Weekly Feature

frederick douglas, frederick douglas portrait
Associated Press
Frederick Douglass

The Civil Rights Era: Cultural Bookmarks

February 12, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
Many records of the civil rights movement have endured, offering a firsthand glimpse of the era. In part three of a series, we look at individual and group expression during the civil rights movement, including music, art, literature and social organizations created at the time.

Record Keeping

The Library of Congress, which has a collection of African American sheet music from 1850 to 1920, talks about the wide range of material—cakewalks, minstrel pieces, Civil War ballads and songs about abolition—found within illustrative cover art. Two common, striking depictions of black men—Jim Crow, the rural “darky,” and Zip Coon, an “urban, flashily dressed fast-talking character”—clearly demonstrate the stereotypes that persisted. But the importance of certain black composers and performers emerges in these artifacts, especially in the illustrations.

Like any artistic relic, the African-American art of the 19th and 20th centuries simply recorded snapshots of the status quo. Daguerreotypes, as discussed in our feature on celebrity, were a valuable way of documenting cultural history, especially its most prominent people, like Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s daguerreotype portrait is a strong visual reminder of his importance and influence in the early days of the civil rights movement.

This text-only feature on African-American visual artists presents dozens of profiles of painters, sculptors, graffiti artists and others; their cultural and political context; and the subjects, often social and political, that populate their works.

For imagery, turn to PBS’s feature on African-American arts and culture. The chronologically arranged sections emphasize several important periods in this aspect of black culture: the era following slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights era and modern day. The project demonstrates how art became a critical form of protest during the King era, led by painters like Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold and Romare Bearden.

Freedom Begets Wisdom

The Library of Congress feature, “The Booker T. Washington Era,” introduces us to the chaos and progress of the period from 1870 to 1918, when this writer and other artistic beacons were gaining prominence.

The burgeoning population of educated blacks, many of whom, like Washington, went on to receive doctorates and other postgraduate degrees, meant greater community awareness and achievement in the field of education and on civil rights issues. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to train teachers. A close contemporary, W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, took evidence to the 1900 Paris Expo of the African-American’s increasing presence as artist, student, educator, landowner and business owner.

Around the time that Thurgood Marshall was fighting to allow black students to attend a Maryland university, Langston Hughes published his first work of poetry, including “The Weary Blues” (1926). Hughes went on to write more poetry, novels, plays and essays that reflected on the African-American lifestyle and culture, and compelling new topics like the relationship between jazz and writing.

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