American Collections blog

2 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

08 December 2020

Art in a pandemic: exploring manifestation of art and design

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly given us the difficult task of witnessing one of the most unmerciful global challenges since the world wars.

As it happens during times of crises, artists start producing objects, or creating digital content, which reflect part of the daily struggle for life. Their creation can be seen as a process that transforms art in ephemera and ephemera in arts, and the boundaries between what is art and what is not are often impalpable and undefinable. How do we see these objects now, through the lens of time, and while enduring another lockdown? 

The descent of the lockdown on our bodies and souls has forced us into living in a dystopian society, as well as a forced daily exploration of digital content and images or, at least, that is what has happened to me.

Last spring, during one of my virtual exploration sessions at @CovidArtMuseum, I was particularly attracted by artistic responses from the southern hemisphere. I met an inspirational graphic artist on Instagram, and having decided to use a couple of graphic creations, I contacted her to discuss copyright but we ended up talking about books, art inspirations and feelings of deprivation.

 

Graphic art from Guatemala: the soap dispenser

 

Soap dispenser embellished with details from Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night on the lower part. On the upper part a yellow writing in block letters reads: make art not panic
Make art not panic, by Mayte Oliva @mayteoliva –Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photo sourced by Instagram, March 2020 @CovidArtMuseum. Photo courtesy of the artist ©mayteoliva

 

An embellished soap dispenser represents the dispensation of creativity and thoughts of positivity as a remedy to panic and desperation in a moment of crisis. Behind the dispenser, a sky coloured background and an invisible sub-message that reads: wash your hands.

Art is vital for human kind. Keep creating. El arte es vital para tu humanidad. En cualquier disciplina, forma, con cualquier material, con desafíos físicos o emocionales, sin importar quien lo vea o si es solo para tus ojos. Crear es bueno para ti (Caption to the image. @mayteoliva). [Art is vital to your humanity. In any discipline, shape, with any material, with physical or emotional challenges, no matter who sees it or if it is only for your eyes. Creating is good for you].

 

Image of one of Vincent Van Gogh's most famous paintings. It depicts the view of a starry night just before the sunrise. In the lower part of the painting, on the left, there is a tree in the foreground, and in the right part of the painting, a village. The sky and the stars are painted with large brushstrokes of colour in multiple shades of blue and yellow
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night. Saint Rémy, June 1889. Museum of Modern Art. Floor 5, 501. The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Galleries. Photo sourced by MoMA website ©MoMA

 

The reference to Van Gogh's Starry Night is brilliant. Entirely painted from memory during the day while in isolation at the sanatorium of Saint-Rémy-de-Provance, Van Gogh reproduced the vision of the stars in the dark from outside his sanatorium room window. It represents the oneiric interpretation of the reality of the asylum experience as he perceived it, apocalyptic, terrifying and yet astonishingly creative.

“Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, above which in the morning I see the sunrise in its glory” (from Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo).

 

Graphic art from Brazil and Australia: the toilet paper

Another curious object strongly associated with life during the pandemic, is the toilet paper roll. I was particularly attracted by this image with its direct message, and all that goes with it, on the unrolled paper square. This visual reprimand, created on the eve of the first lockdowns, would have resonated with people around the world and at more or less the same time.

 

Image of a white toilet paper roll on a pink background with a message on the unrolled paper square that reads: Este papel no limpia tu egoísmo / This paper doesn’t clean your selfishness
Este papel no limpia tu egoísmo /This paper doesn’t clean your selfishness, by Mayte Oliva @mayteoliva –Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photo sourced by Instagram, March 2020 @CovidArtMuseum. Photo courtesy of the artist ©mayteoliva

 

“I made this piece the day that the government in my country announced the curfew, supermarkets were crowded, and people took very selfish attitudes. I think it is important to raise awareness of this type of actions on social networks, so that more people see it as something negative and can take positive attitudes in difficult situations” (In conversation with @mayteoliva).

During the same time, a colleague in the library started a very difficult newspaper-copy hunt for a particular issue of the  Northern Territory News which wryly included an 8-page insert of toilet news-paper. Libraries around the world had started collecting this special issue, and it soon became very difficult to obtain one. It was immediately clear that this item would become a collectable item documenting a certain aspect of  consumer society; one of those objects that you could easily imagine seeing in an exhibition, perhaps entitled “Art Pandemic: incubation 2020”!

 

Image of Northern Territory newspaper and 8 page toilet paper insert
NT News, Thursday 5th March 2020 with 8 page toilet paper insert. British Library cataloguing and shelf-marking in process

 

The toilet paper Instagram colloquium with the graphic artist @mayteoliva, evolved into a much freer talk and exchange of ideas. When asked which books have recently inspired her, she promptly sent photos of covers, and her thoughts on the books incriminated.

