From Negro to Black|
"Around 1965," writes art critic Richard J. Powell, "African Americans began to find the racial and cultural designation "Negro" not only antiquated, but suggestive of a less transcendent and revelatory time than the one in which they were currently living." Many African Americans, especially the young, saw the switch in self-designation from "the purportedly acquiescent 'Negro'" to "the seemingly assertive 'Black'" as "not only symbolic, but an emphatic proclamation of an oppressed people's psychological reorientation."
In Sermons: The Walls of Jericho, Romare Bearden (1911-1988) suggests the power and scope of that reorientation. Bearden was born into a middle-class family in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1914 his family moved to Harlem, where his mother served as the New York editor of the Chicago Defender. The Bearden home became a gathering place for artist, writers, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. An early interest in art, nurtured in part by Augusta Savage (see Theme IV: COMMUNITY), led him to study under German artist George Grosz while attending New York University. Upon graduating in 1935, he became a social worker, a career he pursued until 1969. In 1950 he traveled to Paris, where he studied European masters. In 1963 he joined Spiral, a group of African American artists who sought to address black issues in their work (see Theme III: PROTEST). When none of his Spiral colleagues would join him in the creation of a collage, he undertook the project himself. The result was a radical departure from his earlier abstract and brightly colored paintings. His collages met with such critical acclaim that he remained a collagist for the rest of his artistic career. In the 1960s he rejected the idea that his work was directly related to the civil rights movement, but he did seek to explore, as he put it, "the innerness of the Negro experience." By the latter part of the decade, according to Richard Powell, his work "perfectly articulated" the Black Power mood of the times.1
Sermons: The Walls of Jericho illuminates the state of Negro innerness in the early 1960s. In an apocalyptic vision reminiscent of Picasso's Guernica, African masks, black heads clad in ancient helmets, a shield, a hand clutching a sword, a horse's head, and architectural ruins form a pile of rubble, an image of massive change through struggle and collapse. What has fallen? Why? And does the possibility of rebuilding exist? The painting's title refers to both the biblical story of Joshua's destruction of Jericho and to the black gospel song based upon it. What is one to make of the traditional black association with the Israelites, who brought down the Walls of Jericho? (1 page.)
- Compare and contrast Sermons: The Walls of Jericho with Reginald Gammon's Freedom Now in Theme III: PROTEST.
- What has collapsed in this painting?
- Why has Bearden chosen to depict classical architectural forms and ancient helmets in this painting?
- Why has he set the ruins against a dark sky?
- What effect does the massing of images at the bottom of the painting have?
- How does the painting suggest the change of consciousness from "Negro" to "black"?
- In what ways does the painting question the new black consciousness?
- Compare and contrast Sermons: The Walls of Jericho with Aaron Douglas's Song of the Tower (see Theme II: MIGRATIONS). What differences do they suggest between the New Negro consciousness of the 1920s and the black consciousness of the 1960s?
||By the end of the 1960s, what had African Americans overcome?|
||How had the civil rights movement affected the lives of African Americans?|
||What remained to be overcome?||
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Image: Romare Bearden, Sermons: The Walls of Jericho, photomechanical reproductions, pencil, brush & ink, and watercolor on paperboard, 1964. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966; photograph by Lee Stalsworth. Reproduced by permission.
1 Richard J. Powell, Black Art: A Cultural History, 2nd ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2002), 121-122.