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Perspectives Black History

Three Artists’ Books in Celebration of Juneteenth

These recent additions to The Met’s Watson Library celebrate Black joy and liberation.

Jun 17, 2021

A color-tinted photograph of the back of a woman's head

The first Juneteenth was celebrated on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Texas with news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, signed two and a half years prior. Texans were the last US residents to learn that slavery had been abolished, and Juneteenth became a holiday commemorating emancipation. Then, as Isabel Wilkerson wrote in The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.” On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth was officially designated a federal holiday.

Today, Juneteenth celebrations often contain readings of African American literature. Over the past year, staff and volunteers in The Met’s Watson Library have added over six hundred volumes by and about Black artists to an already robust collection, increasing holdings of historically underrepresented minorities in the history of art. The newly formed Index of African American Artists (subject of two previous articles by my colleagues) is a significant milestone in the library’s goal of becoming a preeminent research venue for Black visual art.

“The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.”

— Isabel Wilkerson, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”  (2010) 

These three recent acquisitions celebrate Black joy and liberation in the face of white supremacy and systemic racism in the United States, past and present and are available for researchers to view by appointment in Watson Library. It has been meaningful to watch the collection of works by and about BIPOC artists grow in the library over my three and a half years at The Met and to explore and learn from perspectives that are different from mine, as a white woman. I am grateful for the opportunity to uplift voices of Black artists in the collection.

fayemi shakur’s A Womb of Violet: An Anthology

fayemi shakur, a writer, interdisciplinary artist, and arts advocate based in Newark, New Jersey, described A Womb of Violet: An Anthology (2019) as “an ode to Black womanhood.” The publication was created by a New Jersey–based collective that shakur founded in 2019 while “Feminist in Residence” at the nonprofit Project for Empty Space. In the introduction, shakur writes that the anthology represents “a collective of Black women across generations, and identities speaking our truth in the form of poetry, prose, and visual art. … This is a thick healing love letter to Black women, our city, Newark, and beyond.”

The collective’s communal nature is as meaningful as the work it produced. shakur writes, “I was channeling the works of Black women writers and poets and reminded myself that places of sanctuary need not always be created in isolation and safe spaces are not always physical. Sometimes they are people. Sometimes it is the word. It is our art. It is our sisterhood.”

shakur fosters this sisterhood across generations by placing contemporary works created by members of the collective in conversation with works by historical Black feminist artists and writers. This format empowers contemporary Black feminist artists to emphasize the evergreen nature of many themes explored by their predecessors, such as Black women’s place “at the center of struggle and liberation”; the importance of understanding and conveying Black women’s experiences; and other issues of race, gender and sexuality, sisterhood, and self-knowledge.

Two spreads from a book depicting poems

fayemi shakur, A Womb of Violet: An Anthology (Newark: Project for Empty Space, 2019)

The connection between historic and contemporary artists can be seen in the following relationship between two works: The first, an excerpt from a paper that Audre Lorde gave at the 1977 Modern Language Association meeting, titled, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” And the second, a poem from contemporary artist Jasmine Mans.

In her speech, Lorde expressed regret for her silence and moments in which she did not stand up for herself and others. “I am standing here as a Black lesbian poet in the meaning of all that waits upon the fact that I am still alive, and might not have been,” she said. Lorde spoke to the importance of female community in her life and encouraged her audience to embrace differences as a way to find commonality and grow through sharing words and experiences.

The next page features Mans’s poem illustrating the continued relevance of Lorde’s themes. Focusing on unfair scrutiny and lack of consideration paid to Black women in our society, it reads in part:


Two spreads from a book depicting Black women

fayemi shakur, A Womb of Violet: An Anthology (Newark: Project for Empty Space, 2019)

Writer Gwendolyn Brooks contributes another text reflecting on the importance of community. She writes, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business, we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” The artist Angela Pilgrims responds to Brooks with two visual works that highlight women in quotidian life: one depicts a woman tending to her natural hair and the other two women embracing and smiling joyfully.

Jennifer Mack-Watkins’s Children of the Sun

A book depicting a young Black girl in a white dress

Jennifer Mack-Watkins, Jennifer Mack-Watkins: Children of the Sun (Brattleboro: Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, 2021)

Jennifer Mack-Watkins was a member of A Womb of Violet, and the exhibition catalogue for her 2020 exhibition, Jennifer Mack-Watkins: Children of the Sun, was recently acquired by Watson. It includes a segment of a fayemi shakur poem that reads:

You are worthy of joy
Worthy of safety
Deserving of a childhood filled with play.

Mack-Watkins’s exhibition, which addressed historical interpretations of the Black body, was on view at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Vermont in spring 2021. Guest curator David Rios Ferreira provided broader historical context in his curatorial statement: “The critique of the lack of positive representation and images of Black bodies in media, art, and literature may seem new, but back in 1920 it was already of concern to W. E. B. Du Bois, who sought ways to circumvent structured efforts to oppress the Black community.” Ferreira is referring to The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for Children of the Sun, which lent the exhibition—organized on the publication’s hundredth anniversary—its theme and name.

Mack-Watkins’s prints empower Black bodies and figures. Ferreira writes, “In Children of the Sun, Mack-Watkins’s delicate and expressive work examines ideas of oral history, memory, literature, and resilience. Her images explore the ways these elements influence our internal and external visions of and for ourselves, while emphasizing the importance of possibility, potential, and self-realization.”

Mack-Watkins’s artist’s statement expands on this idea:

Created by W. E. B. Du Bois, the founder of the NAACP and editor of The Crisis, The Brownies’ Book became the first publication aimed at children, with the purpose to uplift, promote self-esteem, and educate about the contributions of African Americans. … Children of the Sun demonstrates how a child’s innocence can be seen as an act of hope and resilience. Through my art, I seek to provide a sense of assurance for all African American children and hope the work encourages imagination and aspiration.

Two spreads depicting drawings of Black children 

Jennifer Mack-Watkins, Jennifer Mack-Watkins: Children of the Sun (Brattleboro: Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, 2021)

Tyler Mitchell’s I Can Make You Feel Good

Tyler Mitchell, I Can Make You Feel Good (London: Prestel Publishing Ltd, 2020)

Tyler Mitchell’s I Can Make You Feel Good is another stunning expression of hope and resilience. Released in summer 2020 at the height of protests following the murder of George Floyd and the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell debuted what is described in the work’s press release as:

A 206 page monograph celebrating the artist’s distinctive vision of a Black utopia. … The joyful collection of images continues Mitchell’s exploration of a new Black aesthetic, a journey that has been characterized by his use of glowing natural light basking his community in optimism and hopefulness.

The images in Mitchell’s book are captivating in their idyllic nature; his subjects are peaceful, light, and unhindered by oppression. Mitchell himself stated, “I Can Make You Feel Good is simply a declaration. And one that I feel is gut punching in its optimism. It feels important at a time like this to declare such a thing.”

Tyler Mitchell, I Can Make You Feel Good (London: Prestel Publishing Ltd, 2020)

The idea of gut-punching optimism is a powerful and poignant message that addresses the emotional labor that goes into embodying positivity in the face of adversity, as well as the important work that artists do to celebrate Black joy and liberation.

It reminds me of the evocative way that Henry Louis Gates Jr. described Juneteenth in an article originally published in the Root: “By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched—reflecting the mystical glow of history and lore, memory and myth, as Ralph Ellison evoked in his posthumous novel, Juneteenth—we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it.”

Marquee: Cover image of fayemi shakur, A Womb of Violet: An Anthology (Newark: Project for Empty Space, 2019)