Race and Identity

First Things First...

The lesson on race and identity in American Art can be folded into any part of the survey course if the course is structured thematically. That being said, it is often taught towards the end of the semester as it tends to focus on post-1980 art. This synopsis offers insight into art across several historical periods in the United States, rather than considering only recent works.

The most difficult part about this lesson is the expansive breadth of the topic. A lot of research has been done on African American/Black identity especially as it is so intimately tied in with larger themes of American art. Other races/ethnicities and other cultural identities are often lesser known and more poorly represented in survey courses and the discipline in general. This guide does not purport to be a thorough overview of all or even most of the various cultural groups of the United States, but rather offers the instructor a starting point when teaching about race and identity in the United States.

Additionally, it can be effective to select a few artists/works that can be sprinkled throughout the entire semester. For instance, the painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner can be taught in conjunction with Thomas Eakins, Tanner’s mentor and teacher. Rather than presenting him as part and parcel of African American artists, Tanner can instead be viewed as an American Realist and taught as such. Such a method would allow for the introduction of themes of race, slavery (Tanner’s mother was an escaped slave), etc., while still embedding the work within its specific historical context.

To begin, you can spend the first 10 minutes of class discussing celebrities, movies, television shows, advertising, etc. that addresses topics of race/ethnicity/cultural identities. One question that has been very effective when teaching classes that are particularly diverse is: Name a celebrity or a movie or a television show that you feel is a proper and real representation of you and your family/upbringing/culture. Discuss. This is particularly effective in making these issues relevant to your students.

Possible Structures:

  • Teleological: Because this lecture is focused on the United States, it helps to use the US’s rather short history to structure the content. In that vein, I have discussed the historical context relevant to the artworks under discussion.
  • By Ethnic Group: While this has obvious problematic issues, dividing the lecture up by ethnic group helps to cohere the topic and to examine the nuances specific to each group. For many students, this serves to be an organizing factor that makes processing the information easier. That being said, in particularly diverse classes, I have had students who focus only on that which is pertinent to them and zone out during other discussions.
  • By Historical Moment: Antebellum Times, Slavery, post-Civil War, Jim Crow.

Background Readings

Glenn Ligon Untitled, 1992.

  • Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African American Artists: From 1972 to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).
  • Chang, Gordon, Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom, eds. Asian American Art: A History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).
  • Powell, Richard. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • West, Cornel. Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

Reading Assignments (For Students)

  • Mercer, Kobena. “Reading Racial Fetishism: The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.” Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1994).
  • Yenawine, Philip, Marianne Weems and Brian Wallis. “Introduction,” Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed American (New York: NYU Press, 1999).  Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America provides a good compilation of essays that discuss the effect of the Culture Wars during the 1980s.
  • This site, Culture Wars Redux provides a wonderful synopsis, images and videos referring to the newest round of culture wares in the artistic landscape.

Possible Videos

Content Suggestions


  • Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
  • William H. West’s Minstrel Show, 1900, Lithograph
  • Lois Maillou Jones, The Ascent of Ethiopia, 1932
  • Romare Bearden, Jammin’ at the Savoy, n.d.
  • Faith Ringgold, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima, 1983
  • Bruce Davidson, Time of Change (the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. King and Rosa Parks during the Selma March), 1965
  • David Hammons, The Door (Admissions Office), 1969
  • Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled from the Kitchen Table II, 1980
  • Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 1992
  • Ruth Asawa, The Bayou, 1943 while interned at Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas
  • Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Framed, 1989, Installation
  • Binh Danh, Dead #1 from the LIFE: One Week’s Dead Series, 2006
  • Dinh Q. Lê, Untitled (Tom Cruise & Willam Dafoe, Born on the 4th of July/Highway 1), 2000
  • Luis Jiménez, Man on Fire, 1969
  • Frank Romero, Death of Rubén Salazar, 1986


Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893

  • Perhaps the quintessential African American painter in the pre-Civil War era, Tanner was trained in Paris where he was accepted in the artistic and social circles of Parisian social life.
  • His depiction of a grandfather teaching a young boy the banjo is seen as a particularly humanistic and sympathetic view of African Americans, a stark contrast to the realities of American slave practices, the slave trade, and the brutal racism in the United States at the time.
  • Depictions of African Americans during and around the Civil War were often either incredibly negative or very dismissive. For instance, depictions of mammies (like Aunt Jemima) or kind uncle-figures (Uncle Ben) continue to this day in modern culture. While on the surface such images might seem positive, they are in fact reductive and disempowering. Blackface often turned depictions of African Americans into jolly joker figures while general understanding cast them as sexual predators of innocent white women. Whether seemingly positive or negative, stereotypes effectively removed agency from African Americans rendering them subject to white dominance—a powerful and effective strategy that helped justify slavery and the continuing racism after the Civil War.
  • A short video about caricature and representation of African Americans: here.

