When people will not listen to what we are saying, we are left with no choice but to act. This is at the root of most massive acts of civil disobedience. Acting is also generally riskier than writing or speaking — although those can get us into trouble as well. We may well remember famous words of abolitionists and civil rights activists, but it was often their actions that lent weight to their words. It was those actions that landed them in jail, caused them to be recipients of police brutality, and worse.
Of course, in the toxic environments that some have lived in, all it took was a false accusation or an innocent action that is intentionally misunderstood. I recently quoted a Filipino friend in this space. In his homeland, currently, all one needs do is say or write something that offends the powerful to end up arrested or dead.
The quote which serves as title this week is from the first black American painter to receive international acclaim. Henry Owassa Tanner was born on June 21, 1859 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother, Sarah, was a former slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad. His father, Benjamin Tucker was a university educated minister and bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
He met Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell in Atlanta around 1888, who arranged an exhibition of his work in Cincinnati in the fall of 1890. None of his works sold. The Hartzell’s bought the entire collection and he used the funds to move to Europe. He eventually enrolled at the Academie Julian in Paris.
He returned for a visit to the United States in 1893, when he produced his most famous painting, “The Banjo Player.” In a biography of Tanner (2012), Anna Marley shares this quote, “Many of the artists who have represented Negro life have seen only the comic, the ludicrous side of it, and have lacked sympathy with and appreciation for the warm, big heart that dwells within such a rough exterior.”
His paintings of Biblical scenes and characters also challenged the thinking of his day. He broke with the convention of the day and used images of middle eastern men and women when portraying Christ, the apostles, and biblical stories.
His portrait of Christ in prayer is simple, humble, and powerful. It is painted perhaps as only a black man born in the United States just before the Civil War could have done. The Christ is seen as a human, a middle eastern human, humbly bowing in prayer. There are no bright lights, there is no glow of power emanating from him, there are no crowds gathered round. There is no hint of triumphalism — only prayer.
Tanner often looked at the Biblical scenes from new points of view. The disciples at the tomb are not looking at the empty cave, but instead we are looking at them as they process what they are seeing. As it is with grief, shock, and astonishment, they are not responding in the same way, different looks on their faces, not even looking in the same direction. Once again, they are clearly middle eastern men.
In her book, “Sharing Traditions,” Lynda Roscoe Hartigan quoted Tanner as saying, “My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting … but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same.” It is a testimony to the Christian character of Tanner that he was able to carry this attitude with him to Paris after having to leave his family because of the conditions that made it so difficult for him to practice his craft.
He stands today as an example to all of us to have the will and courage to follow our calling and make that calling subservient to our faith. He is remembered for what he did. He presented his faith in his paintings of both his contemporary and biblical scenes. He did not allow the racism and injustices of the day to hinder his creativity. If anything, he used his context to make his work more powerful.
February is Black History Month. I have come to appreciate this emphasis each year. It gives us motivation to dig into places in history that are not usually in front of us. Each year that we do this we uncover more of our history — the story of all of us. It has the effect on me to stop making excuses based on “life is not fair.” It teaches me appreciation of my brothers and sisters who accomplished great things despite opposition. Black History Month reminds me of who I am and who “they” were and that there never should have been “us” and “them.” It has always been “us” and we still have much to do to make that a reality.