Five works by Black artists capture an enduring engagement of care, celebration, and commemoration.
Feb 5, 2024
An ode to the neglected and seeing in the shadows
In President Gerald Ford’s 1976 speech marking the national recognition of Black History Month, he called it a moment “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” But neglected by whom? In the Chicago summer of 1915, six decades prior to President Ford’s speech, Dr. Carter G. Woodson attended a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Black emancipation. The occasion was an opportunity to recognize the long history of Black suffering in the country and to celebrate Black American accomplishments. Such a gathering laid the groundwork for what Dr. Woodson would later call Negro History Week in 1926. Considering these occasions of Black recognition that predate President Ford’s (mis-)diagnosis of “neglect,” one might see what Ford failed to: an engagement of care, celebration, and commemoration done in the dark. I am drawn to artworks in MoMA’s collection presenting a similar care-full darkness, luminous blackness, and clarifying mystery, works whose mechanisms of memory and meaning lie in their shadowy areas.
In curator Ashley James’s introductory essay to the catalog for Going Dark: The Contemporary Figure at the Edge of Visibility (currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum), she writes, “What would the blackness of the painting mean if we considered not only its sociopolitical symbolism, but also its literal effects as a color whose qualities acutely influence sight and perception? To consider black not only as a component and symbol but also as material occlusive force?”1 What James offers us is an invitation into the dark, into blackness, and into neglect, to encounter what it holds, not what it lacks.
Considering James’s invitation, I come to the dark spaces in five works by Black artists in MoMA’s collection not so much to shine a light on them but to learn to see into them, looking at the dark without the light. Instead of calling for a national spotlight on Black achievement, this Take Five seeks an alternative: to see the loveliness in the darkness.2 For I cannot help but wonder if some aspect of the power and sacredness of the 1915 summer celebration in Chicago lies in the darkness of a moment prior to formal recognition, in its existence otherwise, in its unsanctioned space-taking and high regard for the disregarded. And, to quote poet and scholar Fred Moten, “Regarding this disregard, black art is criticism in the afternoon.”3
This notion of seeing “loveliness in the darkness” comes from author and photographer Teju Cole’s 2019 New York Times essay on the late photographer Roy DeCarava, in which Cole argued the power of DeCarava’s image was in “the loveliness of its dark areas.”
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