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“Love Is The Message”*: Black Visual Art As Historically Responsive Literacy

Author: Geoffrey Winikur


George Washington High School for Engineering and Science

Year: 2022

Seminar: Black Visual Culture

Grade Level: 10-11

Keywords: Black gaze, Critical Race Theory, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Ekphrastic poetry, Historically Responsive Literacy, Visual Art

School Subject(s): Language Arts

Students in the School District of Philadelphia are coming of age in a time when White Christian Nationalists, and other right wing radicals are attempting to rewrite the United States past and present by banning texts that accurately reflect the tradition of racism in this country. This circumstance requires an even stronger emphasis on culturally relevant pedagogy, particularly in humanities classrooms. Much of my teaching career has been devoted to designing and implementing inquiry-based curricula that explicitly connects African and African-American literature, film, history and culture. This particular project emphasizes the capacity for Black visual artists to help students interpret film, painting and photography through what Campt (2021) calls “the Black gaze.” Students will study individuals and create various texts that will serve to educate peers and other members of the school community. This project can be implemented in any context that will emerge this school year, whether it be distance learning, a hybrid mode,l or in-person teaching and learning.

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Full Unit Text
Unit Content


My students are 10th and 11th graders at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in Philadelphia. Carver HSES is a two-time National Blue Ribbon School with a culturally and ethnically diverse population, 72% of whom come from low-income households. Many are either immigrants or children of immigrants. I most enjoy taking an interdisciplinary approach to writers like Chinua Achebe, August Wilson and Toni Morrison, as well as filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene and Raoul Peck. These artists  systematically examine the lives of people who live the legacies of slavery and colonialism while also reinforcing that history exists as a continuum and not as a set of randomly connected events. They also examine gender, power and the inability of certain communities to establish generational wealth.

Like students all throughout the United States, my students are living in an era when disciples of the conservative Right are making schools a battleground in the culture wars, drumming up a disingenuous but politically convenient controversy around Critical Race Theory (CRT), despite the fact that this theoretical legal discipline is not taught in public schools. Sarah Schwartz (2022), writing in EdWeek, states: “Republican state lawmakers have continued their crusade against “critical race theory” into the 2022 legislative session, introducing more bills that attempt to regulate how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and issues of systemic inequality in the classroom.” Adam Gabbatt, writing in the Guardian, reports that book banning is rampant across the United States (2022). Additionally, Jones and Franklin, reporting for NPR, claim that more than a dozen states are enacting “Don’t Say Gay” legislation (2022). The real project of such spurious legislation is to reinscribe colonial education in the effort of maintaining white supremacy. While the media generally presents these legislative efforts as new, they are, in fact, ingrained in US history (Posner, 2020). These affronts to the factual teaching of American history coexist with a general pedagogical malaise rooted in testing and standardized curricula.

This year I spent a great deal of time addressing these controversial issues with my students, especially with a class who was reading Beloved at the same time that Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin was weaponizing Toni Morrison’s masterful novel in an effort to further the spurious controversy about CRT being taught in schools. My students, who were deeply engaged in analyzing the manner in which Morrison portrays the impact of slavery, were outraged by the attempted public erasure of systemic oppression. Here is Beatriz, an astute theorist and Carver HSES student, on book banning:

Books expose children to the reality of life and influence their view of the world. Reading opens mental doors that students who are not allowed to read certain books, especially those with heavier topics, miss out on life lessons that those books address, leaving them even more unprepared for the real world. Even if it’s fiction, you see the world from a different perspective with each book you read, which helps you to be more sensitive or open-minded in the real world. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison were both books that were instant hits, winning the Pulitzer Prize and going on to become a classic of American literature. They were the object of criticism and censure by parents’ associations, who protested their reading in schools. Both books show children the reality of racism that African Americans experienced in the era of slavery and segregation, in addition to confronting the child with violence and sexual abuse. Both themes are very palpable in the real world.

Each of these legislative gambits against novelists like Morrison constitutes an assault on the minds and histories of students, and such anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is an assault on the bodies of many marginalized students. Consequently, many teachers feel it as an imperative that they respond with access to texts that provide analysis of the cultural and historical context leading up to this moment. I have long had an interest in teaching books and films that articulate the impact of colonization and slavery, including novels by Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison, plays by August Wilson as well as films by such luminaries as Raoul Peck and Ousmane Sembene. I firmly believe that these texts “talk” to each other and provide rich insight into how marginalized people resist colonization and adapt to the ever-present condition of white supremacy in the United States.

