It was an especially bright afternoon of a long red summer, the same one in which I began writing a new book on an old topic—becoming the parent of a Black child in the midst of a global catastrophe—when the man who would months later become my son’s godfather put me on to the work of Deborah Roberts. The form of this introduction to Roberts’s work was a single image, followed by a fairly standard opener for our exchanges back then: What do you think about this as a book cover?
This message came from Jarvis Givens, who is not only my collaborator and kin, but the author of an essay titled “There Would Be No Lynching If It Did Not Start in the Schoolroom: Carter G. Woodson and the Occasion of Negro History Week, 1926–1950.” An analysis of the groundbreaking historian’s approach to formal education as a means of fighting anti-Blackness, it contains the following argument: “The youths of the race were Woodson’s particular concern because he recognized that it was with the boys and girls that Mis-education began, later crystallizing into deep-seated insecurities, intra-racial cleavages, and interracial antagonisms.” Whenever I teach the essay to my students, I set this sterling sentence aside. Not only because it echoes the essay’s powerful title, which is borrowed from Woodson’s canonical text, The Mis-Education of the Negro, but because it clarifies succinctly what I am always trying to teach, and in fact had been for years, even before I encountered the language to assert more precisely what I was reaching for: the irreducible truth that what we learn and do not learn in school, what we see and do not see in museums, houses of worship, and our homes, shapes the way we treat one another. It hones our inner eyes. It contours whom we love and what we despise, where we see danger, truth, value, possibility.
This approach to thinking about the relationship between the social world and the literary and visual arts changed everything for me. And so of course I told Jarvis the truth about the image, and its relationship to the book cover he was already dreaming up: This is it. You have to get it if you can.
The image in question was Roberts’s evocatively titled collage The front lines (2018). We see a black boy surrounded by hands. Only two of them are his own. One is open, facing us: a gesture of welcome. An invitation to play, perhaps, or to walk alongside him. The other living, black hand is folded into a fist. A reminder of what he has survived to make it to this moment, and what he must still survive in the years to come. Another hand, cast in grayscale, arrives from a bygone era to undermine his vision, crossing his forehead to foreclose the possibility of his gentlest gesture. The eye this hand doesn’t obscure is cast upward toward it. The boy will not avert his gaze. He is on the front lines, Roberts seems to say, born into an age-old, asymmetrical war against the very possibility of his flourishing, his future. In the face of such generally dispersed, widely syndicated brutality, the boy in the collage asserts power, vulnerability, interminable tenacity. All of that beauty he knows, and is, cannot be constrained. He has been here before. He will remain.
The collage opened a door in my mind I couldn’t close. What could Deborah Roberts have seen in the heavens that led her down this path? What was the sound of the precise music behind the color and movement? How was she making sense of the material world unspooling right outside our doors each day, the global uprisings that had so many of us convinced that the aperture for abolition had finally opened, or that the essential vocabulary we used to talk about race, class, policing, public health, in this country might finally change?
Born in 1962 in Austin, Texas, Roberts makes work that can be understood, from one angle, as a reimagining of the Black twentieth century through mixed-media art on paper. Her art centers the social worlds of Black children. Through the use of an ever-expanding range of materials, Roberts animates the still figures of these young people set against a sharp white background in more ways than one: they throw up peace signs, they strut and dance, stand defiantly with hands in pockets, sit on the floor with palms locked in front of their shins, defend one another by placing their arms between the body of a friend and the world of the viewer. Her text and sculptural experiments illuminate divergent threads of the Black expressive tradition; the singular music of Black naming practices, inscribed in her print series “Pluralism” (2016), echoes against the work of Toni Morrison and Frantz Fanon, Cornel West, The New Jim Crow, and the Protestant Bible, volumes of which are stacked in her “trumpet of consciousness” sculptures (2019). Her emphasis, always, is the expansiveness of the Black every day; the Black futures unfolding in front of us; the wondrous, turbulent history that we must study in pursuit of a more abundant life.
Speaking over the phone with me this past June, Roberts was incredibly gracious. I opened with a question about why childhood is such a prominent theme in her work, and she answered this way:
I remember when I was in the sixth grade. That was when I first had my issues with race. I knew I was black, but I didn’t know that it was all that big of a deal because everyone looked the same in my neighborhood. It didn’t become a problem until I went to a new school where I was treated so horribly. So, when I was thinking about how could I add my voice to the choir—to the group of other African American artists out there talking about racial and gender equality—I wanted to be sure to do it differently.
Roberts’s framing of her practice not as that of the individuated, avant-garde artist working in solitude, but as a contributor to a collectivity, a voice in the choir, leapt out to me immediately. The metaphor doesn’t connote being at the center of things, or even gaining recognition more generally, but rather the joy of partaking in a beautiful accompaniment. It’s like what you hear at the end of Tramaine Hawkins’s rendition of “Goin’ Up Yonder,” where the saints just praise the last two minutes or so of the song. You can feel that sense of otherworldly wonder grow and fill the room, a kind of atmosphere rising around Hawkins’s voice as it rings out clear and true, clean as an axe through air.
What’s more, in her description of anti-Black racism as something she discovered in and through school—an observation we see reflected, for instance, in the famous passage on double-consciousness in W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” or the opening paragraphs of Zora Neale Hurston’s timeless essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”—Roberts seems to be saying out loud, in a cultural moment where we so rarely hear it, what many of us who grew up loved by Black people know quite well: there are worlds outside, alongside, underneath, and above the anti-Black world. We once existed, and continue to exist, in terms other than those imposed on us by a symbolic order in which we are imagined as subhuman. Those are worlds we are building anew each day.
Throughout our conversation, Roberts’s responses were in the first-person plural: the focus in the work was not only her individual experience but ours, what our children go through, what they see and survive, how we might help them make it through that situation, and move on to a better one, together. This view of things is expressed with singular elegance and power in her mixed-medium collage Let them be children (2018), a monumental multifigure composition of children facing the viewer with direct gazes and flat palms held out to demand space. When I asked her, not specifically about this work, but the role of play in her practice more generally, she answered:
With Let them be children, the whole idea was to let the kids interact in a playground situation or any type of school situation where they are actually allowed to be children. Think about Tamir Rice. He was out with a toy gun, and was shot, within seconds, without getting any verbal commands to put it down. . . . The idea of play is all over my work. The boxing gloves, the big fists are metaphors for the idea that these children will have to fight for their own identity as they grow up. The playfulness is there, but there’s medicine in there too.
There’s medicine in there too. And a mythos, finally, in which our elegance is reflected. In Roberts’s own words, conveyed to me toward the end of the interview as a kind of dazzling punctuation: I want us to see ourselves as a heroic people. It is no small matter that in pursuit of such a narrative—one made to the measure of the profound contribution of African Americans to the story of human life on Earth—Roberts turns time and time again to the life-worlds of Black children. For it is in their courage and unpredictability, she seems to say, the radiant glow of their laughter and unfettered dreaming, that we see the possibility of a world made new by the truth they know. And demand. And are.
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 96–99.