By McKayla Sluga
If you walk past the intersection of North Mount and Presbury streets in Baltimore, you’ll see a triptych mural of a young black boy in the center, bookended with mid-twentieth century civil rights protesters (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) on the left, and contemporary Baltimore protesters on the right. This spot has become a community memorial and you’ll typically find flowers or notes sitting on the sidewalk—this mural is a tribute to Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in April 2015. One year earlier in August 2014, Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and murals appeared across the country. Many of them were ordered to be removed by city officials or were defiled by counter-protesters. Contemporary artists Langston Allston, Kehinde Wiley, Dread Scott, Kalkidan Assefa and Allan André have depicted black people who have died in police custody, including Alton Sterling and Sandra Bland. Victims of police brutality have been widely imaged by anonymous graffiti, protest posters, gallery art, and amateur art throughout the past few years. Street art has appeared in Detroit, Rochester, Portland, New York City, Toronto, Ottawa, Nottingham, and dozens of other major cities in the US, Canada, and the UK. The national and global scale of these atrocities is evident, as is the rallying solidarity for social reform.
What has caused this surge of politicized art in the past few years? Why is art being used as a political tool? Artist-activist Janaya Khan of the Toronto Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has supported youth programs, such as the Freedom School, that promote the personal and political uses of art for disenfranchised Americans and Canadians. She stresses that art has a unique ability to function as both resistance and power:
Art must be firmly connected to the world; it must tell the untold stories, it must tell the truth. In this time of “alternative facts” and emboldened white nationalists across North America, telling the truth is one of the most radical acts of resistance we have. Art is a moral compass, and when we are headed in the wrong direction, art should be loud, it should be provocative, it should disturb the peace. Art is always political in this way. Black Lives Matter is a movement of artists—we know the risks, we know the greatest danger to us all is silence in the face of injustice.
Khan’s statement is poignant and bold, but it is not new. This fusion of art and politics that has become central for contemporary protests—the BLM movement, in particular—has a deep history in the United States. Art and media have functioned as political tools for African Americans, specifically within radical political organizations as well as within independent intellectual and artistic circles. But most have generally created this art to represent the experiences of the black masses. This drive to create a mass-oriented and accessible political art echoes radical movements that appear in Robin D. G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams. Here, Kelley details the black radical tradition and its historic fusion of culture and politics throughout the twentieth century. Though he has written on both the history of black radicalism and BLM, he does not explicitly discuss their relationship. But using this text, it is clear how the BLM movement fits within the black radical tradition and why art continues to be used to communicate with the popular masses.
Freedom Dreams and the Black Radical Imagination
The protests in the streets and the art works are more than repudiations of violence—they are quests for freedom and justice. Streets and art galleries have become spaces to imagine a US supportive of racial equality and black dignity. As Robin D. G. Kelley has claimed, “Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to imagine a new society.” Instead of a nostalgic return to a mythic past, BLM look toward the future, toward a social imaginary that has yet to exist. Kelley and BLM are not looking to simply abolish the old structures of society that exude racist practices, but they intend to create new structures in which black lives are seen and treated as valuable. “Struggle is par for the course when our dreams go into action. But unless we have the space to imagine and a vision of what it means fully to recognize our humanity, all the protests and demonstrations in the world won’t bring about our liberation.”
Kelley sees the very act of protest as poetic, but the movements that go beyond dissent are the most profound: “the most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing perhaps a different way of feeling. This is what poet Askia Muhammad Toure meant when, in a 1964 article in Liberator magazine [a radical leftist journal], he called black rhythm-and-blues artist ‘poet philosophers’ and described their music as a ‘potent weapon in the black freedom struggle’.” The best protests and art not only challenge oppressive structures, but also provide the possibility for new visions of community, individuality, and daily experience.
Confronting Nightmares: Art as Social Justice
Focused on the twentieth century, Kelley traces how the black community, particularly in the US, has at times embraced surrealism, communism, feminism, and anti-colonialism as political movements that strike at the roots of oppressive ideologies. Each of these movements have utilized both politics and culture to disseminate messages that radically challenge racial, sexual, class, and gender norms.