Formation of Pedagogy

I had the good fortune of living in Philadelphia at a time when there was a serious and significant revival of experimental jazz. I had started consuming this music while in college in New York and attending concerts when I moved back home to Philadelphia. There was an arts center in Philadelphia that held regular concerts of the most innovative musicians, most of whom were based in New York City. While I certainly knew how much I loved this music, I had no idea how much this music was preparing me to be both a student and a teacher.

Listening to jazz helped me understand the dialogical relationship between structure and improvisation as well as the generative value of listening. This awareness helped me formulate strategies for better listening, especially when students participating in classroom discussion suddenly broke into small ensembles, debating different aspects of the general discussion. Rather than submit to the conventional “one person at a time” format I realized that these “improvised jam sessions” were equally vital. Similarly, jazz helped think more creatively about curriculum design.

At some point I realized that my best teaching and learning is, like jazz, orchestrated, improvised, unexpected, and dialogical. At its best it could not fail, for the work moved in precisely the direction it was meant to travel. My experience with jazz pedagogy leads me to imagine a curriculum unit that invites students to  engage students in flexible and responsive research and inquiry into art that emerges from a Black aesthetic during a time when a dominant ideology seeks to radically erase the Black experience in this country.

Content Objectives: Black Visual Culture and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

This project will be partially informed by the ideas of educational theorist and curriculum specialist, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, as well as by the writing of my students several years ago in response to Apex, a short film by the experimental filmmaker Arthur Jafa.  In Muhammad’s book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy (2020), she frames an approach to teaching rooted in Black Literary Societies that were formed by African-Americans during the 1800’s. Members of these societies saw literacy as central to the pursuit of “liberation and power” (22).

Rather than offering a  highly prescriptive curriculum to working teachers, Muhammed poses pillars that can help teachers consider important questions when developing content. These pillars are as follows:

Identity – How will my instruction help students to learn something about themselves and/or about others?

  • Skills – How will my instruction build skills for the content area?
  • Intellect – How will my instruction build students’ knowledge and mental powers?
  • Criticality – How will my instruction engage students’ thinking about power and equity and the disruption of oppression?

The idea behind this framework is to situate contemporary pedagogy in the tradition of the Historically Responsive Literacy. Similarly, I believe that many of the artists that will be featured in this unit are especially interested in a Black artistic tradition that both confronts past oppression, but also provides liberatory approaches that recognize the unique beauty and experience of Black people.

The specific inspiration for this project can be traced back to my fascination with the work of the filmmaker, Arthur Jafa. I first encountered Jafa in 2019 through a random Youtube search when I happened upon his short film, Apex. Art Basel (2017) frames Apex in the following manner:

Jafa’s extensive research into black culture and his theories surrounding a ‘black aesthetic’ led him to produce APEX, an eight-minute video comprised of hundreds of images – objects, people, moments, and events – which race by against an apocalyptic soundscape. The densely sequenced concatenation, organized according to various ‘affective proximities’, produces ‘spooky entanglements’, abstract narrative surges and coded emotional resonances, all of which index Jafa’s ongoing interest in the ‘abject sublime’, doom sutras and the contingent nature of being black.

Apex: bell hooks and Arthur Jafa Discuss Transgression in Public Spaces at The New School

I shared Apex with one of my 11th grade English classes and the response was fascinating. Many of the students were mystified, disconcerted and highly intrigued. Their writing validates the notion that teaching Black experimental art is essential during these times. Consequently, I will share several excerpts from my students in order to demonstrate the range of insights and associations that such work can inspire.

Lynsay’s assessment of Apex by Arthur Jafa begins by suggesting that Jafa’s work requires rereading:

As I’m watching this video for the second time at home trying to figure out what I could write about, it came to my attention that the list of words I’ve come up with all have something to do with something historical or something that caused drama at the time. For example they showed a close up of Kanye’s face and it made me think of when he was doing the whole supporting Trump thing or when he said that slavery was a choice, those events blew up because I doubt anyone expected him to say that and him saying that actually affected his career a little because people were calling him crazy.

