This academic year, the University of Oregon has asked freshmen to participate in the Common Reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. The timeliness of Coates’s subject matter and the power and poignancy of his writing inspired the JSMA to organize a companion exhibition—a “Common Seeing.” Both explore what it means to be black in the United States.
The autobiographical nature of Coates’s book parallels the visual narratives created by contemporary Post-Black artists featured in the exhibition: Marc Bradford, Theaster Gates, Mildred Howard, Chris Johnson, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kehinde Wiley (on view outside our APS Gallery). In addition, Between the World and Me examines the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, a moment in history reflected in Robert Colescott’s work Homage to Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1976. Like Coates, the artists and artworks chosen for this presentation reconsider the complexity of the Black experience in America. We are deeply grateful to the many lenders to this exhibition for sharing these powerful works with our visitors. Co-curated by Jill Hartz, executive director, and Amelia Anderson, a second year MA graduate student in art history, the exhibition is made possible with a JSMA Academic Support Grant.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether you go or not, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son. Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son.
Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.