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Voice Of Houstons Past Essay, Research Paper

For most of American history, African-Americans have been considered and

treated as inferiors. Their folksongs and tales have been benignly looked

upon as harmless, meaningless expressions of a dull-witted race whose only

contribution to American life was a strong back and a weak mind. Even

after the Civil War, the ingrown prejudices continued to relegate the

freedmen to the bottom rung of a strict caste ladder. Their folklore was

repeatedly ignored or belittled. Only since the coming of black awareness,

pioneered by men like W. Dubois and Frederick Douglas, has the African

American community realized that their culture is uniquely American and

singularly important to the understanding and establishment of the

American cultural and artistic scene. It is one of the few elements of

their heritage that they can look back on and recognize as valuable in

America’s development. This is the essence of the black folksongs,

stories, and art; they fill a void and force recognition of the African

American contribution. These superstitions and folklore from the past

demonstrate the influences wielded upon African Americans of today, as

well as pave the way for a new form of folklore, which is told through


In order to effectively illustrate the progression and correlation of

early African American folklore and the emergence of a new breed of

artist, a specific group of artist all utilizing the same type of art form

will be discussed. Therefore, the focus of this paper will be on recent

African American artist in Houston, Texas; all of whom utilize

place-specific art to convey their images and messages. Before discussing

the current art movement, it is vital to understand the history of the

superstitions and folklore which are the inspiration for Houston’s

place-specific art.

A Brief History of African American Superstition and Folklore Since their

arrival on American soil, African Americans have contributed to our

collective culture. Their songs, poems, stories, spirituals, and proverbs,

while at times reinforcing the white theory of supremacy, gave them a

foundation of identity that was passed from generation to generation. The

ghost stories and superstitions are probably the best known examples of

early black culture. This is because white men used them as a means to

prove the black’s innate inferiority to whites. They ignored the obvious

fact; all cultures posses similar superstitions, even their own.

The problem in collecting and evaluating black folklore is the

misinterpretation and lack of understanding of early black dialects. “We

must read the transcriptions with some care and occasionally wonder what

the white man did when they were confronted by sounds strange to their

ears; some tried to transcribe the actual sound, but others, assuming

mispronunciation made editorial corrections…and some expecting alien

sounds misinterpreted and misheard.”1 The innate prejudices of many

recorders helped to distort the materials. Still the black dialect

presented a road block to communication between the races. The notion of a

nation within a nation arose from this language barrier. The dialect that

evolved within the segregated nation was a combination of West African

languages and English, and became known as the plantation dialect.2 It was

with this misunderstood dialect that African Americans passed on their


Black superstition encompassed many themes. It covered procedures to

insure good luck, healthy children, harmony, good crops, and a myriad of

other situations. The theme of luck was the most prevalent superstition,

namely the attainment of good fortune and the avoidance of bad luck. For

example, a pepper bush in the yard brings good luck3; it is good luck for

a buzzard to light on your house on a Monday4; and, if you are deeply

depressed in spirits, it is a sure sign that you will hear good news.5

Additionally, the avoidance of bad luck was a mainstay of their beliefs.

They held to an inordinate number of rules that were intended to prevent

misfortune. Everything from fishing rods, old gloves, spiders, nose

bleeds, and the familiar black cat were all precursors of an ill-fate.

Perhaps the preponderance of luck-omens and slogans familiar today grew

out of early black superstitions. Their existence was difficult enough

without added misfortune. Any means they could utilize to ward off bad

luck was not to be ignored.