Here she makes connections to an artistic historical continuum as expressed through the music of two contemporary recording artist:

Harriet Tubman was known for freeing slaves and when I saw a picture of her, it really caught my attention because hours before I watched the video home again I was on Nicki Minaj’s instagram and her most recent post was about Harriet and this is what was quoted by Harriet on the post : “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” This is a powerful quote to me because it just shows how people have been a slavery for so long that they normalized it, and everyone was afraid to make a move. Some people thought this was the life they were supposed to live in and that’s when it made me think of Kanye saying slavery was a choice, because if you look at it from this prespective slavery was a choice because it is in some part the black person’s fault for giving up and accepting the life the were put it. But this is when it gets tricky because many black people got killed for fighting back, many got killed for escaping and many got killed in general so of course I understand why they would eventually get scared to fight back because the white man would’ve won either way. But it’s the fact that they normalized it and assumed this is how they were supposed to live and forget all about where they came from.

Finally, Lynnsay connects the fim to our previous class content, specifically Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

The last image that got my attention was black people wearing blackface. This was the first time I’ve seen black face on a black person because what would be the reason to do black face when you are already black? Then I started thinking about what Keyziah said in class about Milkman being an example of black people downgrading themselves in a society. But maybe this was a way of black people expressing themselves using what white people use on them by using it on themselves or maybe it’s a way to mock the white people. There could be a lot of reasons for him putting that in the video but it stood out to me because I’ve never seen it before.

Iyana offers an interpretation based on an aesthetic criteria:

Even if all of the pictures did not connect as a whole, it still has an interesting aesthetic. It was beautiful in the sense of education and art. Each picture holding multiple meanings and showed a different type of art, but it is the viewers job to interpitate it in whatever way they deemed fit. Each which picture had its own way of educating you, if you took the time to pause the video and inspect it. I personally saw a connection between the differences and similarities between the images. Many of the pictures connected to the picture that followed it, except It was a different version of the same picture. The pictures had the same concept but a different person, or being in it. It showed how similar but different all organisms are. This also shows that Jafa took his time to put these pictures together, evidence that there is a bigger mean in every picture.

Micah speaks to the manner in which Jafa’s involves his viewers as both accomplice and antagonist:

I believe Jafa is utilizing our subjective experiences and interpretation of each image to make them seem more personal. On the other hand, just as we may see a couple images that are familiar with us, we then are pushed away with other aspects of reality: death, war, oppression, mistreatment, and neglect. Historical events played back-to-back like each and every one of America’s sins were being exposed. It serves as a reminder that we do live in reality, and these events are not just part of the daily news or our history textbook, but are tangible and actively affect our lives as Americans.

Nash captures the wide range of ideas embodied in this short film:

Apex, a short collage-style film created by Arthur Jafa, is an awe-inspiring assemblage of pictures that, at a glance, do not seem to have any relation to one another. With over 800 pictures shown at a breakneck pace, accompanied by the sounds of steady techno beats and an irregular heart monitor, they seem to be almost overwhelmingly random. But there is, in my earnest opinion, a common theme throughout most, if not all, of the images shown in the film. There is a theme of Creation versus Destruction, Life versus Death,  Black versus White, Red versus Blue, Macro versus Micro, Discovery versus The Unknown, and so on to show the ultimate duality of existence and what it means, in a sense, to be human. Everything, even the music playing alongside the images, support this theme.

Collectively, these responses affirm the need to include challenging visual art in a humanities classroom. Students already experience a high degree of exposure to the visual through social media platforms like TikTok and instagram. Bringing complex visual art into the classroom can challenge students to think critically across art forms and disciplines. Furthermore, engaging with student work in the process of designing curriculum can bring teachers closer to how students are experiencing the world, and therefore improve our capacity to make learning more relevant.

Introducing Tina Campt’s Theory of “A Black Gaze”:

Just as Gholdy Muhammed situates her contemporary pedagogical vision in the tradition of 19th century Black Literary Societies, Tina Campt (2021) theorizes that current Black artists are building on the past innovations of Black artists in order to move from a place of “depiction” to “the complex positionality that is blackness…” (7). In A Black Gaze: Artists changing How We See, Tina Campt posits that there are:

…a group of Black fine artists are initiating a … transformative cultural, aesthetic, and indeed, political shift that is drawing unprecedented attention. They are shifting the very nature of  our very interactions with the visual through the creation and quite literal curation of a distinctively Black gaze. It is a gaze that is energizing and infusing Black popular culture in striking and unorthodox ways. Neither a depiction of Black folks or Black culture, it is a gaze that forces viewers to engage Blackness from a different and discomforting vantage point. (8)

Among these artists Campt identifies as progenitors of “the Black gaze” is the experimental filmmaker, Arthur Jafa. Jafa, who worked with legendary filmmakers Julie Dash and Stanley Kubrick, hails from the Mississippi Delta, a place he describes as:

…the black Jurassic Park. It’s like this primordial, out-of-time kind of space, but it’s also like ground zero in terms of black musical culture, and if it’s ground zero in terms of black musical culture, then it’s ground zero in terms of American musical culture, which in the 20th century kind of means it’s ground zero in terms of American culture, period (O’Grady, 2019).

