The American Writers Museum’s new exhibit, “Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice,” is named after a collection of poems by Pauli Murray, writer, lawyer, activist, priest and teacher. While Murray inspired the likes of Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall (he called his work “the Bible” of the civil rights movement) and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who drew inspiration from Murray’s work for her legal brief , she is largely unknown to the public. (Murray was LGBTQ+ and wrote extensively about gender and sexuality, and used pronouns to describe himself.)
“His work was crucial, but it was often invisible,” said Dr. Keidrick Roy, the exhibit’s senior curator. Roy has spent the past five years earning a doctorate at Harvard, studying how African Americans have taken up American ideals of freedom, progress, and justice in their writing since the nation’s revolutionary era of the 1700s. so in this exhibit,” Roy continued, “Murray, his life and work should be highlighted as an organizing theme, to help us pay attention to the things we observe but don’t really see. “
Dark Testament is an immersive experience that took two years to prepare. It opened to the public September 22 at the American Writers Museum (AWM) downtown and explores the racial injustice of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of black writers such as ‘Octavia E. Butler, Ida B. Wells, Ethel Payne. , Lorraine Hansberry and Ann Petry, among many others. At the start of the project, the curation team – made up of writers, journalists, scholars and poets – had a series of conversations with a variety of African-American black studies scholars, which broadened the objective and scope of this project, giving rise to its four main organizing themes: Citizen, Justice, Violence and Joy. “This project has been a dream come true,” Roy said.
The presentation spans three of the museum’s gallery spaces. When visitors enter, they first enter the Meijer Gallery, where they will find a chronicle of major black American writers on the right, with physical copies of influential works highlighted at each phase. The works For the Slave, what is the 4th of July?written in 1852 by Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the life of a slave, written in 1861 by Harriet Jacobs, represents the period 1850-1865 titled “Slavery and Freedom”, for example. Ida B Wells The Red Disc: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States represented the era between Reconstruction and Jim Crow (1865-1919). Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison is highlighted in the section on the 1940s-1960s, a period marked by international conflict and integration.
Opposite these mounted texts, 16 portraits 1.50 meters high in bright colors are installed side by side, occupying the entire width of the gallery wall. Visitors can interact with the art using an augmented reality app on their phone. Large, multicolored portraits of Ma Rainey, Douglass, Wells, and James Baldwin are painted or quilted in various complementary styles by local artists, many associated with the Chicago Public Art Group.
One of the painters, Bernard Williams, oversaw the completion of the 16 portraits and said he had commissioned artists – Damon Reed, Dorothy Irene Burge and Dorian Sylvain, and himself – that he thought “did well to create dynamic portraits”. the painters have experience creating outdoor murals in Chicago and painting portraits. Dorothy Burge is the only textile artist in the group.
In one section of the Conant Readers Room, a larger exhibit hall, there is an element that examines the importance of the black press, black newspapers and black publishers. “The black press has been central to the spread of black thought since its founding,” Kiedrick said, as writers like Langston Hughes and WEB Du Bois used the black press as a mechanism to spread their ideas. He noted that the black press increased the ability to transmit ideas in Chicago but also across the country, connecting black people in different parts of the country who would not have interacted otherwise.
“You have people in the south who read the Chicago Defender for example, and it encouraged some aspects of the Great Migration,” Roy said. “The black press provided space for black leaders to emerge in a variety of capacities and to have a national voice before the public which blacks paid attention.
Myiti Sengstacke-Rice is the fifth generation of editors in its family. His great-great-uncle was Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the founding publisher of the Chicago Defender and inventor of the Bud Billiken Parade, and his grandfather was a publisher of the Defender as well. Her father is the famous photographer Bobby Sengstacke. She donated a cane, camera and countless photos of deceased family members to the exhibit.
“Writers really crave big spaces to be able to express what they see out there in the world. And you know, they need good platforms for that,” Sengstacke-Rice said.
The final part of the exhibition takes place in the Rubin Writers Room, where an intimate video presentation shows contemporary writers discussing the resonance of works from the past. Meanwhile, actors from the Congo Square Theater Company perform quotes from each text on screen.
The museum considers this to be its most ambitious presentation to date.
“The most important movements have many different black intellectuals, writers, men and women, who thought deeply about the American Enlightenment ideals upon which the nation was founded,” Roy said. “And they should be celebrated as philosophers.”
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