Winslow Homer

For the first time, the National Gallery in London displays a selection of works by American artist Winslow Homer. Known in the United States for his depiction of leading issues of the 19th century, such as the Civil War and racism, Homer remained popular in America for many years after his death. Although he briefly stayed in England, Homer did not attain the same popularity in the United Kingdom. The exhibition, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, provides the opportunity for people to discover the paintings that Americans have loved for over a century.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th February 1836, Winslow Homer grew up in a middle-class family consisting of two parents and two brothers. His father, Charles Savage Homer, was a businessman, constantly seeking out “get-rich-quick” schemes that never came to fruition. Charles eventually left his family to seek his nonexistent fortune in Europe. Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, taught her son to paint with watercolour and encouraged his interest in art. Despite his father’s selfish money-making endeavours, Charles found an apprenticeship for his son with the lithographer J. H. Bufford, who introduced Homer to the world of engraving and illustration.

Homer found work with Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular middle-class magazines in New York City. Whilst Homer turned down a permanent position on the magazine’s staff, he worked as a freelancer from his studio in Boston, producing drawings to illustrate articles on various subjects. Homer also attended classes at the National Academy of Design in New York to expand his artistic horizons. By the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Homer was an established illustrator and an up-and-coming oil and watercolour painter.

The Civil War became the focus of most American magazines, so Harper’s Weekly sent Homer to the Union Army Front in Virginia to draw illustrations. The artists covering the war were the 19th-century equivalent of sending photographers and news reporters. The work was dangerous and exhausting for Homer, but he produced some of the most powerful images of the Civil War. Several of these he reproduced as oil paintings, such as Sharpshooter (1863), which depicts a Union rifleman sitting in a tree, aiming at an unseen target in the distance. Homer said the scene was as close to murder as anything he had ever seen, and he frequently questioned the morals and human stakes of the war.

Homer believed the most powerful images derived from focusing on specific details. He said, “When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway.” Homer did not draw what he wanted people to see but instead painted what he could see, whether boredom and hunger or terror and violence. Although he did not physically fight during the Civil War, Homer likely suffered emotionally and psychologically after witnessing the horrors of battle. When he returned home, his mother noted he had changed so much that not even his best friends recognised him.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the country entered a period of reconstruction. With the abolishment of slavery, African Americans became free citizens and received, to some extent, the same civil rights as their former masters. Homer spent some time in the southern states, where slavery was once prevalent, and soon realised that the Civil War had not solved America’s problems. He noted that reconstruction was not working and began depicting post-war African American life in his paintings.

In A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876), Homer demonstrated the new social relationships between former slave and mistress. The African American women in the painting were once the property of the stern white woman, but now they are her employees. Rather than working for nothing, they are paid for their work, which means they must pay for their board and lodgings. Former slaves received very little money for their work, which meant they remained in slave-like conditions because they could not afford to move away.

The silent, sad girls in The Cotton Pickers (1876) are no longer slaves, but their workload has not changed. They picked cotton before the war and are still picking cotton afterwards. Whilst Homer’s beautiful depiction of the cotton fields makes the painting pleasant to look at, it is full of deeper meaning. Homer never explained his artwork, but the lack of joy on the figures’ faces suggests their lives have not changed since the abolition of slavery. Former slaves still lived in a deeply racist world where the rise of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, found alternative ways of policing African Americans. Shortly after the completion of this painting, Jim Crow laws were implemented, which enforced racial segregation in society.

In 1881, Homer moved to England for a couple of years. Initially, he travelled to London, but after a week, he moved to Cullercoats, a fishing village in what was once Northumberland (now Tyne and Wear). Homer became a part of the Cullercoats Artist Colony, who frequently painted the “Cullercoats Fish Lasses” going about their work. These women, some as young as 14, worked in all weathers, cleaning fish and mending nets. Many of these workers carried their babies and children on their backs while they worked despite the bracing strong and bitter winds. When they were not working, the women frequently stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their husbands, fathers and brothers.

During the 19th century, the life of a fisherman was dangerous. There was no guarantee that the men would return safely to shore. Drownings and shipwrecks were a daily occurrence, and Homer spent much of his time in Cullercoats recording and observing the perils at sea.

During Homer’s time in Cullercoats, a large ship called the Iron Crown foundered at the mouth of the River Tyne on 20th October 1881. The villagers raised the alarm and everyone, including Homer, rushed to the shore to begin rescue operations. While the more skilled men sailed out in lifeboats, Homer documented the event on paper with quick sketches, which he later developed into dramatic oil paintings.

Homer returned to the United States in 1882 and began demonstrating his skills in watercolours as well as oils. After spending a few months in New York, Homer settled in Prouts Neck, Maine, a small coastal town that reminded him of Cullercoats. Whilst the elemental, austere location gave Homer lots of inspiration for his paintings, he began to travel south during the winter because the warmer climate was better for his health. He visited places such as Florida, the Bahamas, Barbados and Bermuda and observed the various ways of life. Many of these works featured bright colours, reflecting the sundrenched scenes and different cultures.

Although Homer produced more watercolour paintings in his later years, he continued to work in oils for larger, dramatic scenes. His trips to Florida and the Caribbean involved crossing the Gulf Stream, a warm, swift current in the Atlantic Ocean. He chose to paint an imagined scene depicting a lone black sailor in a state of peril. Before producing The Gulf Stream (1899), Homer created several watercolours representing the different parts of the sailor’s journey. For his oil painting, Homer chose to surround the boat with sharks while the sailor lies defeated on the deck with only several stalks of sugar cane to sustain him.

Many people have tried to interpret what Homer was trying to say in his painting of The Gulf Stream. Although people frequently asked Homer to elaborate, he always refused. Some suggest the sugar cane is an allegory for the fate of African Americans because it was once a predominant product of enslaved labour in the Americas and West Indies. Others are more concerned about the man’s fate, noting both the presence of the frenzy of sharks in the foreground and the silhouette of a ship in the background. Contemporary critics comment on its relevance to today’s society, particularly in relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the migration of Cubans to America, many of whom lost their lives in the attempt.

By the end of Homer’s life, he was one of the most famous living American artists, but he did not reach financial stability until 1900 at the age of 64. The money he received from museums for his paintings was relatively good, and his father’s death two years before meant Homer no longer needed to pay for his father’s care.

For the final decade of his life, Homer continued producing watercolours and oils, but he turned his attention to nature, from which no hidden messages can be subtracted. Homer once told an art student, “Leave rocks for your old age – they’re easy.” Following his own advice, Homer focused on rocks upon the shore, rarely including signs of human life.

Homer’s final oil painting, Driftwood (1909), included a lone figure in the bottom right corner, once again prompting people to question the meaning of his work. The rest of the painting is similar to Homer’s other scenes from this era, which focus on the violent sea crashing over rocks. The man is attempting to move a large piece of driftwood, a task that seems futile as the crashing waves approach. Some have interpreted the figure as Homer facing his impending death. Whether or not Homer knew he was dying, he passed away the following year at the age of 74.

Most artists experience a decline in popularity after their death, but Homer has remained popular in the United States. Homer never taught in schools, but many students chose to study his work, both before and after his death. Homer did not offer much advice about painting techniques but encouraged artists to “Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”

Homer continued to inspire and influence Americans throughout the 20th century. In 1962, the US Post Office honoured Homer with a commemorative stamp. The image showed a copy of the painting Breezing Up, which Homer painted between 1873 and 1876. It depicts a relatively calmer sea than in his later works. In 2010, the Post Office produced another stamp featuring another of Homer’s paintings. It was printed as part of a series of “American Treasures”.

Newspapers during the 1890s called Homer “Yankee Robinson Crusoe, cloistered on his art island” and “a hermit with a brush”. Homer never married and spent most of his time alone. In 1909, he declined an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with his brother because he preferred to stay home and paint. Due to his reclusive nature, very little is known about Homer as a person. The subject matters of his paintings suggest he liked nature and the outdoors, particularly by the sea. Earlier works indicated which side he supported during the Civil War and how he felt about the treatment of African Americans, but none of these interpretations are fully reliable. Despite Homer’s prolific output and popularity, the man remains a mystery.

Unlike artists of the Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age and other European eras, Homer’s popularity did not spread outside of his home country. Other Americans, such as Andy Warhol, became known for their controversial topics and styles, while Homer’s powerful paintings were overlooked. The National Gallery, with support from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is finally introducing the UK to this phenomenal artist. With 50 paintings on display, Winslow Homer becomes the next artist in the gallery’s attempt to introduce major American artists to a European audience. Previous artists in the programme have included Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is open until 8th January 2023. The standard admission price is £12, although some concessions are available. Tickets must be booked in advance.


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An American Colourist

Until 16th October 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the works of Milton Avery, one of North America’s greatest 20th-century colourists. Milton Avery: American Colourist is the first ever exhibition of Avery’s artwork on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work is full of carefully balanced colour, which became more harmonious and simplified as his career progressed.

Milton Clark Avery was born on 27th March 1885 in Altmar, New York to Esther March (d. 1926) and Russell Avery (d. 1905). His father was a tanner, and the family moved around a bit until they settled near Hartford, Connecticut. Avery attended school until age 16, after which he started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company. Four years later, Avery enrolled in an evening class at the Connecticut League of Art Students to learn “commercial lettering”. He hoped this would improve his job prospects, but part way into the course, he transferred to drawing classes and dedicated the rest of his life to art.

Avery’s early works, dating between 1910 and 1918, reveal the influence of American Impressionist painters, who produced impasto paintings of landscapes. Gradually, Avery began using thinner paint, making his paintings flatter and less natural. He also started using arbitrary colours, often creating a distorted reality. As he moved away from Impressionism, Avery stopped painting from life, preferring to make quick sketches on-site and return to his studio to recreate them in oil paint.

From 1920, Avery started spending his summers in the art colony of Gloucester in Massachusetts. Despite his aspirations to be an artist, Avery took on other jobs, such as construction work, to pay for his tuition. Avery could finally focus on his painting after meeting the illustrator Sally Michel (1902-2003) at the art colony in 1924. Two years later, Avery and Sally married and moved to a studio complex in New York. While Sally worked as an illustrator for the New York Times, Avery devoted himself to painting and studying the arts.

During the late 1920s, Avery began exhibiting his work, starting with the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1927. After attending several shows, the Philips Memorial Gallery purchased Winter Riders, the first of his paintings bought by a museum. The art style shows Avery was beginning to move away from Impressionism, although he still used some techniques, such as layering thick paint to create a sense of texture.

Avery and Sally continued to spend their summers in Gloucester until the birth of their daughter March in 1932. During the summer months, Avery sketched and painted beach scenes, but around the time of his daughter’s birth, he began experimenting with cityscapes too. At this stage of his career, Avery’s paintings still contained a lot of energy, such as Chariot Race (1933). The carnival scene is a stark contrast to Avery’s other landscapes, which have the typical layout of a foreground, middle ground, background and horizon.

After settling in New York with his wife and daughter, Avery became part of the artistic community in the city. He joined the Valentine Gallery and held his first solo exhibition in 1935. The attention he received from this and other small exhibitions helped widen his friendship circle, which included the artists Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The Averys hosted many friends and acquaintances at their apartment, where they discussed art and read poetry.

Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery daily, paying great interest in Avery’s work. Known for his prolificness, Avery often completed a painting every day, which inspired his fellow artists. Despite his popularity, Avery did not talk much during gatherings, preferring to sit, listen and sketch the surroundings. Many of the objects he drew ended up in future paintings, as did portraits of the people in the room.

