Langston Hughes once said, “But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible."
As I walked into A Tale of Two Collections at the Mississippi Museum of Art, I was captivated by the bold colors of the artwork. Reds, blues, yellows, greens, oranges and browns boomed through the gallery. The stream of colors reminded me of the beautiful, endless hues and shades that represent the heritage of the United States and the beauty of the promise of America yet to be fulfilled.
In 1964, a New York Post headline read, “In Jackson, Mississippi, art is a matter of Black and white. Whites won’t come to the Negro art gallery and Negroes aren’t allowed at the white museum.” A little over a decade later, two groups on both sides of the racial divide began working together to create merged collections that were inclusive of Black art.
A Tale of Two Collections features artwork from Black and white artists, side by side. The exhibit features the colorful collages of Romare Bearden; the stark lines of Pablo Picasso; the powerful, historical illustrations of Elizabeth Catlett and the breathtaking landscapes of Hale Woodruff, among six other artists. The collection was created with the goal of the New York Art Committee for Tougaloo College and the Mississippi Art Association to commit to “collection sharing, cultural exchange, and dialogue between the two institutions.”
The collection shares a great deal about Black culture in the United States. Romare Bearden’s The Train (1975) is a mixed media collage that tells the story of Blacks migrating on trains to escape segregation in the South. The collage features images of Blacks of all ages and walks of life riding on the train. Similarly, Elizabeth Catlett’s …And a Special Fear for my Loved Ones (1946) shares the horrors of Jim Crow segregation in the South. This black and white linoleum print depicts a Black man in a noose as men stand around him stepping on the noose, drawing direct attention to the terrifying history of lynching in the South.
I was moved as I saw these works displayed on either side of works by Picasso, instead of seeing them in segregated spaces. The positioning of the art served to give the works equal importance and value, eliminating the “racial mountain” in Langston Hughes’s description of Black art. Seeing Black and white art valued at the same level is just the beginning to seeing that you can receive the same quality and service at Black businesses as white businesses; that Black students and white students can be equally as talented; that Black people who graduate from HBCUs can be just as qualified for jobs as whites who graduate from PWIs. A Tale of Two Collections is only the beginning of the fulfillment of America’s promise that all men are created equal.
This exhibition is presented as part of the Art & Civil Rights Initiative, a partnership of the Mississippi Museum of Art and Tougaloo College that presents joint exhibitions and programs and facilitates increased scholarship surrounding the Tougaloo Art Collection.