Art, Imagination, and the Quest for Racial Justice

Last Updated: January 29, 2020

We are living through a historic reckoning on racial justice. The Black Lives Matter movement, which is a decentralized movement working to end police brutality against Black Americans, is considered to be one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States. This movement began in 2013 after Trayvon Martin—a Black, teenage boy—was murdered, and it gained momentum over the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd sparked protests across the United States and the world. 

Art has been a powerful tool in the Black Lives Matter movement because it has the power to change how we perceive ourselves, how we think about belonging and representation, and how we imagine the future. Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman writes in her poem “Pictures and Progress”:

For a people to be rendered visible,
indivisible, vivid and vibrant as all the glass we carry,
We cannot just have a vision of justice.
We must be able to envision ourselves in that vision
for justice to be served,
For the right to representation that we all deserve.1

This Teaching Idea helps students learn about the power of art as a tool for social change and the ways in which artists and activists use artworks—including poetry, photography, murals, music, and dance—in the fight for racial justice in the United States.

  1. How Can Art Move Us?

    Project a photo of the ballerinas Kennedy George and Ava Holloway standing in front of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. (Note: The original photo, which you can find at the beginning of the Dance Magazine article Meet Ava Holloway and Kennedy George, the Teens Whose Photo Dancing On a Confederate Statue Went Viral, contains profanity. For a version without profanity, pause the Inside Edition video Ballerinas Reclaim Space Home to Robert E. Lee Statue With Photo Shoot at 0:06, and share that image with your students instead.) Ask your students:

    • What aspects of this photo stand out to you?
    • Where do you find beauty in this image?

    Tell your students that this photo depicts two young ballerinas who participated in the protests that occurred over the summer of 2020 at the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Then, read the following excerpt from the Richmond Times-Dispatch article How a photo of young ballerinas at the Lee statue became an iconic image of Black Lives Matter with your students:

    When 14-year-old dancers Kennedy George and Ava Holloway heard that the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue was coming down, they knew they had to be there.

    They headed out in their matching black ballerina skirts and pointe shoes for an impromptu photo session.

    “We went to the monument to capture a joyous moment,” Kennedy said.

    Kennedy and Ava have been dancing since they were 3 years old at the Central Virginia Dance Academy.

    “Dance, for me, is like the better half of myself,” Kennedy said. “It’s like my alter ego. It helps express different parts of who I am.”

    “I feel stronger, I feel graceful, I feel confident when I’m dancing,” Ava said.

    With the backdrop of the Lee pedestal covered with graffiti behind them, Kennedy and Ava stood proudly on pointe, wearing black tutus and raising their fists in a symbol of strength.2

    Ask your students:

    • Has your initial response to this photo changed now that you know more about the context?  If so, how?
    • What do you think Kennedy and Ava’s dance meant to them?
    • What do you think this dance meant to the people who saw it or saw the image? What do you think this suggests about the power of art and representation?

    Remote Learning Note: Use screen share to show your students the image of the ballerinas Kennedy George and Ava Holloway. Ask your students to share their reflections on the photo through the chat. Read the excerpt from the article How a photo of young ballerinas at the Lee statue became an iconic image of Black Lives Matter with your students, and again ask them to respond in the chat.

  2. How Has the Black Lives Matter Movement Used Art?

    In this activity, students analyze artwork that has been inspired or used by the Black Lives Matter movement, focusing on street murals depicted in the Verge article 33 Powerful Black Lives Matter Murals. You can also ask students to analyze the additional examples listed at the end of this activity or examples from your local area.

    Show your students the images in the article 33 Powerful Black Lives Matter Murals. Then, ask your students to choose one mural to analyze. (Note: Depending on social distancing requirements, you can ask students to work individually or in pairs. Students can also complete their analysis outside of class as homework.) Ask students to use the following questions to guide their analysis:

    • What aspects of this mural stand out to you?
    • What do you think the message(s) of this mural are?
    • Who do you think might see this mural? How do you think it might impact the people who see it? 

    Once students finish analyzing their murals, ask for volunteers to share their ideas about the different murals.

    In addition to the murals in the Verge article 33 Powerful Black Lives Matter Murals, you can also ask students to analyze the following sources, which include poetry and music as well as visual art:

    Remote Learning Note: Place students in triads in breakout rooms to analyze a mural. Then, bring students back together as a class and ask volunteers to share their ideas about the different murals.

  3. How Can Art Create Social Justice?

    Ask your students to reflect in their journals on the following prompt:

    In her TED Talk How Images Shape Our Understanding of Justice, Professor Sarah Lewis discusses the power that art and images have to make us see ourselves and our society differently. She says:

    [P]ublic moments of justice begin with private, internal moments. Moments in which we are able to be still, to shift the speed of our processing, to decelerate. These are the moments in which we start to see what we did not know we did not know. This is at the heart of justice, this self correction, the ability to be humble to acknowledge our past failures and to make way for a new, imagined future.4

    Reflect:

    • Professor Lewis believes art can make people slow down and see things from new perspectives. How do you think the mural you analyzed might help people do this?
    • Professor Lewis believes art can help us imagine a more just future. How do you think the mural you analyzed might help people do this?

    Remote Learning Note: Ask students to reflect individually in their journals, either during class or as homework.

Extension: Ask Students to Find or Create Examples of Art for Social Justice

Ask your students to bring examples of art (such as a poem, photo, mural, song, or dance) that they see as part of the movement for racial justice in the United States. Students should explain what they think the message of the piece is. Alternatively, students could choose to create their own piece of artwork (such as a poem, photo, mural, song, or dance).

Citations

   


 
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