Nineteen sixty-seven—43rd and Langley on Chicago’s South Side. A handful of African American artists laid claim to one wall of a dilapidated building. They got out their brushes and covered the wall with black pride—they put Malcolm X up there, and Thelonius Monk, and W.E.B. DuBois. They painted Muhammad Ali and Billie Holiday. When the mural was finished, the artists named it The Wall of Respect.

Some of those artists would go on to form AfriCobra—the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists—because they wanted to create an aesthetic that tuned in to African American sensibilities.

It was art for people,” Michael Harris says. “It wasn’t necessarily art for art’s sake; it was art for people’s sake.”

Harris joined AfriCobra in 1979. Now an assistant professor of African and African American art, he’s writing a book titled Colored Pictures: Issues of Race and Visual Representation.

AfriCobra, Harris says, is merely one chapter in a long history of resistance by African American artists—a resistance to the way whites have portrayed African Americans in popular culture and art, a resistance that has allowed African American artists to create their own cultural identities, on their own terms.

Think about how pop culture’s deck has been stacked: Blacks have been negatively stereotyped and caricatured as far back as the late eighteenth century. Distorted lips, bulging eyes. Sambo. Pickaninnies. Mammies. Blacks have been portrayed as laughable, grotesque, inferior. These indignities have appeared in postcards, in advertisements, in film—in almost every aspect of popular culture. After-school cartoons depicted blacks either as ill-tempered, washboard-toting mammies, or as bumbling, bone-through-the-nose savages, forever wide-eyed as they tried to escape the tiger. Such cartoons were produced as late as the 1940s—and were still being aired 40 years later.

Fine art didn’t treat blacks much better. For many years, paintings depicted Africans and African Americans as socially insignificant—slaves or servants, performers, people on the periphery. Rarely were blacks shown on their own terms. “We seldom see them in family situations, for example,” Harris says.

Women took the worst of it. The tradition of the female nude in Western art, Harris says, suggests an assumption that the person consuming the art is male, probably white, and holds a certain status or power. Women in general were on display, to be consumed.

But black women were associated with uncontrolled passion and promiscuity and were to be appropriated as though they were a natural resource of a colonialized land, Harris says. They became a signifier of sexuality merely by appearing in a painting. Consider Manet’s Olympia. The subject is a white prostitute reclining on a bed. An African servant girl kneels to give the prostitute flowers brought by the viewer, assumed to be an upper-class Parisian. The African girl heightens the sexual suggestion of the scene, Harris says. “Here within the privileged space of the white male gaze is a layered black subject who is at once socially inferior to a naked prostitute for whom she is a servant and simultaneously is a sexual signifier linked to the white woman within the bounds of male power.”

This history of misrepresentation and appropriation has had a profound psychological impact on the African American community, Harris says. “These images, being some of the only representations of blacks, began to filter throughout the American consciousness and helped create a momentum of perception.”

Harris relates this perception to the notion of double consciousness conceived by W.E.B. DuBois in 1903. Double consciousness is an awareness of self in addition to an awareness of how one is perceived by others. These perceptions, Harris says, had many African Americans determined to avoid behaving in any way that would invoke a stereotype.

Worse, many African Americans developed a self-hatred and wanted to join white society on its terms. “Passing,” or being taken for white, became desirable among some lighter-skinned blacks. Still, Harris reminds us, there was resistance. The 1893 Chicago Congress on Africa gave rise to the Pan-Africanist movement, which urged Africans and African Americans to consider their origins and unite as a common people.

Black artists were listening. It was around this time that Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had spoken at the Chicago Congress on Africa, painted two well-known works—The Banjo Lesson in 1893 and The Thankful Poor a year later. Tanner was depicting black people with pride and dignity in their everyday lives. He expatriated to Paris—Harris says racial issues and characterizations violently upset Tanner, and perhaps he enjoyed greater freedom from prejudice in Europe—but much of his work remained influential in America.

In the mid-1920s, Archibald Motley addressed color consciousness by painting portraits of octoroons—people of one-eighth black ancestry. The subject of Motley’s The Octoroon Girl is light skinned and well dressed. She’s placed in an elegant setting; there’s a painting on the wall behind her. The dark-skinned subject of Motley’s Mammy, by contrast, is wearing a head rag. Her features are masculinized, her clothes are plain, and she stands in front of a bare wall.

