Our guest blogger today is Modupe Labode, Assistant Professor of History and Museum Studies and a Public Scholar of African American History and Museums at IUPUI. She writes about the current exhibition, "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial."
When I first saw this piece, it stood out because it was so different from the dense thickness of Thornton Dial’s other works. The series of doors are almost playful and are painted in green, blue, and white. There is even a welcome mat before one of the doors. The work brings to mind the fabled tradition of Southern hospitality, in which no one is made to feel a stranger. Going to the other side of the work I was faced with a tangle of raw wood, wires, nails, boards, and rags. Two strange red and white figures creep amidst the disorder. It is only when I returned to the other side of the work that I saw an ominous pool of red, seemingly oozing from behind the doors.
Thornton Dial named this work Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City. The doors evoke a famous scene in civil rights history. On June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace addressed journalists gathered at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Wallace was a skilled political showman who championed white supremacy and denounced federal interference in state affairs, including enforcement of civil rights laws. In his inaugural address a few months earlier, the governor called Alabama the “Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland” and promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” On the June day when two African American students were to register for classes, George Wallace showily denounced the federal court order desegregating the university, delivered a speech denouncing the federal actions, and then stood solemnly in front of the doors to an auditorium. Wallace’s actions immediately became known as the stand at the schoolhouse door. The students ultimately registered for classes and one of them, Vivian Malone, became the first African American graduate of the University of Alabama.
In her essay in the Hard Truths exhibition catalogue, curator Joanne Cubbs describes the tangled back view of Everyone’s Welcome in Peckerwood City as evoking a horror show. Cubbs words resonated with me because when I read about life in Jim Crow America, “horror show” often seems to be the term which best captures the trials that everyday black people endured. What other term explains a society in which ordinary activities—taking the bus, walking home, or going to Sunday school—could suddenly end in humiliation, torture, rape, or disappearance? In the face of such horror, many whites were complacent or confused, while others endorsed the violent, racist social order. When African Americans organized and protested against injustice, some whites counseled patience, advice which led Martin Luther King, Jr. to write Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Thornton Dial had his own encounters with horror. He told Joanne Cubbs about an incident which informed his work Joe Louis (1998). When he was a young man living and working in Bessemer, Alabama, his car stalled on a rainy evening. Two policemen, instead of offering assistance, attacked him. Thornton Dial recalled, “I thought that I had help until they said, ‘You’re under arrest,’ and started to beat me up. The police are supposed to help you, but they beat me bad. . . I thought they were going to kill me.”
The title, Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City, strikes me as especially acidic. I’ve heard the term “peckerwood” used without irony only a few times in my life and it was usually said by African Americans who were old enough to have been adults in the 1940s or 1950s. They employed the label contemptuously to describe a white person who despised black people. They had lived through a time when using that word to a white person’s face would have meant risking one’s health or life. Thornton Dial surely knew the weight of that word when he named his work.
Thornton Dial’s work is too rich to reduce to historical illustrations or examples of how the past influences the present. But it is evident that Thornton Dial deploys history with the same vision and the same sure and delicate hand that he uses when transforming found objects into art.