“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
“The Color Line” – Entrance to the Musée Du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac.
The phrase “the color line” seems to have been printed for the first time in June 1881 in the North American Review as the title of an article by the great African American leader Frederick Douglass. In 1990, the future founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W.E.B. Du Bois, used the expression in the Exhibit of American Negros in the first Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. Thereafter his book , The Soul of Black Folks, consecrated the evolution of “the color line” as it resounded the problem of the 20th Century.
Discrimination, Domination, Separation
While the year 1865 marked the end of the civil war and the abolition of slavery, it also commenced the period of reconstruction. By 1887, the struggles began. Codes for whites and different codes for blacks engendered dehumanizing values and encouraged white domination and discrimination. This ultimately incited dramatic beliefs and practices in social behaviours. The struggles continued and lasted throughout the years until the signing of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Again, at least officially, an end to segregation was declared, affording equal rights to human beings regardless of the ‘conditions’ of race, religion, gender or national origin.
About the Exposition
The exhibition The Color Line looks back on the dark period in the United States through the cultural perspective of its black artists, targets of severe discrimination.
What role did art play in the quest for equality and the affirmation of black identity in segregated America? The exhibition pays tribute to the African American artists and thinkers who contributed during a century and a half long struggle to blurring this discriminatory “color line”.
Into Bondage by Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)
Clay pot, wooden canes, cotton bouquet by David Drake, Potter (circa 1801 – circa 1870s).
“This Noble Jar Will Hold 20, Fill it With Silver and You’ll Have Plenty.”
Above is the great African American leader Frederick Douglass who was instrumental in bringing and holding attention on the lives of black people. Portrait by Charles W. White (1915 -1979).
Museum visitors examine the artistic records.
One of many student groups learn how Black art stimulated change.
Portrait of Booker T. Washington by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). It is housed in the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, Iowa.
This Drawing is Pure Fiction Any Resemblance to Anyone Living or Dead is Pure Coincidence by Oliver Harrington (1912 -1995)
The Color Line explores the racist themes of American vaudeville and the minstrels shows of the 19th century, the cultural and literary vitality of the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century, the pioneers of black activism (Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, etc.) as well as the indictment of the singer Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit”). Covering almost 150 years of artistic production – painting, sculpture, photography, cinema, music, literature, etc. – The Color Line clearly testifies to the creative wealth of black protest.
The Crises. A Record of the Darker Races, Official Magazine of the NAACP founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1910-1915
In Paris, the Universal Exhibition of 1900 was the occasion for an impressive display of black social and cultural pride. African American Thomas J. Calloway coordinated the Exhibition of the Negroes of America. It was presented in the Palace of Economy on the right bank of the Seine, a stone’s throw from the Pont de l’Alma (The Bridge of the Soul).
Above, The Young Shoemaker Henry by Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
This universal exposition event permitted professor W.E.B. Du Bois, University of Atlanta, and his assistant Daniel Murray, a librarian at the Library of Congress and the person responsible for collecting all the publications of black authors, to present books, periodicals, pamphlets, and archives. The exhibits also included musical scores, sociological studies, more than 500 photographs and a diorama illustrating the history and life of the African descendants, Americans in the United States since their emancipation.
These images reveal another America, a complex and diverse Black America. Rather than denouncing racial and social violence, they elucidate the expression “equal but separate” by evoking the effects of the color line. This exhibition by Calloway, Du Bois and Murray offered an unprecedented image of African Americans which impressed the jury of the Universal Exhibition enough to bestow numerous awards.
Yet divisiveness propagated and instigated official tracking of the whereabouts of “Negroes”.
A popular demonstration of extreme racism that spoke from stages in the second half of the 19th century was the ‘blackface show’. It presented white actors painted in black to mock African Americans. This practice birthed Jim Crow, Zip Coon and Aunt Jemima. The abbreviation for raccoon – “coons” and coon songs became popular.
In time, sports and entertainment surfaced as venues through which blacks could be somewhat appreciated. Boxing is one the the first sports in which blacks gained respect. Above is Jack Johnson, Boxer, painted by Raymond Saunders, born in 1934.
Vaudeville stage performances were the first entertainment venues wherein blacks replaced the whites as they mimicked blacks in mockery.
Music evolved from black history has birthed rich legends all its own, and that’s another even more enchanting story.
For Americans, although the end of the Civil War in 1865 brought an end to slavery, the racial demarcation line continues to have an impact on American society. Through understanding, acceptance and embracing this history, American society can potentially advance beyond the divisive lines between human beings and look beyond and ahead to a kinder, gentler nation.
Curator of The Color Line, Daniel Soutif is a philosophy lecturer, curator of expositions and art critic. He has addressed a wide range of themes in his various occupations, particularly as editor of Cahier du Musée national d’art moderne from 1990 to 1994, director of Cultural Development at the Centre Pompidou in Paris from 1993 to 2001, and head of the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato, Italy. A curator must hope to inform and to educate through exposing a viewpoint via artistic expression.
Remember, genius knows nothing of differences in color.