Avery’s early portraits, such as March in Babushka (1940), which depicts his daughter wearing a headscarf, became less detailed than his earlier landscapes. Despite winning a prize for portraiture in 1919, Avery did not produce many portraits in his early years. After the birth of his daughter, he moved away from landscape to focus on portraits of people within cityscapes. This change also signalled a new approach to colour and form, which he simplified and stripped of any layers or sentiment. Yet, in 1947, Avery held his first retrospective exhibition titled My Daughter March, which emphasised his love for his family.

During the 1940s, Avery stopped creating formal portraits but continued to include human figures in his work. Most of these figures lost any distinguishing features, such as the faceless girl in Seated Girl With Dog (1944), whose face is split between light and shadow with two contrasting colours. Avery no longer used the colours of nature, instead experimenting with various hues and tones. By thinning the paint, Avery covered large areas of the canvas with a single colour, focusing on the shape rather than perspective. He used the tone of colour to determine the atmosphere of the scene rather than rely on intricate details.

Avery’s change of style in the 1940s established him as one of America’s leading colourists. In hindsight, he greatly influenced the next generation of artists, who moved on to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of modern art. Avery revealed the possibilities of colour, particularly non-associative or unnatural tones, in scenes of everyday life.

Toward the end of the 1940s, Avery’s health began deteriorating, and doctors advised him to slow down and stay home. Avery did not follow medical advice and suffered a major heart attack in January 1949. After a six-week hospital stay and months of recuperating at home, Avery returned to the art scene with an exhibition at the newly founded Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York.

In 1952, Avery took his first and only trip to Europe with his family. They visited France and the United Kingdom, documenting his journey through sketches. Many of these drawings made their way into his paintings, such as Excursion on the Thames (1953). Avery sat on the steps of the Tate Gallery (Britain) to make the preliminary drawings for this painting. When speaking about his visit, Avery said, “I was visiting the Tate museum and got tired and went outside for a few minutes and saw this excursion boat and made this small sketch, and when I got back to New York City I painted a big canvas from it.”

With March now a young woman, Avery and his wife felt able to accept invitations to undertake summer residences, such as at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1957, Avery spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he began creating large-scale paintings. The larger the canvas, the less detail Avery included. Instead, he focused on bold colours to draw people’s attention to the artwork. Yet, Avery still depicted some form of scene rather than a random pattern.

During the winter of 1959, Avery and Sally travelled to Key West, Florida, where the warmer climate was better for Avery’s health. During their stay, Avery completed several simplified beach scenes, such as Boathouse by the Sea (1959). Using only four colours, orange, blue, yellow and black, Avery created a sense of depth and perspective, although some people may need to know the title before the scene becomes clear. The large black portion of the painting represents the roof of the boathouse, presumably viewed from above by the artist. The yellow and blue represent the sea, and the orange is the sky. Either Avery intended to depict the sunset, or he used orange to contrast with the colour of the water.

Other seaside scenes feature less conventional colours, such as the pinks in Sails in Sunset Sea (1960). This painting differs from other works because Avery has included squiggly lines to represent the waves or ripples on the water’s surface. The choice of colour may not be as random as it first appears. Capturing only the two sailing boats rather than a larger scene, Avery has focused on the colours of the setting sun on the water. Whilst it may not be one of his better works, Avery’s thought process is still visible.

Avery suffered a second heart attack in 1960 and spent the following year recovering in New York. Most likely against doctors’ orders, he continued to produce paintings. In 1963, Avery was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Members are nominated and elected by peers, making it a great honour to be accepted into the Academy.

On 5th March 1964, Avery, now critically unwell, completed his final painting, Hills and Sunset Sky. The following day, Avery went into intensive care at Montefiore Hospital in New York. He remained there for the rest of the year, eventually passing away on 3rd January 1965 at the age of 75. He was buried in the Artist’s cemetery in Woodstock, New York, and his wife donated all his personal papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

“He was, without question, our greatest colourist. … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” So said the art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) in his 1981 book about Avery. Several artists thought of Avery as an American Matisse due to his colourful compositions, which echoed the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Critics initially disliked Avery’s work, claiming it was too abstract, yet when Abstract Expressionism became popular, they said his work was too representational. Due to these opinions, Avery does not belong to a particular art category. Instead, he bridges the gap between two art movements, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Avery was not a rule follower, which allowed him to experiment with his art rather than conform to the accepted standards of the early 20th century. Visitors to the Milton Avery: American Colourist will see the progression of Avery’s work from Impressionism to something not quite Abstract Expressionism. Some will prefer his early paintings and not understand why he altered his style, but others will appreciate his use of colour and his ability to express himself in new ways that inspired a new generation of artists.

Milton Avery: American Colourist is open at the Royal Academy until 16th October 2022. Standard tickets cost £15, although concessions are available. To guarantee entry, booking is recommended.


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Feminine Power

Throughout history, women have been sidelined in favour of men, who were believed to be the stronger, smarter sex. In the last couple of centuries, women have protested these traditional views of feminity and proved they can equal men in many areas of life. The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique (b. 1971) believes, “We need more feminine energy in the world today. We need more women in positions of power and influence.” Whilst this is the aim of many feminists in the 21st century, ancient history reveals that women once held such power and influence, particularly in religion. Until 25th September 2022, the British Museum aims to show visitors the significant role that goddesses, witches, female spirits and so forth have shaped the world today. With support from Siddique and other high-profile collaborators, the museum’s exhibition Feminine Power links the past with the present to prove that women have never been the weak, powerless individuals they were forced into being.

Pele

In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes. According to legend, she was one of six daughters born to Haumea, the Earth goddess and Kane Milohai, the creator of the heavens. Usually depicted with flaming red hair, Pele was known for her fiery temper, which resulted in her expulsion from her home island of Tahiti. According to one story, she had also seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘i, who chased Pele to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Angry about her fate, Pele made her home in the volcanoes, where her unpredictable and volatile temper continues to cause rivers of lava to devour the island.

Today, Hawaiians believe Pele resides in Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that has been erupting since September 2021. Residents frequently honour the goddess with offerings and dancing in an attempt to appease her and stop the eruptions. Many believe that speaking her name out loud is enough to anger Pele, as is eating the wild berries that grow near the mountain.

Sedna

According to Inuit mythology, Sedna is the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Several versions of the myth exist, recording Sedna as the Mother of the Sea and the ruler of the underworld. In one legend, Sedna grew so hungry that she attacked her father, the creator-god Anguta. Angry with her behaviour, Anguta banished Sedna to the underworld. In another version, Sedna disapproves of her father’s choice of men for her to marry, so marries a dog instead. After angering her father, she suffers the same fate and lives for the rest of eternity in the underworld.

There are several other versions of the Sedna myth, all ending in the same fate. In each story, when Anguta banished his daughter to the underworld, he took her out to sea in his kayak and threw her overboard. Attempting to save her life, Sedna held on to the edge of the boat, but Anguta cut off her fingers, forcing her to sink into the deep waters. Most legends agree that her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales that Inuit hunters regularly sought. If Sedna thought the hunt was unfair, she hid the creatures in her hair, forcing the Inuits to admit defeat and return to shore.

Lakshmi

Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, money, wisdom and good luck, is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu goddesses. She is usually celebrated by Hindus during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In art, Lakshmi is usually depicted with four arms covered with jewellery. She is often seated on a lotus flower and surrounded by elephants.

According to myth, Lakshmi’s presence on Earth helped the warrior god Indra protect the world from demons. One day, a sage offered the god a garland of flowers, which he rejected and threw on the floor. This behaviour deeply upset Lakshmi, and she disappeared from the world. In her absence, the world became dark, and the people turned away from the gods. Desperate, Indra asked Lakshmi’s husband, Vishnu, protector of the universe, what he should do to rectify the situation. Vishnu advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. The process took a thousand years, but eventually, Lakshmi rose to the ocean’s surface upon a lotus flower, and peace returned to the land.

Inanna/Ishtar

Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is a Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, desire, war and political power. She was worshipped widely across Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Akkadia and Assyria, who praised her with hymns and artworks. Nicknamed the “Lady of Heaven”, Inanna/Ishtar was respected as both male and female, although men tended to see her as a woman, particularly concerning matters of a sexual nature.

There are many myths about Inanna/Ishtar, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero refuses her romantic advances, causing the goddess to let all fire and brimstone loose. In another myth, she chose a young shepherd called Dumuzi as her husband. Shortly after, Dumuzi died, and Inanna travelled to the underworld to arrange for him to return to Earth for half the year. From then on, male rulers (kings) were identified with Dumuzi and underwent a Sacred Marriage ceremony to declare their devotion to Inanna/Ishtar and legitimise their rule.

Sekhmet

In Egyptian mythology, the powerful goddess Sekhmet was sent by her father Ra to destroy humankind. Immediately regretting his actions, Ra dyed a field red with ochre and beer to trick his daughter into believing the people had already slaughtered themselves. The trick worked, and Sekhmet drank the fake blood, becoming too drunk to carry out her original task.

An annual festival in honour of Sekhmet, who the Egyptians depicted in their artwork with the head of a lioness to symbolise her ferocity and destructive power, aimed to appease and soothe the wildness of the goddess. Revellers danced and played music while drinking large quantities of wine to imitate the drunkenness that stopped the wrath of the goddess. Warriors and leaders, such as Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1351 BC), erected statues of Sekhmet in the hopes she would bring them victory and longevity.

Isis

Isis was the most important female goddess and the most worshipped across ancient Egypt. Unlike Sekhmet, who the Egyptians tried to appease, Isis had divine authority over wisdom, healing, and protection, both in life and the afterlife. According to myth, after her husband Osiris was murdered, she resurrected him to conceive their son, Horus. Their son grew up to avenge his father’s murder and became the god whom all pharaohs were believed to personify.

Statues of Isis often depict her with wings, with which she could shield the mummified body of Osiris from harm. Although she brought Osiris back to life, he kept one foot in the afterlife as its ruler. Isis had the power to protect people from death but also protect them after death. When the people of ancient Egypt died, they did not go straight to a place of eternal rest. Instead, the dead went on a journey full of trials and judgements, which they needed to pass before reaching their resting place.

On top of Isis’ roles as a goddess, she had duties as a mother to care for and nurture Horus. Figurines of Isis nursing Horus were popular in ancient Egypt because they symbolised her as a life-giver and protector, which, in essence, every woman with a child also embodies.

Aphrodite/Venus

The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology, is a well-known name. Greek myths have become part of contemporary literature and films, and many instantly recognise Aphrodite as the goddess of love. Aphrodite/Venus embodied ancient ideals of beauty, yet she was not revered for her looks alone. People prayed to the goddess about love, but also about social and military success. The Greeks and Romans believed she had the power to bring about reconciliation and conflict depending on her mood.

There are several stories about Aphrodite’s origins, with some claiming she was a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods. Other myths, such as that recorded by Hesiod in the 8th or 7th century BC, record Aphrodite’s birth from the sea foam at the location the titan Kronos threw his father’s castrated testicles.

Aphrodite’s beauty often caused the demise of many a mortal man. Reports of men making love to statues of the goddess reveal how beautiful the depictions of Aphrodite/Venus were when first created. Others saw past her physical appearance to claim her as their patron, placing her image on their coins to advertise their victories. Such practice was done by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla around 84 BC and Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 176 AD.

