The Knoxville Museum of Art’s Spring exhibition, Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door, was set to be the focal point of Associate Professor Mary Campbell’s African American Art History course. Her class, which covers African American art and artists from the Middle Passage to present day, coincided with the exhibition that featured more than 50 paintings, works on paper, and unpublished archival material examining the relationship between painter Beauford Delaney and writer James Baldwin.
For one of the final assignments, students were to write a paper on Delaney’s Dark Rapture (James Baldwin) until COVID-19 closed the KMA, making the portrait no longer viewable in-person. Campbell ultimately chose to cancel the paper, not wanting the students to write about the work based off online photos.
However, the class was not solely focused on the art and the artists.
“I really enjoy the way Dr. Campbell teaches her classes because she teaches history through learning art,” said Nicole Gentry, recent studio art graduate. “Especially with something like African American art history, it’s so important to understand the context and the history behind everything.”
As students covered artists, they also learned of the social and cultural norms that were associated with different time periods. Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the Civil Rights Movement were just some of the topics that were intertwined with the artists’ works.
In thinking of the African American experience, Campbell was reminded of the children’s story that was dedicated to Delaney by Baldwin—Little Man, Little Man—exploring and celebrating black childhood. His book reminded her of other African American artists, such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, whom had authors write about their upbringing.
“I think that what we see is this impulse to use art to tell a story, to speak to some sort of political engagement, to create a community in what we’re seeing now is a really hostile white world. I wonder whether these books are a part of that project by teaching and enlightening children.”
Campbell shifted the final paper to a story telling project for the students to share information and work from the artists they learned about over the semester. Projects, which varied from poems to podcasts and short-stories to novels, told more than just about the artists but the events and movements that coincided.
Gentry’s group used story-telling methods similar to that of Baldwin. Their project, “Jimmy’s Amazing ARTventure,” recounted the day of a young black child’s tour of an African American art museum where he met artists, such as Augusta Savage, William Johnson, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who looked like him.
“Prior to the class, I knew a couple of the artists [in our project] from being an art major, you know about a lot of the contemporary artists that are happening, and then a couple I knew from Dr. Campbell’s 19th century American art which has a lot of prominent African American artists. I was surprised that I’m studying art and yet there were so many I wasn’t aware of. It goes to show the underrepresentation of African Americans.”
Unfamiliar with art history prior to the course, Reilly Harrison, a senior studying political science and Africana studies, used her project to address political issues in America.
In a similar way that Little Man, Little Man is written to straddle the line of children’s and adult’s literature, Harrison wrote politically charged poems for parents and their children in an effort to start uncomfortable, but necessary conversations. Her project, titled “But What About Emmett Till?,” covered topics of lynching and murders of African Americans, the pay gap and gender inequality, as well as the national hunger crisis.
Throughout the semester, in addition to what they learned from the past, the class watched as the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront of social issues following the deaths of individuals including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. As the cousin of two biracial teenagers, Harrison thought of what their life experiences would be while she wrote many of the poems.
“As I sat down to write these, I felt very saddened for the experience that everyone who is a minority experiences, but I also felt very powerless,” Harrison said. “I felt like there was this privilege in me getting to sit down in my apartment, at my out-of-state college where I’m taking an art history class. For me to sit down, in that comfort, and write some of the more racially charged poems, there was a very significant component of discomfort and guilt in my privilege.”