Mel Edwards' Way
Mel Edwards' Way
For many Americans, particularly those who came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, the death of fourteen year old Emmett Till in 1955 was a shocking revelation of our society's deep moral corruption by matters racial. At least two men, maybe more, took young Till from his uncle's home on an August night in Money, Mississippi and killed him - they lynched him - for the imagined offence of breaking southern etiquette on race, gender and sexuality. Till, an American of African ancestry, had allegedly held the waist of and whistled at Carol Bryant, and American woman of European ancestry. For this offence, his life was taken. An all-male jury who shared, or believed they shared, a common ancestry with Carol Bryant, found his tormentors Roy Bryant, the husband, and J.W. Milam, his brother-in-law, innocent in face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
I very well remember Emmett Till's death, for it was like a death in the family. On hearing the news that Till's body had been found in the Tallahatchie River, my mother wept in the kitchen of our home in Washington, D.C. Through my child mind's eye, weeping was reserved for the loss of family. My father was equally upset, though his pain was not revealed in tears. He reminded me that my color, my race, would indeed matter in the future, that as a black boy, not much younger than Till, I would have to be careful around white people. That brief tutorial on racial Amercian customs was the beginning of my passage into adulthood, and I was only ten.
Mel Edwards was eighteen years old when Emmett Till's life was at once lost and memorialized at the helm of a gathering movement for social justice and as an end to lynching. I would imagine that tragedy, and its aftermath, found its way into his vision for metal sculptures that encircle and commemorate enduring themes in the lives of Africans and African Americans in the past and present. Indeed, when I first learned of his critically acclaimed series of small sculptural reliefs Lynch Fragments, I though of Emmett Till and the far more anonymous victims of earlier acts of cruelty. Mr. Edwards' work in this realm presents a powerful form to which both memory and history have responded. He has long grappled with the horrific consequences brought to the surface by atavistic notions of race. Race, that conundrum of beliefs and superstitions that define America'a existence, is also the subtext for Mr. Edwards' artistic vision. That he would use race and what racism begets places him among other modernists outraged over evil. That he forces us to consider the aesthetics of the instruments employed in the service of racism places him among the world's most compelling visual artists.
Mel Edwards is among a distinctive group of black artists who came of age during the waning years of the Jim Crow Era and the early morning light of the Civil Rights Movement, when efforts to break free of segregation outpaced the ability of African Americans to protect its closeted dividend, that being a measure of autonomy and self reliance. Black communities, with their churches, schools, businesses, mentors and their sense of place, gave Mel Edwards and his generation a vivid appreciation of the mettle of cultural survivals and surroundings. In Houston and in Dayton, Ohio, where he lived as a youngster, there existed an intact racialized world with a racialized world. In such places the lives of blacks were interconnected by fealty to family, neighborhood, and memory. Remembering that time, he has said, "We had a world!" Indeed. Now nearly eroded by the unforeseen consequences of the Civil Rights Movement and the disruptions imposed by reckless urban change, the infrastructure of the old black communities of Houston and Dayton gave young Mel Edwards a clear understanding of the larger narrative of black American life. Arguably his is the last generation of African Americans to have such an unencumbered vision of black life, which probably explains, in part, why his art is informed by so many narratives, some tragic, others heroic.
Mr. Edwards' emergence as a major visual voice also coincides with a still evolving era of American cultural democracy, now long past its dawning. It began in the 1960s amid considerable discussion within artistic circles about the responsibility of artists, especially those of color, to social issues. Should black artists, it was asked, be purveyors of distinct cultural - read - racial - legacies that lead to a better understanding of black culture in all of its forms? Should they be exhibited together as a cohort group? And do black artists have a responsibility to cleave to matters of particular concern to "their people." These are now old questions that remind us of the Harlem Renaissance and its emphasis on identity, authenticity, and race pride. Now that we have moved into what might be called a post-racialist era - the end of a scientific basis for race - artists of color might just transcend the confines and constructions imposed on them in the past.
But if black artists of Mr. Edwards' generation have been able to rise above arbitrary definitions of their identity as artists and gain honorific status as individuals, one wonders if they or, for that matter, artists generally can ignore the deeply emotional resonance of race in American life. Much to his credit, Mr. Edwards has chosen to look, without blinking, at that resonance. More than any artist inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, he turned his talent and, I believe, his courage toward a reconsideration of the horrors to which race must be attributed. His abstracted images drawn from what is known and remembered of the slave trade, bondage, captivity, and lynching distub and foster anger and helplessness. These images, now near the center to contemporary sensibilities of modern art, also resituate and strengthen our feelings about the preciousness of freedom and joy. This is especially true with respect to Mr. Edwards' considerations of lynching as a metaphor for aspects of the modern human condition. Over the course of the twentieth century, lynching became the most wrenching offence associated with racial hysteria. Its infamy outraged decent people and enabled the first generation of black civil rights leaders to implicate the aroused passions of the lynch mob in subtler, more polite forms of racism. During the interwar years, African American and Jewish artists, including Seymour Lipton, Aaron Douglas, Harry Sternberg, and Elizabeth Catlett, drew attention to the unrequited abhorrence of lynching. And, in 1935, there were two exhibitions in New York, one organized for the NAACP by its director, Walter White, and mounted at the Arthur U. Newton Galleries,a dn another sponsored by leftist members of the Artists' Union, among other organizations, as the American Contemporary Art Gallery. Both dramatized the gathering opposition to lynching among inter-war artists and the use of its imagery to bring attention to larger social and moral issues facing a flawed democracy.
Lynching has always been much more than white racial fealty gone mad. The breadth of the practice in American history suggests deeper meanings. Between the end of Civil War and roughly 1968, over 5,000 Americans, mostly of African ancestry, were lynched. Italians, Mexicans, and Indians were also among its victims, as were whites of such meager means they seemingly were not white at all, certainly not to those who took their lives. Lynching was directed at people of color and mostly, but not exclusively, it claimed the lives of men. It occurred throughout the South, through border and even northern states were not immune to it. Not surprisingly, the brutality of these violent spectacles would discourage a closer look at their cause. And yet recent scholarship has shown that lynching can be understood within the context of a modernizing society in which boredom, social anxiety and ignorance were vented racially.
At this juncture in our nation's history, when we know more about the past than ever before, and when the moral challenges of the twentieth century enable us to move beyond shock onto a higher plane of discovery and reconciliation, Mel Edwards is all the more important to our visual literacy. His images of hurt, oppression, defiance, and survival, images hammered into and out of metals and placed on paper, embrace a new way of knowing and feeling about what was formerly unspeakable. To be sure, he presents us with recognizable symbols that brings to mind Emmett Till and the earlier, longer narrative of injustices and sadness. There is something more to consider, however: the torment of race did not come without a countervailing effort by blacks to survive, to weld elements of their pain onto their quest for joy and aspirations and their intense desire to move forward. And those whites who ritualized black suffering at the lynching, often with grotesque expressions of joy on their faces, were unable to convince the blacks who survived their rage, or themselves, that whiteness had much of a future.
Clement Alexander Price Professor of History Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey