$2.50 is how much it costs to get everywhere and nowhere. For those who want to get lost and those who want to get found in the melting pot of Atlanta. Missing the train isn’t that deep. Or that terrible, I would say. No. What is terrible is missing the view from the window. The local window seat which glides you close enough to the crown of metal clouds. You see the graffiti walls down below and you soar so close to trees you can kiss them. The view from the window seat is the only luxury of the local transportation. I reach my destination—Ashby train station, located two blocks away from the historic West End, and one street down from the Atlanta Student Movement. I feel like a tourist in my own city, passing by new Black Owned Businesses, hopeful messages, and the unchanged parts of history that lie in the area—destitution. As a college student attending Clark Atlanta University, it wasn’t surprising to walk the same streets of crackheads and homeless people to get to the Walmart located near campus. Now the Walmart is burned down. Cardboard boxes surround the area. Wooden boards are thrown upon the windows of not only the Wally World, but several other places that marked the location. Heading onto the college campus, nostalgia continued to creep onto me with what was, and what is. A clear division of time marked the streets of the local homes which only housed college students. The houses were one-story level basic homes with unkept grass, and shady renters up charging per room to college students who wanted budget friendly freedom in the City of ATL. Across the street. Sat two, maybe three-story houses with clearly pearled renovations which stretched down the street. I wondered when the time would come when the memories, I shared in those budget friendly houses would become memories I could no longer touch. My feet soon stood before the Lyke House church. A barrier of a thin string separated me and the property lot. It was the church which provided broke college students as my undergraduate self, financial reimbursements for overly priced once used textbooks. Now, my memory of this holy land is stained in the blood of Jatonne Sterling, the baseball player shot to death in this parking lot. I used to cross this very lot after my commute on my way to class, just as I am walking now. My eyes were wet in the blanch stains of history. Nonetheless, the veil of my sunglasses blinded my eyes from the college students peering in, but not of me having them wide open looking out. I climbed the stairs of once was Trevor Arnette Library to the museum which held the art of Hale Aspacio Woodruff: The “Art of the Negro.” 6 murals by Woodruff paneled against the antiquated wood of the historic building. “Muses,” was the last of the 6 panels, and it was the one I came to see. I hadn’t seen the mural since my early college days, but the impression of the painting’s message is still impeccable. I sat with the mural since I hadn’t seen it in years. I wanted to see how much of my own interpretation of its meaning had changed or remained. After all, it was my favorite painting of the mural collection. Two deities rest nobly atop a sea of historic Black men. An African deity and a Grecian deity, and the African diaspora below to represent the cultural amalgamation of the two which contributed to the prestigious range of arts within Black life. As inferred by the museum text, the painting represents the involuntary marriage of cultures. But, upon seeing the painting itself, I think Aspacio was intentional in painting two prominent cultural influences atop the Black men. Below the deities' ranges artists and artisans of the African diaspora. Some of Spanish, American, Brazilian descent who contributed to the Black intelligence through poetry, activism, art—all interwoven like macrame for their contribution to Black canonical study. Smack dab in the middle was Shango* dressed in horticultural African garments. The mystery of antiquity resolved. It’s no thunderous blow to history tracing back the blends of culture which shaped a group of people over time. If anything, I think it makes the essence of culture more beautiful. Especially being able to capture the impact of cultural hybridity in a painting and highlight it versus show its detriments. The museum curator, Sol, noticed my writing and decided to give me a textbook regarding the murals of Woodruff. In Jerry Collum’s essay, “The Art of the Negro,” he covered Aspacio’s legacy behind the murals and the history of craftsmanship which went into the historical murals. Between 1941-42, Woodruff proposed the murals collection to the dean of Atlanta University to be placed in the library, but he responded they didn’t have the money to fund the collection. Woodruff was fed up with the whole thing (Cullum 121). Woodruff was eventually able to negotiate a $2,000 dollar salary raise as compensation for the murals, but Spelman College and Atlanta University settled on $200 (121). He began drafting the 6 panels until he received a teaching position at New York University, where he resigned from teaching at the two universities to relocate. Between the time working at NYU, he was commissioned to create a mural collection for Talladega college. The mural collection for Talladega college encompassed slavery, the colonial slave trade, the overall horrors of Black life. The debut for the Talladega College murals was grand and well-received. In 1950, Woodruff had finally finished his 6-panels for Atlanta University while still residing in New York. He shipped them down south, but the shipment content was contrary