In conversation with the artist @mayteoliva

“There is beauty in everything, and this is a great guide to find it. I find this book really inspiring, makes me want to create something, draw something, cook something, try something new and appreciate it. The other night I was making cinnamon rolls for the first time, and the process was beautiful, this book has helped me appreciate these things of everyday life and then translate my experiences into visual art” (In conversation with @mayteoliva in reference to Alan Moore, Do / Design: why beauty is key to everything).

 

Image of a hand holding a book and showing its cover. Book title reads: Do/Design: why beauty is key to everything
Alan Moore, Do / Design: why beauty is key to everything, London, Do Book Co., 2016. Shelfmark: YKL.2017.a.11507

 

“Madame & Eve, Women portraying women is an amazing compilation of women artworks in contemporary art. Here are some of my favourite artist, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, but I have found many other artists who have impressed me a lot” (In conversation with @mayteoliva).

 

Image of an open book. It shows portraits of woman on both pages
Liz Rideal, Kathleen, Soriano, Madam & Eve: women portraying women, London: Laurence King Publishing, 2018. Shelfmark YC.2019.b.367.

 

Embroidered poetry from Brazil

From the collection #museodoisolamento (museum of isolation), I found this incredible piece of concrete poetry. From the visual exploration of it, I immediately had multiple sensorial messages sent to my brain. I needed a few minutes to fully decode them into sensation and emotions, and to have them automatically connected to my personal consciousness which was strongly affected by the circumstances of the moment.

My first sensorial association was the light blue impressions of the fabric to the pale blue of surgical masks. In this case it was transformed in a wide canvas ready to receive a concise and concrete message behind which the essence of art is explained.

 

Image of a white canvas with light blue impressions and a phrase embroidered on it which reads: A arte existe porque a vida não basta/ Art exists because life is not enough
A arte existe porque a vida não basta/ Art exists because life is not enough, by Mayara Silva @mayara5ilva –Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil. Photo sourced by Instagram, June 2020 @CovidArtMuseum. Photo ©mayara5ilva

 

“Uma das minhas frases preferidas. É de Ferreira Gullar, poeta maranhense, ao falar sobre sua trajetória na arte durante uma entrevista. ‘Arte é uma coisa imprevisível, é descoberta, é uma invenção da vida. E quem diz que fazer poesia é um sofrimento está mentindo: é bom, mesmo quando se escreve sobre uma coisa sofrida. A poesia transfigura as coisas, mesmo quando você está no abismo. A arte existe porque a vida não basta’“(Caption to the image. @mayara5ilva)

[One of my favourite phrases. It is by Ferreira Gullar, a poet from Maranhão, when talking about his career in art during an interview. "Art is an unpredictable thing, it is discovered, it is an invention of life. And whoever says that making poetry is suffering is lying: it is good, even when writing about something suffered. Poetry transfigures things, even when you are in the abyss. Art exists because life is not enough”].

 

Emerging formats: poetry from the US

And people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.

And listened more deeply …

(From the web, by Kitty O’Meara).

 

Image of the screenshot of the Instagram page @CovidArtMuseum showing the text of the poem by the title “And the people stayed home”, by Kitty O’Meara.  “And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. "And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. "And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed." Kitty O'Meara
And the people stayed home, by Kitty O’Meara –Photo sourced by Instagram, June 2020 @CovidArtMuseum

 

Kitty O’Meara, awarded the “poet laureate of the pandemic” by the web arena, is an Irish American teacher who wrote the poem during the days of the pandemic outbreak last March. The poem went immediately viral, and has now become an illustrated book for children. This represents an emerging format type of literary production: those produced, acclaimed, and published in a very short interval of time.

The circulation of ideas, inspirations, and artistic products have been floating around the world, not only via the powerful means of the World Wide Web, but also through the most traditional and time-sensitive channel: the postal service.  

 

Mail art: mailing hope from New York and Mexico

In May, New York-based artist and researcher Lexie Smith, founded a food-based art project, Bread on Earth, offering to send free active sourdough starters preventively dehydrated via UPS to anyone who would have made requests. Over 700 people responded to the call at the beginning. As she explains on her website: “Stay safe, and let this time remind you that bread is only a threat when in the hands of few, and power when in the hands of many”.

The project also aimed to create a ‘locations of the jars’ map. As the sourdough travelled to people around the world, the map would show the spread of this happy bread-making community, since sourdough starters can be easily shared with friends, family and neighbours. She has sent parcels all over the U.S. and Canada, Singapore, India, Bulgaria, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Paris, London, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Mexico, and Hawaii amongst other places.

