I have been thinking about this phrase for a long time.
This 1988 piece by Glenn Ligon was an adaptation of a legendary photo taken in 1968 by Ernest Withers. The original photograph is from the ’68 Sanitation Worker’s Strike in Memphis, TN which was initiated in response to the egregiously deplorable working conditions workers were forced to endure. During the strike the protesters carried signs that read, “I AM A MAN” and this poignant phrase became a battle cry in the fight for civil rights.
The oil and enamel surface of Ligon’s painting is cracked; a symbolic representation of the 20 years between the conditions depicted in the original photo and the evolving issues that still kept that phrase relevant to a new generation of young people struggling to claim their identity in a changing society.
In 2012, the street artist JR pasted this piece on an abandoned building in Washington D.C. Over 2 weeks ago JR posted a picture on Instagram, noting that the original wheatpaste post remains firmly in place.
When I first saw Jr’s piece I wanted to write about it, but struggled to find the right words to describe it. Perhaps more befitting is the historical subtext behind the original picture and it’s role in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike was the backdrop of King’s legendary “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech and was the location where he shared the final moments of his life after being shot at a Memphis motel. These images, their historical context and current relevance have circled my mind for weeks as I searched for the proper way to weave the three into a single post.
On Friday I attended a MLK Celebration breakfast hosted by the YMCA. State Attorney General Kamala Harris gave the keynote address sharing an amazing quote by Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” Harris’ address cited education as a tool that can be used to fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.
During today’s inaugural address, this portion of President Obama’s speech resonated with me: “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm. That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.”
Through these inter-generational works I’ve seen how artists attempt to tell their own stories of struggle, identity and freedom while appropriating and nodding to history. Our challenges and circumstances change, but they can only be met with and defeated when we collectively work together. Today was a beautiful day and an inspiring look at how far we have come. It was also a mandate to collectively roll up our sleeves and continue to push forward–together.