Athena/Minerva

The Greek goddess Athena, or Minerva as the Romans knew her, was the goddess of war and wisdom. The Greeks and Romans saw her as an emblem of strength, intellect and order. They sought her wisdom in all areas of public life, from military and politics to the arts. Athena was both a peaceful and an angry goddess, depending on the circumstances. In many myths, she helped and supported men in battle, but those who upset her lived to regret it.

Athena was allegedly born fully grown and fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Learning of a prophecy that he would have a child more powerful than he, Zeus ate the pregnant mother, mistakingly believing this would kill the child. Instead, Zeus developed a terrible headache until Athena erupted from his skull.

In Roman Britain, Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, was associated with the Celtic deity Sulis. Minerva-Sulis had power over justice and health, making her a popular goddess in the city of Bath, where the spring waters are said to have healing properties. People came from far and wide to have their ailments cured but also to ask the goddess to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered lead sheets containing names, curses and pleas to Minerva-Sulis at the bottom of the Roman baths.

The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique believes women should channel their inner Athena. “If you’re angry, harness that. If you’re frustrated, express that. If you’re more of a peacemaker and a quiet, persevering advocate, own that as well. It’s not about having to subscribe to any stereotypically masculine or feminine form.” Athena had both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but this did not make her more or less of a woman.

In a similar way to the ancient Greek and Roman rulers who used images of Aphrodite/Venus on their coins, Athena/Minerva appeared on coins and medals in more recent centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) were portrayed on medals alongside images of the goddess. Male military leaders also used Athena/Minerva’s image, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).

Hekate

In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft. Some people, such as those participating in Wiccan or other modern pagan activities, believe Hekate was a witch rather than a goddess. Nonetheless, in ancient mythology, Hekate stood between life and death at the entrance to the underworld, also known as Hades. As a result, she was associated with entrance-ways and crossroads and often received prayers during transitions or uncertain journeys. Hekate is also associated with the moon and magic, which play roles in pagan rituals.

Sculptures of Hekate tend to depict a woman with three heads or three conjoined women. With each head facing a different direction, the statues symbolise the goddess’ ability to help people during various transitions in life and death. The journalist Elizabeth Day believes Hekate’s three faces represent that through suffering comes access to strength and wisdom. Some statues of Hekate depict her holding torches, symbolising the goddess as a light in the darkness, guiding people through difficult situations.

Circe

Unlike Hekate, who was the goddess of witchcraft, Circe was a witch or divine sorceress. She famously appears in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), which tells of the troublesome journey of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the war in Troy. On route, Odysseus’ ship lands on the island of Aeaea, where he sends some of his men to scout the area. Here, they discover Circe, who invites them or lures them with her beauty into her house and offers them a meal. Unbeknownst to the men, Circe poisoned the food with various potions and herbs, transforming them into pigs.

When Odysseus searched for his missing men, Circe attempted the same trick, but he had been warned by the gods about her use of magic. Instead, Odysseus convinced Circe to return his men to human form and help him with the next stage of his journey. Whilst this may suggest male dominance of the woman, Odysseus had the help of the gods and did not defeat Circe alone.

Throughout history, people have feared witchcraft. Whilst both men and women were persecuted or killed for allegedly using magic, the majority of the accused witches were women. Societies feared these powerful women, going as far as to burn them at the stake to prevent them from causing any harm.

Lilith

According to Jewish mystical texts, God created Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Like Adam, God created her from the earth, giving Lilith equality with her husband. God intended Adam and Lilith to live as equals, but attempts at sexual intercourse caused problems. Adam tried to dominate Lilith, causing her to flee Eden rather than subordinate herself to him. Lilith was punished for her actions, but in recent years, she has been celebrated as an icon of female independence.

Throughout history, Lilith is portrayed as a figure of defiance or a spirit that wreaks havoc and refuses to obey. In popular culture, she is often referenced as an evil character, such as in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which she is the ancestor of the White Witch. Today, this dark side of Lilith is put to one side as feminists begin to view her as the first woman to stand up to male power.

Eve

In Christian tradition, Eve is the first wife of Adam. God created her from one of Adam’s ribs rather than from the Earth. The story of the first two humans created by God is widely known. God gave them the freedom to eat what they pleased, so long as they did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Book of Genesis in the Bible records a serpent convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she did and gave Adam some to eat. This act became known as the Fall and resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Although it is not mentioned in Biblical scripture, people have blamed Eve for her seductive powers for leading Adam into sin. Whilst some argue both Adam and Eve were to blame for their actions, Eve received the brunt of the accusations, resulting in the stereotypical opinion that women were temptresses. Regardless of the truth and various opinions, the story gives Eve, as a woman, enough power for men of the future to fear the actions of women. Unfortunately, this led to the oppression of women and lack of rights, which women have been gradually regaining since the 19th century.

Mary

In Christianity, Mary is perhaps the most important woman, although she is not usually described as powerful. Yet, over a billion Catholics worship her across the world, giving her a sense of power that other Biblical women do not receive. The Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world. The Bible describes Mary as a righteous woman favoured by God, but looking at the bigger picture, she was neither rich, important or famous.

Comedian and feminist Deborah Frances-White notes that the Bible is written through the eyes of men, so Mary’s devotion and protection of the Messiah goes unnoticed. Frances-White also points out that without Mary, there would be no Christian story, and this power must be respected.

Some Christian art depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Although it is not written in the Bible, Roman Catholics believe that at the time of her death, Mary was taken directly to Heaven. This event is known as the Assumption and is celebrated in some Catholic churches. Some Christian denominations believe Mary appears before mortals in times of need to offer guidance and protection. Thousands of sightings are recorded, particularly at pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France. These claims elevate Mary to a similar status as ancient goddesses, who also appeared to mortals when necessary.

Maryam

Depending on the point of view, the highly revered Islamic Maryam is the same person as the Virgin Mary. Maryam is described as “the righteous one” and is favoured by God above all women. Her devotion and virtue are a model for all Muslims to follow. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam, which features stories about her life, including the miraculous virgin birth of her son, the prophet Isa (Jesus).

In the present day, Muslims feel connected to Maryam in various ways. For some, her faith and hope are inspiring, and others appreciate her strength, honesty and spiritual fortitude. In both Islam and Christianity, Maryam/Mary is a timeless model for all women.

These are only a handful of women and deities who feature in the British Museum exhibition Feminine Power. The selection provides different versions of power, both physical and emotional, intentional or not. These examples prove women can be powerful and on equal footing with men. They are not more powerful, nor are they described as being like men. Women have their own power, which is equally as powerful as the power men wield.

The British Museum does not try to claim that women are better than men; that is not the point of this exhibition. What it does do is challenge stereotypes and discuss the meaning of power. For some, power may look like physical strength, rage, anger and determination; for others, it is peaceful, loving and nurturing. Whether women are fighting battles or taking care of others, they are always powerful.

Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic is open until 25th September 2022. Tickets are priced from £15 and advanced booking is recommended.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 4)

These articles were initially posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Speak Like Frederick

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” These are the words of American social reformer, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Many found it astonishing that such a successful orator was once a slave, proving false the misconception that slaves lacked the intelligence of independent Americans. Douglass believed everyone was equal regardless of their skin tone and heritage. He was also an active supporter of women’s suffrage.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on a plantation in Maryland to Harriet Bailey, a woman of African and Native American ancestry. His father was white, possibly European, but Frederick never knew him or knew on which day or year he was born. Historians estimate his year of birth as 1818, and Frederick chose 14th February as the day to celebrate his birth. Separated from his mother at a young age, the infant Frederick lived with his grandparents, Betsy, a slave, and Isaac, a free man.

At the age of six, Frederick’s master transferred him to another plantation, but two years later, he moved again to a household in Baltimore. Despite being the property of Hugh Auld, his master’s wife Sophia ensured Frederick was well fed and clothed. When he was about 12 years old, Sophia taught him to read and write until her husband put an end to their lessons. Yet, Frederick continued to teach himself in secret, often observing the white children in the city. He believed “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

In 1833, Frederick went to work for Edward Covey, a farmer who repeatedly whipped him. Frederick attempted to run away, but his master caught him. In 1837, he met and fell in love with Anna Murray (1813-88), a free black woman who encouraged him to have another attempt at escaping. On 3rd September 1838, Frederick succeeded by sneaking onto a train to Harve de Grace dressed as a sailor. He then made his way to New York to meet up with Anna.

Frederick and Anna married on 15th September 1838, initially adopting the surname Johnson. Inspired by the poem The Lady of the Lake by Walter Scott (1771-1832), Frederick changed their surname to Douglass after the principal characters. They joined the independent African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Frederick became a preacher in 1839. Soon after, at the approximate age of 23, Frederick Douglass gave his first speech about his experiences as a slave at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention.

From then on, Douglass involved himself with many anti-slavery protests and conventions, resulting in physical attacks from slavery supporters. One occasion caused irreparable damage to Douglass’ hand. He exclaimed, “I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me—do not recognize me as a man.” Yet, he continued to fight to put an end to slavery. As well as oration, Douglass published many works, including his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

In 1845, Douglass travelled to Ireland and England, where he was amazed at the different treatment he received, not “as a colour, but as a man.” Focusing on the abolition of slavery, Douglass gave many speeches in churches and chapels, drawing large crowds. He met with Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who had campaigned for the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Most importantly, while in Britain, Douglass legally became a free man.

With £500 from English supporters, Douglass returned to the USA in 1847 and established his first abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. The paper adopted the motto “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren” to attract a diverse readership. Meanwhile, Douglass and his wife helped over four hundred slaves escape on the Underground Railroad network managed by Harriet Tubman.

Douglass was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights meeting in New York. Douglass said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man until women also had the opportunity. “Discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency…than would be a discussion of the rights of women.” Unfortunately, Douglass received criticism when he paid more attention to the campaign to allow black men the right to vote, but he maintained he was never against women’s rights. He feared linking black men’s suffrage with women’s suffrage would result in a failure for both; it was better to focus on one at a time.

During the Civil War, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) to discuss the treatment of black soldiers. This meeting led to the declaration of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery. After the assassination of Lincoln, Douglass met with President Andrew Johnson (1808-75) on the subject of black suffrage. In 1868, the 14th amendment gave blacks equal protection under the law, and in 1870 they finally won the right to vote. 

Due to his achievements, Douglass received several political appointments, including president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic. In 1872, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States, although he was nominated without his knowledge. The same year, he was the presidential elector at large for New York.

Douglass and Anna had five children during their marriage of 44 years. Their eldest, Rosetta Douglass (1839-1906), was a founding member of the National Association for Colored Women and also helped with her father’s newspaper business, as did Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908) and Frederick Douglass Jr. (1842-92). Their youngest son, Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920), also helped with the papers and was the first African-American man to enlist in the military in New York during the Civil War. Annie Douglass, their youngest child, passed away at the age of ten.

Anna passed away in 1882, and two years later, Douglass remarried suffragist Helen Pitts (1838-1913). This caused controversy and upset Douglass’ children because Helen was twenty years younger than their father. She was also white. Douglass responded to criticism by saying his first marriage was to a woman of his mother’s colour and his second to someone of his father’s colour.

Douglass continued to speak at meetings across the USA and further abroad. In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) won the election and made Douglass the consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. 