 

Image of heart-shaped bread served on a chopping board
Heart shaped bread. I received this heart shaped bread from my partner who, despite the distance, made my living with the pandemic days an artistic adventure (blog post author's personal image) 

 

Mail Art has never been so vivid since its glorious time of the 60s, and it has now become so iconic that I have found it portrayed in an oil on canvas, and it looks great.

 

Image of a brown paper parcel painted on canvas. A read sticker on the parcel reads "FRAGIL" in white characters. The Mobius loop, the sign for recycling paper, is stamped in white on the left part of the parcel. On the right part of the envelope, there is a white label with three bar codes and a text that reads: besos y abrazos urgentes / urgent kisses and hugs
Envios urgentes de cuarantena / Urgent quarantine shipments, by Mariana Lagunas @marianalagunasart -Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. Photo sourced by Instagram September 2020 @CovidArtMuseum. Photo ©marianalagunasart

 

“Por medio de mi obra exploro el concepto de optimismo, pues a mi modo de ver es un tema que contiene una dualidad entre conformismo y ambición. El optimismo llega a ser en algunos casos incluso doloroso, pues la presión por ser agradecido, así como la culpa por no serlo, se traducen en frustración. Este último es un sentimiento que se generaliza, crece y que está directamente relacionado con el fortalecimiento de las redes sociales, el microtargeting, la publicidad y los medios de comunicación masiva” (Mariana Lagunas’ website)

[Through my work I explore the concept of optimism, since in my view it is a theme that contains a duality between conformity and ambition. Optimism can be, in some cases, even painful, since the pressure to be grateful, as well as the guilt for not being grateful, translate into frustration. The latter is a sentiment that is generalizing, growing and that is directly related to the strengthening of social networks, micro-targeting, advertising and the mass media].

 

Banner Art: from Toronto and London

First exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mark Titchener’s banner "Please believe these days will pass," have been found all around the city during the days of the first lockdown. It made London and many other UK cities the perfect hosts of this gigantic artist’s book. With this banner, Titchener visually confronted the passers-by using his typical language-based graphic statement. In those early days of desperation and fears it came as a revelation, a vector towards the mass common denominator: to believe that these days will pass for us all.

 

Photographic image of Mark Titchner's banner. The image covers the entire wall of a two-story house. It presents impressions of colour in shades of red, yellow and blue and in the centre a message written in large letters that reads: Please believe these days will pass
London Fields. A shot I took during my one form of exercise per day in the vicinity of my house on the days of the first lockdown. The banner reproduces Mark Titchner’s work "Please believe these days will pass". It was presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2012. 

 

The 2006 Turner Prize-nominee's work particularly fits with studies in typography and typographical characters when they are used to inspire people, communicate to the core of the community and bring art to a street-based-level. The people become part of it, deciding how to read it and which voice to give to it. No captions are provided, just the imagination and personal, or common, feelings and circumstances of passers-by. Here is a piece of art in which each of us is part of it.

[Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, Americas and Oceania Collections]

 

Bibliography and suggested readings:

Alan Moore, Do / Design: why beauty is key to everything, London: Do Book Co., 2016. Shelfmark: YKL.2017.a.11507

Liz Rideal, Kathleen Soriano, Madam & Eve: women portraying women, London: Laurence King Publishing, 2018. Shelfmark: YC.2019.b.367.

Leo Jansen, Jans Luijten and Nienke Bakker (editors), Vincent Van Gogh. The letters: the complete illustrated and annotated edition, London: Thames & Hudson, in association with the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute, 2009 (Volume 5: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Letters to his brother Theo). Shelfmark: YC.2010.b.362 vol. 5.

Mark Titchner, Why and why not: vibrations, schizzes and knots, London: Book Works, 2004. Shelfmark: YC.2007.a.6117.

Martin Clark, Mark Beasley, Alun Rowlands, Tom Trevor, (editors), Mark Titchner, Bristol: Arnolfini, 2006. Shelfmark: YC.2011.b.820.

Richard L. Hopkins (editor), The private typecasters: preserving the craft of hot-metal type into the twenty-first century, Newtown, Pennsylvania: Bird & Pull Press, 2008. Shelfmark: RF.2017.b.103).

On the art and poetics of Ferreira Gullar, see the British Library holdings at: https://bit.ly/3qaHmXs

From the web to the publisher. Kitty O’Meara’s "And the people stayed home: https://trapublishing.com/products/and-the-people-stayed-home

 

Collect, preserve and cataloguing emerging format at the British Library:

https://www.bl.uk/projects/emerging-formats?_ga=2.68841681.1751897924.1590397461-675682078.1590397461

https://blogs.bl.uk/digital-scholarship/2019/04/collecting-emerging-formats.html

 

On the definition of Mail Art as an artistic phenomenon: https://bit.ly/2JvBW8E

Mail Art initiatives at the time of the first coronavirus pandemic wave:

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/quarantine-mail-art-initiative-usps-1902009

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/mail-art-renaissane-1850670

On Mail Art publications and items at the British Library:

https://bit.ly/3qgqK0w

https://bit.ly/3mtuUjh

 

 

 

24 June 2020

Remembering Dr King: US Black activism in the UK and beyond

This is the second of two blog posts responding to the murder of George Floyd, and the international Black Lives Matter protests.  Click to read the first post, “Hell You Talmbout”.