Like Jafa, Willie Brown, the bluesman featured at the beginning of this project, grew up in the Mississippi Delta. It is no coincidence that music is central to Jafa’s work as a filmmaker, and much of his work shares the ambiguity that can be found in many early blues lyrics.

Classroom Activities

Introduction to Assignment Sequence

As the review of the authors, auteurs, musicians, and educators above shows, the “Black gaze” is a paradigm with introducing to and exploring with students. The following assignments offer a scaffolded approach to introducing students to the Black Gaze as an aesthetic concept and as a mode of literary interpretation. Following these introductory assignments is a final project assignment for students.

Assignment # 1: Journal Response

After reading and discussing this quote we will brainstorm a list of texts, songs, images, activities and public figures that either reflect or embody “a Black gaze.” Given the racial, religious, ethnic and sexual diversity of Carver HSES, this discussion should be rich, substantive  and illuminating. After discussing, students will compose a 200 word journal analyzing the ways in which a text, song, image or person of their choosing articulates “a Black gaze.” I will then share excerpts from the journals.

Following this, students make a list of ideas/images and collect them on chart paper that can be hung on walls.  These can become references for the future assignment which will be composing an original Ekphrasis poem inspired by short films by Arthur Jafa and Khalil Joseph.

Introducing Arthur Jafa


Tomkins (2020) contextualizes Jafa’s groundbreaking film, Love Is The Message, The Message is Death, in the following manner:

“Love Is the Message” is the closest he has come to realizing the goal he set for himself forty years ago. “I think what the film captures is the Black struggle to live,” the writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman, who has known Jafa for many years, said to me. “It’s a series of iconic images that show the brilliant virtuosity of the Black thinkers, artists, and athletes that ordinary Black folk have given to the world, alongside some of the forces that have negated Black life. You don’t have to know the exact reference for each image to feel the work’s density and power.” The poet Fred Moten, another friend of Jafa’s, talked to me about the “entanglement of absolute joy and absolute pain” that is fundamental to Black art and Black music. “ ‘Love Is the Message’ has all of that, and you know it immediately,” he said. “It’s in every moment. There is no break, and this is why it’s good that it lasts only seven minutes, because that’s as much as anyone can take.”

O’Grady (2019) describes the film in this way:

Composed to a large extent of found footage spliced together, it’s a kind of D.J. mix of pure chills, spun with urgency: The white South Carolina police officer Michael Slager shooting and killing the unarmed black forklift operator Walter Scott in 2015; a black Texas teenage girl in a bikini being hurled to the ground by a white policeman two months later; a clip of the British sprinter Derek Redmond pulling a hamstring in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, followed by his father rushing to help his injured son hobble to the finish line. We see swaying crowds and iconic faces — Coretta Scott King, Nina Simone, Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” — as well as newer ones, like the young actress Amandla Stenberg, who asks, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” In the finale, LeBron James gloriously dunks a basketball, the surface of the sun blazes and James Brown grabs a microphone stand and collapses onto a stage. A phantasmagoria of brutality and magnificence, the short unsparing film is an expansive, unshakable fever dream of blackness as both a creative force and an object of white violence, a kind of digital-age “Guernica.”

Khalil Jos

Kahlil Joseph, “BLKNWS” clip at Noah Davis exhibit (his brother)

Hilton Als (2017) shares insight into Joseph’s approach to filmmaking:

Instead, he began to ask himself what story he could tell from his perspective, and his community’s. Black life and black culture weren’t linear; they had been interrupted too many times by violence, prejudice, disaster, and compromise. And there was the flip side: the juicy originality that emerged from those bad days and funky nights. How best, then, to create on film a black aesthetic that represented the hope, the highs, and the losses of a twenty-first-century New Negro?

Assignment # 2: Response Journals

After watching each film students will compose am original journal responding to one of the following prompts:

  • What do these videos suggest about personal freedom?
  • What happens when we witness violence in a work of visual art?
  • How do these videos refléct a “Black gaze”?
  • What happens when Black artists make art for Black people from a Black perspective?
  • How do these films reflect historical/cultural importance?
  • What do these films make you think?
  • What do these films make you feel?

I will share excerpts from the journals and we will engage in dialogue around the collective responses.

