STRENGTH, TEARS, AND WILL: JOHN BIGGERS' "CONTRIBUTION OF THE NEGRO WOMAN TO AMERICAN LIFE AND EDUCATION"
By Alvia Jean Wardlaw Short
Callaloo, Volume 2, Number 1, p. 135-143

    

  

In 1952, John Biggers received a painting commission which would eventually develop into the subject of his doctoral dissertation. That Blue Triangle Branch of the Young Women's Christian Association had recently been completed in the heart of Houston's Third Ward, a large black section of the city, and members of the black community were enthusiastically making contributions to the new community center. The Reverend Fred T. Lee had offered to donate a painting in memory of his wife, Mrs. Dela Lee, and John Biggers, chairman of the four year old Department of Art at Texas Southern University, had been selected as the artist.

As an art educator, John Biggers was especially aware of the potential possessed by works of art to become forceful vehicles of self-identity. Thus, as an artist, he seized upon the commission not simply as an opportunity to display his expertise as a painter but, more importantly to him, as a means to incorporate within the building itself a visual statement which would become an enriching spiritual encounter for all those who saw it. To Biggers, only the mural with its characteristic vastness in scope and scale could adequately accommodate the myriad visions which he wished to share with the people of his community. With all the enthusiasm and conviction of his twenty-eight years, John Biggers did not find it difficult to convince Reverend Lee and Y.W.C.A. officials that a gift of art in memory of Mrs. Lee would be much more dynamic if it were developed as a mural rather than an easel painting.

The Director of the Blue Triangle Y.W.C.A., Mrs. Lillian Jackson, suggested that the proposed mural be developed as a general visual statement which honored women of all races and periods of history, such as Madame Curie, Joan of Arc, Marian Anderson, and Florence Nightingale. The artist, however, felt it more fitting to focus directly upon black women, since the mural was commissioned in honor of a black woman and because the building was expressly built to serve black women of all ages within the Third Ward community. As John Biggers wrote in his dissertation:

The building in question offers a place for study, work, play, relaxation and communion for the Negro girls and women of Houston. Thus the writer's choice of subject matter for a mural grew naturally out of a folk need, which was at the same time, both personal and professional with him, to portray events of a nature such that occupants of the building could live with and relate the subject matter as portrayed, to their own personal experience.

. . . He felt that only the struggle and contribution of Negro women towards freedom, and towards the development of America-struggles and contributions not yet fully recognized by American historians-should be portrayed in order that occupants of the building could identify themselves with their own background and cultural heritage.[1]

Reverend Lee fully agreed with the artist and was totally supportive of his concept of the mural as a celebration of black womanhood and thus, with little further delay, the artist set out to paint his impressions of the role of the black woman in American history.

During the subsequent months, Biggers immersed himself in the solitary task of researching the history of the black woman from Africa to America. He was rewarded for his efforts with stories of countless black women who had contributed unselfishly and bravely to the efforts to free black people from physical and mental bondage. Little known women in American history, such as the black educators FAnny Jackson Coppin and Lucy Laney, became familiar figures to the artist. Their stories of a struggle and determination became further sources of inspiration for his own project. Ultimately, it became the task of the artist to transform a mass of historical profiles, statistical information, and documented anecdotes into a single mural. The information which he had gathered on countless notecards had to become a succinct and bold vsual statement which would be equal to the lives of hte women he had come to respect and admire during his nine months of diligent and intense research. And all of his research brought him back, again and again, to memories of his own childhood:

To portray basic phases in the life of the Negro woman for the Houston mural meant portraying many events in the history and struggle of the Negro people. Particularly, the life of the Mother could not be told unless the life of the family was understood. To a great extent, the task involved self-identification with the writer's own life. He was familiar with stories told and retold by his grandmother, who was born a slave, concerning the hardships of slavery. He had, in his early life, experienced his mother's struggle to provide patterns of patience, endurance and struggle, handed down through generations of slaves, which were a part of his fireside education where the techniques of survival were taught to the children very early.[2]
The task was not an easy one, or one that was solved in a single inspirational moment. The very first design for the mural was begun on the back of an old envelope, as a sketch representing the artist's desire to show historical, social, and educational contributions. From this single sketch, the idea developed further in numerous sketches and preparatory drawings. After experimenation with several compositional formats, Biggers settled upon a scheme which utilized Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth as two central narrative figures. Biggers defines this final composition as the "result of opposing movement, thrust and counterthrust, repetitive rhythms and ideas of conflict and adjustment." [3] A one inch scale drawing of the composition was then developed in which one square inch of space equaled one foot of wall space.

