Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Scottsboro Alabama: A Story In Linoleum Cuts (Still Relevant Today)

A friend recently gifted me a copy of Scottsboro Alabama: A Story In Linoleum Cuts by Lin Shi Khan and Tony Perez. It is a series of 119 expressive, black and white linocuts, interlaced with brief text, that dramatically tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys. Apparently the book was created in 1935, but then quietly disappeared until it was re-discovered in a library archive, and published 2003 in a version edited by Andrew Lee. I was given the book mainly because of my work teaching art to elementary and high school students, as these prints have the potential to be a powerful teaching tool. 

I feature these three images from the book because of how clearly they express emotion and personalities of the Scottsboro boys (and men.) In just a handful of cuts that break up the field of black ink, these faces convey fatigue and frustration, but also determination and hope.

Larry Wilmore of the Nightly Show recently sat down at a diner in Baltimore with rival gang members who had come together to quell the destruction of property and violence being committed amidst the peaceful protests. The most moving moment of the interview for me was when Wilmore asked, "Do you guys have hope?" (4 min. 40 seconds in the video) Without missing a beat, they all nodded and answered, "Of course."

Even though many horrible aspects of slavery, poverty, and racism are depicted in this book, taken as a whole, it is an incredible story of hope for progress. The story focuses on those in power who work to keep the races divided in order to keep the least affluent distracted and powerless. The third and final section of the series is titled "White and Black Unite" and the final sentence reads "But the symbol of Scottsboro will weld the masses forward and driving all of the many parasites into the ash heap of the bitter past."

Unfortunately, that hope has yet to be realized. In the year 2015, we might have a black president, but there is also so much reported evidence of racial bias in employment, schools, and healthcare, as well as criminal justice. Legally mandated and enforced segregation may have ended, but the divisions between black and white are still widespread. We see disproportionate poverty in black communities, and the killing of unarmed, black men by police, that sparks protests and riots such as those in Baltimore last month, as well as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Later this month we'll see the release of the film Southern Rites that documents racial divisions today (including the killing of a young, black man over his relations with a white woman) in two counties in Georgia.

80 years later, these linocuts are every bit as relevant to issues of poverty, racism, and race relations in America. If art truly can be a catalyst for social change, I highly recommend getting a copy and sharing it with young people.

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