Assignment # 3: Ekphrastic Poetry

Following this students will compose an original Ekphrasis poem. As defined by The Poetry Foundation (2020), Ekphrastic poetry “is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art,” a famous example being John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. Students can draw from ideas and images posted on chart paper mentioned earlier while also generating new ideas. In order to acquaint students with Ekphrastic poetry I will model by sharing two original Ekphrastic poems that I have composed.

Black Aesthetics

arthur jafa & Khalil Joseph

bring this thing

to a witness

Coltrane Live in Japan

sew esoteric


Like they say


“For example [Jafa] showed a close up of Kanye’s face

and it made me think of when he was doing

the whole supporting Trump thing

or when he said that slavery was a choice”

buffalo soldiers

stand on broad shoulders

Coltrane prayed Hiroshima

Lynsay: Kanye

monetize violence

Miles wished silence

Everything I learned about music

from the Village Voice

Eric Dolphy

ross gay composes


tu dr j

reverse layup

jew saw live

in the 80’s

tulsa 1921

burned down

in that village vanguard

dolphy plays with trane

plays with mingus

plays with himself

the first tune

John Coltrane Live

@ the Village Vanguard is


or as bob kauffman

& steve lacy song

“as usual”

basquiat was a writer

beyond what can be written –

u gotta see egyptian tombs,


for what they are

jazz shofar

yelling the dead sea

like moses

Black Visual Art  Research Assignment and Presentation

Following the Ekphrasis assignment inspired by films by Arthur Jafa and Khalil Joseph, students will engage in a research project based on one Black artist. Borrowing from Muhammed, my unit will be organized around the following pillars:

  • Identity – Students will consider how Black visual artists utilize “a Black gaze” “that forces viewers to engage Blackness from a different and discomforting vantage point (Campt, pg. 8).”
  • Skills – Students will collaboratively create and present a research-based presentation on a Black visual artist.
  • Intellect – Students study art criticism and scholarship in the process of  analyzing and interpreting multiple artworks by a Black visual artist.
  • Criticality – Students will understand how analyzing Black through “a Black gaze” “shifts the optics of ‘looking at’ to a politics of looking with, through, and alongside another (Campt, pg 8.).”

Prior to presenting this project to students I will introduce artists that the students may consider researching, though students, with my approval, may choose other artists. I will introduce each artist and display several of each artists’ works. I will encourage students to look closely at each painting/photograph and we discuss them while considering the following questions:

  • What is the function of color in this image?
  • Who is in the image?
  • What is happening?
  • What does this image make you think?
  • What does this image make you feel?
  • How does this image reflect either a Black gaze or the culture of the artist?

These same questions will be considered later when students are designing their presentations.

Guide to Black Visual Artists

This is a partial guide to select Black visual artists that students may consider for their collaborative research-based presentation. Each selection is accompanied by a brief critical assessment that can illuminate the students’ understanding of and appreciation of the artist, while also serving as a mentor text for how to write a critical analysis of art. 

Kerry James Marshall – Past Times

 A masterpiece of unparalleled formal rigor and graphic grandeur, Past Times is the definitive embodiment of Kerry James Marshall’s revolutionary painterly practice. Executed in 1997, the magnificent panorama of Past Times thunderously declares the arrival of Marshall’s mature artistic project: the utter and indisputable mastery of traditional art historical modes to counter the glaring absence of the black figure within the canon of Western painting. Emphatically testifying to Marshall’s virtuosic painterly abilities, Past Times marks the decisive moment at which the artist confronts the canon upon its own rigorous terms, boldly usurping the grand artistic gesture of past movements to assert the primacy and presence of an African American narrative within the larger legacy of contemporary American painting. – Air Dip

Kara Walker – Slaughter of the Innocents

So one of the motifs in my work is that as a Black Girl I am a thing which is violated by filthy beasts. The other is that Western progress and colonization, slavery, Modernism, etc., grew out of a white European need to not feel like the filthy beasts they feared they might be. . . .