The preparation of the wall was the next phase of development. Flat white oil paint was used to seal off the wall. Instead of applying additional white pigment when the mural was actually painted, this same white ground was used for highlights, for, as Biggers states, "the actual wall should always be felt when looking at a mural".[4] The wall was then blocked off in one foot squares, and a line drawing of the mural sketch was transferred to the wall in charcoal, and finally permanent yellow ochre. After these preliminary preparations, actual painting of the mural began. Casein emulsion was used with paint pigments because of the medium's transparency, its rapid drying time, and its resistance to water; the medium proved especially useful in applyin gwashes and in developing details.[5] From the period of wall preparation to completion of the work, John Biggers worked for six months.

The completed work is heroic in its scale and conception. Stretching grandly across the wide wall space, the mural represents in bold terms the battle which blacks waged daily against the destructive forces of slavery. The women possess a deep spiritual beauty; their endruing strength and indefatigable spirit have been made visually moving in Biggers' mural concept. Forms loom out at the viewer from the wall almost as if they are about to break forth and walk out into the reality of our lives. Figures toil and struggle in a very literal tension which exists between the scale of the mural and the alloted eight feet by twenty-four feet of wall space. It is a work that makes an uncompromising statement without resorting to the slick visual maneuverings which weaken some murals. It is a work of rawboned strength.

Certainly the most commanding figure of the mural is that of Harriet Tubman. The left portion of the work is filled with the weight and presence of "General Moses." Biggers discusses his intention in creating this bold figure:

To create a female figure of Herculean strength and power, yet full of human emotion, was the desire. She would be a protector of children and a mother of men; she would lead broken and enslaved humanity in a freedom march against barriers that restricted them all.[6]
Miss Tubman proceeds at the front of her legions bearing symbols of emancipation: she lifts a flame described by Biggers as the "Torch of Freedom" in one hand, and firmly holds a rifle in the other. A young man leans heavily across the shoulders of Harriet Tubman, his head buried deep in her chest. Despite the weight of his body bearing down upon her, she supports him fully and, standing tall, she carries on the work that must be done. She is the embodiment of black people's determination, a true flesh and blood "Statue of Liberty." An endless stream of black people bearing tools of toil across their shoulders-hoes, forks, pickaxes-stretch behind her in a line which recedes beyond view, symbolizing the many who followed this woman to freedom via the Underground Railroad. The danger of the journey is clearly indicated by the signs of death and destruction all around those marching to freedom. Everywhere, the scene displays the emotion of mothering as a bedrock feeling amongst black women, afeeling that is always there despite the chaos which may surround them. A mother crouches mournfully over her child, a vignette of sorrow serving as a reminder of the many children who were lost-by death or separation-to their mothers in slavery. A mother stands beneath a gallows, her belly big with child, while other children cling to her sides and grasp at her skirt. She looks up at the gallows, an expression of hope on her face mixed with the foreknowledge that she may bring her children into life only to offer them to death. Next to her, another mother is lost in the grief of a dying son. She is consumed by the act of supporting him until the very last moment of his life.

At the lower center of the mural is an old black man, stooped from the weight of a sack of cotton hanging from his neck. With his left hand, he holds up a large column, while a tree which the artist calls the "Tree of Life" is supported by his back. His simple placement in the mural is significant. Alone in his endless drudgery, he becomes a symbol of the black man's labor. He is like an extension of the land, the furrows of his brow twin markings of th efurrows of the land. He seems to know the weariness of a soil which is pushed season after season to produce more an dmore cotton. The strength of this man is applied to the base of the column, a "symbol of the dominant power structure," according to the artist. The massive, gnarled hand sand strong black of this black man have held up the column over the years of slavery. But now it is being toppled by the energy an dmight of black people. And here lies a most bittersweet irony. Because of his strength and skills, the black man was shackled to the dreams of the dominant society. His strength made those dreams a reality. His strength held up the column. But, as the will of black people grew to be free, the "Torch of Freedom" replaced the column. The old man's face expresses a deep grief and despair over misspent strength and pain. To gain their freedom, blacks first had to put down the alien monuments of their own labor.

