Celebrating Black Children in America

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“The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun” was a short-lived but influential publication edited by W.E.B. Du Bois a century ago. Widely regarded as a pioneer in children’s literature, it celebrated African-Americans with positive images, stories and poetry at a time when caricature toys were the norm.

Over the past century, the magazine, which ran from January 1920 to December 1921, has inspired scores of artists, including Jennifer Mack-Watkins, whose upcoming solo exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont draws from the publication’s illustrative imagery.

One image in particular was the catalyst for her show: A photograph of thousands of Black people marching down Fifth Avenue in New York in what looked like a celebratory parade. “This is beautiful, they’re all dressed in white — it must be a glorious, great occasion,” she recalled thinking. “Then after reading more, I realized, wow, it’s not what I thought it was.”

Instead, the crowd was protesting in the names of those who had recently been killed in a race riot in St. Louis, as well as other acts of violence toward Black people across America.

ImageJennifer Mack-Watkins in studio.
Credit…Elizabeth Brooks

When Ms. Mack-Watkins, who was raised in the South and is based in New York, was asked to take her art to Vermont, she knew she had to create something that would spotlight a moment in history that many might not know, she said.

That search led her to the magazine and to a Vermont poet named Daisy Turner, who as a schoolgirl in 1891 took a defiant stand against racism. She had been instructed to recite a poem written by a white person while holding a caricatured Black doll. Instead, she improvised with her own poem.

Inspired by both the magazine and Ms. Turner, Ms. Mack-Watkins created 11 silkscreens and two color lithographs that will be on display — both in person and virtually — from March 17 through June 13. The show, “Children of the Sun,” uses doll imagery as a narrative framework to explore the exhibition’s themes as well as audio recordings by Ms. Turner, including her recitation of the 1891 poem. It is intertwined with a modern-day response and poetry written specifically for the show by fayemi shakur, a writer and interdisciplinary artist.

“The dolls I chose to depict in the work is not a representation of who we are as a people,” she said, “but I’m more interested in just the act of play.”

Dolls are personal to Ms. Mack-Watkins.

As a little girl growing up in South Carolina, her mother would tell her stories about her own childhood, when her family didn’t have much money and they would make dolls out of corn husks and whatever else they could find. Ms. Mack-Watkins grew up around dolls and mannequins, which her mother, a hairstylist, used for practice.

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Ms. Mack-Watkins played with many kinds of dolls growing up, though she knew which ones she could not touch, such as glass dolls or those dressed in African garb. “I couldn’t play with those because they’re really rare and really hard to find,” she said. “It’s always been a collectible because it’s always been rare to find a representation of us.”

In her show, Ms. Mack-Watkins framed the silkscreen dolls in an arch, a symbolic gesture to show the “vulnerability and perseverance of Black children in America,” she said. The dolls only have first names, like Harriet and Langston, and are named after Black leaders and pioneers.

Ms. Mack-Watkins said she hoped viewers would take time to consider why the names were important and why she had chosen them. “And if they don’t know the full names of the people, hopefully that’ll steer them to actually look and see why I named them that,” she said.

She also said she wants her show to reach children “so they can know that Black is beautiful.”

Her own 4-year-old daughter gravitated toward the images. As she was making the sketches for the exhibition, Ms. Mack-Watkins wanted to see how they would look on a wall. Her husband made copies and her daughter hand-painted them.

“My daughter knew that they were important so she took the time to hand paint with watercolor, every drawing that I had made. And it was special to her,” she said. “So it definitely goes to the children, my own children, other people’s children and adults that continue to look for representation.”

As a printmaker, Ms. Mack-Watkins, who was first introduced to a printmaking technique in high school and then studied the field at Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College, said she feels a duty to tell stories of the Black experience, and she hopes to inspire other printmakers of color to do the same.

“Our act of making art is our act of action,” Mack-Watkins said. “It’s a resistance.”


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