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Book Arts: Civil Rights

Subject-specific lists of book arts materials available in Special Collections at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library

Artists' Books on Civil Rights

Maureen Cummins.  Divide and Conquer.  Rosendale, NY: Women’s Studio Workshop, 2007.  Haas Arts Special Collections Folio NJ18.C9272 A12 2007 (LC)

The puzzle-like pieces of this printed portfolio are reminiscent of 19th century children’s games.  These multi-layered, multi-colored pieces, a selection of which are shown here and above, were hand silkscreened and then hand-colored.  Cummins culled period photographs for this project, including many reproductions from the collections of the New York Historical Society and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  During her residency at the American Antiquarian Society, she uncovered a handwritten manuscript documenting hundreds of congressional testimonies given in 1871 about the activities of a group then known as the Ku Klux.     

Divide and Conquer was inspired by the assembly game Exquisite Corpse, but Cummins emphasizes the body not only in the mix-and-match activity provided by the cards.  Many of the texts on the verso describe brutal lashings or other acts of violence perpetrated by the KK for retribution and intimidation purposes.  The halo-like constructions surrounding the head of each figure indicate the saintliness Cummins attributes to the survivors of this terror campaign.   

Jessica Peterson.  Cause and Effect.  Tuscaloosa, AL:  J. Peterson, 2009. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18 P4522 A12 2009 (LC)

Many book artists who have lived in other parts of the country are surprised by their first experience in the “deep south” of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of one of the few MFA in Book Arts programs in the country.  Whether as a visiting artist or a student who will be living in Alabama for several years, this experience has had a profound effect on many.  Peterson’s experience of moving to the south from the north (Rochester, NY) to attend the MFA program caused her to reexamine her knowledge of and feelings about racial tension in America.  Peterson’s project was to investigate if her own experience had any ties to the struggles of the South; she discovered that a race riot in Rochester in 1964 and the residual effects of this event pervaded her upbringing.  Through the lens of personal and family history, supplemented with supporting media snippets, Peterson gives her thoughtful answers to questions such as:

“What do you think of when you read ‘inner city school’?”

“When is the first time you remember race?”

“What were you raised to fear?”

Clifton Meador.  Long Slow March. Purchase, NY: Center for Editions, Purchase College, 1996. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18.M4715 A12 1996 (LC)

Meador’s work consists of one written and three visual essays on the topic of the marches between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.  In the introduction Meador poignantly writes “The history of the struggle is still with us; the past isn’t even past yet.”  Shown is one page spread from the visual essay “Every Mile Between Selma and Montgomery.”  Photographs taken along Highway 80/The Jefferson Davis Highway are overlaid with negative images of title pages from nineteenth-century narratives about the lives of slaves and newspaper stories about the march and other racial incidents in the South. Typographic essay “Distant Rancorous Voices” juxtaposes period texts about slavery from both sides and modern texts about the Civil Rights Movement.  The visual essay “Persistence of Evil” overlays verbal and visual warnings from the Ku Klux Klan with images from the Civil Rights Movement, while “Conflagration” highlights the people involved in these struggles, from anonymous slaves to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Meador’s impetus for creating this work is a long standing relationship with Alabama and the culture of the South:

“Both my parents were born in Selma, and, I grew up in Alabama in the 1960s. The civil rights struggle looms in my imagination as mythic event. I remember the institutionalized racism of the south: the Jim Crow apartheid of carefully segregated people; the casually accepted racism of many of the adults I knew; the racist populism of George Wallace and his ilk, attempting to support the crumbling status quo of segregation. These cowardly positions contrast in my mind with the heroism of people trying to exercise their basic rights: to vote, to act freely in society, and to be educated. As a young child, I was a witness to something great, something amazing, something transformative: a peaceful revolution.

In the early 90s, with the thirtieth anniversary of the march approaching, I decided to make a record, a literal visual record of the entire path of the Selma March. I drove from Selma to Montgomery, stopping to take a picture and then driving until I reached the farthest point visible in that picture, and then taking another picture. I repeated the process until I reached Montgomery. This visual record is the background for the title pages of slave narratives, the literary background for the civil rights struggle. This visual record of the march is preceded by a typographic interpretation of slave narratives, and writing by the defenders of slavery, typeset in a form that suggests multiple narratives commenting on each other. The end of the book is an expressive montage of all the forces that collide in this work, and finally asks the reader if the fires that burned in the south during the civil rights struggle are really out.” [1]

1. Email to Jae Rossman, December 20, 2010

Kevin Hamilton. The Day of the Rope. Atlanta: Nexus Press, 1990. Haas Arts Special Collections NJ18.H17325 A12 1990 (LC) Oversize

Hamilton’s provocatively-shaped book contains only two pages: a full-page illustration next to a series of writings about issues related to the Ku Klux Klan.  Short narratives of intimidation by the KKK and descriptions of related groups, such as skinheads and separatists, are divided into triangular shapes, as is the illustration on the facing page.  The puzzle-like structure of both the text and image convey the complexity of the factors contributing to the problem of prejudice, overt or not, in American society. 

Hamilton’s title, The Day of the Rope, comes from a phrase in the infamous book, The Turner Diaries, written under a pseudonym by William Pierce, the leader of the Neo-Nazi group National Alliance. In this fictional account set in 2099, a member of the ruling Aryan forces publishes the diaries of Earl Turner, a member of the group that lead an Aryan revolution in the United States in the 1990s.  Hamilton includes the August 1, 1993 “entry” in The Turner Diaries that starts “Today has been the day of the rope.  A grim and bloody day, but an unavoidable one…”  Hamilton’s placement of this text in the lower left corner of the pyramid-shaped narrative of the artist’s book symbolically represents how this specific text has been a cornerstone “supporting” many of the racist groups and acts he also describes.

Ann Tyler.  Billy Rabbit: An American Interpretation.  Chicago: A. Tyler, 2007. Haas Arts Special Collections (in process)

Tyler exploits the structural and narrative conventions of children's books to retell and personalize the history of lynching in America.  The basis for her narrative is the early-twentieth century English children's story of Billie Rabbit (c.1900), a cautionary tale about a young rabbit who steals a turnip.  Seamlessly, Tyler weaves details from historical newspaper accounts of lynchings into the original text.  Billy’s guilt remains ambiguous in the American adaptation, but his fate at the hands of an angry mob is recounted in grim and gory detail.   

The oversize format of Billy Rabbit mimics that of a children’s picture book.  Sewn to the tops of pages  throughout the book are realistic pictures of well-worn hand tools, including an assortment of farm implements as well as knives, a hammer, and so on.  These tools obscure the printed text and must be lifted in order to continue with the story.  Any reader unaware of Tyler's subject matter may approach this lift-the-flap book with childlike delight.  The tale quickly takes a different turn, however, as the act of lifting the tools transforms the reader from bystander to active participant in the mob’s ritualized violence.  One is forced to reconsider a harrowing episode in this country's history and perhaps the experience of reading itself.