art · freedom


James Malone painting in Freedom exhibit
This image by James Malone is at the University of Alabama’s Paul Jones Gallery through the end of this month.

Today I felt a certain kind of freedom.

I felt it while sharing the film on Grant Green with my colleagues and UA students. Turns out the acoustics in that room were better suited for live music – not a film. And yet, there was still something empowering about watching folks take it in.

I feel the same way watching undergraduates enrolled in my “American Civilization to 1865” course rush to submit comments concerning the “Freedom?” exhibit my colleagues and I helped curate at UA’s Paul Jones Gallery. The students were tasked with finding ties between the paintings and other images in the exhibit and course content by April 1. So naturally, many of them waited until the last minute. While I want to complain, I also smile. I see them showing what they have learned so far this semester. Their responses are here.

In addition to comments posted on a blog, one of the students shared via email his photo of the above image featuring an African American woman who is, first, picking flowers only to be captured and sold into slavery where she ends up picking cotton. The student wisely noted, among other things, “The slave trader in the image wore a Confederate flag even though the trans-Atlantic trade was outlawed well before the design was invented.”

I appreciated the student’s ability to historicize the design of the controversial flag, and more critically, his desire to add, “The painting is significant because it helps me better understand how a modern African American artist views the brutal process by which people of African descent were forced into slavery. But Malone is clearly more concerned with sending a message than being perfectly accurate.”


On days like today, or in semesters like this semester, when I am more tired than not, I feel free knowing something is sinking in with my students. And that something is sinking in as I receive feedback from my colleagues about the film that will soon be released (with or without additional music). I take in all the feedback, some of it unexpected. All of it welcomed. And for that I am grateful.

There is a sort of magic around it all. Only this morning while drinking tea I heard a snippet of Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me,” which was really a sample of Green’s “Maybe Tomorrow.” The very words that could be appropriate for the captured woman in the Malone painting as she awaited freedom.

Dr. Trudier Harris, Professor of English at UA and one of my cherished colleagues, played a huge role in curating the “Freedom?” exhibit for which several professors wrote comments for an exhibit catalogue. The event ends April 20.



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