On 20th February 1895, Douglass attended a meeting with the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C, where he received a standing ovation. That evening after returning home, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Thousands of supporters attended his funeral, and four years later, they erected a statue in his memory. He was the first African American to be memorialised in this way. Frederick Douglass continues to receive such honours today. Statues of Douglass stand in the United States Capitol Visitor Centre, Central Park, and the University of Maryland.

Educate Like W.E.B

W.E.B Du Bois was the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists campaigning for equal rights. Through his campaigns and essays, Du Bois documented the widespread racism in the United States of America. Ultimately, Du Bois wished to put an end to prejudices, and in the process, educated many people about the inaccuracies of American history that painted blacks in a bad light.

Born on 23rd February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in a tiny black population. His father left when Du Bois was only two years old, and his mother raised him alone. Fortunately, Great Barrington had a large European American community that treated Du Bois well, and his school teachers encouraged him to pursue his academic studies at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

Du Bois experienced little racism until his time at university, where he came face to face with the harshest bigotry. Fortunately, this had little impact on his education, and after Du Bois graduated in 1888, he attended Harvard College, paying his tuition by taking on summer jobs and accepting loans from friends. In 1890, Du Bois graduated with a degree in history. Yet, this was not the end of his education. After another year at Harvard studying sociology, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin. While in Berlin, Du Bois observed the differences in the treatment of black people. “They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world.” Racism, he noted, was much worse in the USA. On returning home, Du Bois earned a PhD from Harvard University, the first black person to do so.

Following this extensive education, Du Bois received many job offers, including a teaching job at Wilberforce University, Ohio. After working there for two years, Du Bois married one of his students, Nina Gomer, on 12th May 1896 and moved to Pennsylvania to work as an assistant in sociology. Whilst there, Du Bois worked on the study The Pennsylvania Negro, which noted the treatment blacks received in the area. He rejected Frederick Douglass’ idea of blacks integrating into white communities, believing instead that they needed to embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society. He published the latter in his article Strivings of the Negro People in The Atlantic Monthly

In 1897, Du Bois moved to and accepted a job as a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. The US government gave Du Bois a grant to research African-American workforce and culture, which he did alongside hosting the annual Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems. In 1900, Du Bois flew to London to attend the First Pan-African Conference, which implored the USA to “acknowledge and protect the rights of people of African descent”. Later that year, Du Bois attended the Paris Exposition, where he organised The Exhibit of American Negroes for which he won a gold medal.

By the early 20th century, Du Bois was a respected spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Du Bois disagreed with many of Washington’s ideas, which asked blacks to submit to white supremacy in exchange for fundamental education. He expressed his criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois believed blacks should fight for equal rights and opportunities. 

In 1905, Du Bois met with other civil rights activists in Canada, near Niagara Falls. Together, they established the Niagara Movement, which aimed to reach out to other black people through magazines such as The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line. Unlike periodicals owned by or sympathetic to Washington, The Niagara Movement encouraged African Americans to stand up for their rights rather than submit to humiliation and degradation.

It was not just the Niagara Movement that changed the minds of the African American population. In 1906, President Roosevelt (1858-1919) dishonourably discharged 167 black soldiers for allegedly committing crimes. Following this, riots broke out in Atlanta, where black men received accusations of assaulting white women. Rioters attacked any man with dark skin, resulting in at least 25 deaths. 

Fuelled by these events and his growing support, Du Bois continued to write about the dangers of white supremacy. He was the first African American invited to present a paper by the American Historical Association. Unfortunately, most white historians ignored his work, and the association did not invite another African American speaker for three decades. 

In 1909, Du Bois joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and accepted the post of Director of Publicity and Research the following year. This entailed editing the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, which denounced the US government and introduced the principles of the Socialist Party. Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in the 1912 presidential race, extracting from the future president the promise to support black rights.

When the First World War broke out, the NAACP established a camp to train African Americans to serve in the US Army. The government promised 1000 officer positions for blacks, but riots broke out across the country in opposition. Only 600 black officers managed to join the Army. Nonetheless, Du Bois saw this as a success and interviewed many African American soldiers during the first Pan-African Congress. Unfortunately, he discovered many officers served as labourers while the white men went out to fight.

Du Bois was more determined than ever to fight for equal rights. “But, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Race riots continued to take place across the country, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of black people. As well as wishing to end this unnecessary violence, Du Bois wanted to educate black children about their heritage, teaching them that they did not deserve the racist treatment. As a result, Du Bois published the textbook The Brownies’ Book, which was full of black culture and history. 

After working with the NAACP, Du Bois resigned from his post in 1933 and returned to an academic position at Atlanta University. This allowed him to continue his research, documenting how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, was published in 1935 and is still perceived as “the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.” 

In 1936, Du Bois embarked on a trip around the world, where he received amicable treatment from people of all races. This was a stark contrast to the treatment of blacks back home. Du Bois admired the growing strength of Imperial Japan and was at first opposed to America joining the Second World War because he thought this would undo Japan’s fight to escape white supremacism. He was also disappointed that blacks only made up 5.8% of the US army.

Du Bois openly discussed his strong views in his books and papers, which eventually got him fired from his position at Atlanta University. Fortunately, scholars intervened, and Du Bois received a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus. Other universities offered Du Bois teaching positions, but he turned them down and rejoined the NAACP. Du Bois was one of three members of the NAACP to attend the 1945 conference in San Francisco, which oversaw the establishment of the United Nations.

The NAACP continued to fight for civil rights, submitting several petitions to the UN. Although the NAACP supported socialism, it made it clear the association had no involvement with Communism. Yet, Du Bois showed sympathy towards the Communist Party, resulting in the loss of his passport. He eventually regained his passport in 1958 and travelled the world with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977), who he married in 1951. Nevertheless, when the US upheld the Concentration Camp Law in 1960, requiring all Communists to register with the United States Attorney General, Du Bois joined the Communist Party in protest. At this time, he was 93 years old.

In 1960, Du Bois travelled to Africa to celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana and to attend the inauguration of the first African governor of Nigeria. The following year, Du Bois took up residence in Ghana to work on the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. By this time, Du Bois’ health was declining, and he passed away on 27th August 1963, not long after the US refused to renew his passport. On hearing of his death, thousands of Americans honoured Du Bois with a minute’s silence. Almost a year later, the US passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, representing many of the things Du Bois campaigned for during his long life. 


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Can consumer culture be environmentally sustainable?

The following essay was originally written in 2012 as part of the requirements for my second year studying BA Graphic Design.

The first part of this essay will explore and examine the effects of consumerism on current societies where people are indoctrinated into buying what they do not essentially need. (Lawson, 2009) It will also touch on commodities and explain how consumerism has contributed to waste disposal. It will then focus on the concept of sustainability and discuss whether consumer cultures can be environmentally sustainable, and if not, how things can be changed for the better.

Consumerism is not a new idea, it has been in existence since trading of goods began in pre-Roman times and shopping lists have been discovered from as far back as AD 75. In a way, the term consumerism has become connected with everything that people buy, from clothes to holidays, and health care to education. (Lawson, 2009) However, in contemporary culture there is a greater “demand for a wider range of goods” which has resulted in further competition between manufacturers that sell similar products. (Ambrose and Harris, 2009:p44) Consumer culture has made Western societies concerned with “‘having’ rather than ‘being’” (Julier, 2008:p56). Consumption prompts ideological beliefs of how humans should behave or what they should buy, what is good and how people should appear.

Since consumer culture has become a massive part of life for people all over the world, it is now a primary method for both individuals and groups to build their identities. (Julier, 2008) Life, for most people, used to be defined by what employment role they had and how much money they earned, however this definition has now progressed to what people do with the money their work generates. Certain people are now preoccupied with what they buy rather than what they do with their lives. (Lawson, 2009) People are constantly judged by what products they own especially, for example, items of clothing. Clothes in particular, but also other merchandise, indicate status which “also implies the existence of a group for whom a particular commodity has a particular meaning.” (Miles, Anderson and Meethan, 2002:p3) On the other hand, it has currently become the norm for certain people to be the owners of particular commodities which then affect how each individual is identified as many people begin to appear the same. This has affected cultures in general and it could be argued that “if we are all consumers of the same products then we are all the same culturally, no matter where we originate from.” (Corrigan, 1997:p69)

Loss of identity does not just affect individual humans; it can also affect brands especially when there are many brands selling similar items. Brand companies no longer focus on selling their product but rather focus on generating brand awareness so that customers throughout the world can identify with them. (Barber, 2007)

“Since the collapse of Eastern-style communism, consumerism has emerged as a global hegemonic idea.” (Grabriel and Lang, 2006:p97) There has been a revolutionary rise in commoditisation of everything throughout the world especially since brand identity has become so important and competitive, providing more products, more commodities, to grab the attention of the consumers. (Ambrose and Harris, 2009)

Commodities have become fetishisms for many people. Marx described a fetish as “anything which people like to select for adoration” (Jhally, 1990:p53) The intended use of objects has become less important to consumers, it is what these objects now represent that is more significant. Sue Collins quotes Varda Burstyn to demonstrate this in relation to sporting goods: “… it is the idea of the athlete the equipment represents, not the equipment itself that is so passionately emulated and identified with…” (2000) [Online] It is because merchandises are being commoditised that they become more appealing to the average buyers. (Benjamin, 1973)

Commodities have become progressively publicised through various means such as packaging and advertising. (Julier, 2008) Since the twentieth century, advertising has begun to reject the individual consumer and has focused, rather, on a society as a whole, transforming “‘class’ society into ‘mass’ society”. (Corrigan, 1997:p74) In this way, brands have been able to connect particular merchandise with certain groups of people such as feminists or those wishing to live a ‘green’ lifestyle in order that they can target their advertising towards a particular demographic. When advertising certain products the truth, including benefits of the product, is not always presented. People are not always told what the genuine positive impacts an item has neither on people or on the environment. Instead a fairly old method is often employed in which an idea or image, often unrelated, is connected with the merchandise. This may produce a positive subliminal message which then helps sell the product to the public. For example, in 1929 Edward Bernays was hired to create a campaign intended to encourage women to smoke. To do this he focused on the female movement of the period, the suffragettes, using images of women smoking ““torches of freedom” while marching in an Easter Day parade in New York City”. (Holland, n.d.) [Online] The connotation of freedom connected to smoking entered women’s minds on a subconscious level and triggered a rise in female cigarette consumers. “Smoking and freedom was in fact a totally irrational connection but it worked.” (Holland, n.d.) [Online]

Stores are promising various guarantees for their products such as “happiness, every label guarantees high quality.” (Miles, 2010:P98) Advertising not only includes promoting individual products or brands but is effectively a process “drilling into our collective heads” the idea that buying and owning more ‘stuff’ leads to success and happiness. (Hamlett, n.d. a) [Online] Slogans have been a way of subconsciously telling people that they need to buy a particular item or consume a specific brand. Seiko, a brand of watches used the slogan “Seiko. It’s your watch that tells most about who you are”. (Textart, 2012) [Online] Therefore it could be suggested that as well as watches Seiko is selling people an extension of their identity. In this sense, companies are constantly selling people their identities. (Lawson, 2009) Banksy argues that advertisers are effectively telling people that they are inadequate, not good enough, and not sexy enough. He concludes that they are bullying people with the advanced methods of marketing: “They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.” (Solomon, 2012) [Online]

Since consumer society has effectively prompted people to buy more things that they do not necessarily need the amount of waste produced is in turn rising. Many commercial items are now built with the intention that they will eventually be disposed of. This can be referred to as built-in obsolescence, “a method of stimulating consumer demand by designing products that wear out or become outmoded after limited use.” (Attwood, 2008:p115) This process has been embraced by a variety of industries since the 1950s. At this time Harley Earl declared that the process of obsolescence should be sped up “In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years; now it is two. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score.” (Whitely, 1993:p16) Obsolescence is what consumers want which is why disposable products are increasing.