Following the assassination of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night of April 4th, 1968, the United States experienced rioting in over 100 cities.

While many who read the term ‘race riot’ think about African Americans rioting in their own communities, mass racial violence has a very long history in the United States as this comprehensive timeline on Wikipedia attests.Instances include attacks on Indigenous peoples, recent and established immigrant groups, and African Americans. This includes mass violence perpetrated by white Americans towards African Americans such as occurred during the Red Summer of 1919. The Red Summer witnessed one of the most deadly riots in US history, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas.[1]  Similarly, in Tulsa in 1921, white Americans lynched the large and prosperous black community, burning down swathes of the city and killing hundreds.

 

Image of front cover. "The Arkansas Race Riot", by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 1920.
Cover of Ida B. Wells’ journalistic account, The Arkansas Race Riots. This is available to read in full at the Internet Archive.

 

Nonetheless, instances of rioting in the twentieth century remained largely isolated until the 1960s which witnessed several waves of riots.  The ‘long hot summer of 1967’ was especially tumultuous, with 159 race riots including the Newark riot, the Watts riot, and the Detroit riot proving particularly destructive to life and property. Due to the continued unrest, President Lyndon Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders which delivered its infamous “Kerner Report” the following year.  The findings were stark: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal…To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” [2]

 

Image of front cover of the bestselling Kerner Report
Front cover of the bestselling Kerner Report

 

The commission’s stark warning identified racist policing practices as the primary factor that caused deep resentment amongst inner city African American.  However, they clarified:

The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.

The commission identified that anger about the flawed criminal justice system was representative of much wider social divisions that were visible in all aspects of African American life.  Unemployment, inadequate housing, inadequate education, white racism, discrimination in consumer and credit practices, and ineffectiveness of political structures were just some of the grievances identified.  The commission’s finding was unequivocal: white racism in all forms of African American life was the direct cause of the riots.  It was an instant best-seller, demand outstripped supply.  This was exactly the point that Dr King had been trying to make in the final years of his life:

The only thing that can be done is to aggressively get rid of the intolerable conditions that bring riots into being… the culprit in this situation is not merely the one with a Molotov cocktail but the culprit is a Congress, is the recalcitrance of white society, the vacillation and ambivalence of white America on the question of genuine equality for the Black man. https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/190101

Within weeks of the publication of the Kerner report, Dr King had been murdered.  Both the assassination and the rioting that followed received widespread international coverage.  Scenes from his funeral were widely televised, and many acts of solidarity took place around the world.  Authors, artists, and dramatists were inspired to commemorate him in verse, picture, and on stage, many examples of which can be seen throughout our collections.  These give an insight into Dr King’s position as an international speaker on matters of justice and race, and how the US was regarded from an outside perspective.  They are also indicative of conversations about race that were taking place locally, or in some instances, conversations that appeared to be about race but had other underlying purposes.

 

Cover of Benjamin Bharati’s play Murder of a Prophet: a moving and absorbing drama on the victorious life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Bombay, 1969)
Cover of Benjamin Bharati’s play Murder of a Prophet: a moving and absorbing drama on the victorious life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Bombay, 1969). Shelfmark: X.989/20837.

 

The above play, published in India, pays homage to Dr King's dedication to non-violence and the inspiration of Gandhi's advocacy of non-violence in campaigning against British colonialism.

 

Image of front cover of Drum Major for a Dream. Binding in pink silk
Cover of Drum Major for a Dream. Shelfmark: YA.1989.a.3738

 

This volume of poetry, Drum Major for a Dream (shelfmark YA.1989.a.3738), wrapped in beautiful pink silk, was produced by the Calcutta Writer’s Workshop. It includes Gwendolyn Brooks’ tribute poem Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Image of front cover and illustration. Dolor por la Muerte de un Negro (Mexico, 1968), a poem by Manuel Aguilar de la Torre. Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos
Manuel Aguilar de la Torre’s poem Dolor por la Muerte de un Negro (Mexico, 1968) is powerfully illustrated by woodcuts. Shelfmark: X.908/19389.

