Writers on the wall

The American Writers Museum’s newest exhibit, “Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice,” is named after a book of poems by Pauli Murray, a writer, lawyer, activist, priest, and professor. While Murray inspired people like Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall (he called her work “the Bible” of the civil rights movement) and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who drew on Murray’s work for her legal brief, she is largely unknown by the public. (Murray was LGBTQ+ and wrote extensively about gender and sexuality, and used she/her pronouns to describe herself.)

“Her work has been crucial, but it’s often been invisible,” said Dr. Keidrick Roy, the exhibit’s lead curator. Roy spent the last five years getting a PhD at Harvard, studying how African Americans have taken up the ideals of American liberty, progress, and justice in their writings since the nation’s revolutionary era of the 1700s. “And so in this exhibition,” Roy continued, “it’s only fitting to prominently feature Murray and her life and her work as an organizing theme, to help us pay attention to the things that we observe but we don’t really see.”

Dark Testament is an immersive experience that has been two years in the making. It opened to the public on September 22 at the American Writers Museum (AWM) downtown and explores racial injustice from the Civil War through the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of Black writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Ida B. Wells, Ethel Payne, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ann Petry, among many others. At the project’s start, the curation team—made of writers, journalists, academics, and poets—had a series of conversations with a variety of African American scholars in Black studies, which expanded the aim and reach of that project, birthing its four central organizing themes: Citizen, Justice, Violence, and Joy. “This project has been a dream come true,” Roy said. 

Courtesy American Writers Museum

The presentation stretches across three of the museum’s gallery spaces. When visitors enter, they first step into the Meijer Gallery, where they’ll find on the right a chronicle of major Black American writers, with physical copies of influential works highlighted from each phase. The works What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, written in 1852 by Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written in 1861 by Harriet Jacobs, represents the period from 1850-1865 entitled “Slavery and Freedom,” for example. Ida B. Wells’s The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States represented the era between Reconstruction and Jim Crow (1865-1919). Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison is highlighted in the section on the years 1940-1960, a period defined by international conflict and integration.

Across from those mounted texts, 16 brilliantly colored five-foot-tall portraits are installed side by side, filling up the entire width of the gallery’s wall. Visitors can interact with the art using an augmented-reality app on their phones. Large multicolored portraits depicting the likes of Ma Rainey, Douglass, Wells, and James Baldwin are painted or quilted in various complementing styles by local artists, many of whom are associated with the Chicago Public Art Group. 

One of the painters, Bernard Williams, oversaw the completion of the 16 portraits and said that he commissioned artists—Damon Reed, Dorothy Irene Burge, and Dorian Sylvain, and himself—that he thought would “do well with creating dynamic portraits,” as the painters have experience creating outdoor murals in Chicago and painting portraits. Dorothy Burge is the only fabric artist among the group.  

In a section of the Conant Readers hall, a larger exhibition room, there’s a component that examines the significance of the Black press, Black newspapers, and Black publishers. “Black press has been central to the distribution of Black thought since its founding,” Kiedrick said, since writers like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois used the Black press as a mechanism to  distribute their ideas. He noted that the Black press increased the capacity for transmission of ideas within Chicago but also across the country, connecting Black people in different regions of the country who wouldn’t have interacted otherwise. 

“You have people in the south reading the Chicago Defender for instance, and that encouraged aspects of the Great Migration,” Roy said.“The Black press provided a space for Black leaders to emerge in a variety of capacities, and to have a public facing national voice that Black folks paid attention to.”

Myiti Sengstacke-Rice is the fifth generation of publishers in her family. Her great-granduncle was Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the founding publisher of the Chicago Defender and inventor of the Bud Billiken Parade, and her grandfather was a publisher of the Defender as well. Her father is renowned photographer Bobby Sengstacke. She donated a walking cane, a camera, and countless photos from her late family members to the exhibit. 

“Writers are really clamoring for great spaces to be able to express what they’re seeing out there in the world. And you know, they need good platforms for that,” Sengstacke-Rice said.

The last part of the exhibit is in the Rubin Writers Room, where an intimate video presentation shows contemporary writers discussing the resonance of works from the past. Meanwhile, actors from Congo Square Theatre Company act out quotes from each text on screen. 

The museum considers this their most ambitious presentation to date.

“The larger movements have a lot of different Black intellectuals, writers, men and women alike, who were really thinking deeply about the American Enlightenment ideals upon which the nation was founded,” Roy said. “And they should be celebrated as philosophers.”

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