The "Tree of Life" is another symbolic focal point of the mural. The right side of the tree has a branch cut off at the trunk, and its bare stump remains as a stark symbol of a people's crippling bondage. In contrast, the left portion of the tree is full of leafy foilange. One branch of leaves drops low and frames the figure of Sojourner Truth who stands in front, addressing row upon row of black families seated upon logs or standing in close knit family groups. Although physically Sojourner Truth has not the bulk of Harriet Tubman, her presence is no less compelling to those listening to her powerful words. There is a fierce determination evident in this sinewy figure. One can easily imagine her spirited discussions of the importance of black people helping themselves through education, or of her dream to see blacks settle and develop communities in the western plains of the United States. All who heard her were inspired by her words, and many scenes in this portion of the mural reflect the quiet determination of people to improve their situations. A mother reads Phillis Wheatley with a sleeping child on her lap, while another mother sits calmly working at a quilt while her baby sleeps at her feet. Behind the "Tree of Life" an old man reads a book, the light of knowledge glimmering in his youthful eyes. Another man stares off pensively as if turning over in his mind all of the possibilities available to him for a better future. Like the "Tree of Life" which is watered and nourished by the blue stream bathing its roots, so too are black people nourished and encouraged by the words which they hear from leaders like Sojourner Truth.

The upper left corner of the mural depicts visions of progress for blacks. They are not farfetched fairy tales but simply aims at a better life: knowledge of farming that will produce an abundance of crops for all, proper health care through advancements in science and medicine, the reduction of the incidence of disease building upon the knowledge of natural medicine-herbs, teas, salves, etc.-which black women employed successfullly to keep their families alive during times of hardship. In the midst of these dreams of healthy bodies are also dreams of healthy spirits. A trio of singers suggests the black man's contribution to the musical heritage of this country, as well as the preservation of the black cultural heritage through the impact of musical vehicles such as gospel narrative.

There is a directness and strength of style in the mural which complements the content of the work. The bare bones of cross hatching, for instance, are evident in all the figures. The figures themselves are drawn with an assuredness which translates as a visual description of their emotionally self-determined posture. Scale becomes a metaphor for strength. The physical nature of the people's lives is underscored by long arms and large hands, suggesting a strength which would tend to children, heal wounds, raise crops. One feels the soil beneath their bare feet, the weight of their burden, the heat upon their head, their determination to go on. Similarly, the artist's deliberate selection of tempera as his medium also underscores this feeling of honest determination. For in using tempera, the artist himself had to be self assured and direct in his painting approach. The medium does not allow for hesitancey, just as the times depicted in the mural did not allow for hesitation in the march to freedom. Finally, the color scheme in its simplicity extends the vivid directness of draughtmanship, and the artist himself best describes his reasons for establishing a concise palette of clear blues, greens and earth tones:

The nature of color and form as used in this mural does not follow the laws of visual perspective. The color used has symbolic meaning and the sizes for forms and details grow in proportion to their importance. The red earth of the Southland, especially on the 'black belt', the earth greens, grays, and browns, of the fields and shacks, the textures of burlap bags, faded blue overalls and feed sacks, and at times, the bright spots of gingham textiles and patched quilt work, influenced the color in the mural.[7]

The work sustains itself without the figures becoming larger than life, a testimony to John Biggers' sensitive fision. There is a supreme balance maintained in this work. With an energized dynamism, the figures appear in stances of challenge, concern, and concentration, expressions that demand from the viewer similar emotions. Indeed, the setting of the mural adds to its dramatic impact. Instead of being placed in the entrance or foyer of the building as murals are traditionally situated, the mural was executed on the wall of a meeting room at the end of an unassuming corridor. The work is painted on an end wall, and the doorway is situated such that one does not see the mural immediately upon entering the room. One must look to the right upon entering, and it is not uncommon for viewers who see the mural for the first time to utter an audible gasp at the sight of this dramatic composition.