Though not a complete picture, the two most visible eras of black radical movements that Kelley and BLM explore are the Depression era (1930s-40s) and the 1960s-70s. In these two periods, culture and politics merged in revolutionary ways through figures such as Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone, Emory Douglas, and Askia Muhammad Toure. Muralists aligned with BLM who depict victims of police brutality recall 1930s-40s visual artists who portrayed historical and contemporary acts of violence against the black body and psyche, while the affirmation of black identity and powerful resistance resembles the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the early twentieth century, two distinct artistic styles emerged that were adopted by black artists to convey the African American experience: social realism and surrealism. Nightmarish visions of white brutality that appear in contemporary BLM art hearken back to 1930s-40s works from social realist artists like Jacob Lawrence, who used the evil past of slavery to illuminate present injustices affecting the African American community. Another example is the 1931-1937 Scottsboro case in which nine black teens were accused of raping two white women. The legal procedure was called into question several times for unconstitutional maneuvers and for basing decisions on racial stereotypes. The NAACP and Communist Party of the United States spoke out in favor of the Scottsboro boys’ innocence and unfair trial, while militant defense of the Scottsboro nine appeared widely in leftist art journal drawings and articles, such as in The New Masses. Social realists typically relied on “a usable past” of slavery to historicize black subjugation, or they depicted contemporary events of racial oppression.
As the Klan grew during the interwar period, artists became increasingly preoccupied with using their work to advocate for anti-lynching legislation and to bring attention to lynching in the South. Louis Lozowick, Harry Sternberg, and Hale Woodruff all addressed the horrors of lynching as well as how black lives were treated unfairly before the law, in both courts and on the street.
While social realist works meant to critique contemporary and historical conditions, surrealism functioned as both critique and a means for imagining a future without racial injustice. With its intentions to generate new ways of living in and experiencing the modern world, surrealism has been particularly appealing to African American and international black communities. Surrealism emphasizes the imagination as a tool for social change and captures the absurdities of black oppression. Black artists of the 1930s and 1940s were especially drawn to Surrealist poetry and painting for its ability to articulate the anti-colonial struggle. Kelley writes of Richard Wright’s 1941 Twelve Million Black Voices that “The text captured the surrealist character of black life and turned to poetry as a means to elucidate alienation and its impact on the black psyche.” But by depicting “the surreal,” they also imagined ways to exit such conditions.
Surrealism was also part of a global movement that extended well into the mid-twentieth century. It became a focal point of the Negritude movement, which stressed the African roots and cultural solidarity of all black peoples. Aimé and Suzanne Césaire’s poetry and Wifredo Lam’s paintings expressed the racial oppression they experienced in Martinique and Cuba respectively. African American painters Hughie Lee-Smith, Eldzier Cortor, and Rose Ransier Piper along with poets Jayne Cortez and Ted Jones were all creating surrealist works around the same time in the US, which reveals a global black surrealist movement that also emphasized black female experiences.
Visualizing a Black Future: Art for Black Power
The 1960s-70s saw an upsurge in black militant radicalism as well as the development of a distinct black art. Kelley writes of Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a black nationalist group, whose 1960s protests and “riots” were often provoked by “police misconduct,” much like the Black Lives Matter movement of today. RAM and other groups within the diverse Black Power movement were influenced by earlier protest art and used dissent to call attention to racial injustices and highlight culture as a source of revolution. Furthermore, these Black Power groups were increasingly interested in art’s ability to serve as a form of power to then imagine a future of dignity, equality, and justice.
As the official cultural wing of the Black Power movement, the Black Arts Movement produced art that asserted the beauty of blackness and the power of black identity. To explore the distinctive black experience, black men and women began embracing a “black aesthetic” and rejecting Western cultural norms. Of the Black Power protesters in 1965, poet Askia Muhammad Toure wrote, “They are moving to the rhythms of a New Song, a New Sounds; dancing in the streets to a Universal Dream that haunts their wretched nights: they dream of Freedom! Their minds are fueled and refueled by the fires of that dream.” This group of artists and intellectuals was increasingly focused on building a global black movement that would obtain freedom through political and cultural expression.
Black Futures Month
The black radical imagination has generated progressive social reform throughout the twentieth century, and since 2013, we have seen a revival of this tradition through the BLM movement itself along with the art and cultural activity it has produced and inspired. This art reveals the nightmares that plague the black community as well as the dreams that empower the black community.
