In a nod to Black History Month, Detroit’s is presenting “Souls of Black Folk: Bearing Our Truth,” a monthlong exhibit of work by 20 local African American artists addressing what it means to be Black in modern America.
The show takes its name from a W.E.B DuBois collection of essays about the Black experience in America that was published at the dawn of the 20th century.
Project director Donna Jackson began planning the exhibit in August. “It really started ramping up in December, though,” she said. “COVID-19 made everything so difficult, and it’s been amazing to be able to connect to art and artists again, especially Black artists, to tell our narrative. Curating all this has been so exciting, and the outcome has been great.”
DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” was an expansion of “The Strivings of Negro People,” an influential 1897 essay for the Atlantic Monthly that introduced white readers to the experience of being victimized by racism.
The piece, which pushed DuBois’ words beyond the Black community for the first time while distinguishing him from Booker T. Washington and more conservative Black voices, introduced the idea of “double-consciousness, the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
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“One feels his two-ness,” he famously wrote. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently — that Negro blood has yet a message for the world.
Small oil-on-canvas portraits like this one of 2020 Georgia shooting victim Ahmaud Arbery are a part of an installation created by Detroit artist Carol Morisseau for the “Soul of Black Folks” exhibition. (Photo: Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press)
Jackson said: “I’ve read DuBois’ essays a few times, but the one quote about the two-ness of being Black and American sits heavy and true with me. Sometimes this feeling is hard to pinpoint or express, and yet DuBois did it simply. It freed me to know that this feeling can be described. It is OK to be these two things. To be Black. To be American. The challenge is being accepted as both.
“I felt like it was time to examine that again,” she continued. “You use art to get the point across.”
There is both irony and triumph inherent in the exhibition. The Scarab Club, a private organization founded in 1907 for the discussion and advocacy of art, accepted only white male members for decades. Now an all-female administrative staff and diversified board carry the art-based mission forth while expanding opportunities for participation.
“I hope that this exhibition shows glimpses of what some of us experience of Black artists and Black Americans,” said Jackson, “and that it inspires people to positive action, to reading more about DuBois and others. I hope it makes people ask questions and continue to discuss race in America.”
Jackson, founder of DMJ Studio, also has a piece hanging in the show. “Who’s the Target (Black and Blue),” a large acrylic-on-canvas work, was painted in 2015-16 as a response to a rash of both mass shootings and shooting deaths of Black men and women by white citizens and police officers. It depicts a stylized representation of a faceless shooting gallery target with the words “black” and “blue”” scrawled throughout.
“The brutality of what we’re living,” Jackson said, “causes deep bruises, so black and blue. But also this conversation about “Black lives” and “blue” lives – it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is people are getting killed, and it’s the violence we’ve got to get rid of. It’s a massive piece because of the massiveness of the violence that continues.”
MaryAnn Wilkinson, the Scarab Club’s executive director, noted that no reservations are necessary to view “Souls of Black Folks” during regular museum hours: noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. “In keeping with current restrictions, we can only allow 20 people in the building at a time, so if it continues to be popular, we may have to ask people to wait, she said. “But chances are, visitors will be able to walk right in and see the show at any time.”
‘Souls of Black Folk: Bearing Our Truth’
Through March 6
217 Farnsworth St., Detroit
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