In 1950, John Wilson and his wife, Julia, set out from Boston for Mexico City in separate cars. Wilson had received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to immerse himself in the social-political Mexican Mural Renaissance led by one of his idols, José Clemente Orozco. John and Julia were newlyweds — he was Black, she white — enamored but apart on that long, lonely road, and for very good reason: Their route took them through the Deep South, where the Ku Klux Klan was pursuing with rising zeal the vicious practice of lynching — the spectacle-murder of Black men and women by white civilian mobs.
“It mattered that John’s wife was white, and what that meant in terms of this narrative of mob violence,” said Crystal Feimster, a professor of African American Studies at Yale, and an expert on race- and gender-based violence. “He understood the stakes. He knew that they could come for him.” And so they passed through the south in tandem, but alone.
In February, the Yale University Art Gallery opened “Reckoning With ‘The Incident:’ John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural.” (Feimster helped build the educational programming for the gallery.) The show, an often harrowing collection of preparatory work for the 10-foot-high mural Wilson painted in Mexico City in 1952, abruptly closed just a few weeks later as the coronavirus gained momentum. But its resonance with rising demands for racial justice in the wake of the George Floyd killing leaves the exhibition echoing, and loudly, from behind locked doors. (The gallery hopes to reopen in the fall, though nothing has been determined. The show has been extended through Oct. 25.)
Why Wilson made the mural in Mexico, not the United States, is obvious. It’s as clear right now, as the streets explode with protest from one coast to the other, as it was then. Racial violence was, and is, as reliable a feature of American life as baseball or the Fourth of July. And resisting it is dangerous, something Wilson came to know well.
For Wilson, who died in 2015 at 92 at his home in Brookline, lynching was part of everyday life. Growing up in Roxbury, he would see articles on southern lynchings in the Black newspapers that arrived regularly for his father, a social activist and member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Sometimes the papers would pring photos, images that Wilson never fully shook. His father instilled in him a strong sense of social justice; the newspapers instilled something else, an awareness about the pervasiveness of racial violence. To Wilson, those grim images, though infrequent, seemed to be in almost every issue.
Wilson would become one of the most prominent Black artists of his generation; his bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. is permanently installed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. He graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1945, at age 23, and went on to receive an education degree at Tufts in 1947. After graduation, his artistic promise landed him a fellowship to study art in Paris. It wasn’t his first choice; he was already compelled by the rising revolutionary aesthetic of Mexican modernism, made famous by Orozco and Diego Rivera. Still, in Paris, he studied with Fernand Léger, an innovator of Cubism (along with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque). From Léger, Wilson took his sense of color and a strength of purpose of what had to come next.
In Mexico City, the Wilsons found themselves in a community of American cultural exiles. With the Cold War rising, artists unwilling to offer a scrubbed-up version of America found themselves increasingly unwelcome at home. (Many Hollywood victims of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist-hunters were there, too.) Black American artists like Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett had found in Mexico both refuge for their political ideas and kinship with the Mexican mural movement, just as Wilson would. “His work really challenged the way the US was portraying itself as a beacon of freedom and equality,” said Lisa Hodermarsky, the gallery’s curator of prints and drawings, who organized the show.
Wilson’s mural was plastered over long ago, one of many dozens of works created at La Esmeralda, the national art school Wilson attended in Mexico City (students were given an outdoor wall to make original work; subsequent classes would paint over those that came before). When Wilson came back to the US, in 1956, he brought home the exhaustive sketches and studies made while in Mexico, most of them now in university collections across the country, including Yale’s. (The Yale gallery is the organizer of the show and the exhibition’s last stop on a four-school tour.)