Status was thought to have increased as black blood decreased,” Harris says. People of multiracial heritage were concerned with what one Motley scholar called a “fear of contamination by association” with darker-skinned blacks. Motley, himself of multiracial heritage, visually codified those concerns, Harris says. Motley would become best known for his vibrant scenes of African American nightlife. “These works depicted blacks of many hues and shades interacting in the same social space,” Harris says.

Artists like Tanner and Motley were, in a sense, liberating African Americans from the peripheral status that American and European art assigned them. Through portraiture, Tanner and Motley humanized African Americans on their own terms, Harris says. “They were trying to use culture to undermine misperceptions and to also suggest that African Americans had the same middle-class aspirations—and the same cultural productions—as anyone else.”

The Pan-African identity that had taken root at the 1893 Chicago Conference began to fully overtake derogatory representations of blacks by the 1960s, Harris says.

Several things were happening: the Negritude movement was beginning to explore what was common—what was African—among people of African descent. Once the notion of an “African” was established by whites, Harris says, African descendants began reinventing that construct until it represented who they felt they were.

African American artists increasingly were beginning to visit Africa. “You had the Liberation movement in West Africa,” Harris says. “West African nations were coming loose from colonial domination.” Many postcolonial leaders had studied in the West and had connected with people of African descent in Paris, London, and the U.S.

These global connections began to bear fruit in that people felt that they could go back and visit Africa,” Harris says. “Once the artists started going there, instead of Europe, for validation, things changed in the artistic expression of the United States.”

John Biggers was one of the first African American artists to visit Africa. Biggers, originally from Gastonia, N.C., traveled to Ghana and several other African nations in 1957.

Biggers had a career-long concern with the role and contributions of black women, Harris says, and his paintings transformed black women and their work into iconography. That transformation—along with an evocation of traditional African motifs—can be seen in Biggers’ Shotguns series of paintings, which depict southern black women standing in front of their homes. These are shotgun houses—simple, inexpensive dwellings built such that the rooms are laid out in a direct line, usually front to back—supposedly so named because a shotgun fired through the front door would pass straight through the house and out the back door.

Railroad tracks run across the foreground of each painting in the Shotguns series, suggesting that these women live “on the other side of the tracks.” The repeating patterns formed by the gables of the houses are reminiscent of those found in both African American quilt making and in central African Kuba cloth, Harris says. The women in Shotguns, Fourth Ward remind Harris of sculptural veranda posts carved by the Yoruba of West Africa. Beside each woman sits a washboard, kettle, or cooking pot, which suggest a value and appreciation for the work these women have done.

Biggers, in visual praise poems, lauds and celebrates these women and their world of meager means and suggests a status transcending circumstance,” Harris says. “Here is a reclassification of black women, bent but not broken by racial and sexual abuse and poverty, into something akin to the Yoruba notion of iya wa (our mothers)—women of spiritual and social force.”

By the 1970s many African American artists were becoming less concerned with reacting to ways African Americans had been depicted and perceived. Instead, artists like Nelson Stevens were more interested in what Harris calls a proactive mode of creativity—Stevens was celebrating a black aesthetic centered on black skin, black hair, and black style, Harris says.

More recently, African American women have begun to directly address their own portrayals in art. The subject of Lorna Simpson’s You’re Fine is a reclining, fully clothed black woman with her back to the viewer. Harris says the woman in You’re Fine subverts assumptions about male perspectives and prerogatives—she’s not accessible for consumption.

In his own art, Harris has tried to explore who African Americans are as a people. He became interested in Caribbean and South American cultural forms during graduate school. Later, while on a trip to Brazil, he saw firsthand how elements of Yoruba culture had crept into New World art. Likewise, both Old and New world elements often exist side by side in Harris’ art—some of his most recent work examines the influence of African religions on religions practiced in America (see Emergency Box).

The realm of images, both popular and artistic, is a political field where high-stakes struggles are played out,” Harris says. “It’s important to recognize that there’s been African American resistance in art at every level and during every period—from early Abolitionist efforts through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Too often we tell the story of how whites perceive blacks, and we don’t tell the story about how African Americans have felt about how they were perceived and what they’ve done about it.”

Michael Harris is a winner of the 2000 Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement.