangelism and sharing our faith, 1 Peter 3:15-16 says, " must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.”

These are but a few examples of Biblical ideas that can add to this topic. Guided with the Bible's ideas about race (and the absence of barriers between the races), along with the rich Christian history and activism in this arena, one would think that Christians would be among the loudest in this debate, and Christian artists would take up the mantle to change people's hearts, minds, and ideas. Perhaps Christian artists are too busy making church-y art for their churches, but the pickings of Christian artists who have weighed in on this subject in their art have been relatively slim. (Before you get upset at the last sentence, realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a Christian artist creating art for the church if that is actually his/her calling. There is a problem, however, with all Christian artists creating art for the church and dividing themselves off from being a Godly voice among non-Christians.)

Furthermore, not all Christian artists will have the passion to tackle the topic of race in their artistic endeavors. But, some do, and maybe that someone is you. Or perhaps your passion isn’t race but a different social issue (poverty, women’s issues, the environment, etc.). As Christians, we need to weigh in on these issues so that the world hears our voices on these issues as loudly and proudly as the other artists’ voices who do not publically proclaim Christ as their savior.

I decided to write this particular article about race since every living, breathing person has a racial identity (and some have several), including white people, so this is an issue that everyone has an opinion about. In fact, rather than considering white as “ethnically neutral,” we should understand that white is just as much (or as little) a racial category as black, Asian, or any other race, and within the race of “white,” there are many distinct ethnic groups, just as every other racial group. All that is to say that you have a race, whether you think about it much or not, and you probably have had an occasion where your race made you uncomfortable, or at least you have experienced a time when you felt someone else’s pain on this subject. (If you have never had such an experience, I would suggest spending time with the nearest church that has a different ethnic make-up in its congregation. That experience will open your eyes and bring in opinions, ideas, and feelings you may not even know you have.)

Looking at the average church’s website in the Inland Empire, I have noticed that churches take pains to show inclusive photos of their congregants; if they have a racial mixture in their congregation, they include photographs of people representing all the races. In some cases, the church may really be mixed, and in other cases, there might be one or two token families of a particular race attending that church, but the church’s administration/pastor still takes pains to make sure the image the church projects on its website is that of a multi-racial church. If a pastor who is not an artist worries about the images on one particular church’s website, how much more should the artists within the entire Body of Christ be interested in racial reconciliation, racial inclusion, the brutal history of race relations in the United States, and other race-related ideas?

However, it is important to note that simply including different races of people in a painting or singing a song about a person and mentioning the person’s race isn’t necessarily the same thing as creating a piece that is a commentary on racial issues. Furthermore, including multi-cultural dances or singing a worship song in a different language isn’t necessarily the same thing as creating a commentary on race, either. While those things might be worthwhile in their own right, if you want to create a commentary, you have to create a piece that “says something” about the topic in a way that the average art fan/patron/audience/viewer will be able to consider and hopefully understand.

Upon studying modern artists who have pieces that deal with race and racial issues, it becomes abundantly clear that outspoken Christians are underrepresented. For example, the label Reach Records has a roster of several up-and-coming Christian rappers. Now, rappers who are not outspokenly Christian deal with racism all the time in their works, but astonishingly, the topic seems to be absent among these Christian rappers. Some of the other artists who deal with race issues in their work are very definitely not Christian, espousing either other known religions or even their own made-up forms of spirituality. Other artists have chosen to be silent on the matters of spirituality, making it unclear whether they are a Christian voice or not. Religious views, or lack of them, do not negate the message the artist is trying to put forth in the piece. However, the lack of Christian voices on the issue does send a clear message to the world that most Christians do not care about this issue, but instead live in a fantasy world where people don’t get angry, people aren’t discriminated against, people don’t lose their jobs, everything is sunshine and rainbows, and the only topic worth addressing in any way, shape, or form is that of Jesus Christ.

A short list of outspoken Christian artists who have addressed this topic in their works is below:

Romare Bearden- painter, collage artist (above: La Primavera)

Shai Linne- rap music

Ruth Naomi Floyd- jazz singer

Jenna Compton- Painter

Bernard Hoyes- Painter

Annie Lee- painter

Edwin Lester- painter

Kadir Nelson does some really remarkable art, but once again, his religious background is not totally clear. "Emancipation" has some crucifixion imagery, and there are other religious references in "Humility", "Angel" and "Stairway to Heaven".

Both Faith Ringgold and William Pajaud (unrelated artists lumped together for the sake of space in this article) have works that deal with race and racial identity and they also both have works that deal with Christian ideas. Still, it is unclear whether or not either of them are Christians.

Here is a blog that talks about the lack of a Christian counterculture today that might deal more decisively with such issues:

To prove this is an area that can be addressed by unashamed Christians, I want to end this article with the lyrics of a popular song most Christians have heard. Christian group D.C. Talk addressed the topic in their song “Colored People”:

Pardon me, your epidermis is showing, sir,
I couldn’t help but note your shade of melanin.
I tip my hat to the colorful arrangement,
‘Cause I see the beauty in the tones of our skin.
We’ve gotta come together
And thank the Maker of us all.

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place.
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race.
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes,
And we are colored people who depend on a holy grace.

A piece of canvas is only the beginning for
It takes on character with every loving stroke.
This thing of beauty is the passion of an artists heart,
By God's design, we are a skin kaleidoscope.
We’ve gotta come together,
Aren’t we all human after all?

(repeat chorus)

Ignorance has wronged some races
And vengeance is the Lord’s
If we aspire to share this space
Repentance is the cure

Well, just a day in the shoes of a color-blind man
Should make it easy for you to see
That these diverse tones do more than cover our bones
As a part of our anatomy.

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