There are obvious items such as razors that make it clear that they are to be disposed of regularly however other products which, in the consumers’ eyes, are expected to last, are also disposable in their own way. The average life of electrical products used to be around 10 years, yet now commodities such as computers are only built to last 3 years and people are replacing other electrical items, for instance mobile phones, every year or so which is not always necessary. Before, people used to repair damaged goods and make do with what they had, but these skills are disappearing from modern culture, which effectively in turn causes more waste. (Lawson, 2009)

It is not just about the amount of waste that is produced that has risen but the amount of unused products that are eventually thrown away. An example of this is food waste; people buy unnecessary items on impulse or in response to advertising. Food has become the largest commodity that is thrown away, totalling up to 21% of the total waste produced in Britain alone. (Lawson, 2009) A questionnaire, by Brian Wansink to find out why people buy items they never use, revealed that many people end up with unused items because the intended purpose the product was bought for never occurred. Over 50% of the 412 American homemakers questioned admitted that they end up just throwing away these unwanted items. (CNN, 1999)

Disposal of waste has become increasingly challenging in recent years, partly as a result of the growth of consumer society. However there are a wide range of disposal methods at hand today such as landfill, incineration, composting and recycling, including reducing and reusing waste. Recycling is one of the more environmentally sustainable methods of disposal which involves “collection, separation… processing of wastes into reusable, marketable products.” (Mansvelt, 2011:p454) Despite this, landfill is still the most common method of waste disposal throughout the world as a whole. (Mansvelt, 2011)

People tend to forget or are not aware that it is not just the disposal of the product that can be environmentally harmful but also the production. Just packaging alone can be a massive issue in terms of sustainability. It begins with the manufacturer producing the raw materials, which are then turned into the required material, such as cardboard. The packaging then needs to be passed around to several people to pack and sell to the end user. Finally the product can be recycled. (Computer Arts, 2007b)

The idea of sustainability is a more recent concept. People, in general, are becoming progressively aware of how unsustainable societies have become globally. Developments have been made in technologies without realising just their potential impact for the environment. In the past, individuals and communities were unaware that the world’s resources could run out. “Effectively, what we have done… is to treat the planet simply as an infinite resource at our disposal.” (Fry, 2009:p1)

For many people today, the environmental challenges that consumerism faces is finally clear especially since the world has provided evidence of shortages of resources that consumerist societies need, including “oil, water, land, soil, clean air and minerals.” (Gabriel and Land, 2006:p196)

These challenges, however, have not necessarily hindered the consumerist culture. It is apparent in some instances that companies have utilized this issue as a proposition to increase sales. Some businesses are openly dedicated to making the world a better, sustainable place. On the other hand, for some it is a useful message to make consumers buy. Consumption is “the leading device through which individuals construct their identities.” (Julier, 2008:p57) The ideological belief that everyone should be greener causes masses to buy the products that will make them appear in this way. Now increasing numbers of companies are constantly inundating the public with messages from various advertising campaigns instructing them to “buy our products… and you will end global warming, improve air quality, and save the oceans.” (Greenpeace, 2012) [Online] These companies are not necessarily sincere in these claims; their products will not necessarily end global warming. This process is called Greenwashing, which is a term coined by Greenpeace around 1990.

Greenwashing has been likened to whitewashing through which unpleasant facts are effectively covered up. (EnviroMedia Social Marketing, 2012) The reality is companies have spent time and money on logos, slogans and packaging to make them appear environmentally friendly, whereas they could have been using the same time and money to actually do something to make a difference to the world’s problems. (Greenpeace, 2012)

It has been shown through greenwashing reports compiled by TerraChoice that things are improving with the number of greener products rising between 2009 and 2010 however 95% of “greener” products identified are still committing at least one of the “sins of greenwashing”. (TerraChoice, 2010:p6)

The opinion has been voiced that “green advertising is fragile” (Tuerff and Davis, 2011) [Online] because convincing consumers to buy products based upon exaggerated claims can do more, unintentional harm to the environment. Businesses that are honest and use sustainable tactics will help to improve the world whereas greenwashers will hinder any developments by using money to make themselves look better in order to sell. (Tuerff and Davis, 2011)

“Good design respects planet, profits and people.” (Aiga, 2011) [Online] Designers can be hired to make a company show through designs, such as packaging and advertisements, that they are environmentally sustainable. Designers are open to challenges that are connected to environmental concerns. Sustainability is more relevant to the environment than design itself, however designers can use the opportunity to fulfil the clients wishes whilst causing no, or very little, damage to society. (Aiga, 2011)

Environmental concerns were already in existence back in the 1960s. At the time certain designers and philosophers, such as Victor Papanek and Ivan Illich, expressed the belief that designers ought to combine commercial needs together with environmental requirements. However there is still a concern today that designers are not in powerful enough positions to make a genuine impact, also the potentially higher production costs and prices of sustainable items and products can hinder both designers and consumers when trying to become environmentally sustainable. (Chapman and Gant, 2007)

Design as a profession has become regarded as a feature of consumerism. (Hamlett, n.d. b) However Jonathan Barnbrook suggests that designers need to stop thinking in only commercial ways. To become more sustainable and actually help people, designers need to be aware of exactly what is going on within their own communities and the rest of the world. Barnbrook argues that design is first and foremost about communication. (Penfold, 2008) “Designers have a responsibility to make clients aware of the environmental aspects of what they’re asking for.” (Computer Arts, 2007b) [Online] Designers need to know all about the production and disposal methods commonly used in order to use a minimal amount of resources.

In 2001 designers, in general were unaware of processes and the amount of resources needed especially for packaging of consumer goods. They were also unaware just how significant the impact cycle of packaging has in relation to the environment. Charter and Tischner suggest that a common rule within packaging design should be that the materials used should “be easily recyclable… or should be made out of natural materials that can be disposed of without causing any problems to natural cycles.” (2001:p135)

The problem then arises when selling to the consumer that may involve changing consumption patterns. As previously mentioned, consumer culture is a massive aspect of life for everybody as it has been used as a means of constructing identities. (Julier, 2008) Possible strategies to promote ecodesign are to make sustainable goods more attractive in order to appeal to and interest potential buyers. With packaging there is the opportunity for designers to provide details about sustainability. This can also be achieved through advertisements and education. (Charter and Tischner, 2001)

Being ‘green’ has been used by some as a selling point however this has become a widely used and recognised approach for promoting many brands. (Swift, 2008) This can cause problems, as mentioned previously, with certain companies employing greenwashing methods to convince people their products will change the world whereas, in reality, they will not. (Greenpeace, 2012) Swift (2008) [online] maintains, “green advertising is still searching for its visual language.”

Despite such potential setbacks, the designer Rick Poynor is convinced that designers have the ability to communicate and influence consumer societies through their work. They can “persuade, change behaviour, initiate and spread visual trends” (Poynor, 2012) [Online] in order to inform society about the environmental challenges that everyone is facing and what can be done about it.

In 2007, the British Design Innovation (BDI), who represent Industrial designers, conducted a survey that concluded that as little as 13% of design businesses had a sustainability policy. (Computer Arts, 2007a) One example of a design business that does have such a policy is Viola Eco-Graphic Design, based in Australia. They make the claim that they are “devoted to best practices in ecologically sustainable design” (Sherin, 2008:p115) Viola designers do not just concentrate on creating appealing designs for consumers, they also focus on what materials they will use including printers. By choosing sustainable technologies they effectively respect the environment thus when the product cycle reaches consumers they are also helping them to become environmentally sustainable.

Anna Carlile, the founder of Viola, believes that there is now a great opportunity for graphic design to impact on the current consumer society by working alongside recognised brands and companies that have made the environment their key concern. Carlile believes that “in the very near future sustainable thinking and a working knowledge of responsible production will be an absolute must for designers.” (Sherin, 2008:p116)

To conclude, it can be seen that societies have tried to become more environmentally sustainable. Companies have begun to adopt more ecological tactics and consumers have become more aware of the effects of waste disposal on the planet. However there are still problems such as greenwashing that mislead people in their attempts to be ‘green’. Although there is evidence of this improving the problem has still not been eradicated. Therefore in a consumer culture it is impossible to be entirely environmentally sustainable. There will always be the consumer demand for new products to replace the old; consequently the issue of waste disposal will never be solved. Sustainable items have become commodities themselves as they have become attractive to current consumers who want to be identified as eco-friendly. So unless consumers stop buying what they do not need and adopt a fully environmentally sustainable lifestyle, it is not possible for a consumer culture to do so. In spite of this improvements can be seen and there are individual companies such as Viola Eco-Graphic Design who are doing what they can for the natural world, nevertheless it will take entire communities to start behaving in the same way for any significant difference to be made. Therefore, to conclude, consumers have the potential to become environmentally sustainable, but currently consumer culture is not.

References:

Aiga (2011) Good Design Respects The Environment [online] Available from: http://www.aiga.org/landing.aspx?pageid=10592&id=52 [Accessed on: 26th February 2012]

Ambrose, G and Harris, P. (2009) The Fundamentals of Graphic Design, AVA Publishing SA, Switzerland

Attwood, J. (2008) Edexcel A Level Design and technology: Product Design, Pearson Education Ltd, Essex

Barber, B. (2007) Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, W.W. Norton and Company Ltd, London

BDI. (2011) About BDI [online] Available from http://www.britishdesigninnovation.com/about [Accessed on: 14th March 2012]

Benjamin, W. (1973) Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism, Translated from German by Harry Zuhn, Verso, London

Chapman, J and Gant, N. (2007) Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories: A Collection of Sustainable Design Essays, Earthscan, London

Charter, M and Tischner, U. (2001) Sustainable Solutions – Developing Products and Services for the Future, Greenleaf Publishing Limited, Sheffield

CNN (1999) Study Unravels Consumer Waste [online] Available from: http://articles.cnn.com/1999-12-08/nature/consumer.waste.enn_1_products-brian-wansink-answer?_s=PM:NATURE [Accessed on: 29th February 2012]

Computer Arts. (2007a) Be A Greener Designer [online] Available from http://computerarts.co.uk/features/be-greener-designer [Accessed on: 26th February 2012]

Computer Arts. (2007b) Green Sleeves [online] Available from: http://www.computerarts.co.uk/features/green-sleeves [Accessed on: 26th February 2012]

Collins, S (2000) “E” Ticket To Nike Town, Counterblast: e-journal of Culture and Communication [online] Available from: http://www.nyu.edu/pubs/counterblast/issue1_nov01/pdf_files/collins.pdf [Accessed on: 14th March 2012]

Corrigan, P. (1997) The Sociology of Consumption: An Introduction, SAGE Publications Ltd, London

EnviroMedia Social Marketing. (2012) What is Greenwashing? [online] Available from: http://www.greenwashingindex.com/what.php [Accessed on: 7th March 2012]

Fry, T, (2009) Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg, Oxford

Gabriel, Y and Lang, T. (2006) The Unmanageable Consumer, Ed.2, SAGE Publications Ltd, London

