The Driving While Black Exhibit at the Noyes Museum in Hammonton

By PAT JOHNSON | Mar 13, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson

The “Driving While Black” exhibit at the Noyes Museum of Art’s Kramer Hall in Hammonton goes beyond the Negro Motorist Green-Books that sparked the award-winning film “The Green Book”  to encompass the feelings and rage of African Americans living in post-Obama times and amid the “Black Lives Matter” movement. As such, it is a learning experience for white Americans and a touchstone for people of color.

To begin the exhibit is a replica of the cover of The Negro Motorist Green-Book of 1945. These “green books” were guidebooks published between 1936 and 1964 that directed people of color to safe motels and dining establishments that welcomed them and where they could be assured they wouldn’t be embarrassed or harassed in front of their children.

During the years of Jim Crow when (mostly) Southern states enforced segregation of the races, there were numerous “sundown towns” that announced by signs that African Americans were not welcome after dark and had to keep moving.

The Noyes has an education guide to the exhibit to accompany the art by award-winning black artists.

Lavett Ballar’s “Greenbook Diaries” is a mixed media collage on wood fence, symbolic of how fences keep people divided. The artist has compiled a photographic catalog of female images over historical periods.

Four oil on board panels are charming illustrations by Floyd Cooper for the children’s book Ruth and the Green Book. These are happy pictures of Ruth traveling in her family’s car.

Cooper is a recipient of the prestigious Coretta Scott King award.

A painting by Louis Sloan is a self-portrait in an American landscape. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship as a young artist and during the civil rights era decided to equip a van, travel across the U.S. and paint. His letters express the level of segregation and racial prejudice he experienced on the road.

Photos by Pittsburgh photographer Charles Harris, who chronicled his own black neighborhood and the famous black entertainers and sports figures who came to Pittsburgh, are the more innocuous pieces in the show.

We come quickly to the expression of the outrage of the last few years around the police shootings of young black men and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Barbara Bullock, artist, educator and author, shows her constructions of torn watercolor paper. One of these, “Trayvon Martin, Most Precious Blood,” refers to the 17-year-old black youth who was shot and killed when he was walking to the home of his father’s fiancée in a Florida gated community in 2012. George Zimmerman, a member of the community watch and the man who killed him, claimed he had acted in self-defense and was acquitted. This was one of the events that provoked protests across the country and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. The torn paper symbolizes the rage the artist felt as she watched the events play out on television.

Baltimore photographers Curt Ellis and J.M. Giordana have gathered photos of the Baltimore Uprising of 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray on April 19. The photos are part of the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project.

Photographer Erik James Montgomery’s series is visually stunning and thought provoking. “Psalm 23:4A” is of a black man standing on a street with three outlines of murdered men. Montgomery’s photo of Obama’s “Hope” posters now torn and tattered on a wall speaks of a time when the nation had crossed a milestone in history, only to be rudely pushed back.

But it’s the artist Dread Scott who speaks the loudest, with his poster “National Negro Rifle Association” and his series of hashtags on poster board, “#While Black,” two lists that start with #StarbuckingWhile Black, #SwimmingWhileBlack, #NappingWhile Black, #AirBnBingWhile Black, #Having a ScreamingChildWhileBlack, #SellingWaterWhile Black, #VisitingYourGrandparentsWhile Black, etc. The list is pointing out how difficult and dangerous everyday experiences are for people of color in a racist society. The second poster illustrates the anger engendered by such experiences with   #WantingToPunchNazisWhile Black, #WantingToSeeTheRevolutionWhileBlack, # WantingToSeeAnAlienInvasionWhileBlack, #WantingToBurnItAllDownWhileBlack, etc.

Artist Jean Kawecki ,who was born in 1926 and died in 2017, has her sculpture “Strange Fruit” on display. Strange Fruit was the title of a song made popular by Billie Holiday. The song recounts how the trees in the South are bearing strange fruit in the form of lynchings of  black men. Kawecki has made a series of men out of stone and wood and hung them from a tree branch.

The exhibit at the Noyes takes us on a journey through the saddest, violent expressions of racial divide in the country from the earliest days of slavery – there are an iron ball and shackles on display and a museum case of KKK memorabilia – through the great migration of blacks out of the South, to the freedom implicit in owning and driving a car, to the racial segregation of the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. It’s a story that doesn’t get told often enough through the visual arts. The effects of the African American diaspora are a painful journey the nation is still on. Read Belinda Manning’s poem “A Black Mother’s Prayer” for a distillation of the emotions.

The Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton at Kramer Hall in Hammonton is open six days a week, closed Sundays. A reception for the exhibit is planned for March 21 from 6 to 8 p.m.; an exclusive film preview of the documentary “Driving While Black” is April 18 from 6 to 8 p.m., and a Poetry and Story Slam is May 16 from 6 to 8 p.m.

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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