 

This volume from Mexico carries vivid woodcut illustrations alongside a poem that reflects on Dr King’s words.  The woodcuts are by Arturo Garcia Bustos, who studied under Frida Kahlo and who was heavily influenced by Mexican muralism. Garcia Bustos also spent time studying printmaking in Korea and China. His work regularly touched on topics of political and social injustice, and revolutionary politics in Latin America.

 

Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos
Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos.

 

His treatment of Dr King’s murder takes on an agrarian imagery, similar to that of the workers and revolutionaries he depicted elsewhere. Dr King is thus depicted as a martyr for the world’s poor and oppressed.

One of the more interesting examples of international responses in our collections is this Soviet pamphlet, written the night of the assassination. Published by the Moscow based Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, a state-owned news agency, it is a treatise on racism in the United States and includes sections discussing the Watts riots, the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing, and the march from Selma to Montgomery.

 

Image of front cover of Fire Bell in the Night
Cover of Fire Bell in the Night. Shelfmark: X.808/4705.

 

The title Fire Bell in the Night references Thomas Jefferson’s comments upon Missouri’s petition to be admitted as a slave state in 1819, which demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the history of race in the US.  Often used as a shorthand for the superiority of communism, US race relations regularly featured in Soviet politics and culture. 

Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, many prominent African American and Caribbean creatives were invited to take part in projects with Soviet counterparts, which were unabashedly propagandistic in tone. Visitors to the USSR included authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, and singer Paul Robeson. Many of those who travelled recalled being met with a refreshing interest in their work and political opinions.  Hughes was particularly creatively inspired by his encounter with Soviet politics of solidarity and the promise of internationalist racial alliances, which can be seen in his selections of Soviet poetry for translation. Kate A. Baldwin writes: “As the poem "Kinship," written by Julian Anissimov and translated by Hughes, suggests, partnerships between "the Russian" and "the Negro" promised a shift from biologically determined links (that is, those fabricated through blood) to politically determined ones.”[3]

 

Front cover image of the anthology of ‘Negro poetry’ edited by Loren Miller, Africa in America (Aфрика в Америке)
The sponsored trips of Harlem Renaissance authors resulted in an anthology of ‘Negro poetry’ edited by Loren Miller, Africa in America (Aфрика в Америке). Shelfmark RB.23.a.36269. Some of the poems in the opening section of this anthology are likely to have been fabricated by the translator to make a clearer connection with Soviet politics.

 

Later, in 1976, Audre Lorde wrote about two weeks she spent in Moscow at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Writers in the collection Sister Outsider. In the essay she reflects of her experience: “I came away with revolutionary women in my head. But I feel very much now still that we, Black Americans, exist alone in the mouth of the dragon. As I’ve always suspected, outside of rhetoric and proclamations of solidarity, there is no help, except ourselves.” Her respect for Soviet culture but disillusion with the lack of pragmatic support for African American movements echoes that of the many authors and artists who preceded her, as they interrogated the motivations behind Soviet interest in US race relations. Notably, Lorde speaks of viewing positive relations between different ethnic groups on her tours of the Soviet Union, but of course she was not in a position to witness the treatment of Soviet’s own minority ethnic groups.

It is in this light, then, that we need to approach images such as the below which shows a meeting of workers at a Moscow automobile factory in memory of Dr King.  The placard reads “Shame on racist killers!”

 

Photograph from Есть у меня мечта. It shows a meeting of workers at a Moscow automobile factory in memory of Dr King
Photograph from Есть у меня мечта. Shelfmark: X.708/6833.

 

The Soviets were not the only Europeans whose interest in Black cultures and US racial politics reflected internal political dynamics.  Many have noted that their interest in such was quite late coming in comparison to say the post-WWI Negritude movement prominent in French arts and intellectual life (such as the jazz successes of James Reese Europe and the 369th Infantry, and the Pan African Congress of 1919 ). 

The first Pan African Congress, however, took place nineteen years earlier in London and was organised by a British based Trinidadian lawyer, Henry Sylvester Williams.  Notably it was attended by leading US black intellectual W.B. DuBois who would continue to organise the Congress after WWII, and later found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Anti-colonial activism, and international reciprocity between black intellectuals has thus been a long-standing feature of the British (and European) conversation about race.

French authors also were interested in US race relations.  Romain Gary’s book Chien Blanc (1970), set in Los Angeles, is a fictionalised account of the author’s attempts to re-programme a former Alabama police dog that had been trained to attack Black people on sight.  It is a tale of morality tale that reflects on the nature of racism, the California civil rights and Black power movements, and the hypocrisy of white activists (which included his ex-wife, actress Jean Seberg).

 

Image of front cover of Romain Gary’s Chien Blanc
Cover of Romain Gary’s Chien Blanc shows a graphic of a police dog attacking a Black protestor, against the backdrop of a Metropolitcan skyline. Shelfmark: X.709/10618.

