This week our class looked at lynching in the United States.  Not an easy topic to grapple with.  We read Langston Hughes’s story Father and Son for class.  In it the half white half black son of the white plantation owner kills himself rather than letting the white mob lynch him.  Thinking about how the son would rather kill himself than let himself be lynched I thought of how it could be an act of resistance, resistance to majority, to his lot in life, to the struggles he had faced and would have to continue to face as a black man in a Jim Crow world.  And so I went looking for a museum exhibit that spoke to resistance.

Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits was the first exhibit by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and a collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery (NPG.)  As the NAAM did not have a brick and mortar building (the building is currently being built) the exhibit opened at the NPG and then toured the country from 2008-2012. In addition to the physical exhibit the museums created a digital exhibit, which is what I examined.

The inspiration for Let Your Motto Be Resistance was a quote from Henry Highland Garnet: “Strike for your lives and liberties…Let your motto be Resistance! Resistance!  Resistance!…What kind of resistance you…make must decided by the circumstance that surround you.” [1]  In the About section of the exhibit the curators say: “Throughout American history, most black American embraced Garnet’s plea.  The photographs reveal and illuminate the variety of creative and courageous ways that African Americans resisted, redefined, and accommodated in an America that needed but rarely accepted its black citizens.” [2]

The portraits that make up the exhibit range from Fredrick Douglas to Josephine Baker to Joe Louis.  Intellectuals, musician, sportsmen, activists; they are all represented and by being included in the exhibit the term resisted has been applied to them.  But I had to wonder are they all resisters?  The digital gallery is comprised of small thumbnail images that can be enlarge and when enlarged have a description of the subject.  But the descriptions do not delve deeply into resistance.

I looked as Josephine Baker to see why the creators chose her as a figure of resistance.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker was known for her wild and suggestive banana dance in the La Revue Negre in Paris, France. The small biographical sketch that exhibit has mentions Baker’s dancing and her work during WWII and her says that she became a “vocal civil rights proponent, insisting on integrated audience wherever she performed.” [3]  But it does not go into detail.  Baker is fascinating and a case for her being an active resistor can be made.  She never backed down.  She went after what she wanted and found a place that accepted her even if it meant leaving her home.  More impressive I think is that she did not forget her home and returned to the United States in 1936, but was dismissed as a “Negro wench” by the New York Times. [4]  It wasn’t until after WWII that Baker found the same recognition in the United States that she had attained in Europe.

Looking at Baker’s life one could say that she is a resister in that she resisted societies attempt to relegate her talents to that of a highly talents choirs girl.  She made a big name for herself and drew crowds to her performances and then she worked for the NAACP and civil rights.  Baker was an entertainer, a dancer, and a resister, but the exhibit does not draw on that knowledge.  It is a shame.

Resistance is an important concept to consider and explore when looking at the lynching tradition in the United States and the oppression of African Americans.  How do people resist against oppression and what can be considered resistance.  Is suicide resistance?  Is becoming an expat resistance?  The exhibit Let Your Motto Be Resistance starts looking at the tradition of resistance but, at least in the digital exhibit, does not follow through in the explanation of how the individuals showcased participated in resisting.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Baker image text.


One thought on “Resistance?

  1. In the Holocaust Museum I remember reading some text about a resistant town that fought back when the Nazi’s came. They held out for more than a week before everyone died. A man from the town was in another country at the time. When he found out what happened, he killed himself hoping that his suicide would inspire others to take notice and fight back. I don’t consider what he did a form of resistance. I consider it quitting. However, in Father and Son our main character chooses to take his own life as one last act of defiance to the mob that wanted to kill him. This form of suicide I did consider resistance, even thought by denying the mob their fun they went out looking for a second victim who was blameless.

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