William H. West, Minstrel Show, 1900, Lithograph

  • This is a good example of an advertisement meant to sell tickets for a minstrel show. As you can see, blackface is exhibited here with the stereotypical facial features and hair of the “black man.” This is only one example of many depictions of African Americans in the United States that align with a particularly negative perception of African Americans, especially in the post-Civil War period. It is important to remember that before the Civil War, slaves were often depicted as “mammies” or other benevolent servants.

Harlem Renaissance

  • The Harlem Renaissance refers to the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s. During this period, Harlem became a cultural center, and while it was primarily a literary movement of writers and poets, it also drew artists, photographers and musicians. Harlem became a northern draw for artists who were escaping a still-oppressive South. More importantly and relevantly for the art scholar, the Harlem Renaissance was a revival in racial pride and contributed to slow, yet changing attitudes about African Americans and their role in the cultural fabric of the US.

Lois Maillou Jones, The Ascent of Ethiopia, 1932

  • Jones’s painting depicts the struggle and ascent of African Americans in the United States finding their heritage in Africa. The Back-to-Africa Movement in the United States emerged after the Civil War after many freed slaves either migrated to the North or spread out throughout the South.  They were perceived as a threat to white populations that saw them as potential rivals in the job market. The Back-to-Africa Movement, also known as the Colonization Movement, was seen as a potential solution to these whites and also to a small minority of African American that experienced severe racism and discrimination despite (or because of) their free status. It is important to remember, however, that the movement was seen with great suspicion on the part of the majority of African Americans. While Jones’ work speaks to this “repatriation” of American-born African Americans as well as a growing interest in Africa generally, her work is a celebration of cultural heritage and identities, NOT an advocacy of removing African Americans from the United States “back” to Africa. Additionally, Jones’ painting demonstrates the trend during the Harlem Renaissance towards forming a unified, cultural identity, here represented in Egypt. Besides searching for their shared heritage, the subtle gesture also alludes to the US’s obsession with Egypt after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

Romare Bearden, Jammin’ at the Savoy, n.d.

  • Bearden’s piece allows for entry into more conversation regarding the Harlem Renaissance. (It is important to remember that the Harlem Renaissance was above all else, a literary renaissance.) That being said, this painting incorporates Jazz and its qualities of improvisation, liveliness, and rhythm that could be found in Harlem during this period. The call-and-response of Jazz is here incorporated into a painting, given a rhythm that is improvised and alive. Both Bearden’s use of color and his collage-style is typical of his oeuvre and serves as an overall celebration of life and, most specifically, black life in Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance served as an awakening to the values, culture, diversity and beauty of African American creativity and their contribution to the larger fabric of American history.

Civil Rights Movement

  • A series of movements for equality, the Civil Rights Movement peaked in the United States in the 1960s. Though primarily known for African Americans’ protest of segregation, unequal voting privileges and numerous other societal problems, the Civil Rights Movement also galvanized a number of other minority groups leading to an Asian American Movement, a Chicano movement, an American Indian Movement and a gender rights movement.

Faith Ringgold, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima, 1983

  • Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930 and grew up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance and its after effects. In line with the Civil Rights Movement, Ringgold’s paintings began to embody strong political messages that she herself demonstrated numerous times during the movement. In the 1970s, she became more and more interested in fabrics, assisted by her fashion designer mother. This quilt, titled Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima came as a result of these experiments and is the first example of her combining images and handwritten texts in these painted quilts. The quote tells a story of a familiar advertising character, rooted deep in stereotypes of the African American “mammy” figure, turned into an empowered businesswoman.

Bruce Davidson, Time of Change (the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. King and Rosa Parks during the Selma March), 1965

  • Bruce Davidson’s documentary photographs of the Civil Rights Movement stand to this day as one of the best visual records of that tumultuous and productive time in American History. His photographs not only document the events that took place and the violence that occurred as a result of the movement, but also act as a record of the economic disparities between African Americans and white Americans. This particular photograph offers an opportunity for students to use their visual analysis skills for great results. For instance, right in the front is the Reverent Abernathy, a major proponent for Civil Rights. He is not the only white American visible and it is important to emphasize that, in this lecture on race and identity, the Civil Rights Movement, while often divided among racial lines, was nevertheless about human rights, rather than rights for a specific or particular racial group. The unity that is shown among the individuals speaks to the unity that allowed for such an impacting and powerful movement.