 

In the UK, King’s death and the rioting was widely commented on.  Many spoke directly of Dr King’s work and sacrifice, and of concern for the social wellbeing of the US, that historically.  However, the occasion also provided a way to reflect upon race relations at home.  This was not a passing superficial comparison.  At the time, two key acts were being discussed in Parliament: the 1968 Race Relations Act (RRA) and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 (CIA).

The 1968 RRA act sought to bring in additional provisions that were omitted from the 1965 legislation (the first of its kind in the UK). The sections that proved most controversial to a British public at the time related to legislation around discrimination in housing, employment, and the provision of goods. The updated act also enabled civil proceedings against those who broke legislation in the earlier act. While the RRA gave more powers to the Race Relations Board which was seen by many as a previously ‘toothless’ organisation, the simultaneous passing of the CIA further restricted the rights of citizens from Commonwealth countries to move to the United Kingdom (building on 1962 legislation). 

 Just two weeks after Dr King’s death, Enoch Powell delivered his deliberately inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech which resulted in a rise of racist incidents across the country, particularly in the West Midlands where Powell delivered his speech.  The author Hanif Kureishi who was 14 at the time recalls that “At school , Powell’s name soon become one terrifying word – Enoch. As well as an insult, it began to be used with elation. ‘Enoch will deal with you lot,’ and ‘Enoch will soon be knocking on your door, pal.’”  While Powell was summarily dismissed from the cabinet, his speech and the response to it made immigration a key Conservative issue.  The party’s win at the 1970 general election heralded policy changes in Commonwealth immigration that were a root cause of the deportations of British Caribbean citizens at the heart of the Windruh generation scandal .

It is no coincidence that just three years prior, Malcolm X had visited Smethwick.  He was invited to tour the area by the local branch of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) following an unashamedly racist election campaign by the local Conservative MP. Following successful lobbying by residents, housing segregation had become the official policy of the local Conservative council.  Malcolm X visited Marshall street where the council had agreed to buy unoccupied houses to block non-white ownership, and witnessed the colour bar in local businesses. It leads to his observing that Britain was worse than some parts of the United States where these activities were now outlawed.

 

Black and white photograph of Malcolm X taking a walk down Marshall Street in Smethwick, to inspect the housing segregation practices supported by the Conservative-led Council
Malcolm X takes a walk down Marshall Street in Smethwick, to inspect the housing segregation practices supported by the Conservative-led Council.

 

The then secretary of the Smethwick IWA, Avtar Singh Jouhl, recalls that Malcolm X said that “he was travelling to get more information and more education on the structure of how imperialism works. There was a big revolution going on inside himself.”  Part of this was looking at how this corresponded to British colonialism, and affected Asian as well as black communities.  His visit provided hope for local anti-racist activists and renewed inspiration to persist with their activities. “He reminded us that without struggle change can’t come.” 

While many white locals did not know who Malcolm X was, many were also outraged by his visit.  This included the Mayor of Smethwick who said that “it makes my blood boil that Malcolm X should be allowed into this country” and called his visit to Marshall Street “deplorable” and an incitement to increased tensions in the community. [4]

 

Photographic image of the blue plaque erected to commemorate Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street
The blue plaque erected to commemorate Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street.

 

This visit formed part of Malcolm X’s growing international itinerary in the last year of his life, which had contributed to his gradual development of an internationalist approach to race and racism.  He was killed 9 days after his visit to Smethwick. 

Like Malcolm X, Dr King’s visits to the UK also informed his understanding of the causes of racism, which was becoming increasingly global in outlook.  He visited on several occasions.  In 1961, during which time he was interviewed in depth by the BBC’s John Freeman (available to watch in full on BBC iPlayer for UK based readers).

He visited twice in 1964. During one of these visits he preached a rousing sermon at St Pauls and this speech at an event organised by Christian Action. Looking across both speeches, it becomes clear that he was interested in drawing out the connections between racism and economic justice on the global stage.  He spoke of segregation in the United States, of South African apartheid, and finally of the situation in the UK: 

“… the problem of racial injustice is not limited to any one nation. We know now that this is a problem spreading all over the globe. And right here in London and right here in England, you know so well that thousands and thousands of colored people are migrating here from many, many lands—from the West Indies, from Pakistan, from India, from Africa. And they have the just right to come to this great land, and they have the just right to expect justice and democracy in this land. And England must be eternally vigilant. For if not, the same kind of ghettos will develop that we have in the Harlems of the United States. The same problems of injustice, the same problems of inequality in jobs will develop.”

Dr King also met with the Trinidadian historian and social theorist C.L.R. James, with whom he subsequently corresponded.  Notably, James gifted him his own influential book The Black Jacobins, and George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism?