Greenpeace. (2012) Introduction to StopGreenwash.org [online] Available from: http://stopgreenwash.org/introduction [Accessed on: 7th March 2012]

Hamlett, P. (n.d.a) Are We Sustainable Yet? [online] Available from: http://www.commarts.com/columns/are-sustainable-yet.html [Accessed on: 26th February 2012]

Hamlett, P. (n.d.b) Everything You Know Is Wrong [online] Available from: http://www.commarts.com/Columns.aspx?pub=2075&pageid=857 [Accessed on: 25th February 2012]

Holland, D. (n.d.) Being Human: Feeling Our Way The New Millennium [online] Available from: http://www.commarts.com/Columns.aspx?pub=4707&pageid=1454 [Accessed on: 25th February 2012]

Jhally, S (1990) The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the political economy of meaning in the consumer society, Routledge, New York

Julier, G. (2008) The Culture of Design Ed. 2, SAGE Publications Ltd, London

Lawson, N. (2009) All Consuming, Penguin Books, London

Mansvelt, J. (2011) Green Consumerism: An A-to-Z Guide, SAGE Publications Ltd, London

Miles, S, Anderson, A and Meethan, K. (2002) The Changing Consumer: Markets and Meanings, Routledge, London

Miles, S. (2010) Spaces for Consumption, SAGE Publications Ltd, London

Penfold, M. (2008) Jonathan Barnbrook [online] Accessed from: http://www.computerarts.co.uk/interviews/jonathan-barnbrook [Accessed on: 26th February 2012]

Sherin, A. (2008) SustainAble: A Handbook of Materials and Applications for Graphic Designers and Their Clients, Rockport Publishers Inc, USA

Solomon, B. (2012) Banksy on Advertising [online] Available from: http://thefoxisblack.com/2012/02/29/banksy-on-advertising/ [Accessed on: 29th February 2012]

Swift, R. (2008) ‘Greenwash’ is losing its shine [online] Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7251380.stm [Accessed on: 7th March 2012]

TerraChoice (2010) The Sins of Greenwashing Home and Family Edition [pdf] Available from: http://sinsofgreenwashing.org/findings/greenwashing-report-2010/ [Accessed on: 14th March 2012]

Textart (2012) Database of Slogans [online] Available from: http://www.textart.ru/database/slogan/2-watches-advertising-slogans.html [Accessed on 7th March 2012]

Tuerff, K and Davis, V (2011) On FTC Green Guides: The ad industry doth protest too much [online] Available from: http://www.greenwashingindex.com/commentary_single.php?id=4303 [Accessed on: 7th March 2012]

Whitely, N (1993) Design For Society, Reaktion Books, London

Secondary Resources

da Silva, T (2000) The Curriculum as Fetish, Taboo, Volume 4, Number 1, p:26-27


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Black Lives Matter (Part 3)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Think Like Garvey

Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist leader who influenced Rastafarians, the Nation of Islam and other activists, such as Malcolm X. Although often controversial, his ideas and dreams about the unification and empowerment of African-American people have become known as Garveyism.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born on 17th August 1887 in the Colony of Jamaica. Although it was an ethnic country, there was a colourist social hierarchy and Garvey’s family, with their very dark skin, were at the lowest end. Garvey’s grandparents had been born into slavery and had taken on their Irish owner’s surname. Despite this, Garvey’s parents were considered well-off in the peasant community. His father, Malchus Garvey, was a stonemason and his mother, Sarah Richards, was a domestic servant.

As well as a stonemason, Malchus Garvey was a layman at the local Wesleyan Church, so it was only natural that Marcus attended the church school. At 14, Garvey left school due to a lack of funds and was apprenticed to his godfather, who ran a printing business. Until then, Garvey had not fully felt the effects of racism. He had friends with various skin tones, including a white girl, and he never thought his race would be a problem.

In 1905, Garvey moved to Kingston to work at P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Company, where he became the first Afro-Jamaican foreman. He was able to provide for his mother and sister, who had moved in with him after leaving his father. Sadly, an earthquake struck in 1907, destroying his home. The family were forced to sleep in the open for several months, and his mother died the following year.

Whilst living in Kingston, Garvey converted to Catholicism. He also started to voice his opinions, which led to him being sacked from the manufacturing company. By this point, he was very angry with the inequalities in Jamaican society. After getting a job as the first secretary of Jamaica’s first nationalist organization, the National Club, Garvey enrolled in elocution lessons with Bahamian-born clergyman Dr Robert Love (1831-1914) and began entering public speaking competitions.

Between 1910 and 1914, Garvey travelled abroad, beginning with Costa Rica, where he worked as a timekeeper on a large banana plantation. He also briefly set up his own newspaper Nation/La Nación, in which he expressed his strong opinions. Garvey gradually worked his way through Central America, moving from job to job until he decided to travel to London in the hopes of improving his education.

In London, Garvey found a job as a labourer in the city docks. His sister, Indiana, came over to join him and found herself a position as a domestic servant. Garvey noted there were not many black people in the city, and those he came across were usually some form of labourer. Garvey visited the House of Commons during his stay and was impressed by the politician David Lloyd George. He also visited Hyde Park Corner and began to regularly speak there.

In 1913, Garvey got a job at the African Times and Orient Review as a runner and began writing for them the following year. After a brief trip through Europe, during which he had a short engagement with a Spanish-Irish heiress, Garvey had run out of funds and decided to return to Jamaica. During the journey, he met and spoke to an Afro-Caribbean missionary who inspired Garvey to envision a movement that would unite all black people of African descent.

This idea formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, commonly abbreviated as UNIA, which Garvey launched in July 1914 with the motto “One Aim. One God. One Destiny”. The association aimed to establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa.” The association got off to a very slow start but Garvey was enthusiastic and attended many meetings, including with the Queen Street Baptist Literary and Debating Society, where he met Amy Ashwood, with whom he secretly became engaged.

Having failed to gain many members in Jamaica, Garvey moved the UNIA to the USA, where he initially lodged with a Jamaican expatriate in New York City. He travelled the country lecturing, having been inspired by black Baptist and Episcopal preachers. Back in New York, Garvey targeted his speeches at Afro-Caribbeans as well as African-Americans. Membership of the UNIA began to grow rapidly.

Within 18 months of its establishment in the USA, the UNIA had branches in 25 states as well as some Central American countries. It is not certain how many people became members of the association, but at one point, Garvey boasted over 2 million members. Unlike other activist groups, the UNIA had a blacks-only policy, so Garvey was often accused of hindering attempts at racial integration. Things came to a head when Garvey called the writer Cyril Briggs (1888-1966) and other members “white” because of their mixed heritage.

In October 1919, a vendor of Negro World attempted to assassinate Garvey, who survived with a couple of gunshots to his legs. The shooter, George Tyler, was arrested but died attempting to escape from prison. With his mortality in mind, Garvey married Amy Ashwood at a private Roman Catholic service on Christmas Day. Sadly, the marriage lasted little more than three months, and they soon separated.

Garvey moved on to new and bigger ideas, including the Black Star Line, a ship for black people run by black people. The ships travelled between Africa and the Americas, and after a few monetary problems, began to do quite well. Unfortunately, many people were beginning to dislike Garvey for his views, and he was often booed at his speeches.

In 1922, Garvey and three other UNIA officials were charged with fraud involving the Black Star Line. Their finances were in a mess and contained many inaccuracies, so it was difficult for them to defend themselves. Garvey was found guilty and imprisoned for five years. On his release in 1927, Garvey was deported to Jamaica.

Garvey continued to work with the UNIA, but people were confused when he collaborated with organisations like the KKK. Garvey reportedly claimed he respected white supremacists because they acted on their word, unlike other white people. As a result, Garvey lost a lot of support within the Black population.

In 1935, Garvey moved to London, where he died after a series of strokes in 1940. By this time, he was far less popular than he had been a decade ago, but in 1964, Jamaica hailed him as a national hero. Although he alienated a lot of people through his radical beliefs and actions, he was the spark that influenced many civil rights activists, for instance, Malcolm X. Most of his Black Nationalist views have been ignored, but his key messages live on, particularly “Black is beautiful”.

“We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honour black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history … I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way.” – Marcus Garvey

Build Like Madam C.J.

Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America; she was also the first black female millionaire. Despite racism being rife in the country, Madam C.J. built an empire from nothing, developing a line of hair and beauty products for black women. She is also remembered for being a civil rights activist.

Born on 23rd December 1867 in Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, Madam C.J. was originally known as Sarah. She had one sister and four brothers, the elder of whom were born into slavery. Sarah was the first Breedlove child born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862. Sadly, her mother passed away from cholera in 1872, and her father died the following year.

From the age of ten, Sarah was brought up in Mississippi by her much older sister Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. Around the same time, Sarah began working as a domestic servant. As an orphan, she had no time or money to go to school, and the only education she received was at Sunday school before the death of her parents.

Sarah had a rough time living with Louvenia. Jesse was an abusive man, and Sarah took the first opportunity to escape from the household: getting married. Sarah was only 14 years old when she married Moses McWilliams in 1882. Three years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia (1885-1931), but in 1887, their lives were shattered by the death of Moses.

To earn money, Sarah moved to St Louis, Missouri, where her brothers lived to work as a laundress. She was determined to earn enough money to send her daughter to school, which was a difficult task earning less than $1 a day. Sarah also wanted to live an educated life and was jealous of the educated women at the African Methodist Episcopal Church she attended.

In 1894, Sarah married John Davis, but their marriage was not a happy one, and she left him in 1903. Meanwhile, Sarah was battling severe dandruff, leading to baldness, which was a common problem for black women at the time. Hair products were made for white-skinned customers and were unsuitable for African-Americans.

Sarah knew a little about haircare from her brothers, who were barbers, but she was determined to do something about the quality of products available for black women. In 1904, she became an agent for Annie Malone (1877-1957), a black inventor and businesswoman, who specialised in cosmetics. Using the knowledge she gained working for Malone, Sarah began to develop her own products. Meanwhile, she continued to work for Malone in Denver, Colorado, where she had moved in 1905. When Malone found out about Sarah’s products, she accused her of stealing the formula despite it having been around for centuries. From then on, Sarah and Malone were rivals.

In 1906, Sarah married a newspaper advertising salesman, Charles Joseph Walker (d.1926), and took on his name. Soon she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, a name under which she marketed her products. To begin with, Sarah sold her products door-to-door whilst her husband began to arrange advertising and promotion. When business improved, A’Lelia became involved with the business, setting up a mail-order operation in their home. Charles and Sarah travelled to the southern states to promote the business, eventually moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to set up a beauty parlour and training college.

A’Lelia joined Madam C.J. in Pittsburgh in 1907 and persuaded her mother to open a beauty salon and office in New York. In 1910, Madam C.J. relocated to Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and began hiring staff to help with the management.

Despite the competition, Madam C.J.’s products were popular because they helped hair to regrow and prevented them from becoming brittle. Between 1911 and 1919, she employed thousands of women and trained over 20,000 people. Unfortunately, Charles and Sarah divorced in 1912, meaning she lost her business partner.

As well as training her staff in haircare, she taught black women how to build their own businesses and become financially independent. In 1917, she established the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents, which welcomed 200 people to its first annual conference. This was also the first-ever conference for businesswomen in the USA.

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” This is what Madam C.J. told the National Negro Business League (NNBL) when she spoke at one of their meetings in 1912. As well as concentrating on her business, Madam C.J. involved herself in many good causes, wishing to put her well-earned money to good use.

