Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits
This is a modified version of a lesson that accompanies the exhibition Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits, organized by the International Center for Photography (http://www.icp.org/site/c.dnJGKJNsFqG/b.2067109/) in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture (http://nmaahc.si.edu ). The works in the exhibition are drawn exclusively from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Exhibition website: http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/motto/index.html
U.S. History K-4 (from the National Center for History in the Schools)
- Standard/Topic 3 The History of the United States: Democratic principles and values and the peoples from many cultures who contributed to its cultural, economic and political heritage
Language Arts K-12 (from the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association)
- Standard 7 Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Visual Art K-12 (from the National Art Education Association)
- Standard 4 Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
- Standard 6 Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines
- Students will examine the images using a guided looking activity to make inferences about the people in the portraits.
- Students will learn about contributions of African Americans during the twentieth century.
Two 45- to 60-minute class periods for Parts I and II
Setup and Preparation
- Make copies of portraits (“Reproducibles”).
- Gather resource material for student research about individuals featured in the portraits.
- Devise a method to allow the class to view all portraits as a group (Part I, 3). You might make a set of all portraits for each student, or you might enlarge or project the images for group viewing.
- Copies of the portraits in “Reproducibles”
- Resource materials about the portrait subjects (books, the Internet, etc.)
- Muhammad Ali, 1966, by Gordon Parks (click here )
- Romare Bearden, 1980, by Arthur Mones (click here )
- Lorraine Hansberry, 1960, by David Moses Attie (click here)
- Judith Jamison, 1976, by Max Waldman (click here )
- Wynton Marsalis, 2004, by Philippe Levy-Staub (click here )
- Odetta, 1930, by Bob Willoughby (click here )
On August 16, 1843, abolitionist and clergyman Henry Highland Garnet spoke to a group of northern free blacks gathered to discuss the future prospects of black America. Frustrated by the lack of progress, he advocated action with these words:
Strike for your lives and liberties. . . .. Let your motto be Resistance! Resistance! RESISTANCE! . . . What kind of resistance you . . . make you must decide by the circumstances that surround you.
In their beauty and power, the featured portraits resist the stereotypic depictions that fueled racism in America. See also About the Portraits below.
1. Divide the class into six groups.
2. Give each group one portrait (Reproducibles 1-6). Have the groups answer the following questions:
- What clothing is the person wearing?
- What kind of facial expression does the person have?
- What is the person doing, or how is he or she posed?
- Where does the person appear to be?
- Look closely at the background and the space around the person. What else do you see?
- Who do you think this person is? Or: What do you think this person is best known for?
3. After the students have had time to consider the images and answer the questions, ask one student from each group to report on what the group determined about the person in the portrait. The reporter should tell how the group reached conclusions and describe the things in the portrait that support the conclusions.
4. After the groups have had an opportunity to report to the class, read the short biographies and ask the students to match the portraits with the biographies.
5. After the identities have been revealed, ask which portraits they felt best represented the identity of the person in the portrait and what in that portrait best conveyed this information. For those portraits that seemed less explicit, ask the students to consider what could have been changed or added to help convey the identity or importance of the person.
Have each student select one of the six individuals in the portraits and do a small research project in which he or she finds a quote by (or about) the selected personality. Then have students share these quotes with the class in order to create a fuller “portrait” of the person. Ask the students to consider how the quotes complement or contradict ideas generated about the individual during the discussion in Part I.
Information for the Teacher
About the Portraits
Muhammad Ali b. 1942
Few American athletes have possessed talents comparable to those of boxer Muhammad Ali; none with such abilities has equaled him for charisma and bravado. Born Cassius Clay, he first made national headlines after winning gold at the 1960 Olympics. Turning professional, he began his assault on the boxing ranks, attaining the heavyweight crown in 1964. But as powerful as he was in the ring, it was his words and actions outside the ring that made him a larger-than-life figure. His outrageous boasts—often in verse—won him a large following. But he became a controversial figure when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and changed his name. His refusal to serve in Vietnam further angered many Americans and led boxing officials to strip him of his crown. Ali would reclaim the heavyweight crown, lose it, and regain it again before retiring in 1981.
Romare Bearden 1912–1988
While best known for his collages, Romare Bearden used a variety of media to express himself as an artist. In addition to paintings and drawings, he created murals, tapestries, and posters, and in several instances he composed music to accompany his works. A gregarious man with a passion for jazz, he described art-making as “a kind of divine play.” Bearden grew up in Harlem and in Pittsburgh, and studied with George Grosz at the Art Students League in New York City. Following service in an all-black regiment during World War II, he returned to New York, where he became immersed in a thriving art scene. Bearden’s work reflects many influences: the places he lived and traveled, African American history and literature, and religious traditions and community rituals that bound people together. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Arts.
Lorraine Hansberry 1930–1965
Lorraine Hansberry never finished several early attempts at playwriting. In 1956, however, she began work on a drama about a black family’s attempt to buy a house in a white neighborhood. This time she completed the play, fired by memories of how a similar experience had scarred her own family. Titled A Raisin in the Sun, it opened on Broadway to glowing reviews in March 1959. The following month Hansberry became the first African American playwright to win the coveted New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award. A longtime civil rights activist, Hansberry soon emerged as an outspoken supporter of the movement’s increasing militancy. Declaring that African Americans had “a great deal to be angry about,” she warned that chaos could result if the federal government failed to move decisively to combat racial injustice.
Judith Jamison b. 1944
This 1976 portrait shows thirty-two-year-old dancer Judith Jamison performing her signature role in Cry. The ballet—described as “a hymn to the sufferings and triumphant endurance of generations of black matriarchs”—made Jamison an international celebrity in the world of dance. It also marked a crowning moment in her partnership with Alvin Ailey, who had first recruited her to his dance company in 1965. About their collaboration, the New York Times dance critic raved, “Rarely have a choreographer and a dancer been in such accord.” Jamison served as the principal dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater until 1980, when she left to perform with Gregory Hines in the Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies. In 1989, just prior to Ailey's untimely death, Jamison was appointed the artistic director of his company, a position she holds to this day.
Wynton Marsalis b. 1961
Marsalis is arguably the most accomplished jazz musician of his generation. Born into a musical family in New Orleans, he studied both jazz and classical music. Since moving to New York in 1979—to attend the Juilliard School of Music—Marsalis has built an international reputation as a jazz trumpeter, winning nine Grammy Awards. In 1997 he became the first jazz musician to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, for Blood on the Fields, an oratorio about the experiences of two free Africans who are captured and sold into slavery. In addition to studying the roots of jazz, he has nurtured collaborations with those working in a variety of musical traditions, including classical and non-Western. Marsalis now serves as the artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center and has emerged as a leading—and often outspoken—voice regarding jazz's past, present, and future.
Odetta b. 1930
Since the early 1950s, Odetta has been recognized as one of folk music's most compelling interpreters. Introduced to this musical genre just as the folk revival was gaining momentum, she wholeheartedly embraced the ballads, work songs, blues, and spirituals that so vividly evoked the experiences of generations of African Americans. Her powerful voice and distinctive guitar playing soon earned her an enthusiastic following that included performers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, who helped to champion her career. The growth of the civil rights movement coincided with Odetta's rising popularity, and as her political engagement grew, her songs became weapons in the struggle for justice. “As I was singing, I was one of those things that was smoldering,” Odetta later recalled. In 1963 she joined the March on Washington and rallied the crowd with her moving rendition of the spiritual “Oh Freedom.”
For additional teaching resources visit www.SmithsonianEducation.org