to the expectations of AU’s dean. They wanted something closer in subject matter to the murals done for Talladega College, but instead, the murals reflected the evolution of Woodruff’s perspective through his art. By virtue, possibly due to the influential conversations he shared with other prolific artists in New York University regarding “personal invention with cross-cultural investigation of African Art” (125). Nonetheless, Atlanta University still held a modest ceremony for the mural collection debut, but it was evident the collection was not that well received. Woodruff said the murals were the “most important work along this line,” and that they had been, “almost ignored and treated with indifference, “possibly because, “The murals don’t deal with slavery in this country; they deal with a very remote past” (Cullum 123). I wish I could ask Woodruff which of the panels did he favor most. In Collum’s essay, “Muses” is said to be the last mural done, and by the painting's context, it is easy to see that. His thought process had changed; therefore, the painting had too. They didn’t know how many drafts Woodruff had done before settling on the murals he did, but the evolution of his artistic perspective within the decade is clear in the paintings. There’s an address to the mural collection meaning within the legacy: [Woodruff] asserts the right of the artist of African descent to pursue whatever aspects of the vast range of history, form, and culture seem most promising and appealing as a subject
of the artist. And in The Art of the Negro murals, Woodruff does exactly this, establishing a globalized and contemporary context in which to reconsider and reconfigure the continually evolving heritage of Africa and the African Diaspora. (Collum 129) As creators and changemakers through art, we reserve the right to articulate the world from our eyes how we see fit. The best motives of the artist are the ones which are raw, and authentic to love and the passion behind the meaning of the art created. Whereas what is most appealing to an audience. Sometimes, what is least appealing is what is most needed. Ironically, Woodruff succeeded in doing something appealing and needed. It’s something special about understanding our past to determine our future. Embracing change or sticking to what you know. Static. When I think of this world we live in, I can’t help but think of this painting. Woodruff wasn’t painting a cloud of darkness around the cultural hybridity of African and Western civilization. That was a topic covered many times before in slave narratives, fiction, and even his own art. Instead, he was introducing at the time, a new ideology to the influences of African Diaspora art. The history is truth and researchable, but the acknowledging of the past and the future was implemented all in one in “Muses.” History doesn’t have to stain anyone's future, if we let character arches develop with positive turns in the road. No matter what the culture is, there is hope. It is an image of the African Diaspora thriving everywhere throughout the world, and rectifying the people who were once labeled sable, as an identity obsolete to their magnitude. One of the lasting messages I decode from “Muses” is a testimony of unity. What brought each of the men painted in the mural together through history can also bring them together in their futures. All the men in the room represented a shared lineage, but only Black men sat in that room, embracing their identities as pillars for their futures. Black people uniting through their talents. The sweet unspoken language of artistry. I returned the textbook to the museum curator and ventured back towards Ashby train station. On the promenade I see staged strolls of Greek organizations. Students gather around to watch the AKA’s stroll, and a mild cacophony of hound barks trail behind, or after. 808 stereo beats rang through, and an overjoyed crowd of students buzzed. Memory flushed I almost forgot what time I was in. As I cross Atlanta back to Decatur the thought crosses my mind when Zeus traveled to Aethiopia. Homer does not acknowledge the Aethiopian’s pigmentation, but instead revels in their close partnership with the gods, and how they feast in “holiday-leaves.” Food and culture blended together like salt and pepper for a savory dish. Creating, something, soothing for the soul. A potion as potent as art becoming the vehicle for love, or vice versus. We can blend our cultures within the diaspora. We can extend out to blend our cultures in the world. Change isn’t always bad. Hale Aspacio Woodruff knew that. He invented, embraced, and created change in his thoughts, therefore within his paintings. I think sometimes there is a slight peace in ignorance: like a glass half-full half-empty business. Because it leaves room for a blank canvas to embrace who one is today and can create from that. Aspacio was still paying homage to where we came from, and as Sankofa implies, we must fetch from our past in order to know where we’re going. Acknowledge the past but don’t let it control the future. We need both past and present. We need unity. Going forward in time as the chapters of a book. I hope the day never comes where hope, love, and unity will be intangible as distant fog.
Works Cited Cullum, Jerry. “The Art of The Negro.” In The Eye of The Muses: Selections from the Clark
Atlanta University Art Collection. Clark Atlanta University, 2012, pp. 119-129. Homer, and Stephen Mitchell. The Iliad. New York: Free Press, 2011. Woodruff, Hale A. Muses. 1950. The Art of the Negro, Trevor Arnett Library, Clark Atlanta