The other motif is that as a black woman seeking a position of power I must first dispel with (or at least reckon with) the assumption (not my own, but given to me like an inheritance) that I am amoral, beastly, wild. And that because of this I must be chained, domesticated, kept, traded, bred. And out of this subservient condition . . . I must escape, go wild, be free, after which I have to confront the questions: How free? How wild? How much further must I go to escape all I’ve internalized? – The Shadow Act: Kara Walker’s Vision by Hilton Als

Ellen Gallagher – Monument for Martin Luther King

Though primarily working in painting and drawing, Gallagher has also worked in sculpture, film and animation. Her early style appears Minimalist and spare from a distance but, up close, one observes intricate drawings of eyes, lips and wigs, which Gallagher has described as “the disembodied ephemera of minstrelsy”—the racist blackface entertainment common in the US from the C19th onwards. In the early 2000s, she used cut-out advertisements from Black culture magazines and transformed them with plasticine, making sculptural reliefs that were often imprinted with witty or incisive symbols and imagery. Many of her paintings refer to the sea and allude to the Afrofuturist myth of Drexciya: a Black Atlantis at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, supposedly populated with the children of the mothers of enslaved African women who were thrown—or threw themselves—overboard during their forced journey across the Middle Passage. – A Brush With,,,Ellen Gallagher, Podcast by Ben Luke

Roy DeCarava – Children Playing on the Street, with a Fire Hydrant

DeCarava’s work as a photographer was a matter of steady immersion and acute observation. It was an everyday act, and it was personal, a ritual not that different from prayer in its assertion of purposeful connection between individual and wider world. – Leah  Ollman, Los Angeles Times

 Lubaina Himid – Le Rodeur: The Exchange

Himid’s work deliberately beckons you into it. There’s always an invitation for you to step on to the deck of the boat, to join the party; or, if it’s a work such as The Operating Table, in which three seated women seem to be debating how to design a city, you’ll find Himid has left space for you to join them at their table.Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian

Barkley Hendricks – Flashblack

Barkley L. Hendricks portrayed Black people who exude attitude. “In the Black community, you stand out because you declare your own sense of identity beyond your environment,” said his longtime friend Richard J. Watson, artist-in-residence at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. “When you see yourself shown as a standout — and not because you haven’t eaten in three days and you’re a symbol of poverty — that gives you respectability.”

In the style of Manet and Velázquez, Hendricks painted full-length portraits of men and women who, with swagger and brio, project forcefully at a viewer. He typically painted his figures with overlaid washes of thin oil paint and set them against a monochromatic background that he applied in fast-drying acrylics. – Arthur Lubow, The New York Times

Dawoud Bey – Buck, Washington D.C.

Photographer Dawoud Bey portrays communities and histories that have been underrepresented or even unseen. From portraits in Harlem to nocturnal landscapes, classic street photography to large-scale studio portraits, his images combine an ethical imperative with an unparalleled mastery of his medium. – The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Sonia Boyce – Missionary Position II

For many years, Boyce’s practice has involved working closely with other people through improvisation and experimental practice. I ask how recent events have impacted her ability to create new work: ‘It’s been about trying to bring people together and keep us all safe at the same time – and, eventually, to choreograph a situation that I hope is interesting. It’s a curious conundrum in terms of making art, to be having to say, I want people to be in touch, but they can’t touch.’ – Imani Mason Jordan, Frieze

Carrie Mae Weems – from The Kitchen Table Series

It would be hard to overstate the impact of “The Kitchen Table Series” (1989-90), which combines panels of text and image to tell the story of a self-possessed woman with a “bodacious manner, varied talents, hard laughter, multiple opinions,” as it reads. It’s the series that made her career and inspired a new generation of artists who had never before seen a woman of color looking confidently out at them from a museum wall, and for whom Weems’s work represented the first time an African-American woman could be seen reflecting her own experience and interiority in her art. – Megan O’Grady, The New York Times Style Magazine{Updating}

Kehinde Wiley – Ship of Fools

Wiley’s signature portraits of everyday men and women riff on specific paintings by Old Masters, replacing the European aristocrats depicted in those paintings with contemporary black subjects, drawing attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives.

The subjects in Wiley’s paintings often wear sneakers, hoodies, and baseball caps, gear associated with hip-hop culture, and are set against contrasting ornate decorative backgrounds that evoke earlier eras and a range of cultures.

Through the process of “street casting,” Wiley invites individuals, often strangers he encounters on the street, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts the pose of the painting’s figure. By inviting the subjects to select a work of art, Wiley gives them a measure of control over the way they’re portrayed. – Brooklyn Museum

