Art & Museums

Essay: The Power of Black Chicago’s “Wall”

Photo: Mark Rogovan

More than half a century ago, on August 27, 1967, local residents, poets, painters, photographers and gang members gathered to dedicate the “Wall of Respect”—a mural painted on the side of a dilapidated tavern on the southeast corner of 43rd  Street and Langley Avenue in Chicago’s impoverished Grand Boulevard neighborhood.

It was a revolutionary act of art and politics that has reverberated throughout the nation ever since. It sparked the community-based outdoor mural movement that has provided thousands of neighborhoods of nearly every ethnicity and economic level with a language and format for asserting their pride and distinctiveness.

The creation of the “Wall of Respect” came at a key moment in the movement for African-American civil rights.

Over the previous four decades, African-American activists had crusaded against lynchings that, each and every year, took the lives of an average of 98 Black men and women. Still in the future were the protests of today against the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police as well as the panoply of social injustices that African Americans face.

In 1960s America, the “Wall of Respect” was an expression of the Black Is Beautiful/Black Power movement, an assertion by African Americans that their lives, their culture and their history had and has value and greatness. At a time when, overtly and covertly, mainstream U.S. society insisted that Blacks were second-class humans, the mural was an unprecedented assertion and celebration of Black identity and an important yet often overlooked moment in U.S. cultural history.

“It was a guerrilla mural,” said Jeff Donaldson, one of the 21 artists and photographers who created the mural without the permission of the building’s owner. “It was a clarion call, a statement of the existence of a people.”

Photo: Mark Rogovan

The 20-foot-by-60-foot mural extended south from a Prima beer sign and covered the two-story building with the images of more than 50 African-American heroes, ranging from Malcolm X to Bill Russell, and from W.E.B. Dubois to Dick Gregory, from Charlie Parker to Ray Charles.

Such a full-throated recognition of successful Blacks was unprecedented in 1967 when, in contrast to today, there were very few images of Blacks in the mainstream U.S. media — and even fewer positive images. This affirmation of Blackness — an artwork by a Black community, about Blacks, for Blacks — struck a nerve among African Americans across the nation, and, over the next eight years, more than 1,500 murals were painted in virtually every Black neighborhood, according to art historian Michael D. Harris.

The creation of the mural was a collective and community-centered act, and neighborhood residents, including gang members, had a lot to say about how the “Wall” was painted and who was represented. “Rival gangs, the Almighty P. Stone Nation and the Disciples, declared the site a neutral ground, and leaders of the Stones met with the artists and offered to help secure materials,” wrote Harris in a 2000 essay. ‘The ‘Wall of Respect’…was Art for the People sanctioned by the people.”

In fact, Donaldson told Black studies scholar Margo Natalie Crawford that, as he was painting an image of singer Nina Simone, a woman who lived across the street came up to him and said that the portrait, which she was going to have to look at every day, was ugly. “So, I changed it.”

One thing everyone agreed on, though, was that the wall of heroes shouldn’t include Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he wasn’t considered radical enough.

Poet-publisher Haki Madhubuti, known then as Don L. Lee, noted that the “Wall of Respect” was an outgrowth of the Black Arts Movement. After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, he said, many African-American artists and writers turned away from the mainstream white society in search of “a redefinition of self — Who are we?”

Photo: Mark Rogovan

Art activists like those involved with the “Wall” were rejecting the term “Negro” for “Black,” a sentiment that Madhubuti expressed in the poem he wrote for and read at the dedication of the artwork. Referring numerous times to “the mighty black wall, ”he told the wider African-American community:

can you dig?
if you can’t you ain’t black
some other color
negro maybe.

Madhubuti also wrote:

white people can’t stand
the wall,
killed their eyes, (they cry)
black beauty hurts them —
they thought black beauty was a horse —…
they run from

the mighty black wall.

Also speaking at the dedication was Madhubuti’s mentor Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks. In her poem, “The Wall,” she said:

Black
boy-men on roofs fist out ‘Black Power!’…
It is the Hour of tribe and of vibration,
the day-long Hour.

In front of her, she wrote, were hundreds of faces “ready to rile the high-flung ground.” Behind her, heroes.

And we sing.

The singing of Black identity has gone on and grown stronger ever since. But the “Wall of Respect” didn’t survive.

The administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the police department weren’t fans of the artwork so it wasn’t surprising that, when a fire of suspicious origin started in the television repair shop in the building in early 1971, the structure was razed a short time later.

And the art because a broken jumble of bricks and boards.

The “Wall of Respect” was never expected to be permanent. The pride and beauty it spawned—and continues to spawn—is its legacy.

For more information about the Wall, see:
The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicagoedited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford and Rebecca Zorach.
 
This essay is adapted from an op-ed article that ran in the Chicago Tribune on October 8, 2017. 

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