Untitled (I Am a Man)
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Glenn Ligon's I Am a Man is the 1960’s equivalent of the Black Lives Matter movement today.

Much of Ligon’s work recontextualizes narratives of slavery and civil rights for a modern audience and this piece is no exception. This work directly references the signs carried by 1,300 striking African American sanitation workers during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike. After two workers were crushed to death under a malfunctioning truck, their fellow coworkers took to the streets to protest low wages (they were making $1.60 an hour) and unsafe working conditions. The workers appropriated the slogan “I Am a Man” in reference to a quotation from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. Per usual, it didn’t take long for the police to decide that their only reasonable line of action was to mace and tear gas the nonviolent demonstrators, pushing the protesters further into the realm of martyrdom. Martin Luther King Jr. soon caught wind of this and addressed the crowd of protestors and civil rights activists, applauding their dedication to equal rights. MLK was assassinated on the balcony of his Memphis hotel the very next day. (By whom is up for debate.) 

Trash piling up for two months on the streets and the death of the most important Civil Rights activist in history was not enough for the mayor to accept the workers’ cry for a union. It was not until President Johnson stepped in and approved the work union that the protests ceased.

Ligon first saw this poster when on a high school field trip to his local congressman’s office. While he had no idea what the image was referencing at the time, it stuck with him. It wasn't until fifteen years later that he figured out what to do with the image that infiltrated his life during his teenage years. He must replicate it, and it is this very painting that Ligon believes has informed pretty much all of his art since. Today, Ligon is best known for his text based work, and it was this piece that was his breakthrough into that style of art.



  1. Walsh, Meghan. "From 'I Am a Man' to 'Black Lives Matter'" OZY. July 27, 2015. Accessed June 05, 2017.
  2. "Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike (1968)." King Encyclopedia . Accessed June 05, 2017.
  3. "National Gallery of Art." Ligon, Glenn. Accessed June 05, 2017.
  4. "Untitled (I Am a Man)." National Gallery of Art. Accessed June 05, 2017.