Madam C.J. helped to raise funds for the YMCA and donated money to various churches and schools. She also became a patron of the arts and became friends with notable people, such as the author Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). In 1917, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the following year, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), making sizable monetary donations to both.

Around this time, Madam C.J. began to suffer from kidney failure and hypertension, passing away on 25th May 1919 at the age of 51. At her death, she was worth an estimated one million dollars, making her the wealthiest African-American woman in the country. Her daughter took over the company as its president, which continued to operate until 1981.

Madam C.J. Walker has been honoured several times since her death, including in recent years. Her company’s building in Indianapolis has been designated a National Historic Landmark, which now houses the Madam Walker Legacy Centre. In 2006, American actress and playwright Regina Taylor wrote The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove about Madam C.J.’s journey from rags to riches. Her most recent honour occurred in 2016 when the French beauty company Sephora launched a line of hair products called “Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture”, which are suitable for many different hair types. 

Not only did Madam C.J. Walker create a successful business at a time when black people were struggling for equality, but she also improved the lives of thousands of others. Thanks to her, black women were able to start their own businesses, thus helping them escape poverty and oppression. Madam C.J. was also a huge inspiration for future hair care and cosmetic businesses and will continue to be looked up to in years to come.


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The Best Address in Bath

“The best address in Bath” is how The Times describes No. 1 Royal Crescent. The address is the first building on the eastern end of the Royal Crescent, built in the 18th century. The curved row of terrace houses has significant architectural and historical importance and is safeguarded by the Bath Preservation Trust. No. 1 Royal Crescent belongs to the Trust and is decorated and furnished as it might have been between 1776 and 1796. Open to the public six days a week, visitors can learn about life in Georgian Bath, including the differences between upper and lower classes.

The Royal Crescent was built by John Wood the Younger (1728-81) between 1767 and 1774. It was probably designed by Wood’s father, John Wood the Elder (1704-54), who planned many other buildings in Bath before his death, including Queen Square and the Circus. Both men were known for constructions that defied usual geometric architecture in favour of curved lines, such as the crescent shape of the Royal Crescent.

The grandeur of the terraced houses made the Royal Crescent a fashionable address. It was also the first crescent-shaped terrace of townhouses in Europe, which made it all the more appealing to the upper classes. The houses were rented out to many notable people, including Prince Frederick, Duke of York (1763-1827), and his wife, Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia (1767-1820). The royal couple frequently visited Bath and stayed at No. 16 when in the city.

The first resident of No. 1 Royal Crescent was Henry Sandford (1751-1814), a landowner and future baron from Ireland. Details in his commonplace books record some of the goings-on in the crescent, including wild parties at No. 30 that frequently got out of hand. Sandford’s commonplace books, of which two survive, are held in the National Library of Ireland. As a widower, he left his Irish estates in the capable hands of his sons and moved to Bath to take advantage of the healing properties of the waters.

According to the Bath Journal, Sandford passed away in February 1796 and was buried in St Swithin’s Church in the parish of Walcot. Several residents passed through No. 1 Royal Crescent during the following century, including Eliza Evans, who ran a school for young ladies between the ages of eleven and fifteen. At the beginning of the 20th century, the property became a lodging house run by Stephen and Elizabeth Thomas and family until it was divided into two properties in 1967.

One of the lodgers at the house was George Saintsbury (1845-1933), a highly influential critic and literary historian. He moved into rooms on the ground floor in 1916, which were originally the servants’ quarters, after retiring as Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Sainstbury wrote on a range of literary topics and was close friends with other authors, including Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).

Whilst living in Bath, Saintsbury wrote Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920), filled with tasting notes, menus, and robust opinions about wine. Saintsbury was a keen wine connoisseur who inspired the French wine merchant André Simon (1877-1970) to set up the Saintsbury Club in 1933 in his honour. The Saintsbury Club continues to meet today in Napa Valley, California, where a vineyard was also named after Saintsbury.

Following Saintsbury’s death, the Bath Preservation Trust began campaigning for the protection of historic buildings in the city. The Royal Crescent is one of several important residences in Bath, but it was not until 1967 that someone came up with the idea of turning No.1 Royal Crescent into a museum for posterity. The man with the vision was Bernard Cayzer (1914-81), a man of some wealth who supported the Trust and their work. Unfortunately, the sale only included the upper wings of the house, making the servants’ quarters a separate dwelling.

Restoration and refurbishment began in 1968, gradually restoring the building to its original 18th-century appearance. This involved removing partitions and raising the level of the first-floor windows. Cayzer established a house committee to oversee the interior design of the rooms. Members included Philip Jebb (1927-95), a restorer of Georgian buildings, and Peter Thornton (1925-2007), the keeper of furniture and woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a curator at the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Only the main rooms, including the dining room, library, and one bedroom, were given Georgian furnishings, the others were converted into offices or flats. The restored rooms were eventually opened to the public as a museum on 20th June 1970.

In 2006, No. 1a Royal Crescent came on the market, and the Bath Preservation Trust jumped at the chance to purchase it and reunite it with the rest of the property. With the help of a local philanthropist, Andrew Brownsword (born 1947), who made his money by establishing the Forever Friends teddy bear company, the Trust bought the property. Between 1968 and 2006, knowledge of Georgian interiors had increased significantly, and the designs of the rooms in the museum were not historically correct. Instead of only refurbishing the servant quarters to their Georgian roots, the Trust decided to give the museum a complete make-over and open more rooms to the public.

Nicknamed “The Whole Story Project”, building works began in October 2012. The original courtyard, which separated the servant quarters and the rest of the house, was reintroduced, as were Venetian windows. Carpets and wallpapers were produced in Georgian styles, and a sensitive lighting system was installed. Whilst the architects and designers aimed to be faithful to 18th-century fashions, they made an exception for a modern lift to give access to all levels of the museum. Finally, the museum reopened on 21st June 2013.

Visitors to No. 1 Royal Crescent are accompanied on a self-guided tour by disembodied voices belonging to imagined inhabitants of the building. Discussions range from idle gossip, preparing for an evening out and worries about a wayward son. Additional information about each room and particular objects are accessible by scanning QR codes with a mobile phone.

On the ground floor is the dining room, an essentially masculine space for entertaining guests. Decorated with family portraits, the room symbolised the host’s wealth and importance in society. Wealthy families dined a la française, meaning numerous dishes were placed on the table for guests to help themselves to what they desired. The food was served on elegant porcelain dining sets, which typically cost over £30, the equivalent of £2,000 today.

The dining table at No. 1 Royal Crescent is set for dessert. This course was another way for the host to boast of his wealth, providing his guests with expensive sweet treats and impressive sugar sculpture table decorations. Unfortunately, these luxuries came at the cost of thousands of enslaved Africans, who were forced to grow and harvest sugarcane and other commodities under the British transatlantic slave trade.

The parlour was a less formal room for breakfast, tea and daily activities. No. 1 Royal Crescent furnished their parlour with a table set for the early morning meal, a bureau for letter writing and a bookcase containing the types of literature available in the Georgian era. Amongst the latter is the Guide to Watering and Sea Bathing Places, which details the benefits of spas, such as the natural spring in Bath.

Next to the parlour is a small room known as the Gentleman’s Retreat. Here, the man of the house could escape his family to read or study subjects of interest. Many cultured Georgians enjoyed science, the natural world and “modern” inventions. The 18th century is sometimes known as the Age of Enlightenment because explorers were discovering new things about the world and beginning to understand the workings of the universe. Several cabinets at No. 1 Royal Crescent reflect this period of discovery, with items such as animal skulls, fossils, a globe and a replica of Edward Nairne’s Patent Electrical Machine.

Ladies did not have a retreat like their husbands. Instead, their sanctum was their bedchambers. Situated on the first floor of the house, the bedroom functioned as a place to sleep and undertake their toilette. The latter involved the assistance of a maid who styled the lady’s hair and applied make-up. Husbands and wives usually slept in separate rooms, so the lady was free to invite guests into her chamber. While getting dressed, friends often arrived with gossip about the goings on in society, including the latest fashions.

Of course, the bedroom was only an appropriate place to receive visitors when dressing for the day’s activities. After meals, women usually headed to the Withdrawing Room to drink tea while the men remained in the Dining Room with alcoholic beverages. Eventually, the men joined the women to play card games or listen to music played on the harpsichord, usually by one of the daughters.

At No. 1 Royal Crescent, the table in the Withdrawing Room is set with teacups and a plate of biscuits. The teacups resemble small dishes with no handles, inspired by fashions brought over from China. There is no sugar bowl on the table, which references the anti-saccarite movement of 1791 onwards, where women refused to put sugar in their tea in protest of the transatlantic slave trade. Since women could not vote to abolish the trade, they often found other ways to express their opinion.

On the second floor, the museum has furnished one room to resemble a gentleman’s bedroom. It is not too dissimilar from the lady’s bedchamber, but it is unlikely any guests visited the room. For this reason, the furnishings are less elaborate, although they still suggest significant wealth.

The basement area of the house is a stark contrast to the upper levels. The kitchens of 18th-century townhouses were always “downstairs” in the servant quarters. Whilst the family lived in carpeted and wallpapered rooms, the servants had stone floors and bare walls. Until the 18th century, cooks were traditionally men. Large households often employed Frenchmen, believing them to be the most skilled. They were also the most expensive. During the Georgian era, smaller houses began hiring women, paying them a much lower wage.

Wealthy Georgian families employed a range of staff, some who worked upstairs, such as the lady’s maid, and others who worked downstairs alongside the cook. The lowest paid position was the scullery maid, who was responsible for cleaning the house and doing the laundry. She washed pots and pans, scrubbed floors, and cleaned up after the servants. In Bath, families often sent their linen elsewhere for laundering, but the scullery maid performed the occasional clothes wash. These tasks took place in the scullery, where the maid probably slept. She was generally aged between 10 and 13 and received only £2 10 shillings a year (approximately £12 today).

Male servants received more money than the women, particularly the Butler, who received approximately £25 per year (£2,181 today). Unlike women, men were taxed on income to fund the American War of Independence. Nonetheless, the Butler also received extra rations of tea and other benefits. In houses the size of No. 1 Royal Crescent, the Butler also took on the role of Footman and Valet, making him the only male servant. As a footman, he would accompany his master around the city or conduct errands on his master’s behalf. He also answered the door to visitors, cleaned and polished shoes, and set the table for meals. The Valet was the equivalent of a lady’s maid and performed tasks such as maintaining his master’s clothes, running his bath and so forth.

The most important female servant was the House Keeper. She was usually an older woman and received her own room, where she slept, dined and organised the household bills. Her main task was to oversee the servants and make sure everything was running smoothly. She usually answered to the Mistress of the house, who gave instructions to pass on to the servants. As a salary, the House Keeper earned around £15 per year (£1,308 today) but also received extra rations of tea and sugar.

Whilst the House Keeper dined alone, the rest of the servants ate in the Servant Hall, except for the Scullery Maid. The latter looked after the kitchen until the others finished eating. The servants lived by the saying “Waste Not. Want Not” and usually ate the remains of the food their employers did not finish.

Servants were given a set of rules to follow in the Servants Hall, for which they faced a forfeit if they broke. Examples included no swearing or arguing, only using their own knife and fork, and never wearing a hat inside. Each rule broken cost the servants one penny, which came out of their wages at Christmas.