David Hammons, The Door (Admissions Office), 1969

  • In the early 1960s, David Hammons began creating “body prints,” a practice that involved coating his body with an oily substance and printing it onto a support, which was then dusted with dry pigments. Here, the impression of Hammons’s body against the glass door of an admissions office recalls the struggles African Americans faced gaining entrance to public schools throughout the South.

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled from the Kitchen Table II, 1980

  • The Kitchen Table Series emerged from and was inspired by the artist’s experiences teaching in the late 1970s at college. She noticed that her female students would pose themselves sideways, in profile or shying away form the camera, while male students would square themselves in the frame, looking unabashedly at the camera. Weems created the Kitchen Table Series as a self-portrait project that stood for all women who are confident and self-assured. Her work is not only about race, but also adamantly about gender and class. As part of the Culture Wars, Weems is aware not only of historical and traditional race/gender/class roles, but also of how intertwined all of those issues are. Culture wars refer to battles over the moral foundation of our nation.  It can find itself manifested as debates over issues such as prohibition, gay marriage, pornography, and violence.
  • Article: Carrie Mae Weems 
  • Video: Carrie Mae Weems, the Kitchen Table Series 

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 1992

  • Glenn Ligon borrowed the words repeated across Untitled (I Do Not Always Feel Colored) from a 1928 essay by Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” which considers the idea that skin color is a social construction. In his painting, Ligon applied the phrase “I do not always feel colored” to the canvas over and over by rubbing oil stick through a plastic stencil onto the gessoed surface of a door. Ligon’s technique allowed for a remarkably subtle range of optical and expressive effects, depending on which black oil stick he used, how many times he went over a letter, and how often he cleaned the back of his template. As Ligon worked his way down the support, the text became progressively smudged and illegible because the greasy oil stick left a residue that adhered to the stencil. This transition from block-letter clarity to illegibility is a meaningful effect, playing on the idea of text as something that is shifting and malleable. “It makes the words cast shadows, bleed into one another, [so that] their meanings seem less fixed,” remarked Ligon about his technique. “The smearing also creates a visual interaction with the gesso ground, a metaphor for the interaction between blacks and whites in the construction of racial identity.” Source.

Japanese-American Internment

  • On February 19, 1942, as a result of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which ordered some 110,000 Japanese Americans, primarily along the West Coast, to give up their homes, businesses, and the majority of their possessions. These individuals were then interned in what has come to be known as the Japanese American Internment. Though Japanese immigrants and their children had long been in the United States and Japanese Americans served against Japan in the US Army, anti-Japanese sentiments reached a hysterical level after Pearl Harbor. Easily turned into foreign scapegoats, Japanese Americans were viewed with immense suspicion, justifying the internment camps.
  • Inside the camps, life continued, and several interned artists taught art classes.  Others picked up crafts, utilizing their scarce resources as medium for their work.
  • See video: The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 

Ruth Asawa, The Bayou, 1943 (while interned at Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas)

  • During the beginning of Asawa’s internment, she and her family were stationed at Santa Anita racetrack in California. While there, artists from the Walt Disney Animation Studios who were also interned taught art classes as a way to pass the time. This was one of Asawa’s watercolors during her time there.
  • Art from the internments often depict nature and idyllic scenes—an escapist vision from an imprisoned life. Other artists depicted barbed wires, the stalls that the Japanese Americans had to make home, and military men with guns overlooking the camps. The legacy of the visual imagery that emerged from the Internment camps is often overlooked and forgotten, but nevertheless serves as an important reminder of a period of American History that is often left untaught and forgotten.

Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Framed, 1989, Installation

  • In responding to these camps, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto created an installation that consists of window frames with archival film footage shot by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The WRA was a federal agency that oversaw the forced incarceration of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II, controlled the photographic documentation of the camps, and thus ignored the harsh reality of life there. The artists have reframed and thus subverted the images, which originally tried to put a smiling face on a grim episode in American history. The resulting stills have a poignancy and irony missing from the original film. The idyllic blue sky behind the spectator has appeared in numerous TV commercials and evokes today’s controlled media environment while echoing the fabricated reality of the WRA films.

Vietnam War

  • The Vietnam War was the longest and most unpopular American war of the twentieth century.  It was also the first televised war—for the first time ever, the majority of Americans had a television set and could turn on the television for footage of the war at almost any time. Many artists grappled with this new visual imagery. Not only were Asian faces frequently on the television screen, but due to the nature of the Vietnam War they were depicted either as the evil faces of the Viet Cong or the helpless faces of the refugees fleeing the war-torn country. Asian Americans were then confronted with the transplantation of those sentiments of either enemy or victim that did not actually apply to them as Americans.
  • The Vietnam War also led to an increasing number of Asians in the United States. Refugees fled from the war-torn countries of Southeast Asia as well as Cambodia, where Pol Pot conducted massive Genocide. Previously, the Korean War had led to waves of refugee immigration of Koreans to the United States, a pattern that continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The Asian American population increased exponentially during this time.

