Nine black artists reflect on the question: ‘Is America at a point of reckoning?’

The fight for racial justice has been present in America since its inception. While the uprising against police brutality has long been ongoing, a historic number of Americans are participating in renewed protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody. Support for Black Lives Matter among U.S. voters has increased, and the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to defund the Minneapolis Police Department and establish a ‘holistic’ public safety force. The question “Is America at a point of reckoning?” has recaptured the nation’s imagination with a sense of urgency.

We asked nine black artists from across the country to reflect on this question. Some said that America seems to finally be at a point of reckoning. Some said that America has long been at this point. Their works of art and words reveal that there’s a long road to healing.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Desiree Kelly

A lot of things that pertain to social injustice have been put into the spotlight. Actions, or events are easier to document and capture on video and in photos. So when something happens that is obviously wrongful, there is an immediate reaction. America is now confronted with a force to be reckoned with. This piece is in direct response to the death of George Floyd in police custody. This depiction of Floyd looking over his shoulder with “Black Lives Matter” written on his hat represents all black people. The stop sign meaning quite literally “Stop Racism, Stop Social Injustice, Stop Killing Us.” The arrow to the right represents a need to change direction.

The intense red of the sign brings high alert. It’s meant to capture your attention.

These things have constantly been a concern in the black community. There were a lot of different thoughts that ran through my mind when I was reading the news that riots broke out. Most of all I felt that I needed to do something. I didn’t only relate as a black person but as a black mother. I felt compelled to use my voice to make a real difference. So when the protests and riots started happening, that was the turning point. I felt like I needed to do something more. I wanted to peacefully protest but make a very loud powerful statement. I wanted to use my voice as an artist to amplify this message.

Kelly lives in Detroit. @desireekellyart

Jonell Joshua

Over the past few weeks I’ve cried, donated, shouted in protest, thinking to myself, will we get the change we need in this country once and for all? We see that there are two pandemics killing Black Americans and it took this cataclysmic moment for people to really see what has been happening to us in this country for more than 400 years.

I have guarded optimism about whether this moment will bring the change we need. We continually fight for justice only to get ounces of “reform” brought on by our outrage, and our common-sense demands are continually pushed back as we exist in a system that was built on slavery. If we continue to strategically move in mass and protest, defund the police, and allocate those dollars to education and community organizations, I think we can seize this moment, but I hope those just waking up know that this is going to be a long journey.

Joshua is from and still lives in Brooklyn. @jonell.joshua

Donald Wooten II

Before America can come to a reckoning with the current state of racial affairs, it must first recognize how long racism and racist practices have been prevalent in America. The dichotomy of symbolic freedom projected from within a system of complex racial inequality and untethered injustices toward minorities led me to the Statue of Liberty as a subject of study. I felt it important to use the torch as the light for the powder keg that is racial tension in America centralized around the callous and senseless killing of unarmed Black people at the hands of police all around America.

Wooten II is from East Orange, N.J., and lives in Atlanta.

Heather Polk

Black Americans view public statements on the George Floyd and Amy Cooper incidences with wariness. We are frustrated with weak gestures and disingenuous attempts by leaders who claim to prioritize inclusive business and cultural environments, yet fail to. Black Americans don’t need reflexive, trite gesturing on race. Actions speak louder than words. In lieu of scripted press releases and social media posts, show us that Black Lives Matter. Black humanity is not a hashtag or a trending topic.

Sustained self-reflection, by white people in particular, is necessary. White supremacy and racism are so deeply embedded in U.S. culture, it’s been normalized. A true reckoning requires dismantling systems and symbols that support the idea of racial inferiority and superiority. “In Lieu of Flowers” is a call to action through a series of collages about the need to solve the myriad issues that disproportionately impact Black people in the United States. The collage with the female gaze acknowledges George Floyd’s final words … his cry for his mother.

Polk is from Akron, Ohio, and lives in Chicago. @artcuresall

Jon Key

“Defund the Police” is the rallying cry echoed around the world. At its core is the resounding demand to radically redistribute the way our tax dollars are being used. “Defund the Police” calls into question the legacies of the police system and other such systemic relics whose very existence applauds the efforts of the racist riders of the (not so distant) past. Descended from the slave driver, the slave patrol and the night watchers, the American policing system is the latest progeny of a lineage founded upon hyper-surveillance and control of the Black body, a bloodline begun when the first enslaved African was brought to this land. We have instated presidents, institutions, governmental staff who have been profiting and participating in the commerce and extortion of the Black body. Andrew Jackson and George Washington, both notably slave owners, are framed on our money.

