“The Color Line” Tells the History of Black America From the Inside

Artwork:  Archibald J. Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers),1929, 74.3 × 91.8 cm, Courtesy of Charleston, Collection de Mara Motley, M.D., et de Valerie Gerrard Browne

“Few evils are less accessible to the force of reason, or more tenacious of life and power, than a long-standing prejudice. It is a moral disorder, which creates the conditions necessary to its own existence, and fortifies itself by refusing all contradiction. It paints a hateful picture according to its own diseased imagination, and distorts the features of the fancied original to suit the portrait. As those who believe in the visibility of ghosts can easily see them, so it is always easy to see repulsive qualities in those we despise and hate,” Frederick Douglass wrote in “The Color Line,” an essay published by The North American Review in June 1881.

Also: Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” is a Masterpiece of American History

In the essay, Douglass brilliantly traces a history of tribalism across Europe before it washed up on the shores of the United States where it took on a new corrupted form, using the construction of race to undermine and call in to doubt the veracity of every word written in the Declaration of Independence. Here, the expansion of tribalism projected onto race created psychopathic ideologies that provided a pretext by which the government could create of a nation founded on the twin engines of slavery and genocide.

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936, 153.4 × 153.7 cm © Adagp, Paris, 2016

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936, 153.4 × 153.7 cm © Adagp, Paris, 2016

Invariably that which goes against the natural order of life is destined to fail. The system was so degrading to the welfare of this nation that it eventually toppled, nearly destroying the country in the Civil War. It is here, in Reconstruction, that Douglass finds himself, positing a rational argument against prejudice and hate, invoking the best of humanity and the triumph of reason to make his case. The tragedy is that one cannot reason with an irrational mind, for it traffics not in facts nor morals but in the darkest, most disruptive and destructive ideas taken on faith.

As such, Douglass’s position has become an ongoing refrain, the constant chorus of a Greek tragedy that bodes terribly for the fall of the self-exalted empire of the United States. Over the past 135 some-odd years, two Americas have co-existed in a cycle of exploitation and oppression with tensions always on edge, constantly on the verge of rekindling the flames of rage that fueled the South’s failed efforts to secede.

Horace Pippin, Mr Prejudice © Droits Réservés

Horace Pippin, Mr Prejudice © Droits Réservés

Yet, despite being denied their “unalienable” rights, African Americans have flourished in humble but vital ways that have given this nation its cred, not to mention built the very economy that catapulted it to the top of the First World. The Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation, a new exhibition currently on view at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac, Paris, through January 15, 2017, takes on the subject of race, exploring American history through the lens of Black artists and Black life.

Featuring 600 original works and documents made between 1865 and 2014, The Color Line showcases a stellar line up of work by artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Dawoud Bey, Aaron Douglas, Emory Douglas, David Hammons, Wiliam H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Horace Pippin, Faith Ringgold, Alma Thomas, and Mickalene Thomas, among many others.

William H.Johnson, Moon over Harlem, 1943-1944, 72.5 × 90.8 cm, © Washington D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum

William H.Johnson, Moon over Harlem, 1943-1944, 72.5 × 90.8 cm, © Washington D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum

Organized into four key sections, The Color Line takes us on a powerful tour through African-American history starting with the Reconstruction and its aftermath: the creation of Jim Crow laws, which affected a system of apartheid in the South. The exhibition continues with the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, which came about as a response to the Great Migration, which saw some six million African Americans leave the South in search of a better life.

Many made their way to Harlem, the Mecca of black life in the North, where a renaissance in art, music, literature, and culture flourished. At the same time, The Color Line reminds us of the heinous violence perpetrated against African American nationwide as thousands of innocent men women and children were lynched, while towns gathered, taking pictures and making postcards to commemorate their crimes.

David Hammons, African American Flag, 1990, 142.2 × 223.5 cm, © David Hammons, Courtesy of L’oeuvre de David Hammons prêtéedans le cadre de l’exposition est la suivante : U.N.I.A Flag, 1990, New York, Hudgins Family Collection

David Hammons, African American Flag, 1990, 142.2 × 223.5 cm, © David Hammons, Courtesy of L’oeuvre de David Hammons prêtéedans le cadre de l’exposition est la suivante : U.N.I.A Flag, 1990, New York, Hudgins Family Collection

It was 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till that lit the spark for the Civil Rights Movement that began with Rosa Parks that same year continuing on for another two decades in the form of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers—until the U.S. government, in tandem with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, employed illegal means to disrupt, discredit, and ultimately destroy the leaders and the movement.

And so it comes to this, to us today, to that which we have inherited as out legacy. To a world where artists continue to employ their talents in order to speak out, to address the wrongs of this nation in the eternal quest for freedom, liberty, and justice for all citizens of this nation. The works selected for The Color Line are not only a shared history but the face of resistance to tyranny. When we reflect on where we have come, we must look to the past fr the answers we seek to the “hows” and “whys” are embedded in the very fabric of the nation itself.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.