The show includes a black and white photograph of the finished mural itself, flash-frozen for the camera with a satisfied Wilson alongside. Scale has meaning — Wilson is about the same size as the broken body of the lynching victim with a noose dangling from his neck. The image is jarring, blunt-force trauma; but it’s also brimming with nuance. On the right, four Klansmen cluster around the victim’s body, a cross burning in the background. On the left, in close-up, is a Black man, his face clenched in angry resolve as he shields his wife and infant from the violence outside. He’s holding a rifle; one of the Klansmen is, too. The scene seems to promise worse to come.
Wilson said he made the mural at least in part to “exorcise” the lynching pictures imprinted in his mind from childhood. But, Feimster told me, there’s a complex dynamic to unpack in Wilson’s carefully-composed frame. “There’s a history, in terms of how Black communities have organized around white supremacist violence, that consistently puts Black men at the center of that narrative,” she said.
In the brutally long arc of lynching in America — between 1882 and 1968, more than 4,700 known incidents were recorded, according to the NAACP — Black women also suffered racial violence in large numbers. But, Feimster said, “if Black women suffer sexual assault or lynching, in a patriarchal society that means Black men have failed to protect their wives and mothers and daughters. If you’re looking at Wilson’s painting, when you think about the political strategy, well, this is about putting a powerful symbol of Black manhood at the center."
Wilson’s work followed an emerging genre of art in which the victims of lynching were almost universally men. In a 1935 exhibition of such works held by the NAACP in New York, paintings and drawings — almost all by white artists — portrayed the broken bodies of Black men, helpless and mutilated by mobs. The artworks are almost universally about aftermath; resistance is nowhere to be found. Emasculation is, in some cases, brutally explicit.
Wilson, as a Black artist, seems to be reclaiming the role of the protector, the horror outside balanced by the resolve lurking within. But, Feimster said, there’s much to see in the image of a mother shielding her child. “We understand the politics of motherhood is powerful,” she said. “It’s a way of humanizing Black people in their communities. In Wilson’s painting, we see those two tropes — the Black patriarch and the Black matriarch — working in tandem. He’s protecting them, but she’s protecting her child.”
The image functions as almost a dual reclamation, Feimster said, of Black masculinity stolen by violence, and of motherhood so often stolen at the auction block, where mothers watched their children sold as slaves. Motherhood is also a powerful force in the history of resistance, Feimster said. In 1955, Mamie Till insisted on an open casket to display the mutilated body of her 14-year old son, Emmett Till, lynched on false allegations of flirting with a white woman. She wanted the world to see the brutality of racial violence for itself. In the 21st century, Feimster pointed out, the mothers of victims — Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown — have become leading voices in the justice-reform movement.
Wilson’s is not a victim’s narrative — it’s one of defiance, and one that echoes into the present. Having a woman in the picture at all exhumes an overlooked history, Feimster said — the leading role of women in the anti-lynching movement. She mentioned Ida B. Wells, one of the founders of the NAACP and a crusading journalist who wrote fearlessly about racial terror starting in the late 19th century. (Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize this year.) That history resonates again in the present moment: In 2013, three women — Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi — cofounded the Black Lives Matter movement now mobilizing millions of Americans against racial violence.
A litany of violence strung along an unending continuum makes Wilson’s work both gloomily prescient and sadly timeless, Feimster said. The exhibition was conceived in the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson, Mo., killing of Michael Brown by police; the story has since added several new chapters, and so has Feimster’s syllabus for the civil rights class she teaches at Yale. “I’m always operating from a place of urgency,” she said. “I have to revise my introductory lecture every year — because Ferguson happened, because Charleston happened, and now this. I’m always unnerved that it remains a call to action. I’m always a little dismayed that it can’t just be a history class.
“But you have to find peace in the struggle,” she continued. "Constantly trying to hold our nation to the ideals of democracy — that’s where we find meaning.”
RECKONING WITH 'THE INCIDENT’: JOHN WILSON’S STUDIES FOR A LYNCHING MURAL
For an online version of the exhibition, visit artgallery.yale.edu. Video from a February symposium on the history of racial violence in America, convened by the gallery, can be seen at youtu.be/OZvgmksRhXo