Another aspect of their superstition concerned agriculture. Naturally, the

bulk of blacks only knew the routine associated with their rural

surroundings. Their primary job was to work the land. So it follows that

they would form superstitions concerning nature. Weather was an indicator

of the future, as were seeds and farm animals. When shelling butterbeans

for planting, throw the hulls in the road. If they are burned, your crop

will be poor; if fed to the cows, the stock will eat your vines; if thrown

in the trash, not only will your crop be poor, but your stock will not

reproduce and your wife will not bear children.6

The pattern that emerges is that African Americans believed in nature as

an indicator of luck. They felt that God did not control the flow of

events; it was man himself who brought either good or bad luck upon


The question of superstition is not whether blacks should be chided for

these beliefs, but that it was a viable means of communicating folklore. J

Mason Brewer asserts in his introduction to American Negro Folklore that

wherever blacks lived, superstitions existed. While there may have been

places where groups of blacks had no tales, songs or rhymes in their

living tradition, they always had superstition; it was omnipresent in all

black communities.7 Superstition remained a two-edged sword; it carried

their culture ably, but also added to the prejudice held by whites.

Prior to the Civil War, Houston had a slave population greater than or

equal to Mobile and New Orleans.8 Therefore, these superstitions and

folklore played a large role in the development of African American

culture in Houston, and they remain prevalent themes in the place-specific

art of present day African American artist in Houston.

Place-specific Art Before the artist and their works can be discussed, it

is necessary to define and discuss the concept of place-specific art. The

term place-specific art was coined by Lucy R. Lippard in Lure of the Local

to encompass art that reveals new depths of a place, to engage the viewer

or inhabitant. According to Lippard, place-specific art would have an

organic connection to its locale and cannot be looked at primarily as an

object outside of the viewer/inhabitant’s life. It must take root outside

of conventional art venues and would not be accessible only to those

enticed by publicity and fashion. It should become at least temporarily

part of, or a criticism of, the day-to-day environment , making places

mean more to those who live or spend time their.9

Since the birth of Houston, African Americans have generally had it better

than other African Americans around the country. This is even true of

pre-Civil War slaves, who enjoyed more free time and compensation than

rural slaves.10 But the truth then, as it is now, is that African

Americans have had to struggle to find a voice that expressed their

culture and heritage. Once again, the white majority’s lack of

understanding the black dialect made this an especially arduous task Where

early slaves used folklore and superstitions to pass along their life

stories, modern artist have used public art as their voice. And this voice

tells the stories of the past, as well as the struggles faced by African

Americans today. As the art shows, these struggles are not too dissimilar

from those of the past. Their art cares about, challenges, involves, and

consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting community

and environment.11

The Artist and the Art The Art Park If place-specific art is supposed to

be an organic extension of the place it resides in or on, then Houston is

home to some of the most representational forms of this type of art. There

are hundreds of African American artist in Houston practicing this art

form. Some of these artist are hardly known, even to the models who serve

as inspiration to the art. Joggers, cyclists, and power-walkers using the

hike-and-bike trails beneath the Sabine St. bridge along the shores of

Buffalo Bayou pretend not to notice Bobby, the Korean War vet and former

“C&W” steel guitarist who lives beneath the bridge. Bobby’s home is in the

heart of Houston’s Art Park.12 If the passers-by do not take notice of

Bobby and the other denizens of the Art Park, they surely do not see Karen

Garrett-Coon’s Home Sweet Home directly across the bayou from Bobby’s

shelter. It is a life-size fiberglass work representing the dwelling of a

homeless person. Coon claims she used Bobby’s home as her model. Bobby

claims he has never noticed it. If art can truly mirror life, it can never

exactly replicate the reality; the real life remains more compelling than

the artist could ever hope to recapture. Bobby’s camp is far richer and

moving than Coon’s interpretation of it.13

The Art Park was one of the earliest examples of place-specific art in

Houston, allowing African American artists an opportunity to enhance and

beautify a seldom used stretch of Buffalo Bayou. This park also made this

highly symbolic art form available to many people who might not other wise

attempt to view it. Additionally, the park has provided an outlet for some

African American artist to visually represent important elements of their

cultural heritage to the predominately white population that works

downtown and utilizes the hike-and-bike trails of the park.

Project Row Houses Artist have historically been leaders in urban

reclamation, from neighborhoods such as Paris’ Montmarte in the 1920’s and

New York’s SoHo in the 1970’s. Houston’s artist have attempted to reclaim

a neighborhood in historic Third Ward. These eight little shotgun houses

are Houston’s greatest example of place-specific art that gives a booming

voice to the residents of this once dilapidated neighborhood. Not only are

these little wood-frame structures a source of pride for those who live

amongst them every day, but they offer hope and understanding to all who

enter or view them.

