African American women were the driving force of the Civil Rights Movement.
From the very beginning, African American women organized demonstrations at the risk of being molested and sometimes led grassroot coalitions so they could struggle for liberation and freedom, while taking further steps to fight for justice and equality (Greene, 165). These women were robust and were actively involved in various organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for example, to improve the status of black Americans. Women activists are often characterized as “behind-the-scenes participants” (Greene, 181). However, most women had essential roles in the most intense moments of the movements (i.e. sit-ins, marches), that sometimes led to their prominence as leaders (Greene, 181).
Portrayed through the arts, Gund Gallery displayed an exhibit titled Black Women/ Black Lives, which explores how African American women were an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. Artists represented black women in non traditional settings in which to show their empowerment, dignity, and the beauty of the black female experience. The artists have worked collaboratively with the movements such the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter to not just challenge the stigmatizing norms of black women but also establish that black femininity was a vital part in the movements for equality. Also through music and dialogue, the exhibit analyzes the ways in which black women shine through in a dominant white society. Not only do the exhibit and the Black feminist movements discuss a desire for equality, they also focused on reducing the power structures that excluded black females.
The exhibition was divided into 3 categories: Women on the Front Lines, Beauty; Politics; and Femininity; and Radical Motherhood. The exhibit, Women on the Front Lines, demonstrated ways in which black feminism played vital roles in order to support the causes, whether buying groceries with prominent activists on it or becoming a leader and organizing marches and forging a pathway for justice. Time of Change (Two Women at Lunch Counter) represented the struggle black women faced while trying to go into white institutionalized environments because of Jim Crow laws and segregation. It also displayed situations in which civil disobedience attempts lead to violence and harassment.
In the Black Panther Newspaper, back cover, volume 6, number 11, the woman in the work of art seems to be a domestic going back home from the store. However, the art implies that even though she was a domestic she was also an important part in the movement because she carried bags with activists on the side to demonstrate that her role is just as important as the activists. Women’s empowerment not only took initiative through protests, but also through community actions that consisted of free stores that provided food, clothing, and household goods. It also depicted the duality of women in the movement: they were both domestics (identified by the broom and fuzzy slippers) and activists (buying groceries with civil rights leaders on the bags). As working class mothers, their roles as activists were just as critical as women who led sit-ins and protests. Black Feminism is not just being a leader through voice and mass organizations but in this case, domesticity and buying consumer goods associated with the movement. Also, in Black Panther Newspaper, back cover, volume 6, number 11, the woman is seen easily overburdened with groceries, but her powerful frame suggests agency that she has incorporated through the movement and it meets the viewer’s gaze. Buying from the People’s Free Store was supposed to inspire the community to deal with the combative nature of poverty and systemic racism, and black women took advantage of this to advance the movement and create a sense of agency through the Black Panthers.
However, in Black Panther Newspaper volume 4, number 30, Emory Douglas really exhibits the militancy of women in the Black Panthers. This portrays a black woman in a yellow shirt who has a machine gun in her arms, which represents her agency and her ability to be in the forefront of the struggle and make a difference. Her muscular arms and her Black Panther button proudly on her shirt suggests that her outward appearance is more powerful than her voice. She uses her machine gun and affiliation with Black Panthers to establish her robust attitude and make a statement for the organization. Also, her yellow button shirt and her gun creates this intense and charged environment in which violence and militancy will quell the injustice. The color, yellow, suggests that women were also a illuminating force in the movement and were not incognito. Her pose also suggests a relationship with another propagandistic photo, Rosie the Riveter. Not only do both deal with feminism, but also women playing pivotal roles in critical events in history that show that they are just as strong willed as men are, and they can contribute widely to causes. Douglas portrayed the woman as not a victim of oppression, but as dynamic and authoritative.
The exhibition on Radical Motherhood, depicts art by African American women in which the traditional lens of maternity and familial roles are challenged, while dealing with the struggle of obtaining empowerment in the domestic sector. However, motherhood can be individualistic and can be interpreted and portrayed through multiple viewpoints, especially of the Black mother. The idea of Radical motherhood is supposed to evade the one role of the traditional mother, but show the multiplicity of women as activists, housewives, and as just individuals. The artists do not depict the traditional passive nature of women, but the electrified and the powerful nature of women through supporting their family unit. Having this dominance of motherhood helped families get through the struggles of poverty and discrimination, in their daily lives. Preeminent artists Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringgold display women in this exhibit as influences, not just for their family but society as a whole.
Dancing at the Louvre, at first drew on similarities of the Last Supper because the quilt was expansive, and it seemed it represented a strong family unit. In this case, the black family in the quilt is “breaking bread” in the museum by having a good time and avoiding the constant struggles of racism and injustice. Also, the museum represents a safe haven for African Americans since, other institutions would not allow them due to segregation. However, in Paris those laws might not be in effect for minorities, especially for African Americans, who were trying to take their mind off of the struggles of being black. They break traditional norms of where mothers take their child for fun or vacation. It also shows that mother has enough funds to take a family to a trip Paris, which in this case breaks the stigma that most blacks at that time faced destitute poverty or a low income. The famous paintings hung up behind the family suggest traditional motherhood and white femininity, rigid and inflexible terms, while the black family suggests elasticity in motherhood with frolicking kids acting carefree. This sanctimonious space also suggests that the family is currently not bothered with traditional western culture, because at the moment they are liberated.
Beauty, Politics, and Femininity exhibits black woman who override the stereotype of female beauty being straight-haired, slim bodied, and light skinned to popularize the rise of the soul style in 60s and 70s. Challenging the status quo of beauty, Black women institute African themed designs to represent Pan-African pride and togetherness. The celebration of the natural dark skin, big lips, and curvy bodies suggests that black women are trying to incorporate physical attributes in order to advance in civil rights and feminism movements.
In Wallflower Pinups: Wallflower #1, #3, #6, the black woman is posing in a promiscuous way, suggesting that black beauty is powerful and sexy. The floral pattern is depicting domesticity; however the silhouette is wearing wallpaper which suggests her dominance as a female figure and her independence from the status quo. Also, wearing the wallpaper demonstrates her defiance of domestic mores and challenges the norm by clearly displaying female sexuality. This silhouette is challenging the way in which female models should be, because she is both big in features and black, which are very contrasting to what is seen as a typical model. By having Marilyn Monroe looks she challenges the norm of an ideal woman and flaunts herself as the perennial woman of society. This idea that the black woman is the perfect woman in society breaks the stigma that you need certain attributes to be the quintessential model.
Demonstrated through the arts, black women remained firm in their endeavors to obtain liberation from the oppressive structures of race, gender, and class during the 60s and 70s using different forms of resistance to receive justice and more citizenship rights. By becoming bridge leaders and organizers, African American women became active agents in the Civil Rights Movement. They utilized their position to assist the movement where necessary, and this caused them to be the impetus of the movement. The works of art represented all form of leaders from working as a domestic to portraying beauty that was disregarded by the masses. This has led to the rise to prominence of African American women on all fronts to push for justice
African American women were the driving force of the Civil Rights Movement.