“The Black Power movement represents a largely unchronicled epic in American history,” argues historian Peniel E. Joseph in his article “Rethinking the Black Power Era. This academic oversight catalysed a wave of Black Power studies in the 2000s, with scholars like Joseph and Paul Gardullo altering perceptions of the movement by expanding it from the parameters of the 1960s. This scholarship reconsiders the temporal, chronological and spatial frameworks that define the era, and my PhD will join this repertoire of Black Power scholarship by proposing the existence of a Long Black Power Movement. I argue that artists of the 1930s and 1940s, and Black Power supporters of the 1960s and 1970s, use a memory of abolitionism in murals and public art to express and further the goal of gaining radical black self-determination. By resituating the Black Power Movement, I expose its emergence in the collective memory and visual culture of the 1930s and 1940s when radical 19th century anti-slavery figures like Nathaniel Turner, John Brown, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass emerge in murals and artwork by John Thomas Biggers, Charles White, Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff. I also chart the visual evolution and uses of these figures in 1960/70s and contemporary murals.
Whilst current scholarship attempts to reclaim the Black Power Movement in alternate decades, none thus far have explored its resurfacing in the 1930s and 1940s through the use of antislavery images and memory through murals of the Harlem Renaissance and WPA. I therefore chart the evolution of a Long Black Power Movement by arguing that artists of the 1930s and 1940s, and Black Power advocates of the 1960s and 1970s, use a memory of abolitionism to express and further their goal of gaining black self-determination – something that is also traceable in contemporary artwork of the Black Lives Matter movement.
‘“Unarmed People Are Slaves’: Using 19th Century Abolitionist Aesthetics in the 1960s Radical Movement.” Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, Hull, October 16-17, 2015