It is certainly a reflection of the artist's genius that John Biggers had the vision to execute a mural in 1953 which dealt with the strength of black women long before such a topic became fashionable socio/political parlance. The impact of the mural is reflected in two incidents in the life of the artist which occurred while the work was being painted and soon after its completion. Becaue of the depiction of black women as spirited and uncompromising, some blacks initially considered the work unflattering. The artist relates in Black Art in Houston the following incident:

One morning several middle-aged women gatehred around the ladder on which Biggers was working. At that time he was engaged in a monumental depcition of Harriet Tubman, giving her powerful hands and feet to fit the title General Moses. One woman, obviously the group's leader, spoke up in a high trembling voice. She told Biggers he must stop the painting. "Why," he asked. The spokeswoman replied that the images of the slave and especially of Harriet Tubman disgraced Negro womanhood. "Come down, young man. Get down from the wall and stop this flagrant disrespect immediately," she said. "We will have to have the space covered with some lovely cool pea green color." Biggers stopped work for a week or so until Y.W.C.A. officials convinced the group that the depiction of black women had value. [8]
Later when the artist applied for a travel grant for his first trip to Africa, the mural again became the subject of some concern, this time to officials in Washington, as Elton Fax explains in Seventeen Black Artists:
When John applied in 1957 for a UNESCO fellowship for travel and study in West AFrica, someone in Washington took second looks at photographs of that mural and concluded quite correctly that it was hardly the conventional Y.W.C.A. wall decoration. So a committee was dispatched to Houston to see if the artist was as menacing as his painting. Were they unwittingly about to unleash something on the "dark continent" that would out-Africa the Africans? An interview with Biggers, however, set everyone at ease and John and his lovely Hazel went on to Ghana in July.[9]
In relationship to the entire body of work which John Biggers has created during his illustrious career as an artist, "Contribution of the Negro Woman to American Life and Education" stands out as a watershed piece. The work constitutes a major contribution to the definition of mural as education aesthetic. In vitality and impact, it takes its place alongside the works of Siqueros, Orozco, and Rivera. As an example of black history painting it is comparable in intent to Hale Woodruff's Amistad mural series. In the work, Biggers explores several moving versions of the black pieta, the mother and child theme which he will continue to develop for years to come. Further, he forershadows in this work his subsequent trips to Africa, for in dealing so sensitively with the relationship between black people and the land, he is, in fact, discussing the cultural origin of blacks as a people. Later, he was to find in his travels across the waters to the motherland the full knowledge and understanding of the depths and sacredness of this relationship which he so instinctively depicted in this masterpiece.

It has been my privilege to work for the past two years in the Art Department of Texas Southern University which John Biggers has headed for the past thirty years. During the relatively brief time that I have served as art historian in the Department, I have seen him instill in faculty an dstudents alike the same strength and discipline, his driving sense of "struggle" which this mural depicts so vividly. Looking at the work and considering the creativity which causes it to be, one is reminded of several lines from the 90th Psalm:

Establish thou also upon us the work of our hands;
Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it
The mural was formally unveiled on April 22, 1958. Today, the work carried on at the Blue Triangle Y.W.C.A. is conducted by selfless and determined black women as it has been done in the past. In the meeting room where the mural is located, important decisions which affect the lives of black youth are constantly made. It is fitting that the spirit of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth is kept alive by black women like Mrs. Willie Dean Floyd, Mrs. Moses LeRoy, Mrs. Martha Whiting, and many others who, like Mrs. Dela Lee, in whose memory the mural was commissioned, are determined to carry on the Torch of Freedom and nurture the new leaves which spring forth from the Tree of Life.


Footnotes

[1] John T. Biggers, "The Negro Woman in American Life and Education, A Mural Presentation," Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 1954, pp.11-12.Back

[2] Ibid., pp.48-49. Back

[3] Ibid., p. 54. Back

[4] Ibid., p. 62. Back

[5] Ibid., p. 62. Back

[6] Ibid., p. 55. Back

[7] Ibid., pp. 63-64.Back

[8] Biggers, Simms, et al., Black Art in Houston, The Texas Southern University Experience. College Station: Texas A. & M. University Press, 1978, p. 62. Back

[9] Elton Fax, Seventeen Black Artists New York: Dodd, Mead and Co, 1971, p. 279. Back


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