Janet Dees: “In Dialogue” with Princeton University Press

In February 2023 Princeton University Press reached out to a few of its authors with a question. What do you find is commonly misunderstood about Blackness in America?  Janet Dees, The Block’s Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and editor of A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence, 2022 joined with her fellow authors Korey Garibaldi, Douglas S. Massey, Rory Kramer, & Camille Z. Charles in a series of essays that question the assumptions, narratives, and stereotypes that obscure the diversity of Black lived experience.

Participating authors brought together a wealth of experience and research from the worlds of literature, higher education, art, and criminal justice to illuminate shades and contradictions within Blackness and to offer paths out of reductive generalizations.

Read the full dialogue at Princeton University Press

Janet Dees:“What is misunderstood about Blackness?”

As an art historian and a curator, I am interested in the role of the arts in the conversation surrounding racial justice. In my most recent project, I focused on excavating and presenting a historical perspective on artistic production that grappled with the issue of anti-Black violence in the United States. Focusing on the period between the rise of anti-lynching activism in the late 19th century and the founding of Black Lives Matter in 2013, a portion of my research explores creative counterpoints to the assault of images of anti-Black violence that have been an enduring part of the American cultural landscape.

Art has not only been a vehicle for overtly supporting activism through protest-oriented work. It has additionally engaged in the conversation around racial justice in more subtle and complex ways, as an expression of mourning and memorialization and as a mode of processing the emotional and psychological impacts of racism. Art can serve as both an example and an embrace for those of us whose lives are impacted daily by racial injustice, as well as a catalyst for sustained action. Art does not necessarily directly change things, but art can change people, and people change things. In providing a window unto perspectives that may be different from our own, it cultivates empathy; by being a mirror of our own or similar experiences, it provides solace.

Another misunderstanding about “Blackness” in America is that the histories, struggles, and concerns of Black people should be “contained” rather than being seen as integral to the understanding of American history, culture, and society writ large.

– Janet Dees

An engagement with art and art history can illuminate the diversity and complexity of identities, interests, viewpoints, and contexts (gendered, geographical, social, religious, cultural, political, economic, etc.)  that can be obscured by a mono-dimensional understanding of “Blackness” in America.  In the realm of art, this can be as straightforward as understanding that artists who identify as Black have practiced and developed a range of artistic approaches from conceptualism to non-objective abstraction to figuration. Artists are shaped by various aspects of their identity, intellectual interests, and creative commitments. “Blackness,” however construed, may or may not be the best primary lens through which to engage their work.

Another misunderstanding about “Blackness” in America is that the histories, struggles, and concerns of Black people should be “contained” rather than being seen as integral to the understanding of American history, culture, and society writ large. In my research on art against anti-Black violence for example, I explored how artists from different cultural and racialized backgrounds—African American, Euro-American, Mexican American, Japanese American—took up this issue. Several works by artists as diverse as Reginald Marsh and Kerry James Marshall explore how perpetrators and bystanders are socialized into attitudes of anti-Blackness that are shared and passed down.

Art also can penetrate spaces and places that activist messages may not reach. This was what the NAACP’s Walter White hoped for in 1935 when he organized the exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching to build awareness and support for anti-lynching legislation. It is also what I and my colleagues bore witness to at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University and Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, when the exhibition A Site of Struggle was on view in 2022. 

Art is a space of creativity and imagination and, as such, offers fertile ground to envision what a just future society would like. Writer and meditation teacher Kate Johnson has put it this way: “The artists within and amongst us know how to make that vision of liberation visible so we can share it.” Art can give form to what we are fighting for, as well as deconstruct what we are fighting against.

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