Prior to getting into the notion of “black agency” it is important to look into what agency itself is. Agency alludes to the thoughts and actions which people use to convey their individual and independent power, it can be both individual and collective. What contrasts agency is structure, as it is the recurrent patterned arrangements that either influence of limit the choices and opportunities available by shaping thoughts, behavior, experiences, choices and whatnot. To put it in other words, agency is what the people use in order to have independent thoughts while structure is the influence that the outside world has on one’s life course. Both these concepts have an impact on society as their dynamic is constantly evolving while also affecting the individuals that encompass that said society. In the case of “black agency,” African Americans become agents of their rights and their own history — but that has not come at a low cost. For centuries, they have endured racism, discrimination, oppression in addition to being enslaved in the United States.
The Civil War deeply shaped the US into the country that it now is, fought between the Northern states (also known as the Union) and the Southern states (also known as the Confederacy) because of various differences that arose between both sides rising at the beginning of the nineteenth century — reasons why the war broke out include emotions that were present on both sides, viral economic interest was at stake (slavery was very financially beneficial), territorial expansion (as the South wanted to take slavery further down to the southern states and the North wanted to bank on free labor), the issue of state rights (the southerners believed that it was their own right in their state to have slaves and that the govt. should not intervene with their state law) and Lincolns’ election (as no southern state voted for him yet he was still elected so the South saw succession, as the only was to rebel). Slavery was an important issue that sparked the Civil War but it does go deeper than that. “African-Americans had been enslaved in what became the United States since early in the seventeenth century”.
However, it was prior to the Emancipation Proclamation that African-Americans took their history into their own hands and became agents of it through various acts of emancipation both before and during the American Civil War. Acts of self-emancipation included slaves running away from their owners (e.g. Henry “Box” Brown, Fredrick Douglass, Robert Smalls, Harriet Jacobs, William & Ellen Craft…), working for the Union as spies in order to help other runaway slaves escape (e.g. Harriet Tubman) or even through creating the “Underground Railroad” which was a web of secret routes and safe houses that were established during the early to mid nineteenth century so that enslaved African-Americans could escape to various locations that were not apart of the Confederacy. In addition to that, certain slaves that found themselves in the way of Union armies were “refugeed to the interior, south or southwest of Richmond, so that they would not be lost by escape or capture”. Fugitive slaves often came across “slave patrols” which essentially were locals who were sent out to look for them with the objective to return them to their owners. It is important to note that not a lot of slaves tried escaping because of what they would face if they were caught (i.e., severe punishments such as whipping or even death).
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. It proclaimed “all persons held as slaves” inside the Confederacy “are, and henceforward shall be free” but those words did not amount to much as the document was limited in various ways and did not end slavery in the nation. “Lincoln’s proclamation, as has often been noted, freed not a single slave. It applied only to the slaves in territories then beyond the reach of federal authority. It specifically exempted Tennessee and Union-occupied portions of Louisiana and Virginia, and it left slavery in the loyal border states — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri — untouched. Indeed, the Proclamation went no further than the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862, which freed all slaves who entered Union lines professing that their owners were disloyal, as well as slaves who fell under federal control as Union troops occupied Confederate territory”.
African-Americans have for long fought for their liberty and rights on mainly their own, their freedom was obtained through the bias of their collective “black agency”. To this day, African-Americans fight for equal rights and opportunities — although, they now face racism and colorism in a different way. Racism has now become institutional, systemic and is still present in different areas of people’s day to day lives (within employment, education, criminal justice and prosecution, housing, surveillance and healthcare…). As argued by author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his piece for The Atlantic “The Case for Reparations” America has never given reparations nor a full apology for its actions against African-Americans. Not only has America hurt blacks through slavery but also through later events such as “Jim Crow, Southern violence and an incredibly vast array of illegal and crooked ways in which private realtors and the government denied them housing and loans that led the rest of America into being a nation of homeowners”. These events have present consequences on African-Americans as they tie into them having less wealth and being pushed into areas that are often associated with “violence, bad schools, drugs and all sorts of social dysfunction”. Black agency was critical in the social evolution that African-Americans have lived and it still is in many ways and can be illustrated by past movements such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, Black Power, Freedom Now or the Black Panther Party or by present movements as BLM (Black Lives Matter), NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
2) Aaron Douglas’ style has been described as setting “a new visual language detached from traditional European art training and absorbing a distinctive African heritage. His style blended the geometric and angular shapes of Art Deco with the linear rhythm of Art Nouveau; it bore references to African masks and sculptural figures, as well as allusions to African dance” making him one of the prominent leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. “Into Bondage” and “Aspiration” both painted in 1936 for the “Hall of Negro Life” apart of a four piece series for the Texas Centennial Exposition his series depicted the evolution of African American history from slavery (captivity) to what was the present (emancipation).
“Into Bondage” is set in a tropical-oceanic area which can be denoted due to the palm trees and foliage that is seen in the frontground and boats and water that is seen in the background. The middleground portrays a number of silhouettes that are handcuffed and held in captivity, the viewers attention is particularly directed towards to of them. One which is shown looking up at the sky when sends a beam of light through his head and the other which is illustrated with her hands pointed towards the sky. “The man’s elevated form and uplifted head, cut across by a ray of starlight, signal eventual freedom for his race. A woman who raises her face and shackled hands to the same star, her fingers grazing the horizon, also foretells a distant future without slavery. According to Douglas, the star and ray of light, which appear in a number of his paintings, represent the North Star and the divine light of inspiration.” The star in the horizon may be an allusion to the Texan flag, the North Star newspaper published by Fredrick Douglass, or Polaris which slaves used to guide themselves when escaping as “slaves fled northward, hiding by day and moving furtively at night” using it to guide themselves (in what case it could also bring up ideas of emancipation from the state of captivity they were held in).
“Aspiration” is set in a mountainy area in the background on top of which can be seen an industrial city-esque type area, the middleground is composed of three people that are standing on a pedestal next to a globe — each are respectively holding a book, an Erlenmeyer Flask, a straightedge and a compass. The frontground depicts a number of cuffed hands that are held in the air towards those three upper figures. It can be assumed that the three figures in the middleground have emancipated themselves and are foreshadowing the future of other African-Americans through obtaining things that they were deprived from (e.g., an education) and pointing the way to the future. The contrast between the foreground and the middleground shows the difficulties that slaves had to in order to become emancipated and free and the contrast between the middleground and the background illustrates what is to come and the social, political and educational hills (mountains) that were climbed post-emancipation. The star is once more present in this painting (see potential meaning in previous paragraph).
The themes of captivity and emancipation are present in these paintings through different symbols, undertones and