Currently, in many states and counties, the police system is awarded the highest percentages of annual budgets in any given year. Police inside geared uniforms strut in formation, dominating our streets in the name of law and order. They attack and terrorize unarmed and unarmored civilians without remorse. Their reign must end. After decades of enduring this persecution in obscurity, we — Black, indigenous and non-Black people of color — are seeing the broader public bear witness to the horrors we have already known to be true, as made possible through mobile phone and network technology. Finally, the world is standing with us.

Key is from Seale, Ala., and lives in Brooklyn. He is donating his commission from this project to the Emergency Release Fund, a New York bail fund that helps transgender people out of detention before their trials. His original illustration was edited by The Washington Post. @jkey13

Johnalynn Holland

This is my reflection of my weariness from living in a world slowly (too slowly) realizing and reckoning with the issues we have talked about for decades. It’s about white supremacy, which is so pervasive, it has poisoned all Americans. The half-decomposed body being consumed by the snake symbolizes the polarity of living as a Black American. The venom of white supremacy will kill us all if we’re unable to molt its skin and start anew.

Holland lives in Washington. @johnalynn

Eliana Rodgers

America in its entirety is not at a point of reckoning, but large subsets of the population are. Up until March, the system was working for the majority of Americans, at least on a superficial level. A catastrophic perfect storm of covid-19, the government’s sloppy response, and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery created mass upheaval and unrest. It was impossible not to see Derek Chauvin’s blatant disregard for life, to not feel the magnified pain, anger, and fear of a people oppressed. With life now happening online, people flocked to social media to share traumatic anecdotes and frustrations with both the government and police forces. Educational posts ensued as well: What police abolition means, what the War on Drugs was really about, how to be an anti-racist and a proper ally, what to wear at protests. People, regardless of their background and geographic location, united in person and online to demand justice and advancement. This dissemination of information and unified desire for deep change are important steps on the path to a better world. The revolution will not be televised, but it will be recorded. We are nearing the precipice of America’s point of reckoning, and we must not lose momentum. A system in power changes only when threatened, and a united population demanding radical change is a threat.

Rodgers is from Belle Mead, N.J., and lives in New York. @elianarodgers

Bria Benjamin

May 25, I went through the usual cadence of emotions. I was devastated, furious, scared, sad, lonely, but also functioning. I answered emails and sent deliverables. It was really difficult to explain to friends and co-workers checking in that “I’m fine.” I looked at the messages, mainly confused. Why would today be any different than yesterday? Last month? 2016? 2014 and the years before?

As a Black person, you learn at a young age how to compartmentalize. Or, you’re supposed to. There will always be the low drum of horror that tonight will be your last night, or will be the night you get a phone call about your brother, or dad, or cousin, or sister or uncle. You learn to live with the hum while you do the humdrum tasks of everyday life. Because your boss and co-workers and professors don’t know what it’s like to see someone who could’ve been you or your family taking their last breath at the hands of police, then flood your social media timelines and news channels. If you drop the ball, you don’t have an opportunity to say, “Sorry, I’m grieving someone I don’t know while thanking the universe that it isn’t my family.”

I took a few days to myself, which wasn’t difficult given that we’re all in isolation for another pandemic. But, when I looked online, things hadn’t returned to normal. And it had gone beyond George Floyd. People were sharing books and resources and anything else to help them learn about how far and deep American racism ran. Protests stretched through the streets. And something in the air just felt different in a way I couldn’t articulate.

There is an energy white people and non-Black people have never had before. Not like this. They’re, and some for the first time, seeing our grief and opening their eyes to the other things we’ve been saying for hundreds of years. They’re seeing what we see, and have been trying to get them to see. They’re going, “Wow, this is really bad.” And they’re not just talking to their Black friend(s) or their fellow liberal friends to nod along. They’re talking to the people I previously thought were out of reach. They’re looking at themselves and the systems they’ve upheld. They’re marching and shouting with us. For us.

I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. And, I’m not a hopeful or optimistic person. But, when I look outside, it seems like the United States has reached a reckoning point, and it’s not stopping here.

Benjamin is from Dallas and lives in Brooklyn. @briabydesign

dan keith williams

“Rebel Soul Power” is a photolithographic print that’s part of an evolving series that explores the identity of African American men and how those identities are shaped. The piece speaks to the journey a black man may encounter in defining himself of a society that seeks to define and generalize him for expediency with little consideration of his struggles, complexities, and individual worth.

“Rebel Soul Power” was created a couple of years ago, but its voice is unfortunately timeless. It speaks loudly and vibrantly to black pain, which has been ongoing for centuries and we continue to endure daily.

Williams is from Beaufort, S.C., and lives in the Bronx.

Produced by Virginia Singarayar, Elizabeth Hart, Joanne Lee, Michael Johnson, Suzette Moyer and Krissah Thompson. Copy edited by Doug Norwood.