This is a guest Article from Mehreen Tanvir with Mom at the Museum.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
– Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist
Change in society does not come overnight. It takes time to rewrite lingering narratives and to see beyond generations of stereotypes and prejudices. As parents of young children, we have a powerful opportunity to shape minds that have a lasting impact on the future. As we strive to raise confident and compassionate children, it’s never too early to start a conversation with your children about race, privilege, equality, and discrimination. Children as young as 6 months can recognize and respond to racial differences. They can internalize racial biases between the ages of 2-4 years.
There are many ways to start the conversation about race in our homes. In recent days, many resources, such as books, movies, and podcasts have been shared to expose ourselves and our children to engage in an open conversation about race, racial identity, and the history and current state of racial issues in the world around us.
It’s important to have a multi-dimensional conversation about complex issues since all individuals, including children, learn in different ways. An additional tool in your repertoire of resources for understanding and talking about racial issues is art. In today’s world, our children are surrounded by images of racial violence and the struggle for equality and justice. Caregivers can use art to employ in order to develop children’s ability to process and interpret images.
Art is a powerful way to express complex emotions and difficult concepts, challenge pre-existing notions, empathize, and inspire hope. Art is a useful tool for children ranging from preschoolers to teenagers (and beyond!) to reflect and converse on race. Here are 5 pieces of artwork on view in DC museums (viewable on their websites due to COVID-19) that are especially relevant to constructing and deconstructing perceptions and emotions related to race and racism.
Pickett’s Charge is a site-specific installation consisting of eight large scale panels installed in the interior circular hallway of the Hirshhorn. The work is based on Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s 19th Century Gettysburg Cyclorama depicting the final charge of the Battle of Gettysburg. Bradford’s work is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on history, politics, and the crossroads at which America is today vis-à-vis race relations. The need to re-evaluate history and notions surrounding race is powerfully conveyed through his signature style of painting. He layers his canvas with blown-up images of the Gettysburg Cyclorama, bright paper, bungee cord, and glue, and then rips, cuts, and burns his way through. He exposes a range of textures and layers of complexities in both his artwork and the historical narrative he is tackling. The location of this artwork at the National Mall makes it all the more relevant to the current politically and socially charged environment. This artwork is a visually potent demonstration of questioning racial narratives and beliefs and projecting history onto current affairs.
This is a particularly good work to start a conversation on race with preschool children. Byron Kim, who is Korean American, and Glen Ligon, who is African American, were surprised by the limited range of “skin tone” colors available in art stores. They did this simple composition of 32 wooden panels. Half are in shades of black and the other half are pinkish flesh tones, exploring the notion of race.
A pertinent artwork for the current state of affairs is a painted limewood sculpture of Rosa Parks by Marshall Rumbaugh. As your children try to make sense of disturbing media images of rioting and police brutality, revisiting the story of Rosa Parks can give some perspective. The sculpture that is on view in the museum’s “Struggle for Justice” gallery shows her handcuffed and being escorted by two white men; a policeman and a man in a suit. The artist’s use of color and scale tells a very poignant story of resistance, courage, and injustice. As your children navigate why the police and protesters are clashing, revisiting history through the lens of this artwork can help them answer some questions.
Amy Sherald has extensively explored racial identity as an external attribute in her artwork. She breaks the norms of portraiture by placing her subjects in large contextless canvas of bright backgrounds. She separates the idea of race from color by creating a black in a grey-scale and portraying her subjects in elaborate costumes from her collection. In this painting, Sherald is addressing the slang “redbone” used to refer to a light-skinned black woman. Like her other portraits, the subject in this painting is expressionless, in an awkward posture creating drama and connection with the viewer. Children tend to latch onto the colors and emotions in the painting. Questions leading to who the subject is and what she is feeling can lead to interesting discussions on identity.
Jacob Lawrence captured the essence of the flight of more than a million African-Americans from the South to the industrial North after the start of WWI, in an ambitious 60-panel series. Half of this series is at the Phillips collection (while the other half is in NY’s Museum of Modern Art). Lawrence was inspired by the West African storytellers (griots), who spun tales of the past and related them to the present and the future. All the works in the series depict the struggle and triumphs of the African-Americans during this era of change. Panel 19 portrays segregation by showing two women; one is black, the other is white and a river separates them. Lawrence subtitles this work as “there had always been discrimination.” The irony of the situation is underscored by how similarly shaped and dressed the two women are. The only difference is in their skin color.
Exploring these 5 pieces of art for conversations with children about racism is just one way to start the conversation. Continue learning and growing together through reading, listening, and watching.
About the guest author:
Mehreen came to the United States to pursue her MPA in International Development from Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. Since then she has lived in 5 cities in 3 countries around the world finally settling in Washington, DC since 2008. She and her husband love raising their 3 kids in downtown DC and having the National Mall as their front yard. Mehreen is passionate about incorporating museums and travel in their family’s play and learning. She volunteers as a Gallery Guide at the Hirshhorn Museum and enjoys learning about contemporary art. Dislikes: Cities that are not pedestrian-friendly. Please check out her website Mom at the Museum.