For Black History month in 2017, BLM developed “Black Futures Month,” a daily segment that featured both an artwork and short essay from individual artists. Each contribution explores the black condition (mostly in America) and they are particularly attentive to the black female imagination. Moreover, they feature the black LGBTQ+ community, the black disabled population, diverse religious identities, and environmental health issues that disproportionately affect black communities, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The webpage reads:
In its mission to inspire and empower black communities with the power of radical dreaming to re-imagine the possibilities of what can be, when barriers are removed, Black Futures Month, hopes to illustrate the full spectrum of Black existence. By exploring a different aspect of black existence everyday, all folks are able to imagine a liberated future, that allows us to be our best Black selves.
Nearly identical to Kelley’s own rhetoric and that of the Black Power era, the Black Futures Month project clearly positions itself and BLM within the tradition of the black radical imagination.
Drawing on the 1960s-70s Black Power and Black Arts Movements, a major tenet of BLM art is to appreciate blackness and inspire pride across black communities. BLM has even “remixed” graphic artist Emory Douglas’s Black Power works to highlight the strength of the black community as well as affirm black identity and heritage. BLM is advocating for African Americans to become prideful of black identity, so that they can then imagine a country in which black identity can be freely celebrated both privately and publicly.  In this future, black people are treated as legitimate American citizens and black cultures are respected as part of American society.
Surrealist Rhymes Against Racial Crimes
In a 2015 Consequences of Sound article, journalist Alejandra Ramirez explained how contemporary rappers, such as Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, and Joey Bada$$ have mixed political messages and surrealist visuals in their music videos. She writes, “These videos go beyond typical political rhetoric, turning to surrealistic displays that expound on the complexities of the black experience.” These complexities hinge upon the unique psychological conflicts and physical threats that torment the black community. The brutally honest lyrics of contemporary black rappers and musicians recall political tunes, such as Billie Holiday’s 1939 anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” and Nina Simone’s increasingly revolutionary performances throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Historical and contemporary artists thus emphasize the disproportionate destruction of the black body and the black mind within a systemically racist society like the United States.
But beyond the ominous realities, this turn to surrealism is also laced with visions of love and unity. Underneath the violent and visual images of police brutality and injustices exists a hopeful message of retribution. Kelley writes, “I have come to realize that once we strip radical social movements down to their bare essence and understand the collective desires of people in motion, freedom and love lay at the very heart of the matter.” Ramirez seems to agree and expands on Kelley’s thoughts:
Surrealism as a means of protest allows artists to go beyond the confines of the present, to transcend the current paradigms of racism, sexism, and classism. Lamar’s rallying cry, Staples’ blunt satire, and Bada$$’s prayer for hope can all be read as forms of protest; they decry the injustices that afflict their communities, but they also imagine how blackness can triumph over institutionalized racism and police brutality. In these worlds, the dead don’t need to stay dead, and power can be fluid.
It is this space of possibility and sense of overcoming—not revenge—that continues to motivate contemporary black artists. It is also the urgency of the black community that drives BLM and others to embrace the black radical tradition and update it to combat the evolved systems of racial oppression. In the present, Surrealism continues to provide a space to explore the black radical imagination and black identity. Juxtaposing reality and surreality allows black artists to expose racial ideologies and their consequences, while also envisioning a future of unity. In Kelley’s words, “Surrealism recognizes that any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships, with love and creativity rather than rationality.”
Black Radical Feminism and Global, Universal Love
Drawing on historic visions of global unity, BLM does not simply envision a better country for black Americans. Their primary mission, to be clear, is to call attention to the disenfranchisement of black people; however, the organization is invested in a structural overhaul of the American system that they believe oppresses a mass of minority groups. In a 2016 Boston Review article, Kelley listed the main BLM demands, which include “ending all forms of violence and injustice endured by black people; redirecting resources from prisons and the military to education, health, and safety; creating a just, democratically controlled economy; and securing black political power within a genuinely inclusive democracy.”
Benefiting from decades of rich scholarship and echoing American intellectual-activists Cornel West and Angela Davis—who believe that African American freedom can only be achieved by working in solidarity with other marginalized groups—BLM strives for inclusivity among “working people and the poor, the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, the disabled, women, and the LGBTQ[+] community.” Clearly, this dream of a better reality is not exclusive to black Americans. Nor does the BLM movement seek to assert black superiority. On the one hand, it is a movement to make the black experience visible, to make black lives valuable in a country that has rarely treated them as such. On the other hand, the goal is to extend the right to exist to all individuals in the United States and world. In Kelley’s terms,
To see how “A Vision for Black Lives” [BLM founding document] is also a vision for the country as a whole requires imagination. But it also requires seeing black people as fully human, as producers of wealth, sources of intellect, and as victims of crimes—whether the theft of our bodies, our labor, our children, our income, our security, or our psychological well-being. If we had the capacity to see structural racism and its consequences not as a black problem but as an American problem we have faced since colonial times, we may finally begin to hear what the Black Lives Matter movement has been saying all along: when all black lives are valued and the structures and practices that do harm to black communities are eliminated, we will change our country and possibly the world.
Beyoncé (who has shown support for BLM) and her latest protest song “Freedom” are currently allied with The Global Goals, a United Nations organization dedicated to reducing global inequalities, environmental issues, and violence. This project underscores the violence and inequality that females, predominately young girls, are subjected to across the globe. Her art, as both music and cinematography, is a message of protest, but to use Kelley’s terms, freedom and unity are at the core of Beyoncé’s song and partnership with the Global Goals. This convergence of culture and politics reimagines the place of female lives in the United States and globe.
Founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013, the BLM organization has also become a voice for black female leadership. That the movement is headed by black women makes clear the inclusive message of BLM. Unlike the NAACP or Black Panthers of the twentieth century who often focused on heterosexual, black male advancement, BLM advocates wider ideals and diversity. It is not that black feminism has been absent throughout the twentieth century, but that BLM includes a more pronounced and organized movement of the radical black feminist tradition with females as its head figures. Kelley writes in his chapter dedicated to the role of women in black radicalism that “radical black feminism offers one of the most comprehensive visions of freedom I can think of, one that recognizes the deep interconnectedness of struggles around race, gender, sexuality, culture, class, and spirituality.” This has since translated into the Black Futures Month project and the inclusive program of BLM.
By celebrating the diversity of the black and human experiences, this wider scope of BLM signifies a more progressive understanding of the black community and American society. The recognition of previous radical movements’ faults and exclusionary agendas as well as BLM’s attempt to amend them within their own organization indicates an engagement with previous radical movements and scholarship.
Conservative Criticisms: Finding a “Right” Space for Politics
Linking BLM with twentieth century movements, it is clear that racism has been a structural part of American history, but also that social justice advocacy has been just as integral. What then can we make of the harsh criticisms of BLM and its place within the black radical tradition? In 1970, New York Times columnist Hilton Kramer virulently criticized the art and politics of the Black Arts Movement for allegedly agitating race relations, attempting to assert black superiority, and using culture inappropriately as a political platform. Similar charges also came upon the earlier 1930s-40s Social Realist artists. This rhetoric remains potent in recent conservative criticisms of BLM and anti-racist protests occurring on the streets, in athletic arenas, and in the media.
Cultural figures—including NFL player Collin Kaepernick, NBA star LeBron James, and San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich—have recently come under fire for speaking out against racial injustices. Not only have critics attacked the message itself, but they have often urged them to “Keep politics out of sports,” which echoes conservative claims dating back to the nineteenth century to keep politics out of art. Claiming these spaces should be unburdened by politics perpetuates the myth that culture has been and is an isolated space. This argument is one that consistently seeks to preserve culture as a haven from contentious politics. For marginalized groups, however, political and ideological threats appear immediately dangerous such that this separation does not seem feasible.