To African Americans, row houses are a sign of freedom, introduced to the

United States by freed Haitians in the 19th century. Many of these

closely-assembled homes were built in clusters in what became known as

Freedman’s Town.

This 22-house compound-turned-art was almost demolished, which would have

led to the further decline of the area. But instead, African American

artist Rick Lowe rescued the historic structures and committed to

transform them into a vital community resource for their primarily African

American neighborhood.14 The project has been aptly named Project Row

House, and houses installations by eight artist for periods of five

months. Each artist receives a $2,000 stipend, and the house is prepared

by seven sponsoring individuals and organizations, according to each

artist’s specifications. Annette Lawrence, a former professor of art at

the University of Houston-Downtown, was one of the first artist to set up

shop when the Project opened in 1994. Lawrence used stones to create

murals depicting and representing African American folklore. “The stones

have a dual importance in my work. They are the medium to create the art,

but they are also representational of the labor endured by African

Americans and their ancestors. Slaves were used to begin the construction

of this City of Concrete, and African Americans still sweat and toil to

maintain it.”15

The project is place-specific, as it was not created for the sake of art,

instead it too what-was, and transformed it into art. One artist, Tracy

Hicks, passed out disposable cameras to the local residents, and told them

to take pictures of their daily lives. After developing the film, she

placed pictures in glass canning jars and placed them on shelves

throughout the house. Thus did the artist and the community collaborate.

They not only created the art, they were the art.16 Even though there is

still often a language barrier between African Americans and other groups,

words are not necessary to understand the stories told by this project.

Other local residents have been inspired by the project as well. Bennie

Boyd works on his art outside his nearby home, creating elaborate,

architecturally interesting churches using nothing but match-sticks. Mr.

Charles Payne continues carving walking sticks from fallen branches, and

is quick to show off the letter he received from Lyndon B. Johnson,

thanking him for a stick. And of course there is Earnestine W. Courtney,

known throughout the Third Ward as Miss Courtney. She continues passing

folklore down to future generations using the old oral traditions of her


The Project has managed to transcend art and become a vital source of

community pride, reminding everyone who sees them of the legacy of their

earliest residents. Seven more shotgun houses are homes for unwed teenage

mothers. Five other houses are used for other services, such as a day-care

center. Lowe’s vision of creating a community center that would combine

art with social action was the culmination of the efforts of many people.

Funded by government arts grants, private foundations and corporate

donations, including a $62,000 grant from the National Endowment of Arts,

the project has garnered national acclaim.17

Pillars of the Community The Art Park was the beginning of a fifteen year

plan to renovate the Buffalo Bayou waterfront. The most recent

contribution to the renovation is similar to the Art Park and Project Row

House in that it is the collective work of many urban residents and its

placement is as relevant as its content. The pillars are seven

70-foot-high pillars located on the otherwise barren walls of the Wortham

Center. The Pillars of the Community are a collection of drawings that

illustrate seven aspects of Houston’s history- agriculture, energy,

medicine, manufacturing, philanthropy, technology, and transportation. The

drawings were done by local inner-city school children who were born in

1986, the year of Texas’ sesquicentennial, and the name of the park that

the pillars loom above. The children’s drawings were translated into

laser-cut designs on stainless-steel plates, from which the pillars are

constructed. Several of the pillar themes are similar to themes of early

African American folklore and superstition, such as agriculture.

The pillars were conceived by Houston-born artist Mel Chin. While the

artist is not African American, many of the contributing children are. And

many of their drawings clearly depict their African American heritage.

Once again, ordinary Houston citizens have become artist, and some have

even become art, as pictures they drew of themselves adorn the pillars.

The pillars will be lighted each night, serving as beacons to the park.

