Over the past year, I have been reflecting on the changes I have seen both personally and professionally in terms of the conversation on race. To find an equivalent moment in time of such global impact in relation to race, I have to look back beyond my lifetime to 1967-8. This was a totemic two years not simply for one moment but for a succession of them. The Loving vs Virginia case affirmed that disallowing interracial marriage was unconstitutional; then, with art imitating life, the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released. These joyous moments of racial unity were sadly punctuated by the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. In Europe, 1968 also sparked off civil unrest and protests for greater justice. Here in the U.K., the Race Relations Act was passed making it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origin—an act that presented an alternative vision of Britain to the “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish” signs that had greeted many British commonwealth citizens at the time.
However, I would argue that because of the increased proximity offered by globalisation and social media, 2021 is even more significant, therefore the art and imagery created this year is particularly potent. It is our duty to document and share this art for future generations. We are living through history, and although we may read it or hear it, history is brought to life when we can see it through imagery. History has all too often been hidden from us, nowhere more so than the history of Africa and its peoples. Had we been able to see images of the great walled cities of Benin and Zimbabwe or the architecture of great churches and mosques from Ethiopia in the East to Timbuktu in the West, we would have been in no doubt of their contributions to civilisation.
Science teaches us that humans are 99.9 per cent the same and that the concept of race itself is a social construct. As Douglass proclaimed, art has the power to magnify this scientific fact by reminding us of our shared humanity: “Human nature strives towards equity and shared responsibility.”
If we can find a meaningful way to honour George Floyd’s legacy, perhaps it is to ensure that through our actions we become the image of Fredrick Douglass’ words and maybe, just maybe, the art that Floyd’s death has inspired can show us how.
June Sarpong is a broadcaster, author and the current Global Director of Creative Diversity at the BBC. Her book “Diversify: Six Degrees of Integration” is out on general release.
Six Shows to See
Ming Smith: Evidence
Until July 3 at Nicola Vassell Gallery, 138 Tenth Avenue, Manhattan
Alexis McGrig: The Ether- Journey in Between
Until June 5 at Richard Beavers Gallery, 408 Marcus Garvey Blvd, Brooklyn
Khari Turner: Hella Water
Until June 19 at Voss Gallery, 3344 24th St, San Francisco
Alicia Henry: To Whom It May Concern
Until July 3 at Tiwani Contemporary, 6 Little Portland St, London W1W
Citizens of Memory: Group Show Curated by Aindrea Emelife
Until July 19 at 20 Brownlow Mews, London WC1N
A History Untold: group show presented by Maro Itoje and curated by Lisa Anderson
Until June 19 at 20 Davies street, London, W1K