Art Lies, Volume 2, May-June 1994

While To ring a Group of
Six Year- Olds through
H - - -

by Bill Thomas

slightly suspicious of
abstraction. Not that I don't love it on
occasion. I had a phenomenal experience the
first time I went to the Rothko Chapel. I fell
back. The earth moved. I was rocked to the
very core of my being by the sheer power and
beauty of those works. They opened up like a
cloud of celestial ether simultaneously
promising and threatening to deliver God. But
here at home, surrounded by shoes and socks,
piles of laundry-the clean indistinguishable
from the dirty-crumpled napkins and to-go
containers, I distrust the remoteness, the
vagueness of abstraction ... *

Several weeks ago, I lead a group of six year-old girls through the
exhibition at the Blaffer Gallery, I Remember: Images of the Civil Rights
Movement, 1963-1993. Because they were so young, I began my tour by
asking basic questions, such as, "Who was Martin Luther King? Have you
ever heard about the Civil Rights Movement? Do you know
what racism is?" To my astonishment, none of the girls could
answer these questions. Grouped in front of Charles White's ink
drawing, Native Son #2, 1942, I asked if the man in ragged
clothes reminded anyone of a slave. They answered with wide-
eyed, blank stares, and finally, "What's a slave?" So I set out to
try to explain to these beautiful children some of the ugly as well
as heroic events in our history. Though I was caught off guard,
the irony of the circumstance was not lost on me. I, an older
white male, was introducing these young black girls to racial
politics and history-perhaps an image of a strange white man
that they would remember throughout their lives. My words
had to be simple, pure, and profound ...
"Why is that white man kissing that little (black) baby?" asked one of the
girls, referring to the 1993 painting by Oscar Thomas, We the People.
"Why is he wearing that pointed hat?" wondered another, unaware she
was referring to an image of a " r t can be
KKK member. Certainly this h e a I i n g
was more than just another
tour. "He isn't kissing the baby because he loves him," I answered
spontaneously, "but because he hates him - that's why the baby is
crying!" I had just unashamedly reduced the artist's attempt to represent
200 years of political and racial hegemony to its most common
denominator. But heads nodded in satisfied unison, so maybe my
instinctive response had been correct.
We spent our last few moments sitting in front of Anita H. Knox's quilt,
We Be Like Trees, 1993. "Why is she red?" asked the youngest girl in the
group, referring to the paperdoll-like cutouts on the quilt. Not waiting for
me, one of her peers responded excitedly, "My grandmama makes quilts
like these." "That person is black and that one is white," pointed out
another. By then I had almost forgotten we were looking at art.
I often wonder how these children will remember their visit to this
exhibition. Will they someday see this experience as having made a
difference in their lives? During a recent interview at Blaffer Gallery,
David McGee, a local artist with work in I Remember, commented how
"art can be healing." Reflecting on my experience after the tour finished, I
felt and continue to feel this healing.

artl i e s REFLECTIONS

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Chandler, Wade & Schwab, Eric Jonah. Art Lies, Volume 2, May-June 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228035/. Accessed May 30, 2015.