Going beyond the label of radical, conservatives have often recently referred to BLM as an extremist group. For example, Sherriff Clarke and others have labeled BLM a hate group that attempts to violently assert racial superiority and attack cops, a claim that has been consistently debunked by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Meanwhile, Trump has equated anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters with right-wing violent extremists after the Charlottesville protests. He has also denounced black athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, claiming that these protests suggest nothing but disrespect for both the flag and military. What Clarke and Trump—along with groups such as All Lives Matter, White Lives Matter, and Blue Lives Matter—fail to recognize is that BLM is not trying to assert racial dominance, nor are protests motivated by anything outside of drawing attention to American injustices and pushing for reform. It is not about revenge politics, either. Rather, using Kelley’s argument, BLM and protesters have simply attempted to imagine an America where black lives do, in fact, matter.
BLM protests are following in a long history of cultural engagement with politics, primarily by those on the Left who seek transformation that will uplift disenfranchised communities. Artists, musicians, intellectuals, media hosts, and athletes have historically used their public platforms to express political concerns to challenge the status quo. The African American community has used cultural spaces to express political anxieties and dreams, which stimulates dialogue about real tragedies and hopeful resolutions.
The current anthem protests and BLM would benefit from returning to Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” a speech given in 1852 in which Douglass claimed that because the independence of the United States was not accompanied by the independence of black slaves, black Americans have substantially different conceptions of freedom and the American project. This same racial dissonance translates into contemporary critiques of American society where black Americans are still bound by the shackles of racism. We should now ask: “What to the black American is the United States?” America has historically been challenged by its own ideals of freedom and equality, thus constantly forcing reevaluations of what America is at its core and who that America is for. Frederick Douglass and 20th-century radicals realized that the original trajectory of the US did not include black people as full citizens or humans, and that the notion of American progress often came at the expense of black people. It is because black lives have historically mattered less than white lives in the United States that asserting their worth consistently appears radical.
But to be radical, as Angela Davis remarked in her 1989 Women, Culture, and Politics, “simply means grasping things at the root.” To grasp at the root means to engage in dialogue about all types of injustice to expose their foundations. It involves “political engagement, community involvement, education, debate and discussion…” But part of this, as Kelley reminds us, is to dream of a society where freedom is a reality for marginalized groups in the US, because “without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.” Art and cultural expression, contemporary protesters have realized, can provide ways to both critique structures of racism and develop those alternative visions.
About the Author:
McKayla Sluga is a PhD student in the Department of History at Michigan State University. Focusing on radical cultural politics, her research explores the intersections of social movements, artists, intellectuals, and politics in late nineteenth and twentieth-century America and Europe. Looking at both the radical Left and Right, her work often investigates debates about using visual art and media to disseminate political messages.
 Stacy I. Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2004), 7.
 Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 9.
 Ibid., 198.
 Ibid., 11.
 Helen Langa, “Two Antilynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspectives, Gendered Constraints,” American Art 13. 1 (Spring 1999): 10-39.
 Many African Americans understood themselves as colonial subjects in the US and aligned themselves with international “Third World” struggles to overthrow oppressive regimes. Surrealism also drew from Marxian and Freudian concepts of global class struggle and the psychological unconscious. Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 159.
 Ibid., 183.
 Ibid., 171.
 Ibid., 186-190.
 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 89.
 Askia Muhammad Toure qtd. in Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 12.
 Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s film 13th are great sources for understanding how the current political and legal landscapes manufacture racism through the private prison system, which they claim operates as “modern-day slavery.”
 Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 193.
 Ibid., 154.
 Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Extract from an Oration, at Rochester, July 5, 1852, in My Bondage and My Freedom ed. John Stauffer (New York: The Modern Library, 2003).
 Angela Davis, “Let Us All Rise Together: Radical Perspectives on Empowerment for Afro-American Women,” in Women, Culture, and Politics (New York: Vintage Books, 1990): 14.
 Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 133.
 Ibid., xii.
Davis, Angela. “Let Us All Rise Together: Radical Perspectives on Empowerment for Afro-American Women.” In Women, Culture, and Politics. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Edited by John Stauffer. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Kelley, Robin D. G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
Langa, Helen. “Two Antilynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspectives, Gendered Constraints.” American Art 13. 1 (Spring 1999): 10-39.
Morgan, Stacy I. Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Recently Released Texts on Contemporary Protest, Radicalism, and Art
Futures of Black Radicalism. Ed. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin. London: Verso, 2017.
Kauffman, L. A. Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. London: Verso, 2017.
McKee, Yates. Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. London: Verso, 2017.