NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 16.2: Fall 2016 - Page 65

visual arts

The Refactoring of Painting : A Talk by Jack Whitten at the Institute of Fine Arts , New York University , 19 April 2016 , as part of the Artists at the Institute Series

PHOTOGRAPH BY © KATHERINE MCMAHON
It is important that I give you a brief introduction to my background , because it is our background , which provides the underpinning to our sensibility , a crucial element in making art .
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I am a product of American apartheid . My life has been shaped and continues to be shaped by the politics of race in America . White people controlled every aspect of life in my hometown of Bessemer , Alabama . Public schools were segregated . Public transportation was segregated . Neighborhoods were segregated ; even the jails and cemeteries were segregated . I never had a class with a White teacher or sat in a classroom with White students , until I arrived in New York to study at the Cooper Union Art School in 1960 . I remember the public buses with their painted wood signs in bold graphic letters , which said white on one side and colored on the other . Only the White bus driver and White passengers had the legal right to move the sign .
My father was a coal miner ; my mother a seamstress who later opened the Annie B . Whitten Kindergarten . Bessemer , along with Birmingham , was the center of the steel-making industry . Steel companies came to Alabama , because of the natural availability of coal , limestone , and iron ore , the major ingredients in steel . Raw materials and cheap labor were the enticements for the coal and steel companies . The end of the Civil War marked the end of slavery , but its survival continued in the corrupt penal system . Alabama , in particular , benefited from a vast labor pool of poor , recently emancipated African Americans . Douglas A . Blackmon ’ s 2008 book , Slavery by Another Name : The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II , is a chilling history lesson ; it is a horror story of involuntary Black servitude .
Growing up in Bessemer , I never had the legal right to visit the public library or any museums , but more than once , we were taken on school field trips to steel mills in Birmingham . The steel mills fascinated me , and I grew up hearing stories about them from my uncles who worked there . The unbelievable heat and fiery-golden yellow , orange-red of the open blast furnace is forever seared into my memory . Seeing a slab of fiery molten steel rolling off the assembly line is unforgettable . The pure steel slab is the raw material for sheet metal , I-beams , nails , wire , screws , etc . At the end of each visit , we received a gift packet of everyday products : samples of various nails , a variety of wire , samples of sheet metals .