Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Artist Uses His Art to Tackle Black on Black Male Youth Violence

By T.M. Bonner

   For Ohio-based Artist James Pate, his artistic journey into the exploration of the pervasive social problem of black on black male youth violence was put into high gear because of the shocking reality of the statistics: The number of African-Americans lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in America had been surpassed by the number of African-American males killed by other African-American males.

"Kin Killin' Kin" Artist James Pate
   There were 3,446 lynchings of African-Americans (men, women, and children) by white lynch mobs between 1882 and 1968, according to the Archives at the Tuskegee Institute. However, in just Chicago alone, there were 2,383 gang-motivated murders of blacks between 1991 and 2004, according to the Chicago Police Department. Add in all the other years since then, all of the other cities and states, and murder motives other than gang rivalry – and one can see how that lynching total has been swiftly outpaced.

   Pate makes that very uncomfortable, but necessary, point in his timely and provocative traveling art exhibit “Kin Killin’ Kin” by directly drawing a comparison between the young black perpetrators of murder and violence in each piece in the exhibit to the KKK perpetrators of violence on African-Americans. Black youth killers wear pointy white baseball caps turned backward – the white color and pointiness of the baseball caps reminiscent of the Klan. The infamous letters “KKK” are emblazoned across the chests of their jerseys and hoodies. The race of the perpetrators (in this case, African-American) may be different, but similar to the historic violence of the Klan, this black on black brand of violence also leaves significant destruction within the black community.

“Each episode of destruction is chipping away at a people’s essence, ancestry and heritage; a rich legacy of sacrifice, struggle, triumph, glory, positive influences on the world; and the entire group’s future.” – James Pate

"Your History II" from "Kin Killin' Kin" Art Exhibit
   The exhibit illustrates this idea of the threat to that rich African-American history and legacy by juxtaposing scenes of black male youth gun violence and murder alongside images from the Civil Rights Movement and other historical moments involving African-Americans. In the image titled “Your History II” (pictured, left), for example, the scenes of violence among young black youth play out in the foreground, while an historic image of another group of young black men conducting a peaceful sit-in at a lunch counter during the Civil Rights Movement is visualized in the background. Trying to visually and emotionally reconcile these two clashing images is next to impossible for anyone seeing the exhibit – as it should be.

   In tackling this subject, Pate has compared himself to a bluesman, expressing and working out his sorrow and emotion about the troubling situation via the canvas as opposed to the blues guitar. And for Pate, his artistic exploration of the subject is a much deeper exercise than just illustrating the ‘what’ based on statistics. He also goes beyond statistics and asks ‘why?’ Via the visual power of his pieces, he urges those who come to see his exhibit to ask ‘why?’ as well.

   “Here is the result of this nation and the community under-developing black males and disrespecting that human resource,” Pate said. “As a result, they turn on each other.”  

   Pointing to the significant contributions that African-American males have made to the country and the world in areas such as medicine and science, business, law, government, and the arts, Pate said the lack of acknowledgement of black males as vital human resources is a mistake. He also said such a mentality – and the resulting social problem of black on black male youth violence – has its roots in racism.

   “Racism is the number one culprit for the problems,” Pate said, noting the residual effects of centuries of slavery on African-Americans. “It goes back to it being unlawful to read or write. If you don’t educate a person, you are going to weaken them. What do you then hand down? You’ve got generations that are not educated – and that leads to a lot of stuff – including Kin Killin’ Kin.” 

   Willis Bing Davis curates Pate’s “Kin Killin’ Kin” exhibit, currently showing at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. Davis saw the human resource and talent in Pate himself when Pate was an art student at Central State University in Ohio and Davis was chair of the art department. Davis, owner of the Willis Bing Davis Art Studio in Dayton, OH, was the first to exhibit Pate’s “Kin Killin’ Kin” collection.

   “People don’t want to talk about racism’s role in the problem,” Davis said. “A lot of the anger (among black male youth) is about lack of opportunity and resources. When the kids look on TV, in magazines, they see the good life. Just because you are poor, doesn’t mean you stop wanting nice things.”

   “When you don’t have the opportunity to get it one way, you will get it another way,” Davis added. And this leads to violence as a way to gain money and power.

   “Kin Killin’ Kin” highlights two important realities: 1). That The Arts is an effective vehicle for sparking social change, and 2). That it can be an effective vehicle for reaching young people who are well-versed in new visual technology such as video games, and who respond more favorably to things such as video games and music videos, than other forms of communication. Pate’s images are large, bold, and realistic, jumping off the canvas at you like a reality show without the audio and movement. Pate compares the style of the images to movie storyboards and frames from a movie.

   But within the visual style of his exhibit is a clear purpose of reaching young people who may be on the verge of heading in the direction of the perpetrators of violence depicted in his images or who are already participants in such violence. “A person can verbally say that to a kid, but it is just a lot of talk. But with art, you can visually and privately get preached to,” Pate said. “The attack is from another angle.”

   Exhibit-goers can interact with the exhibit by writing the name(s) of someone they knew whose life was lost because of gun violence on toe tags and hang them on a special area of the exhibit. On the day of my visit to the exhibit in Chicago, the wall of tags was plentiful.

   The “Kin Killin’ Kin” exhibit hasn’t been without its challenges, though. Putting KKK insignia on African-Americans shocks the senses. And seeing a low point in black culture played out on canvas in a major artistic space is an emotional challenge. Pate acknowledges that though the exhibit has received widespread praise, some African-Americans have expressed embarrassment over bringing the reality of black on black male youth violence to a major artistic stage. But Pate says that sweeping the issue under the rug would be a mistake, nothing that there is strength in talking about such things.

   Pate also said that a few others have reacted to the exhibit by pointing out that other races kill members of their own race as well. “There is the misperception that it’s just a black thing. It’s a card I could play if I want to prove that point,” Pate said.  “But how am I going to fight against media moguls putting that perception out there? Where am I going to do it – at the local community center, when the moguls can reach millions through the media? It also doesn’t erase the fact of black people killing other black people.”

   “But what I can do is get on with the business of proving black males have been under-developed way too long and have resources to offer that could solve a lot of the world’s problems,” Pate added. “That’s the trump card that I want to play.”

   Pate said he will continue to add images to his exhibit until the problem of black on black male youth violence ends.

   “Kin Killin’ Kin” will be at the DuSable Museum through November, before heading to Atlanta, GA in January. Pate and Davis are actively working to try to secure a major exhibit space in New York City to show this important contemporary work.


T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Justice Advocate, and is currently doing studies in the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York City. 

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