 

Black and white portrait of C.L.R. James
C.L.R. James

 

Together they later met with British immigrant groups who explained in more detail the structural differences between British and American race relations, particularly the importance of Britain’s colonial past and its relationship to immigration. Dr King thus influenced British activism in turn: the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, an early pacifist campaigning group that coordinated activities by numerous Commonwealth migrant groups was established following this meeting.

Like Malcolm X in the West Midlands, Dr King’s visits to the UK formed one element of a larger international conversation (interestingly, the Jamaican poet and intellectual James Berry wrote to various people in the US including Dr King in the early Sixties, in an attempt to establish a Black Studies journal. These can be found in the James Berry archive). The flow of ideas and strategies was reciprocal, and was informed by a growing body of black scholarship, literature, arts and culture, as well as activism.

 

Black and white photographic image of a young man wearing a Public Enemy ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ jacket raises a Black Power fist by a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London, on 6 June 2020
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020

 

We can see this political and cultural fusion in images of the protests that have taken place in London in the last few weeks.  In the image above, a young man wearing a Public Enemy ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ jacket raises a Black Power fist by a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.  Below, another man wears the black beret that was part of the US Black Panthers’ ‘uniform’ while similarly raising his fist.  The embroidery on his jacket is a quotation by Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

 

Black and white photographic image of a man wearing the black beret that was part of the US Black Panthers’ ‘uniform’ while raising his fist. The embroidery on his jacket is a quotation by Nelson Mandela
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020

 

Most people remember the Black Panthers as a US movement, but like Malcolm X and Dr King, their influence spread much further afield. In the UK, the Black Panther Movement established in London in the summer of 1968, a few months after the riots that followed Dr King’s assassination. You can find two representative issues of their newsletter Freedom News at shelfmark: RH.9.x.1790, (by coincidence the George Padmore Institute and Shades of Noir have just announced a digitisation project for these).

While unaffiliated with the US party, they were heavily influenced by their namesake.  Unsurprisingly, then, their activities focussed on policing and community programmes. 

 

Cover of ‘Freedom News’, June 1973. Headline reads "Police terror must stop"
Cover of ‘Freedom News’, June 1973. The headline and photograph highlights “growing police terror in South London” which resulted in a “police riot in Brockwell Park”. Courtesy of George Padmore Institute and Shades of Noir

 

Particularly noteworthy was the influential ‘Mangrove Nine’ case. This followed the arrest of nine protestors from the Black Panthers Movement after a march against repeated police raids on the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, which served as a meeting place for activists. The defendants followed the US Black Panthers’ radical defence strategy in the court room, calling to be tried by a jury of their Black peers.  While they weren’t entirely successful, they were able to dismiss 69 jurors for being unsuitable and find two black jurors.  All nine were cleared on the charge of riot, and the closing statement made by the sitting judge was the first in the UK to mention racial prejudice on the part of police.

 

Black and white photographic image of a young woman holding a placard which reads ‘I never liked pigs they’re haram anyways’, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS. Young woman holds placard which reads ‘I never liked pigs they’re haram anyways’, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020

 

This image is particularly interesting in how it captures the overlap of popular and protest cultures between the US and the UK. The placard is clearly tongue-in-cheek in its anti-police sentiment, highlighting the woman’s pride in her (presumably) Muslim identity, but in the wake of the George Floyd murder, it is a serious and sombre message that carries echoes in the UK and internationally (depressingly familiar parallels can be found in policing tactics in France, and Brazil, for example). It could be taken straight from a US Black Panther publication, which regularly used the term and imagery of ‘pigs’ to refer to police, national guard, military, government figures, and US imperialism more broadly.  Particularly noteworthy here is the artwork of Emory Douglas (the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party) which featured regularly in the publication (of which we hold some examples at shelfmark: LOU.A499).

 

Image from the US Black Panther newspaper, copyright Emory Douglas
Image from the US Black Panther newspaper, copyright Emory Douglas

 

It is worth remembering that the Black Panther Party in the US was a varied organisation that carried out wide ranging activities.  As well as calling for “community control of police” as per the above image, they organised community programmes such as free breakfast clubs for families living in poverty which served approximately 20,000 meals per week across nineteen communities. They also became strong advocates of health as a human right, and established free health clinics in thirteen communities and ran a national sickle cell screening programme (a genetic disease that had previously been largely ignored because it mostly affected people of African descent).  It is because of activities such as these that the party had such a stronghold in Oakland and San Francisco, and it is why when Dr King was assassinated, these cities remained unaffected by the rioting that erupted across America: they were quiet, Bobby Seale said, “because we told them to be quiet.”  

