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Art inspired by racial injustice 'can make someone see something differently’

For some artists, the murder of George Floyd by a police officer two years ago, and the ensuing protests, have been sources for paintings and writing. But racial injustice in the U.S. has long provided unwanted artistic inspiration.

During the Civil Rights movement, federal equal rights measures were being signed into law, but new legislation didn’t change how individuals and many institutions continued to treat Black Americans.

A Black liberation movement grew, as did a movement among Black artists.

'We should do something about it'

In Springfield, Massachusetts, Donald Blanton, now 80 years old, was part of a guild of Black artists. In those years of political and social unrest, he saw the protests and violence playing out in Springfield’s Winchester Square neighborhood.

"My brother and I were watching TV and we saw people looting and he said to me, ‘Oh, that's embarrassing,’ meaning it's embarrassing for us to be shown that way, and us meaning Blacks,” Blanton said. "And I said, ‘Yes, it's embarrassing, but we should do something about it.’"

That something was a mural.

Blanton and another Springfield artist, Josephine Edmonds, had founded a group called the Afro-Art Alliance. They believed painting a mural reflecting Black heritage and pride would be a way to calm the situation and get others involved in doing something good.

“I went into a store called Robbins Beauty Supply on State Street and I asked the owner if we could paint a mural on one side of his wall and he agreed,” Blanton said. “I mean, I think he felt like it would keep people from burning his building down or really destroying anything in his property.”

A national Black arts movement

Artists in Springfield and other smaller cities took their lead from a national Black arts movement out of Chicago and New York, where artists were painting murals of Black leaders and of moments in Black history.

Many of them, like "The Wall of Respect" in Chicago, are gone. But at 727 State Street in Springfield, Blanton’s mural is still there and was touched up last summer.

In Springfield, Massachusetts, artist Donald Blanton describes his sculpture "Auction Block" as the kind of art that has the power to make change.
Jill Kaufman
In Springfield, Massachusetts, artist Donald Blanton describes his sculpture "Auction Block" as the kind of art that has the power to make change.

“It shows the image of an African with a spear and you go right across and then there's huge buildings in the background,” Blanton said. "And it also shows a young man in the front with his fists across his chest, which in Vietnam different troops would do that, meaning, 'I love you, I got your back,' so to speak.”

Blanton, originally from Indiana, came to New England after completing a tour of duty in Vietnam, working for a while at the Air Force base in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

He’s always been an artist, he said, and in recent years taught art to school-age children, many of them Black. Blanton said he teaches them to be proud of who they are, no matter what happens.

In a studio behind his home, Blanton continues to paint and sculpt, including intimate stone sculptures of human forms, as well as paintings of dolphins, which were exhibited at Disney World.

Much of his portfolio reflects Black life and history. In the corner of his studio is a piece called “Auction Block,” a compact wood sculpture about 3 feet high. It in, numerous faces and limbs appear to be tangled up, almost as one.

“I wedged them all together purposefully,” Blanton said, bending down to point out even more faces. “They are chained together on this auction block, being prepared to sell.”

Using visual art instead of words or protest

Blanton has been discriminated against numerous times in his life, in the military and in the art world. He said he's been spat on and shunned. Sometimes he stayed silent, but —like others in Springfield — he continues to speak through his art making.

At Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield’s Tower Square, Rosemary Tracy Woods is unabashedly enthusiastic about the many established and new artists in the region.

Rosemary Tracy Woods owns Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. She's pictured here with quilts from textile artist Ed Johnetta Miller.
Jill Kaufman
Rosemary Tracy Woods owns Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield, Massachusetts. She's pictured here with quilts from textile artist Ed Johnetta Miller.

While Woods said she herself can't draw a straight line with a ruler, she hosts or attends arts events several nights a week. Woods opened the gallery in 1999.

“People think this is a Black gallery. It's not,” Woods said. “It's a gallery that's Black-owned. I feature all artists.”

In the last two years, Woods has been a champion of several new murals painted on buildings around the city through the group Fresh Paint Springfield. Many of the artists’ designs were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and by high-profile stories of unarmed Black people killed by law enforcement.

Woods said a reason for the growing popularity of this kind of public art may be because white people like it. But — historically — murals depicting Black life and the artists making them weren't so welcome.

“You would get arrested, particularly if artists of color was doing it,” Woods said. “And [a building wall] sometimes was the only canvas, the only way of expression."

Has anything changed?

The racist attack in Buffalo, New York, a few weeks ago that killed 10 Black men and women is on Woods’ mind. She predicts new art will come out of that.

Art itself saves lives, she says, but she does wonder if it's changed anything for the Black community.

“Here we are, two years, and all the killings that have occurred. I’m just one citizen,” Woods said, “I ask the world, I ask the community, 'Has anything changed?'”

Art helps us make sense of what we witness, said Michael Bobbitt, the executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, the state’s arts agency.

A few months before the pandemic, before George Floyd was killed, Bobbitt said, he saw a play in Boston that left a surprisingly deep impression.

"I saw a play called "Pass Over" at Speakeasy Stage that spoke well to the history of and the trauma of being a Black man in this country,” Bobbitt said. “And I am a Black man and still it opened my eyes to a whole bunch of new things."

Great art always comes from social crises, Bobbitt said, out of a need for change.

“The good thing about it is, that interpretation of the art can make someone see something differently,” Bobbitt said. “It can do the kinds of things that sometimes conversation can't do."

Art as documentation

Black visual artists and performers allow future generations to look back at the history of race in America. So do writers like Nicole M. Young-Martin.

Young-Martin, who lives in northern Connecticut, initially launched a group for writers of color.

Writer Nicole M. Young-Martin hosts "Black Writers Read," a monthly livestream show featuring Black writers' new work.
Samm Smith Design & Photography
The Womens Fund/
Writer Nicole M. Young-Martin hosts "Black Writers Read," a monthly livestream show featuring Black writers' new work.

“It was right when the pandemic started,” Young-Martin said, “so this is before Breonna Taylor was murdered. This was before George Floyd was murdered.”

After those incidents, Young-Martin said, so many more writers wanted to be involved.

She then launched a live online event called Black Writers Read on June 19, 2020, as a response to a campaign rally scheduled by President Donald Trump for the same day in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump then changed the date by one day “out of respect" for Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the effective end of slavery.

Black Writers Read is now a monthly livestream on YouTube, and Young-Martin has started hosting some in person readings. .

Ironically, she said her guests are not writing about Black Lives Matter.

“One of the reasons probably is because [writers are working on] long-term projects,” Young-Martin said.

But there’s another reason, Young-Martin said. The movement itself is about the Black experience, and its purpose is that Black writers won’t be limited to writing about racial injustice or tragic deaths.

What to do with Black art

In recent episodes of Black Writers Read, people read from different genres, including horror and books for children. One recent episode was with writer Saida Agostini, who read from a recent collection of poetry.

The livestream has a wide reach, but to get Black literature recognized in the academic canon is a hurdle, Young-Martin said. She teaches writing at a few different schools and said she’s had to argue to get books like “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston on the syllabi.

"There's still this question as to what to do with Black art," Young-Martin said.

A key to change may be something muralist Donald Blanton believes. Black artists, he said, need to push past the gatekeepers by making more art.

Corrected: May 31, 2022 at 4:08 PM EDT
The original version of this story incorrectly spelled Saida Agostini’s last name. It also incorrectly conflated the timeline of two groups of writers started by Nicole Young-Martin.
Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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