Oh Freedom! Romare Bearden

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
A lithograph of a man in the foreground, a ship in the middle ground and the country of Africa in the background.

Romare Bearden (1912–1988), Roots, 1977, lithograph, 24 x 18 in., Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA New York, NY, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum purchase, 2010.3.3

Student Questions

1. Bearden first made this artwork by arranging paper cutouts to form a collage. How many distinct cutout shapes can you identify in the artwork? 

2. What do you think the shapes represent or mean? 

3. What does Roots tell us about the connection between Africa and African Americans in the United States?

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About This Artwork

Romare Bearden created Roots as a collage before it was reproduced as a lithograph. One can easily imagine the artist composing the image, moving each of its shapes around until perfectly arranged and then pasting them in place. Yet Roots remains dynamic because its vibrant pieces don't fit together easily. A black man's face is silhouetted against a map of Africa, although their profiles are not an exact match. His chest protrudes next to the curved bow of a slave ship filled with human cargo, and his stoic bust hovers above the rest of his body, which is dressed expressively in an American flag. The tensions between these bold shapes carried special meaning in the 1970s for the many African Americans who were interested in exploring their origins. As Bearden's image suggests, this conflicting heritage—an ancestral African homeland, a long history of enslavement and oppression, and a patriotic commitment to American ideals—plays an important part in shaping African American identity.

Bearden created Roots when TV Guide asked him for a cover illustration that would mark the national broadcast of a miniseries based on Alex Haley's best-selling book of 1976, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. This drama traces successive generations of Haley's family beginning with Kunte Kinte, originally from The Gambia, who was captured and brought to America as a slave. While Bearden's work advertised the broadcast, it is effective because it also refers to other historical events and trends. The flag T-shirt, for example, suggests the bicentennial of American independence, which was celebrated in 1976. At the same time, the map of Africa, which takes center stage, evoked racial pride and unity and, for some black nationalists, symbolized independence from America. By including contemporary, often conflicting, references to historical origins in an image meant for a wide audience, Bearden's work highlights a black history and identity that were becoming widely valued and debated.

About This Artist

Romare Bearden (born Charlotte, NC 1912–died New York City 1988)

A photograph of Romare Bearden.

Unidentified photographer, Romare Bearden in Harlem, about 1950. Photographic print, 26 x 21 cm. Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Raised in the rural South, Harlem, and Pittsburgh, Romare Bearden experienced diverse facets of African American life that later emerged as subjects in his work: the Jim Crow South, the music and art of the Harlem Renaissance, and the migration of African American workers to northern cities. Upon graduating from New York University with a degree in education, Bearden took classes at the Art Students League with George Grosz and began a job as a caseworker for the New York City Department of Social Services, a career he would continue for much of his life. During World War II, Bearden temporarily left New York to serve in an all-black regiment. In 1950, with support from the GI Bill, he traveled to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Back in New York in the 1960s, Bearden became increasingly involved in combining art and political activism. For example, he worked to support minority artists by directing the Harlem Cultural Council in 1964 and by helping found The Studio Museum in Harlem and Cinque Gallery. Working with other African American artists in 1963, he also helped form Spiral, a collective that set out to explore the relationship between artistic practice and the Civil Rights movement. One of Bearden’s ideas was to work collaboratively on artworks, so he suggested collage-making. Although the other artists didn’t share his enthusiasm for collage, his artworks in that medium, composed mostly of magazine and newspaper cuttings, and his “projections,” created from enlarged photocopies of his collages, eventually won him wide recognition. His diverse interests, which included art, theater, history, and literature, drew him to experiment with many different artistic styles and media, including music performance, costume making, and writing. In addition to his art, the books he produced—The Painter's Mind (1953), Six Black Masters of American Art (1972), and A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993, posthumously), in particular—helped increase recognition of African American artists and artistic traditions.

Related Material

Slaves shackles and Kunta Kinte's manacles.

Slave shackles, probably West Africa, pre-1863. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Kunta Kinte's manacles, 1977. Smithsonian Institution Collections, National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Shackles like the ones shown above, which date from before the 1860s, serve as a reminder of the horrific experiences of men and women who were enslaved in West Africa and endured the middle passage as they were shipped across the Atlantic. The 1970s miniseries Roots dramatized the experience of enslavement for a national audience. Actor LeVar Burton wore these prop manacles (below) during his portrayal of Kunta Kinte, an African youth brought to America as a slave in the 1700s. Although padded for the actor’s comfort, Burton’s gripping portrayal of slavery and the middle passage helped viewers grapple with this harrowing and often forgotten aspect of American history.

Afrika Bombaataa's coat.

Afrika Bambaataa’s coat. Smithsonian Institution Collections, National Museum of American History, Behring Center

In an effort to link contemporary cultural expression to African roots, Afrika Bambaataa designed and wore this jacket that is adorned with symbols of Africa and Back to Africa movements. Bambaataa is often cited as an originator of hip hop music and culture. In the 1970s he began organizing park jams and break-dancing contests in the Bronx, New York. In the 1980s, Bambaataa formed the Universal Zulu Nation, designed to draw youth away from gang violence, championing instead some of the characteristics of the Black Power movement, such as black pride and Afrocentrism. He mixed these elements with newer audio technologies and techniques, such as turntabling and DJ-ing, to help create a new sound and youth culture that is infused with some of the political and goals from earlier black freedom movements.

Media - 2006.24.5 - SAAM-2006.24.5_1 - 67164

Loïs Mailou Jones, Moon Masque, 1971. Oil and collage on canvas, 41 x 29 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 2006.24.5

For many African American artists, the renewed interest in Africa in the 1970s supported ongoing efforts to incorporate African culture into their work. In the late 1960s, after studying in Paris and living and working in Haiti, the artist Loïs Mailou Jones won a grant from Howard University to interview African artists working in the United States and abroad. After completing interviews in eleven countries, Jones produced Moon Masque, which combines symbols from West African sources into a brightly patterned, abstract composition.