From the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement to the wider celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day, many Americans are reexamining the history of race and oppression — and how it informs and imbues our institutions today.

In many ways, the stories most of us of have been told about that history are inadequate, even misleading. A new exhibit at the Colby College Museum of Art can be seen as a small part of effort to provide a fuller, richer account.

The museum recently acquired 15 silkscreen prints by American artist Jacob Lawrence depicting the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary leader. The public will be able to see the prints in person as soon as it is safe to do so; until then, they are available online.

Through both artist and subject, the prints tell stories that are often left out of history class.

L’Ouverture was the son of an African prince captured by slavers. He himself was born into slavery in 1743 in France’s Saint-Domingue colony, now Haiti.

Saint-Domingue’s sugar and coffee plantations, some of the most lucrative in the world, were built on the exceptionally brutal treatment of slaves. As part of the effort to justify that treatment, and thus keep the money flowing, government officials and slave owners created myths of racial hierarchy, the same dehumanizing ideas that were used to rationalize slavery in the United States.

Though given his freedom earlier in his life, L’Ouverture, then 48,  joined the slave revolts that erupted on Saint-Domingue in 1791. An inspirational leader, he rose to become the major political and military figure on the colony. He died in a French jail in 1803, just before the Haitian army’s won final victory over France, completing the only successful slave revolt in recorded history.

L’Ouverture is a fitting subject for Lawrence, perhaps the most highly regarded African American artist of his time.

Lawrence was a rapt student of Black history. His colorful abstract style documented the African American experience at a time when few others were, covering figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as life in Harlem and the civil rights movement.

His best-known series is “The Migration of the Negro,” created 1940-41, portraying the flight of millions of African Americans from the segregated South to the industrial North in the first half of the 20th century, changing the country.

Both these chapters of history tell us a lot, not only about where we’ve been but about the forces and ideas that push and motivate us today.

Unfortunately, like so many important and telling parts of history, they are often pushed aside for gauzy stories that comfort more than they inform.

It’s hard to confront the realities of chattel slavery or the Jim Crow South, and how they still matter today. It’s easy to pass over Black and indigenous heroes when history is written by those who don’t value them.

But it is important that we see our history, good and bad, with clear eyes. It’s the only way toward a better future.

 

 


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