More about Untitled (Black Like Me #2)

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I know what you’re thinking. These are just words on a wall. Words can’t be art. They’re just… words. But open up a bit.

Words, like the pictures depicted in a painting, are made up from our imagination as well. They’re just as much a form of expression as paint on the canvas. Obama knows this. That’s why he had Black Like Me #2 hanging up in the White House. And when Barry O signs off on something, you know it’s the real deal. But I know, you still probably don’t get the hype. So if you’re sitting, stand up. And if you’re standing up, sit down. It’s about to get crazy.

Born in the Bronx in 1960, conceptual artist Glenn Ligon grew up as the Civil Rights movement took the country by storm. And if you look at works like Untitled (I Am A Man), and Untitled: Four Etchings [A-D], you can tell it had a profound effect on him. In a number of his paintings, he uses letter stencils to paint the borrowed words of some of America’s most influential writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and James Baldwin, in a way that highlights their interpretation of the black image. It’s like he’s trying to make the perfect beat, so he samples a little bit from here and there to enhance his song. The words are always taken out of context and exist on their own, often repeated over and over again. The repetitive nature helps turn the quote into an anticipated experience, much like the chorus of a song. But instead of representing catchy lyrics that we look forward to, it conveys the dark cyclical nature of what it feels like to be black.

Black Like Me #2 is one of Ligon’s strongest examples of sampling literature. “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence.” This short quote may not look like anything at first glance, but I guarantee you, it’s everything. The line, and even the name of the painting, is derived from the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. In the book, the author cuts his hair, and darkens his skin with Vitiligo pills as he goes on a journey into the South to get first-hand experience on what it feels like to be black.

Don’t rub your eyes, you read that right. The book is written from Griffin’s perspective, and it’s all 100% true. Homie black-faced it to combat racism. Talk about doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Going to such lengths to understand someone’s struggle when you can just talk to them might seem a bit over the top when you think about it. But feeling the need to do so just shows you how divided we were just a little over 50 years ago. And you know no one would have listened to a black person complaining about how they were treated. They listened because it happened to a white man.

This ominous quote is packed with so much weight and symbolism. ‘The Griffin I had been’ is a reference to the author’s last name. But it could also be alluding to the mythical figure as well. In mythology, a griffin is an amalgam of a Lion and an Eagle. Or in other words: The king of the jungle and the queen of the sky. It’s an ancient sign of power that old civilizations loved to replicate in art. Both John Howard’s name and this creature of legend are paralleled in their desirability and power. The white man is the epitome of privilege, and a griffin is a symbol of strength.

But the part of the painting that really drives the point home, is the descent of the quote into chaotic darkness. As the words continue to repeat themselves, the black paint doesn’t stay within the lines of the stencil, and it eventually engulfs the words into the abyss. As the quote itself suggests, the weight of being black in the South is taking its toll on Griffin. And the painting provides a visual representation of what that looks and feels like. It’s so simple, yet so effective.

When art inspires art, we all win. Black Like Me #2 was made in 1992, 31 years after the book came out. And it’s an understatement to call it a well of information and inspiration. Its existence is strong on its own, but it calls you, the viewer, to reach back to the book where the quote originated, and the era it was written, to educate yourself on one of the darkest times in American history that we’re still feeling the ripples of today.



Comments (5)

Lorna Wright

Very powerful. Thank you!


I'm not sure that 'when barry O signs off on something, you know it's the read deal', but I enjoyed seeing this artwork for the first time on Sartle, and the article rocks.


I think President Obama has excellent taste

pogo agogo

I'm a big fan of any cultural recommendations the Obamas give


......holy shit this is deep. I feel like this painting could be turned into a song. Or like a simple voice clip. I can feel the weight, and while I missed it at first, the background you gave is pretty crazy. Nice job man.