National reports overwhelmingly reinforce the well-known and unfortunate reality that black males face incredible barriers as they strive to achieve in school and social settings (Whiting). Life for many African American males is no easy task. As each passing day goes on, there are many black men who feel as if they are at a standstill in their lives—forced to do what it is they have to do by means of survival instead of actively living and loving their lives. Because of poverty, fragile masculinity, lack of exposure and societal pressure, African American males are not pushed to pursue the arts, leading to a smaller presence in the creative field. Often when talking about black men and the arts, rap music is seen as the only acceptable form of art they can pursue. By limiting their abilities to this one form of art, society is in fact preventing the next great actor, musician, painter, or graphic designer from reaching their full potential. Many African American males have to grapple with internal identity issues because they failed to learn what it takes to be a man at a young age. These men then go on to improvise what it is they think it means to be a man. This leads to them behaving in ways that are perceived as thuggish, misogynistic and aggressive, to name a few. These are not the only qualities black men possess, but only a few positive paths away from that image have been made available to them, pursuing the arts and education being less prominent. For far too long, black men have been told that they must stay inside “the box.” One who chooses to step out in any way, shape or form is seen as an outcast, or worse—not a man. This idea comes into play in terms of arts education among black men. What many fails to realize is the positive benefits that come from appreciating and partaking in the field out of fear of what others may think.
Black males are less likely to share their feelings and emotions, to disclose with teachers and others interested in their welfare (Bonner, 2001; Grantham, 1998, 2004a, 2004b; Hébert, 2002). To repeat, these youth may avoid institutions and activities that are considered "uncool" - schools, libraries, bookstores, museums, and churches (Whiting).
According to Gilman W. Whiting, Associate Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies, impressionable youth may find it hard to express themselves and their passions because their interests may not align with society’s preconceived ideas of who it is black men should be. It is important to instill a sense of pride and self into each and every black man and child—allowing them to discover and redefine what it means to be a man of color pursuing the arts in America. Whiting then gives an example of how an African American teen masked his true self in order to fit in with his peers. The author states:
School personnel were transporting Black students to an awards event in which students were to be honored for outstanding academic achievement. One Black male, a junior named Keith, approached the school van dressed in baggy pants, an overly large sweatshirt, and headband. Upon entering the van, he proceeded to pull off the outer layers of his outfit to expose a crisp dress shirt and creased khaki pants. He swapped tennis shoes for casual shoes. Before anyone could question him, the young man asserted: "I have an image to maintain." Being smart isn't part of that image. Not surprisingly, after the event and before returning to school, Keith went back into what his peers would accept him in, the original "urban" outfit (Whiting).
In the example above, the boy believes that attaining good grades and being honored for that accomplishment will be poorly received by his peers because those are not common goals for black men in their neighborhood. The boy longs for acceptance from his peers, so much so, he is willing to dumb himself down in front of others—Instead of being the role model his peers may need to see in order for them to rethink their own images and promote the importance of education among those his age.
Roots of African American Art
The idea that education is seen as “uncool” in the black community and that ignorance flourishes reveals the true issue. This revelation is in stark contrast to early African Americans, those who were captured and brought to the United States and used as slaves across plantations around the south for hundreds of years. Had these slaves been afforded the chance to get an education in the western word, history may have shifted. There are now those who are willingly participating in the ignorance and fail to see the true harm it does overall. Throughout history, there have been many instances where African Americans have had to make do in difficult situations. Slavery for instance was a time plagued with hardship and struggle.
Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That’s right: a tiny percentage (pbs.org).
The very slaves who were thought to be uneducated were the same people who found creative solutions to everyday life on the plantation. By using secret codes in a variety of mediums, they were able to transport messages that may have gotten them lynched if discovered by their masters or overseers. Codes were used because most slaves couldn’t read or write. The codes took many different forms, including quilt patterns and even dance, and that secrecy was a form of protection, with even children being taught the codes.
“They (slaves) used the language of quilts to talk about their plans,” said Lethonee Jones, a retired associate professor of social work at Western Michigan University. “Quilts taught people the signals that told them when to leave and what was a safe house. They also were instructional and gave directions” (Meehan).
Since African Americans did not have the ability to read or write, they relied heavily on visual cues to help them navigate their journey to freedom. One false interpretation of these freedom quilts could have damaging consequences, including being captured by slave owners, being severely tortured or even death. These quilts further solidify the importance of art and how it provides commentary on the social injustices in the world at the time.
Since it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, Jones said, use of these visible signs was especially important as a means of communication. “Before people ran away, they would get together and learn what the symbols meant," she said. "It is so important to understand what freedom meant," Jones said in an interview. "The effort to get away was enormous and dangerous and cloaked in secrecy”(Meehan).
A fundamental part of understanding the oppression of a group of people is knowing what lengths their oppressors went through to keep them oppressed. African American culture, traditions and dialects faded as time went on, and slaves were conditioned to act subservient to their white owners. If they decided not to, they faced the fear of being subjected to harsh punishments or having their basic rights taken away. The slaves that ran were willing to put their lives on the line to ensure that they were able to live their lives in a way they were not able to do prior. Although many did not find their freedom, their determination and drive lives on through the freedom quilts and hymns that were produced in this period of history.
"There was this sense that they (the slaves) were savages and were taught everything they needed to know once they came to this country," said Jones. "But in West Africa, they had rich fiber traditions of making praise clothes, religious clothes and other items," she said. "These vestiges of their past went into production here" in the making of clothes and quilts, Jones added (Meehan).
Not only were these slaves stolen from their native land and forced into hard labor, they were seen as inhuman which can have damaging effects on the human psyche. Being thrown into unknown territory is not an easy task to undertake, but with much preparation and an internal fire embedded in all who chose to run at their own expense—these quilts provided a map hidden in plain sight that would lead to the freedom they so desperately desired. Song was another outlet for African Americans to discuss and strategize among each other what next steps should be taken in the quest for freedom. Hymns have been passed down for many generations and have become a standing testament to the horror and sacrifice these people of color endured at the expense of their white counterparts. The arts have played a poignant role in preserving the history and traditions of black people. These visual representations of history have been passed down for many generations and showcase what kind of beauty can come from pain and strife. Although slaves had very little, they were able to create and form beautiful work that is still important in today’s day and age. While slavery has been abolished, poverty is an ongoing issue around the world that has yet to be successfully addressed. What are the factors that contribute to the perceptions of the arts and their appropriateness for young black men? There are a number of significant forces at work, and one of the most significant is economic.