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Guilt of Gold Teeth

That Basquiat, like Bearden, made work that was unmistakably and vehe­mently about being a Black American male did not help matters any. Basquiat was as visually fascinated as anybody in our culture by cartoons, coon art, high-­tech, and the idea of private ownership. References to these elements are con­stants in his work, sometimes framed critically and other times as a stream-of­-conscious shopping list, pointing up our daily overdose of mass culture’s effluvia. But he also gave equal attention to ex­huming, exposing, and cutting up the nation’s deep-sixed racial history, in all its nightmarish, Neo-Expressionist gory. If you’re Black and historically informed there’s no way you can look at Basquiat’s work and not get beat up by his obsession with the Black male body’s history as property, pulverized meat, and popular entertainment. No way not to be remind­ed that lynchings and minstrelsy still vie in the white supremacist imagination for the Black male body’s proper place. (Any­one doubting the currency of this opinion need only look to the hero’s welcome Spike Lee got in see-a-nigger-shoot-his-­ass Bensonhurst or to Robert Hughes’s New Republic “review” of Basquiat’s death in which he defames the brother by calling him the art world’s answer to Ed­die Murphy.) – Greg Tate, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk

Group Project for Painter/Photographer:

  1. Students will gather in groups of 4
  2. Each group will choose a painter or photographer
  3. Each group will prepare a presentation incorporating the following elements:
  • A brief biography of the artist
  • A critical perspective based on cited scholarly evaluations
  • Analysis of why this artists is innovative

Each student will then select a minimum of three works by the artist provide an interpretation based on the following prompts:

Student critique and analysis will be guided by the same journal questions used earlier:

  • What is the function of color in this image?
  • Who is in the image?
  • What is happening?
  • What does this image make you think?
  • What does this image make you feel?
  • How does this image reflect either a Black gaze or the culture of the artist?

The slideshow should be at least 20 slides.

A slideshow that has a title does not count as one of the 20 slides.

  • Each slide should include an image and written text.
  • Sources must be cited.
  • Individuals in the group should divide the labor evenly.
  • The presentation should be rehearsed ahead of time.
  • The final presentations may be presented to different grades/ classes.
  • Be prepared to take questions at the end of your presentation.

Note: Students may incorporate visual artists from their own cultures, though these artists should represent the post-colonial era. Additionally, groups may choose other platforms, such as TikTok, Instagram, I-Move or podcasts. These adaptations will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

Lesson calendar with Due Dates: History Research Assignment

Note: All time frames subject to change depending on how the process evolves.

Time Frame:

This will be the second unit of the year and likely begin sometime in November.

Day 1-2

Students will divide research areas and begin to look for relevant information.

Days 3-7

Groups will compose slides, place them in appropriate order and enhance design.

Day 8-9

Students will self-record while practicing presentation.

Days 10-12


Audience will complete reflections on post-its. Each group will have a piece of chart paper where post-its will be placed:

  • What stands out?
  • What do I want to know more about?
Day 13

Whole class discussion:

  • What did we learn?
  • What does it mean that we may not have been aware of some of these artists?
  • How does this new knowledge transform our understanding of Black popular culture and artistic expression?
  • Presentation final draft – TBD
  • Peer review/ presentation rehearsals will take place on – TBD
  • Presentations- TBD


Collaboration Rubric

Copy of Rubric_for_group_presentations

  • Thanks to my colleague, Renae Curless for sharing these rubrics


Brush With… Ellen Gallagher.” The Art Newspaper – International Art News and Events, 30 June 2021,

Als, Hilton. “Kara Walker’s Shadow Act.” The New Yorker, 2017, Accessed 9 Sept. 2019.

—. “The Black Excellence of Kahlil Joseph.” The New Yorker, 30 Oct. 2017,

Basquiat, Jean-Michel. The Guilt of Gold Teeth, 1982.

Bey, Dawoud. Buck, Washigton D.C., 1989.

Boyce, Sonia. Missionary Posiition II, 1985.

“Brooklyn Museum: Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic.”, Brooklyn Museum, 2012,

Campt, Tina. A Black Gaze : Artists Changing How We See. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Mit Press, 2021.

Carson, Eric. “Arthur Jafa: LOVE IS the MESSAGE, the MESSAGE IS DEATH.” YouTube, 14 May 2017,

“Dawoud Bey: An American Project (through May 30, 2022).” The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,

DeCarava, Roy. Children Playing on the Street, with a Fire Hydrant, 1967.

Foundation, Poetry. “Ekphrasis.” Poetry Foundation, 27 June 2020,

Gabbatt, Adam. ““Unparalleled in Intensity” – 1,500 Book Bans in US School Districts.” The Guardian, 7 Apr. 2022,

Gallgher, Ellen. Monument for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gholdy Mhammad. Cultivating Genius : An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. New York, Ny, Scholastic Inc, 2020.

Hendricks, Barkley L. Flashblack.