Binh Danh, Dead #1 from the LIFE: One Week’s Dead Series, 2006

  • Binh Danh embedded photographic images onto tropical leaves that recall the vegetation in Vietnam. The leaf symbolically represents the blood and sweat of American soldiers that was absorbed into the ground and then into the vegetation and the surrounding trees. Perpetually being reborn and recreated, the remnants of American bodies will always be present in the landscape of Vietnam. Danh utilized a photosynthetic process in which the photo negatives of American faces are pressed onto living leaves. After exposure to sun, the images themselves are imprinted through the chlorophyll of the leaf.
  • Because matter can never be destroyed, the leaves represent the “transmigration of matter: the decomposition and composition of matter into different forms. They contain the residue of the Vietnam and American War: bombs, blood sweat, tears, and metal.” The leaves themselves create the chlorophyll that sketches the images onto the leaves.
  • Binh Danh, “The Inbetweeners” (MFA thesis, Stanford University, 2004), 11. As quoted by Aimee Chang, One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, (New York: The Asia Society Museum, 2006), 56.

Dinh Q. Lê, Untitled (Tom Cruise & Willam Dafoe, Born on the 4th of July/Highway 1), 2000

  • Utilizing a process that mimics Vietnamese grass weaving, Lê weaves together a film still from the movie, Born on the 4th of July, featuring a scene with iconic American actors Tom Cruise and Willam Dafoe, with the infamous photograph from the Vietnam War of children running from a Napalm attack on their village. Bringing into question the various sources of memories of the Vietnam War, Lê inextricably weaves together two such sources, questioning how the war is remembered in the US.

The Chicano Movement emerged in tandem with the Civil Rights Movement and is rightly seen as another part of the Civil Rights Movement. In an effort to bring into political awareness issues of property, jobs, and other economic matters, the Chicano Movement worked to raise awareness of stereotypes of Mexican Americans in the United States. Both Jiménez and Romero, discussed below, bring focus to issues that were specific to Mexican Americans, especially in the western part of the United States as well as cultural perceptions of Mexican Americans.

Growing Latino/Hispanic Presence in the United States

  • The Smithsonian American Art Museum presented a show in 2013 called Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art. This is a good basic starting place to discover more about Latino/Hispanic artists in the United States who, like mentioned previously, were motivated along with other minority groups by the civil unrest of the 1960s and 70s. Coupled with growing immigration, the Latino presence in the United States grew.  These struggles of immigration, nationhood, poverty, identity, and language are exhibited in many of these artists’ work, most of whom are current contemporary artists. Online Exhibition of American Art.

Luis Jiménez, Man on Fire, 1969

  • Jiménez’s Man on Fire recasts an iconic Native American in contemporary terms. Employing a pop art style of slick, hot-rod surfaces, the artist conflated references to Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec ruler tortured by fire during the Spanish conquest, and Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who set himself ablaze in protest against the Vietnam War. For Jiménez, the monk’s act resonated with the rising antiwar sentiment in many Latino communities. Jiménez’s brown figure—which was also a self-portrait—also asserts the Native identity of Chicanos and the community’s roots in the Southwest prior to 1848.

Frank Romero, Death of Rubén Salazar, 1986

  • Death of Rubén Salazar is an example of Romero’s later work that portrays political and civil unrest. The painting’s vivid imagery virtually overwhelms the viewer: the contrast of the bright colors and short brush strokes make it hard for viewers to rest their eyes. The painting’s large scale and colors are deceiving, however. At first glance, one might think it portrays a happy scene. The painting, however, depicts the tragic death of Rubén Salazar, a civil rights activist and journalist for the Los Angeles Times. After covering a peaceful antiwar protest in 1970, Salazar was struck and killed by a tear gas canister fired by the police. Although the canvas was painted sixteen years later, it indicates Romero was still greatly affected by the event. Video: here.

At the End of Class...

Luis Jiménez, Man on Fire, 1969.

Museum Paper

  • Visit a museum and select a work that addresses race, culture or identity.  Discuss what issues the artist raises and how he/she either addresses these issues or further problematizes them.

Artist Response Paper

  • Select one of the artists discuss in class. Write a paper responding to a work in the artist’s oeuvre that was not discussed in class. Discuss how that work addresses issues of race and identity.

Michelle Yee (author) is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.