Visual Arts in the 1960’s and the African American Community: What does this mean for the education of immigrants today?

Influential African American artist Betye Saar, setting up her “Tangled Roots” exhibit at the Palmer Museum of Art on the University Park Campus of Penn State in 1996. Photo Credit: Penn State

On September 18, 2012, Professor Daniel Widener gave a lecture at Occidental College on visual arts in the African American community. I attended this lecture, and walked away feeling moved and inspired. Daniel Widener is a professor at the University of California San Diego. He teaches in the department of history with an emphasis on African American culture, history, and political radicalism. As an accomplished professor and insightful academic, Widener has published a number of articles and essays as well as a book, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles. After attending his lecture, I wanted to take the time to reflect on Daniel Widner’s speech and contemplate what art means for education in immigrant and minority communities.

Daniel Widener’s eye-opening perspective on the impact of visual arts for the African American community was insightful and engaging. Widener investigated the social role of art and how visual art emerged from the African American population in Los Angeles to represent a theme of renewal and the idea of reviving a broken, historically oppressed community. Widener examined the political undertones in African American artwork from the 1960’s to illuminate motifs of activism and a hope for social justice. He moved his analysis of artwork a step further and described how we can implement creativity in our education system. Widener wants to see future generations understand the deeper meanings behind artistic expression and cultivate a societal appreciation for the present actions of artists and creators. He hopes that we will create a unified, caring society by using art to move away from a materialistic, wasteful world and towards a more meaningful, reflective outlook on humanity. Widener believes that the art that came out of the African American community during the 1960’s depicts the renewal and revival our world needs to progress towards social equality and respect for all human beings.

In the process of renewal through art and the notion of art coming from the grassroots of a community, Widener discussed the concept of “found art.” Members of the African American community used junk, garbage, and everyday materials to create thought provoking pieces of visual art. In a society that was constantly throwing out appliances and other technologically advanced items, these artists found a way to recreate and reconstruct these items into pieces that embodied beauty, juxtaposition, critiques, pessimism, and optimism. The artists of the African American community used everyday resources within their neighborhoods. Living in run down areas and broken communities, the artists saw beauty, hope, and renewal in the junk that surrounded them. As Widener said in his lecture, the artists of the African American community found a way to “turn a landscape of neglect into a place of possibility.” This possibility of revival defines the unity and struggle of the African American community in Los Angeles. The artwork that emerges from these activists critiques the wastefulness of our consumer society and brings us back to the roots of a community that is recovering from oppression and working to define itself in an ever changing, constantly progressing world.

As Widener continued his lecture, he connected art to the promotion of unity and change through education. Widener showed how these pieces expressed contact and communication with the audience and engaged people in such a way that they understood deeper societal problems and felt inspired to fight for social justice. In a world that is rapidly progressing and training people to constantly think a step ahead, Widener expressed society’s struggle to simply exist and engage in the present. Through art, he found a way to reform the components of education that promote training for particular professions and argued that we must teach our youth to engage in acts that have no greater purpose than simply what is in the moment. In strategically weaving art into our education system, we can harness a creative energy that will empower children to change our world and pursue their interests. Essentially, the art that came out of the African American community expressed a way in which we ought to live our lives and educate the holistic being of each individual to create a better world.

So, what does the African American arts movement mean for immigrant communities? Widener envisions many ways in which art can energize an education system and address the whole child. In hope for a better future, many immigrants enter the United States looking to achieve upward mobility. In the process of securing jobs that will sustain their families, many immigrants tend to occupy jobs that require training, rather than a holistic education. In accepting this habit and viewing immigrants in this way, society fails to properly educate immigrant youth and access their creative potential to impact our country. As a result, we tend to exclude immigrants from social justice movements, limiting their potential to become activists and have their voices heard. I believe incorporation of the arts and social justice in the education of our immigrant children while help them develop and express a connection to their communities. In the same way that the arts helped revive the African American community, we can invest in, appreciate, and encourage the development of arts for immigrant youth. Ultimately, through education, we can use a creative means to give immigrant communities a voice and call attention to the issues many immigrants in the United States face.

Daniel Widener’s speech expressed how the African American community merged creativity and activism to depict their historic struggle in the United States and move forward with a sense of revival. In the same way many communities revive their neighborhoods and institutions, renewal through art can bring an immigrant community back to its roots and provide a sense of hope for the future.

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