This, often overlooked, aspect of the Black Panthers has striking parallels to Dr King’s radical later work with the Poor People’s Campaign and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. While their route to this was substantially different (Karl Marx, via Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ for the Panthers), they nonetheless came to share a globally informed understanding of racism, and its relationship to economic and social injustice.

 

Image of woodcut illustration by Paul Pieter Piech, Words and Wisdoms of Martin Luther King, 1968
Woodcut by Paul Pieter Piech, Words and Wisdoms of Martin Luther King, Bushey Heath, Herts. The Taurus Press (1968). Shelfmark: Cup.510.bea.4.

 

The above work by Paul Pieter Piech was printed in the UK, in commemoration of Dr King. His woodcuts are set alongside quotations taken from his ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon', which was played at his funeral service.  It is one of many such items in the Library’s collections that recall Dr King’s civil rights work through his own words, and which treat as inseparable the issue of racial inequalities based and American nationalism.

Almost a year after Dr King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King who was an activist in her own right, followed in her husband’s footsteps and preached at St Paul’s Cathedral (the first woman to preach at a statutory service there):  "Many despair at all the evil and unrest and disorder in the world today, but I see a new social order and I see the dawn of a new day."  Many today would question whether that new day has yet dawned.

It is interesting, then, to compare the results of polling of Americans on their views of racism following the riots of 1967 to the protests of 2020.  Following the publication of the Kerner report, “Polls showed that 53 percent of white Americans condemned the claim that racism had caused the riots, while 58 percent of black Americans agreed with the findings.”  By contrast, this poll by Monmouth University Polling Institute shows that the George Floyd murder and the current protests have led to large numbers of Americans changing their perspective on racism, policing, and the justification for protests. 

Most Americans say the anger about black deaths at the hands of police officers that led to recent protests is fully justified, even if they do not feel the same about the actual actions. A majority of the public now agrees that the police are more likely to use excessive force with a black person than a white person in similar situations. Only one-third of the country held this opinion four years ago. The [poll] also finds that the number of people who consider racial and ethnic discrimination to be a big problem has increased from about half in 2015 to nearly 3 in 4 now.

It is deeply troubling to reflect that this shift was precipitated by a viral video of a murder.  Let us hope that no more such deaths or videos are now necessary to bring about the necessary urgent action to accompany these changes in perspective that are being demanded in the US, the UK, France, and beyond.

It feels fitting to end here with one of the poems in Drum Major for a Dream.  ‘After the Killing of Martin Luther King’, written by Lou Lipsitz.  It speaks of ways of finding consolation and strength when faced with intolerable injustice.  Like many African Americans before and after, Lipsitz finds strength and historical resilience in the blues and jazz traditions.

I listened to old music

all day

trying to console myself

- the New Orleans jazzmen,

Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie

McGhee -things

like

The Southbound Train

My Bucket’s Got

a Hole in It and Twelve Gates to the City

music out of the chain gangs

music out of loneliness, desolation

music of the poor who would not be humiliated

that shows you how to jump

the truck

out of history

and pick yourself up in the dust

damn near whole.

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] There is no clear final count of deaths, but historians agree it was over one hundred and likely in the several hundreds. One contemporary account by Louis Sharpe Dunaway places this as high as 850. For more information on this event, see https://ualrexhibits.org/elaine/

[2] For more on the Kerner Commission, see this wonderfully illustrated article from the Smithsonian magazine which accompanied an exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. See also “Riot Report Book Big Best Seller” in The New York Times, March 14, 1968, p. 49.

[3] Kate A. Baldwin, “The Russian Connection: Interracialism as Queer Alliance in Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks”, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 48, No. 4, Winter 2002, pp. 795-824.

[4] “Malcolm X in Smethwick” Birmingham Daily News, Saturday 13 February p. 1 and 34. You can see this article and other responses in local newspapers using the British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

 

Reading list

This Oxford Press bibliography has some great reading recommendations related to African Americans and communism:

https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780190280024/obo-9780190280024-0023.xml

Saladin Ambar, Malcolm X at Oxford Union: rcial politics in a global era. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.

R. Kelley and S. Tuck (eds.): The Other Special Relationships: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States

Audio: Archive on 4: Malcolm X in Oxford: listen here (UK only) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04tcbd2

“Britain’s Most Racist Election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on”, The Guardian, 15 October 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on

The London Black Panther Movement newsletters are digitised on the website Shades of Noir: http://www.shadesofnoir.org.uk/artefacts/black-panther-newsletters/#

The George Padmore Institute holds a rich archive of material relating to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe. https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/

The Black Cultural Archives has an ongoing programme of exhibitions and events related to Black British history: https://blackculturalarchives.org

 

[Blog post by Francisca Fuentes Rettig -Curator, North American Published Collections]

 

American Collections blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs