"But then, you're not free, white and twenty one." Those words ring through my head and feel like they’re bricks sitting on my chest. How do I process this? What can I learn from this?
These words are from artist Howardena Pindell in her video piece Free, White and 21 (1980). In the video, she bluntly reveals the racial discrimination she experienced as a black woman coming of age. Pindell grew up in Philadelphia during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement when the racial divide in America reached an all time high.
“It was hard to watch,” says business administration major Yeimy Rodriguez after watching the video. “It made me angry because you know that other people were experiencing what she went through. She’s an intelligent woman and it’s crazy that she applied to 500 job positions only to receive 500 rejection letters.”
“I feel like it’s a bold video. It addresses a lot of problems. As a white person [racism is] something that’s easy for me not to think about. However, it’s nice to be aware of it even though it hasn’t happened to me,” states biomedical science major Alisha Mechalke.
It’s a sobering video I would suggest everyone check out. However, Pindell is among good company in terms of artists who have also voiced their thoughts and experiences of racial discrimination, such as Glenn Ligon.
Ligon engages with found sources to explore cultural and social identity. However, he’s best known for his text-based works, one of them being Untitled (How It Feels to be Colored Me)
(1991). This piece takes a line from African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928) and repeats it. MoMA’s website describes the meaning of this piece: “By alternately highlighting and obscuring the black words and letters against white and black linen, he has underscored the [author’s] thoughts about being a black person in a white society.” Ligon pushes the literary work beyond its confines into an illustrative visual piece of art.
The perspective of these and many other artists is extremely important, and should be considered carefully. I know each engaged me in different and unique ways. I’m aware there was no possible way for me to empathize with Pindell. But in every action, in every story she shares in this video piece I feel an outpouring sympathy extending to her. In the case of Ligon, the visual interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston’s work resonates differently with me than Pindel’s video. It feels both emotional and logically infused. A wave of confusion and discord matched with an intentional thought process stating the case for the importance of social equality.
It’s important this month, Black History Month, to consider the important work of artists with varying backgrounds. We ought to think hard on the messages they convey and meditate on their meaning for us as a society.
Cameron Cizek is a junior studying computing.