Not only do the pillars light up the park, but they illuminate all who

view them. Imagine the pride of the contributors when they stand before

the pillars twenty years from now, and point out their art to their own

children. The tradition of passing along folklore will be continued.18

Juneteenth Place-specific art is not always represented by physical art

works. Such is the case of Houston’s annual Juneteenth celebration. On

June 19, 1865- ten weeks after Confederate soldiers surrendered at

Appomattox, Union General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston and

proclaimed the freedom of Texas slaves. Spontaneous freedom celebrations


In 1979, with the passing of House Bill 1016, Texas became the first state

to honor African Americans with a holiday. Juneteenth is a two week

festival consisting of a blues festivals, arts and crafts, a Gospel

Extravaganza, and a Freedom Festival. This is a time when African

Americans can gather, be proud of their heritage, and continue passing

down stories of their ancestors. During Junteenth celebrations there is an

emphasis on the Community Artist Collectives, which displays works by

local black artist.19

John Biggers The art works mentioned above- the Art Park, Project Row

Houses, Pillars of the Community, and Juneteenth all share one common

element: they are all art works created by a community. It that regard,

they serve as a binding thread amongst the people who contributed to them.

These place-specific arts enhance the communities they reside in by

representing the stories of their collective past, as well as their

continued struggle to find a voice that will not be misunderstood, but

instead will reveal a pride of heritage and culture.

But any discussion of African American artist from Houston would be

incomplete without including the story and art of John Biggers. John

Biggers has dedicated his life to creating art that is meaningful. His is

renowned for his murals and his emphasis on African American culture. He

was also one of the first African American artists to study and live in

West Africa and to bring back images of African culture that were positive

and personal, and accurate.20

Biggers was born in racially divided Gastonia, N.C. and began shaping and

drawing things from mud beneath his house from the time he was a child.

After receiving a formal art education in Hampton, VA., Biggers began to

see his art “not primarily as an individual expression of talent, but as a

responsibility to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people.”21

Biggers moved to Houston for several reasons. One was the proximity to

Mexico, with its rich tradition of muralists. He felt that blacks in

Houston had recognition from the community at large, but mostly he ”

wanted to get involved with and attempt to express the lifestyle and

spiritual aspirations of the black people. The richness of it was here.”22

But while Biggers’ works were clearly about African American history and

culture, he has also captured the essence of one species in one world. His

portraits of African American women are portraits of all women, just as

his images of black men at work and play bring to mind the Russian miner

and the Australian ranch hand. John Biggers’ images are distinct, yet he

will not permit them to be distinct from other humans.23

Biggers murals are a magnificent example of place-specific art. Salt

Marsh, a mural dedicated to the University of Houston-Downtown in 1997, is

a symbolic landscape that weaves patterns and symbols based on African

myths with the human and animal inhabitants of the salt marsh that existed

near the university before Houston’s founding. This mural takes on new

dimensions of place-specific art for Biggers. Not only does the mural

depict what once stood in its place, but it is an educational tool in a

place of learning. But more than that, the art truly belongs to the

students. Students were able to watch the artist slowly and patiently

construct the mural, layer by layer. Biggers never seemed too busy to stop

and explain the symbolism of a particular image, or the meaning of the

entire work. Often times Biggers would halt his labor to entertain

questions from inner-city school children on a field-trip. Two students

were honored by being able to contribute their own original sketches and

paintings to the mural. Thus the students had become part of the art once

again.24 Through his legacy of art, Biggers has been able to change images

of poverty into perceptions of honest, simple dignity. “Individual life is

very short, ” he says, “All things rise and fall, live and die. But if we

agree the spirit does not die, that it reinhabits the world, time takes a

different dimension.25

Houston has led the way in developing a new form of art, which is

sensitive to its surroundings. Projects such as the Art Park, Project Row

Houses, Juneteenth, the Pillars of the Community, and the murals of John

Biggers have given African Americans a new voice to rejoice in their

heritage as they pass along folklore from generations ago. But just as art

reflects real life, there is still a long way to go. Houston is the fourth

largest city in the United States with a rich and storied heritage of

African American contributions to the evolution of the city. The nearly 30

percent black population constitutes the South’s largest. Yet Houston does

not have a permanent African American museum. 26But if you listen hard

enough, and keep your eyes open, you might hear the voices of the past,

reflected in the art that you touch, walk on, walk past, and walk through,

sometimes without ever noticing that you may be a part of the art

yourself. A permanent museum would be a well deserved and needed amenity

to Houston. Maybe it will be the next step that helps give voice to

Houston’s African American residents, artist.

