Art That Confronts and Challenges Racism: Start Here

By Melena RyzikWesley MorrisMekado MurphyReggie Ugwu, Pierre-Antoine Louis, Salamishah Tillet and Siddhartha Mitter

  • June 4, 2020

What fills us up in disquieting times? What galvanizes through trauma? As the world endured months of lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, artists put forth works that comfort, that remind us of our regular days and nights at the theater and the gallery, of the bonhomie of a concert hall, the warm glow of a weekend movie.

But as the United States convulsed with protests and activism in response to police brutality in the last week, many looked for a different kind of understanding — one that offered a new view onto social justice and racial equity, civic engagement and economic rights. We want to challenge our own entrenched ways of thinking, as people, parents and a society.

Artists and thinkers have already shown us how: Bryan Stevenson, the crusading lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has a memoir, and a movie based on it, “Just Mercy,” that is attracting a new audience, alongside the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Alabama museum dedicated to the history of lynching, which embodies his life’s work. The filmmaker Ava DuVernay made the documentary “13th,” about the roots of mass incarceration, and has long been boosting independent black voices with her distribution company Array. Here, writers recommend other works that illuminate and confront racism, tracing a path, thorny as it may be, forward. MELENA RYZIK

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

America isn’t good with inconvenient memories. From the Native genocide to slavery and Japanese-American internment, the racist violence that made our social order is minimized more than it is taught or given public memorial. It’s one reason lists like this become necessary — a service, but an admission of collective cultural failure.

Museums could do much more; but for all the solidarity statements, mainstream art museums are caught up in the system too. Even institutions that focus on the history, such as the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., address it in a mode more didactic than visceral, leavened by a celebration of resilience and cultural vibrancy and a default optimism about change. They give everyone — not just white folks — an out.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Ala., cuts through this, in the clarity of its concept and the brilliance of its design. Eight hundred suspended steel slabs that honor the victims of lynching in 800 counties create what may be the most emotionally impactful cultural experience in the country. The preparation of identical markers to install in each county, when local officials and citizens are ready, is public-history genius.

The hillside memorial is beautiful, and that matters too. It opened in 2018, along with the Legacy Museum downtown. The Equal Justice Initiative, to whom we owe these new institutions, has an excellent website on lynching in America and its continued legacy. Start there. And go to Alabama once the pandemic abates. SIDDHARTHA MITTER

ImageNina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in under an hour.

Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in under an hour. Credit...Sam Falk/The New York Times

‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1964)

A 12-inch album of Nina Simone’s single, “Mississippi Goddam,” sits on top of my altar next to my bed. Put on vinyl in 1964 for her “In Concert” album, Simone actually composed the song in September 1963, after learning that Ku Klux Klan members had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and killed four girls — right before they were to begin Sunday school.

Partly inspired by their tragedy, and partly in response to the assassination of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers in his driveway in Jackson, Miss., in June 1963, Simone later told Maya Angelou that the song “wrote itself through me” and that she had “to say something — express or explode.” Simone says she ransacked her garage drawers, grabbed some piping and tried to make a gun. As she did so, her husband, Andy Stroud, a former police officer, interrupted and challenged her: “Nina, you don’t know anything about killing. The only thing you got is music.” Taking his words to heart, she ran back upstairs to her piano and wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in under an hour.

Presented with a mid-tempo beat, the song is a trick, and a tribute. Its lively rhythms and her cheeky preamble might have put her mainly white audience at ease until her lyrics betrayed her impatience with those who asked African-Americans to slow down their civil rights demands. More radically, Simone’s song portrayed “black rage” as a reasonable and righteous response to white violence, a sentiment that we have seen blossom as protests on the streets of Atlanta, Minneapolis, Newark, Washington D.C., and with each passing hour, cities and countries all over the world today. SALAMISHAH TILLET

‘13th’ (2016)

The Netflix documentary “13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, explores the way in which police brutality and mass incarceration go hand in hand. The film got its name from the 13th Amendment, which in 1865 abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for a crime”; scholars and historians examine how that quickly led to the systematic criminalization of black people. This powerful and thought-provoking documentary walks us through the system of incarceration and the economic forces behind racism in America, specifically its compound effects on black people since the abolishment of slavery. PIERRE-ANTOINE LOUIS

ImageMekhi Phifer and Regina Taylor in Spike Lee’s “Clockers” (1995).

Mekhi Phifer and Regina Taylor in Spike Lee’s “Clockers” (1995).Credit...David Lee/Universal Pictures

A Time When Not Just One Work Will Do

I couldn’t settle on a single piece of art that captures what led to this moment. It’s too vast. Instead, here’s some work, in different media, that can serve as a gateway not so much to explain where we’ve found ourselves but to amplify it. WESLEY MORRIS

“Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor (short story, 1965)

American People Series #20: Die,” Faith Ringgold (painting, 1967)

“Uptight,” Jules Dassin (film, 1968)

“Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler (film, 1969)

“The Kerner Report: Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” U.S. Riot Commission Report (nonfiction book, 1968)

“The Omni-Americans,” Albert Murray (nonfiction book, 1970)

“Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” Gil Scott-Heron (album, 1970)

A Rap on Race,” James Baldwin and Margaret Mead (conversations and nonfiction book, 1971)

“Straight Outta Compton,” N.W.A. (album, 1988)

“Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky,” Thylias Moss (poems, 1991)

“A Different World,” “Honeymoon in L.A.” Parts 1 and 2 (sitcom, 1992)

Fires in the Mirror,” Anna Deavere Smith (play, 1992)

