Black Lives Matter, Black Culture Matters: Expanded VersionMay 10 2021
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” -James Baldwin
“Black Lives Matter” first appeared as a hashtag on social media in July 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, an African American teen who was fatally shot by Zimmerman in 2012 while walking home from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida. It subsequently became the rallying cry of a national protest movement that emerged in 2014 after the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. Since then, the Black Lives Matter movement has continued to evolve, and is now a driving force in the national effort to identify and counteract the effects of systemic racism not only in the criminal justice system, but also in education, jobs, health care and housing.
The phrase Black Lives Matter is not meant to suggest that other lives do not matter or matter less than Black lives. Rather, it emphasizes that Black Americans continue disproportionately to experience injustice and inequality as a result of specific political, social, economic and cultural forces that in many cases have existed in this country for centuries. The phrase also affirms the numerous positive contributions that Black people have made to many areas of American life and culture, from art, literature and music to film, food, and fashion, among others. Black Lives Matter because Black people have played an essential and valuable role in making the United States the nation it is today.
This digital exhibition is divided into five sections that address a variety of topics in African American history and culture from the end of the Civil War to the present. It does not pretend to be comprehensive, but is offered in the hope that it will lead to contemplation, conversation and ultimately change. All of the artworks in the exhibition belong to the permanent collection of the Kruizenga Art Museum. Most of the artworks have been acquired since 2014 as part of the museum’s mission to educate, engage and inspire the communities of Hope College and West Michigan while fostering the qualities of empathy, tolerance and global understanding that are part of Hope College’s mission to provide an outstanding Christian liberal arts education.
Celebrating African American Art and Culture
African American history is not solely a history of struggle against oppression, injustice and inequality. It is also a history of creativity and positive contributions that have greatly enriched the fabric of American culture in areas ranging from art, literature and music to filmmaking, food, and fashion.
Before 1900, the artistic achievements of African Americans were rarely recognized by mainstream white society. Most of the artworks made by Black artists and craftsmen in fields such as ceramics, painting, sculpture and textiles were unsigned and quickly became anonymous after leaving their makers’ workshops. Only a handful of Black artists managed to gain any public acclaim during the 19th century, and even so their works were typically praised for resembling the art of their white contemporaries.
This situation changed during the 20th century as African Americans gained better access to art education and became more economically independent. For the first time, a large cadre of Black artists was creating art that reflected Black history and Black life experiences. This new African American art was directed at both Black and white audiences, and by affirming the intrinsic value of African American history and culture, it became an important element in the ongoing fight for Civil Rights.
The market for African American art today is highly competitive and works by the most sought-after artists can fetch millions of dollars. The commercial success of this art paradoxically undercuts its social and cultural impact, since many works end up in the collections of wealthy individuals where they are seldom seen by the general public. It is therefore essential for museums and other public institutions regularly to exhibit African American artworks and to make them available through digital resources so that everyone can continue to benefit from their distinctive perspectives and insights.