I went to Washington Elementary School for four years. Each teacher was good to all the children. They gave us ABC’s; writing; arithmetic; reading; the Golden Rule; devotion; and that they loved us, God loved us, and we was important as human beings. In the fourth grade, 1954, I transferred to Center Street Elementary, and I graduated in 1957. In the African schools in Birmingham, the books was hand-me-down from the white school. The books was in bad shape – pages torn out, black marks over lines in books. With all of this, the African teachers still put out a well-qualified student that know who he was and where he was going. God was with us.
All three of my mother’s sons served in the defending of America in the U.S. Army. We have joined a long line of Africans that have put their life on the line to come back to America and be treated as less than a human being. We as Africans have given America all that we can give, but there is no love in America for the African. God will have to judge America, for man’s heart has hardened in America. May the Lord have mercy on America.
I had to learn a lot of jobs through the years - But my body had started to go bad. My eyes wasn’t no good anymore. I had got asbestos dust in my eyes back in the ’60s and’70s. They operated on one of them, and wanted to do the other one but I wouldn’t let them. It’s like salt and sand in that eye all the time. I got glaucoma and there ain’t no cure for it. So I finally had to come off work.
When I heard that Birmingham was going to build a civil rights museum, that gave me what you call a stepping stone. From what I was hearing, the main players in the freedom struggle, the foot soldiers, was left out of the story. We need the leaders, but without the foot soldiers the struggle and fight can’t be won. But where is the recognition for the soldiers?
And I thought about the journey we have made through America for four hundred years. God gave me the vision of art, to link that four-hundred-years journey of Africans in America, link that truth to the children who are turning away from us, and I decided to name it the “African Village in America.” It tries to tell the story of that life we have spent here.
The whole idea handed down to me by God is to use that which has been discarded, just as we as a people have been discarded made invisible. That what is invisible, thrown away, could be made into something so it demonstrates that even what gets thrown away, with a spirit in it can survive and grow. A spirit of all the people that has touched and felt that material has stayed in the material. God supplies me with what is needed, what other people throw away as junk, what I find on streets, and in flea markets, outlet stores, Goodwill, Salvation Army. God gives me the messages to go on the art, in the African Village in America. Thank you, God, for the faith and vision, and the dream to be a worker in this vineyard built by your hand, in love and peace, to open thy children’s eyes.
Since about ’92 or ’93 I also been making pieces about art, about subjects I want to express. I got this idea of what you could call “pacifying” people with pieces I put together that are not intended for my African Village. I put together what are “message pieces,” ideas I get that relate to the ideas in the yard but don’t belong in the yard—ideas about life, about people relating to other people, and about nature.
I been thinking about where art come from. I say it is a gift of God, going back to Genesis, in the beginning, when God created heaven and earth. God was the first artist. Genesis 1:16: God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars, also. Genesis 1:31: God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
I thank God for giving man the gifts for art. Without art, children have no dream into the future.
Art is the one way man can have a common thread that would connect the hearts of all people. Art is for universal understanding. There is no “insider” or “outsider” art, because art is one. All that we know, all that we have been, can be explained in art.
We as people of Africa have a story to tell about a journey of four hundred years here in America. Kidnapped from the motherland of Africa, placed in chains and shackles, uprooted from family into slavery. Fifty-four thousand shiploads of men, women, children—three hundred packed into the bottom of a ship for a trip across the Atlantic Ocean to America. Of one hundred million African people taken into the Western Hemisphere, seventy-five million missing—only twenty-five million made it alive in the Middle Passage to America. What happened to the seventy-five million missing Africans?
God created all men equal. The American Declaration of Independence, passed by Congress July 4, 1776, states that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America by the hand of John Hancock. How was slavery allowed in a great country like America, with such powerful words and a belief in God? My African ancestors that made it to the shores of America was royalty—kings and queens—and tradesmen, skilled craftsmen, artists, farmers. The Africans had a high-culture society and a very complex civilization. The African culture is over seven thousand years old. The Nubian people of Egypt: Where civilization began. Timbuktu of the Kingdom of Mali, with its university and scholars: A city of wisdom.
Africa have one to two thousand different dialects and languages. All of this was taken from our African ancestors at the shores of America. We was forced in chains and shackles and naked, with nothing but God to protect us and deliver us from this agony, misery, and death. We had to learn the language of our oppressor. We had to learn the culture of our oppressor. In this we lost our African language, our culture, our family, our comb for our hair, our drum for our communication. We lost our pride and dignity. We became the property of our oppressor, denied human rights for over four hundred years, treated in America like an animal, not as an African, a human being, a brother or sister, or a child of God.
But we Africans are going to make it in America and become full Americans, by the will of God and by giving our best work, each one of us. I give my art and the messages that go with it. Another person give labor, or the preparation of food, or writing, or the teaching of little children. God instruct us not to quit, not to break. To survive is to win, you know. An old oak tree don’t die, you know. It bends to show its strength. Each bend that you see, if you could look inside it you could see what it went through. The last got to bend to the end.
We are a beautiful race that cannot be ignored. We have went through tribulation, but from that experience we learn patience and develop the strength of hope. When you take all the fruit off a tree, and there’s one piece left, it is the sweetest piece because it have been through the most to survive. If God choose to bring us along last, we will come last. Something have to come last, to be the best.
I look at our book Souls Grown Deep now, the book that tells our story, a story that cannot be buried now, and I understand the role that me and every other African art maker play. We are like inpidual drops of water. Everything got to start with a drop of water. A river got to start with a drop of water. You know how a river do, don’t you? When it make its mind up, ain’t nothing going to stop it, don’t make no difference what gets put in the way. Once that river starts to flow, it will go all the way down to the sea. Our river is starting to flow now.
Taken from interviews and correspondence with Joe Minter by William Arnett in 1998-2001.
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