“Hypothetical?,” Lorna Simpson (painting, text, sound; 1992)

“The Glass Shield,” Charles Burnett (film, 1995)

“Clockers,” Spike Lee (film, 1995)

“Reporting Civil Rights, Part One, American Journalism, 1941-1963,” Library of America (nonfiction, 2003)

Scorched Earth,” Mark Bradford (painting, 2006)

“New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War),” Erykah Badu (album, 2008)

“The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction book, 2010)

“This American Life,” “House Rules” (podcast, 2013)

The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates (article, 2014)

Formation,” Beyoncé (music video, 2016)

“We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service,” A Tribe Called Quest (album, 2016)

“Revisionist History, “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment” (podcast, 2017)

ImageThe Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to civil rights marchers in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to civil rights marchers in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965.Credit...Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images

‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ (1963)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was responding to an open letter from a group of respectable clergymen in Birmingham, Ala. They were Good White People, unlike the brutal bigot Bull Connor, the city’s commissioner of public safety, who was trying to dominate a wave of protests against segregation and endemic racial terror. The clergymen, nominally sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, nevertheless urged them to stand down in the name of “law and order and common sense.”

King surgically attacked the immorality of this position. In a letter that has only grown more resonant with time, written on scraps of newspaper while he was in jail for his part in the protests, King expressed deep frustration with the “white moderate more devoted to order than to justice,” who used “moral means to preserve immoral ends.” “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham,” he wrote. “But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.” REGGIE UGWU

‘Detroit ’67’ (2013)

I often teach Dominique Morisseau’s play as the contemporary descendant of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959) and Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman” (1964) because it takes up the themes of desegregation and white violence so essential to those civil rights movement plays, while its cramped basement setting approximates, much like Hansberry’s two-bedroom apartment and Baraka’s subway car, the suffocating reality of racism on black life.

Though the 1967 Detroit race riots backdrops this play, Morisseau goes intimate, telling the story of Chelle and Lank, an African-American sister and brother who live together in their recently inherited childhood home and try to earn extra income by converting their basement into an after-hours club. The play has several conflicts operating at once: the siblings disagree about the financial structure of their club; Lank brings home Caroline, a badly beaten white woman whom he is trying to help; and of course, their city is ablaze after the police raided a black bar during a welcome home party for two black Vietnam War veterans.

Shortly after the actual riots began, three black teenage boys were killed, and two white women and seven black men wounded at the nearby Algiers Motel. Rather than only focus on the brute force of racial violence, Morisseau’s turned inward and interpersonal, and by doing so, shows the power of black people trying to determine their own fate even as the world around them appears to crumble. SALAMISHAH TILLET

ImageMarsha P. Johnson, in a documentary film about her directed by David France. It’s streaming on Netflix.

Marsha P. Johnson, in a documentary film about her directed by David France. It’s streaming on Netflix.Credit...Netflix

‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’ (2017)

A banner currently hangs in front of Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn that reads “Pride Is a Riot #BLM.” Many believe that the Stonewall uprising — more specifically, a riot in response to a brutal N.Y.P.D. raid on the gay bar in 1969 — wouldn’t have been successful if not for the transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. She was among the first of the patrons to resist the police that night, and the riots Johnson helped organize spread to surrounding New York neighborhoods, and continued for several nights.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a documentary by David France, takes us through Johnson’s captivating adult life and suspicious 1992 death, which remains un-investigated by the same police department that Johnson battled at Stonewall. We watch Johnson’s close friend Victoria Cruz track down retired detectives to ask about the unsolved case, and fellow activists walk us through the complexities of her tragic death. PIERRE-ANTOINE LOUIS

‘Love Song for Latasha’ (2019)

Aiyana Stanley-Jones (2010). Rekia Boyd (2012). Renisha McBride (2013). Sandra Bland (2015). Bettie Jones (2015). Breonna Taylor (2020). These are just a few names of black girls and women whose tragic deaths the public might have ignored if their families and black feminist activists had not diligently fought for justice on their behalf.

Born in May 2015 in response to the killings of Boyd, Shelly Frey, Tanisha Anderson and others, #SayHerName emerged as a daughter movement to #BlackLivesMatter in order to bring greater attention to the racial violence black girls and women face in particular. In “A Love Song for Latasha,” the filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison stretches out this timeline of black death and grief by returning to the death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American girl who was fatally shot in 1991 by a Korean grocery store owner in Los Angeles. Killed 13 days after four white L.A.P.D. officers brutally beat Rodney King, Harlins’s death, which was also caught on video footage, is considered to be a contributing factor to the Los Angeles riots of 1992. By blending real-life interviews with Harlins’s best friend Ty and cousin Shinese with experimental and “dream” sequences, Allison beautifully recreates the joy and trauma of black girlhood, while recentering Harlins’s death in a long litany of loss and black rebellion. SALAMISHAH TILLET

‘Talk to Me’ (2007)

The radio personality Petey Greene spoke harsh truths on the air about racism in America from the late ’60s to the early ’80s (at which point it was a TV show), while keeping listeners entertained along the way. The 2007 movie about his life, “Talk to Me,” has fun in the midst of its truths as well. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, the film is set in the 1960s as Petey (played by Don Cheadle) becomes a popular mind-speaking voice on morning radio in Washington, D.C. As big as his mouth was, his voice was heard. And both Petey and the film make time for serious reflection when, after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Greene offers words of solidarity to those pushed to the brink by injustice. “Bring your heartache, bring your anger, just bring all that to me,” he says with a plea for all to “work it out together.” MEKADO MURPHY

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