Higgins, Charlotte. “Lubaina Himid: “the Beginning of My Life Was a Terrible Tragedy.”” The Guardian, 20 Nov. 2021,

Himid,Lubaina. Le Rodeur: The Exchange, 2016.

“How Carrie Mae Weems Rewrote the Rules of Image-Making.” The New York Times, 15 Oct. 2018,

Jones, Dustin, and Jonathan Franklin. “Not Just Florida. More than a Dozen States Propose So-Called “Don’t Say Gay” Bills.” NPR, 10 Apr. 2022,

Jordan, Imani Mason. “Sonia Boyce’s Performances Defy Easy Categorization.” Frieze, 22 Apr. 2022, Accessed 13 June 2022.

“Kahlil Joseph, “BLKNWS” Clip at Noah Davis Exhibit (His Brother).”, Accessed 13 June 2022.

“Kerry James Marshall PAST TIMES.” DIPChain, 29 Apr. 2019.

“Lubaina Himid: “the Beginning of My Life Was a Terrible Tragedy.”” The Guardian, 20 Nov. 2021,

Lubow, Arthur. “What You Didn’t Know about Barkley L. Hendricks.” The New York Times, 14 May 2021, Accessed 13 June 2022.

Marshall, Kerry James. Past Times, 1997.

O’Grady, Megan. “Arthur Jafa in Bloom.” The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019,

Ollman, Leah. “Review: How Photographer Roy DeCarava Captured Daily Life with Aching Beauty.” Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr. 2019,

Posner, Sarah. Unholy : Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump. New York, Random House, 2020.

Schwartz, Sarah. “Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is under Attack.” Education Week, 11 June 2021,

Tomkins, Calvin. “Arthur Jafa’s Radical Alienation.” The New Yorker, 14 Dec. 2020,

Walker, Kara. Slaughter of the Innocents, 2016.

Weems, Carrie Mae. The Kitchen Table Series, 1990,

Wiley, Kehinde. Ship of Fools, 2017.

“Willie Brown – Future Blues – Champion 50023B.”, Accessed 13 June 2022.


Pennsylvania ELA Standards

1.2 Reading Informational Text 

Students read, understand, and respond to informational text—with an emphasis on comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, and making connections among ideas and between texts with focus on textual evidence.

CC.1.2.11–12.C Analyze the interaction and development of a complex set of ideas, sequence of events, or specific individuals over the course of the text.

CC.1.2.11–12.D Evaluate how an author’s point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

CC.1.2.11–12.E Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.

CC.1.2.11–12.F Evaluate how words and phrases shape meaning and tone in texts.

CC.1.2.11–12.G Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

1.4 Writing 

Students write for different purposes and audiences. Students write clear and focused text to convey a well-defined perspective and appropriate content.

CC.1.4.11–12.A Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately.

CC.1.4.11–12.B Write with a sharp, distinct focus identifying topic, task, and audience.

CC.1.4.11–12.D Organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a whole; use appropriate and varied transitions and syntax to link the major sections of the text; provide a concluding statement or section that supports the information presented; include formatting when useful to aiding comprehension.

CC.1.4.11–12.M Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events.

CC.1.4.11–12.N Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation and its significance, establishing one or multiple points of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters.

CC.1.4.11–12.O Use narrative techniques such as dialogue, description, reflection, multiple plotlines, and pacing to develop experiences, events, and/or characters; use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, settings, and/or characters.

CC.1.4.11–12.R Demonstrate a grade-appropriate command of the conventions of standard English grammar, usage, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.

CC.1.2.11–12.A Determine and analyze the relationship between two or more central ideas of a text, including the development and interaction of the central ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.

CC.1.2.11–12.B Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences and conclusions based on and related to an author’s implicit and explicit assumptions and beliefs.

CC.1.2.11–12.I Analyze foundational U.S. and world documents of historical, political, and literary significance for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

CC.1.2.11–12.J Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college- and career-readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

National Standards for Visual Art Education

Content Standard #4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures Achievement Standard: • Students know that the visual arts have both a history and specific relationships to various cultures • Students identify specific works of art as belonging to particular cultures, times, and places • Students demonstrate how history, culture, and the visual arts can influence each other in making and studying works of art

Content Standard #5: Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others Achievement Standard: • Students understand there are various purposes for creating works of visual art • Students describe how people’s experiences influence the development of specific artworks • Students understand there are different responses to specific artworks

Content Standard #6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines Achievement Standard: • Students understand and use similarities and differences between characteristics of the visual arts and other arts disciplines • Students identify connections between the visual arts and other disciplines in the curriculum