1 Bruce Jackson, ed., The Negro and his Folklore, (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1967), p. xvii.

2 Henry D. Spalding, ed., Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1972), p.502.

3 J. Mason Brewer, American Negro Folklore (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), p. 294.

4 Ibid., p. 297.

5 Ibid., p. 297.

6 Ibid., p. 298.

7 Ibid., p. 287.

8 Dr. Garna Christian, “An Essay on Houston”, University of Houston-Downtown Course Packet 12, p. 10, 1998.

9 Lucy R. Lippard The Lure of the Local (New York: The New Press, 1997). A summary of the only chapter in this book dealing with art.

10 Christian, p. 9. Houston slaves often had it better than rural slaves because of urban environment and demand for their artisan skills.

11 Lippard, p. 262. The author’s definition of place-specific art.

12 The Art Park was commissioned by the Municipal Arts Commission in early 1991 to enrich the cultural image of the city and rejuvenate the urban environment.

13 Houston Chronicle, July 19, 1992. The article discusses the inception and progression of the Art Park.

14 Houston Chronicle, June 19, 1994.

15 From an e-mail correspondence with Dr. Annette Lawrence, 1998.

16 For contributions of other artist, see Houston Chronicle, October 13, 1996.

17 Ibid., p. 1 of the Lifestyle section.

18 For a summary of the Bayou Park Restoration and future plans, see Houston Chronicle, May 3, 1998, p. 8 in the Zest section.

19 Henry Chase, “Juneteenth in Texas,” American Visions, 12, no. 3 (1997): 44-50. A brief summary of the origins of Juneteenth, as well as events associated with the holiday.

20 Alvia J. Wardlaw, The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room, with essays by Edmund Gaither, Alison de Lima Greene, and Robert Thompson. Harry Abrams, Inc., in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Biographical information, from early childhood, through his schooling in Hampton, VA, to his move to Texas. This book is a collection of Biggers’ works, with comments and essays from various authors.

21 Houston Chronicle, February 16, 1997, p. 8 of Texas Magazine. Quote from an interview with the author.

22 Ibid.

23 Mayo Angelou, The Art of John Biggers, p. 14-15. A summary of Mayo Angelou’s assessment of Biggers’ contribution to art.

24 Observations by Robbie Cooper, while a student at the University of Houston-Downtown for the duration of the painting of the Salt Marsh.

25 John Biggers, summarizing his view of art, from Houston Chronicle, February 16, 1997, p. 8 of Texas Magazine.

26 Houston Chronicle, May 25, 1998, p. 36. Discusses the lack of a permanent African American museum, despite aggressive renovations throughout black neighborhoods.


Angelou, Mayo, The Art of John Biggers, (Houston: Harry Abrams, Inc., in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1995)

Brewer, J. Mason, American Negro Folklore (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968).

Chase, Henry, “Juneteenth in Texas,” American Visions, 12, no. 3 (1997).

Dr. Christian, Garna, “An Essay on Houston”, University of Houston-Downtown Course Packet 12, 1998.

Jackson, Bruce, ed., The Negro and his Folklore, (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1967).

Lippard, Lucy R. , The Lure of the Local (New York: The New Press, 1997).

Spalding, Henry D. , ed., Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1972).

Wardlaw, Alvia J. , The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room, with essays by Edmund Gaither, Alison de Lima Greene, and Robert Thompson. (Houston: Harry Abrams, Inc., in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1995).



Robbie Cooper

History 3313

Dec. 3, 1998


From pages 6-12



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