The way No. 1 Royal Crescent is set out provides visitors with a sense of what it would have been like to live there. Both the rich and poor lived under one roof but had completely different lifestyles, which seem alien compared to the 21st century. It is thanks to organisations, such as the Bath Preservation Trust, that the lives, fashions and buildings of the past are available for people to explore.

No. 1 Royal Crescent is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 5:30pm. Tickets cost between £11 and £13 for adults, depending on the time of year. Children can visit for half the price. Pre-booked tickets are recommended.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 2)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Fight Like Malcolm

Malcolm Stuart Little, or Malcolm X as he was better known, was an African American nationalist and civil rights activist. Malcolm was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Baptist lay-preacher Earl Little and Louise Helen Little, who were both involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They taught their children to stand up for themselves and be proud of their heritage and black skin. Yet, the family were constantly targeted by the racist group, the Black Legion, forcing them to move twice, firstly to Wisconsin, then to Michigan.

Malcolm’s father died when he was only six years old. The official ruling was Earl had been involved in a streetcar accident, but Malcolm’s mother was certain it had been murder. In 1937, by which time Malcolm was 12, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster care.

Malcolm did well at school but was deterred from going on to study law by a teacher who told him it was not a realistic career for a black man. As a result, Malcolm looked for jobs but never settled anywhere for long, eventually falling in with the wrong crowd in New York. For some time, Malcolm was involved with drugs, gambling, pimping and robbery until he was arrested for the latter in 1946.

While in prison, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded in 1930 that aimed to improve the lives of African Americans. On his release, Malcolm contacted the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who helped him convert to Islam and encouraged him to join the movement. All members were instructed to leave their family names behind and replace them with the letter X. Malcolm was more than happy to leave the name “Little” behind, which had been given to his ancestors by a slavemaster. Thus, he became known as Malcolm X.

In 1953, Malcolm became the assistant minister at a temple in Detroit, where he proved to be a skilful speaker and encouraged many people to join the Nation of Islam. Amongst Malcolm’s recruits to the Nation of Islam was the boxer Cassius Clay, who adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. The FBI opened a file on Malcolm after he declared himself a communist. His popularity amongst the movement’s members increased the FBI’s concerns.

Malcolm married Betty Sanders in 1958, who renamed herself Betty X after joining the Nation of Islam. They had six daughters who they named after notable Muslims: Attallah (Attila the Hun), Qubilah (Kublai Khan), Ilyasah (Elijah Muhammad), Gamilah Lumumba (Gamal Abdel Nasser and Patrice Lumumba), and twins: Malikah and Malaak, named after Malcolm, who took on the Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Teaching the movement’s followers that all white people were bad, Malcolm made himself a public figure, turning up at police stations to protest the wrongful arrests of several black people. His comments on various issues were published in magazines or reported on radio and television. Topics included the Nation of Islam’s beliefs that black people were the original people of the world. They believed white people were devils, blacks were superior to whites, and the demise of the white race was imminent. These statements alarmed many people of all races, particularly followers of Martin Luther King Jr, who wanted blacks accepted as equal to whites.

Between 1962 and 1963, Malcolm began to reassess his involvement with the Nation of Islam. He began to disagree with some of Elijah Muhammad’s choices and disapproved of Muhammad’s involvement in extramarital affairs, which went against the movement’s teachings. By 1964, Malcolm believed the movement had gone as far as it could, and felt restricted by its rigid teachings. Although he wanted to remain a Muslim, Malcolm wanted to support other civil rights leaders, which Muhammad had actively discouraged.

After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, which focused more on the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Later that year, he took the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met Muslims of “all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” which made him realise there was not a superior race, but that everyone was equal.

Having completed his journey to Mecca, Malcolm visited several African countries where he gave many interviews and television appearances. Following this, he visited France and the United Kingdom, where he involved himself in national debates. On his return to the USA, he was invited to speak at various universities and public spaces, encouraging people to fight for their rights and support one another.

As time passed, Malcolm received many death threats, and not only from anti-black organisations. The Nation of Islam branded Malcolm a hypocrite and wished to “bump him off”. Despite warning many people of the threats against his life, no one was able to prevent gunmen from advancing on him during a speech. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm on 21st February 1965, having suffered 21 gunshot wounds. The assassins were identified as members of the Nation of Islam, but only Talmadge Hayer was convicted. Hayer refused to name the other men, and, to this day, they remain unknown. The case continues to intrigue people, and earlier this year (2020), Netflix aired the docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? which launched a new investigation into the assassination.  

After Malcolm’s death, Martin Luther King Jr got in touch with his wife, saying, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Even those who were against Malcolm’s beliefs and ideas were shocked at his death.

Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history. Although many did not approve of his tactics and beliefs, his actions stirred black communities into action to fight for the lives they deserved. As one biographer put it, Malcolm X “made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands.”

Write like Maya

Maya Angelou was one of the most influential black poets of the 20th and early 21st century, writing on themes of racism, identity, family and travel. She was also a civil rights activist and worked with Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. She was showered with awards and over 50 honorary degrees, but her life was not always plain sailing.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4th April 1928 in Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Johnson, Maya was given her nickname by her older brother, Bailey Jr. Unfortunately, her parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and they separated when she was three years old. Rather than take responsibility for his children, her father sent them to Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. They remained there until Maya was seven when they moved home to live with their mother.

Sadly, living with their mother also meant living with their mother’s abusive boyfriend, who raped Maya when she was only eight years old. The man was arrested and locked up for one day but was murdered four days later, most likely by Maya’s uncles. The abuse greatly affected Maya, who became mute for five years, even after moving back in with her grandmother. Fortunately, her school teacher helped Maya to regain her voice whilst also feeding her passion for reading, introducing the young girl to authors who would influence her future career.

When Maya was 14, she rejoined her mother, who was then living in California. At 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, where she worked whilst also attending school. Unfortunately, she got herself in trouble, and no more than three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to a baby boy, Clyde.

In 1951, Maya married a Greek electrician called Tosh Angelos, despite her mother’s disapproval. At that time, interracial marriages were unusual. Maya began taking dance lessons and dreamt of a career in a dance team. In an attempt to increase her prospects, Maya, Tosh and Clyde moved to New York for a year, where she studied African dance. For reasons unknown, in 1954, not long after returning to San Francisco, Maya’s marriage ended.

Having to fend for herself financially, Maya began dancing in local clubs, such as The Purple Onion, under her professional name, Maya Angelou. In 1954-5, she toured Europe by acting in the opera Porgy and Bess and, in 1957, wrote and recorded an album called Miss Calypso. In every country she visited, Maya made a point of learning the language, quickly becoming proficiently multilingual.

In 1959, African-American author John Oliver Killens encouraged Maya to focus on writing songs and poems rather than solely performing. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and soon became a published author. The following year, she met Martin Luther King Jr and was inspired to organise a concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called Cabaret for Freedom

Maya had a brief relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo in 1961 along with her son, who had renamed himself, Guy. The relationship only lasted a year, after which Maya moved to Ghana, where her son enrolled at university. While Guy was studying, Maya worked as a freelance writer for The African Review and Radio Ghana. 

Whilst living in Ghana, Maya met Malcolm X, who was touring Africa. He encouraged her to return to the USA in 1965 and help him set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after, Malcolm X was assassinated, and Maya, at a loss, moved to Hawaii, where her brother lived and refocused on her singing career. Not long after, she returned to Los Angeles to resume her writing career.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr approached Maya for help organising a march. Tragically, in a similar fate to Malcolm X, King was assassinated on Maya’s 40th birthday. After a bout of depression, Maya resumed writing and published her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Initially, the publishers were unsure whether to publish the book, but it went on to become a bestseller, earning Maya international recognition. 

In 1972, Maya became the first black woman to write a screenplay, which was filmed in Sweden and released under the name Georgia, Georgia. She also wrote the soundtrack for the film. The following year, she married the Welsh carpenter Paul du Feu, who had once been married to the radical feminist Germaine Greer. For the next decade, Maya continued writing articles, screenplays, poems and books and became close friends with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her second marriage ended in divorce in 1981.

Returning to the southern states, Maya accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, becoming one of the first black women to be a full-time professor. She taught on a variety of themes that interested her, including philosophy, ethics, writing and theatre, but also continued to write.

In 1993, Maya Angelou recited one of her poems at the inauguration of Bill Clinton – the first poet to do so since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. This televised event increased her fame across the world and earned her a Grammy Award. In 1996, she finally achieved her goal of directing a film (Down in the Delta) and, by 2002, she had published her 6th autobiography. 

Hillary Clinton, during her campaign for the Democratic Party 2008 presidential primaries, used Maya Angelou’s endorsement in her advertisements. After Obama won the primary, Maya gave him her full support. When Obama became the first African-American president, Maya said, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.”

Maya published her 7th and final autobiography in 2013 called Mom & Me & Mom, focusing on her relationship with her mother. The following year, on 28th May 2014, Maya passed away after her health deteriorated. Despite cancelling a few events, Maya Angelou was working and attended events until her death. Tributes flooded in as soon as the news was made public, and her first biography instantly became the number one bestseller on Amazon. A public funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had been a member for 30 years. 

As well as the Grammy Award for her poetry recital at Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou received several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, two more Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and over 50 honorary degrees. Although these were awarded for her talents, they were also a sign that she overcame her past and did not let racial inequalities stand in the way of her success.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 1)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Dream like Martin

Martin Luther King Junior was an American minister who became the spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 until his assassination in 1968. He is a hero and inspiration for the recent Black Lives Matter campaign and was instrumental in combating racial inequality in the United States.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 15th January 1929, he was originally named Michael, although his father, Reverend Michael King Snr, claimed this to be a mistake. Apparently, his mother, Alberta, gave him the name Michael, which a physician entered onto the birth certificate without consulting the father. Nonetheless, after a trip to Germany in 1934, where he learnt about the German professor Martin Luther, Michael King Snr began referring to himself as Martin Luther King and his son as Martin Luther King Jr. On 23rd July 1957, Junior’s name was officially changed on his birth certificate.

King and his two younger siblings grew up listening to bible stories and lived in harmony with black and white children until they began school. Only then did King notice the difference in treatment between black and white. King had no choice but to attend Younge Street Elementary School for black children and was no longer allowed to play with his white friends. His father refused to accept segregation laws and led protests and marches in Atlanta.

King Jr began to resent racial humiliation during his teenage years. He had grown up memorising bible passages and hymns, but his experiences as a black boy made him question the authenticity of Christian beliefs. Fortunately, his mentor at college, a Baptist minister, who also became his spiritual mentor, encouraged King to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from college, King enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.

In 1951, King began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University, and the following year he was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Whilst studying in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, who he later married on 18th June 1953. Over the next decade, the Kings became the parents of four children: Yolanda King (1955–2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963).

In 1955, a schoolgirl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat for a white man in protest of the enforced racial segregation laws. King, who was in the Birmingham African-American community, looked into the case, but it was eventually dismissed on account of Colvin being a minor. Later that year, a similar incident occurred when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. As a result, King led a boycott of the buses in Montgomery, which lasted 385 days until King’s house was bombed. Although King was arrested during the campaign, it resulted in the end of racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

In 1957, King and some other black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which aimed to encourage black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the name of civil rights. The conference was inspired by Reverend Billy Graham, who, despite being white, had befriended King and shared his sentiments. During the SCLC’s 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom demonstration in Washington, King made his first public speech to the nation.

The following year, King published his book Stride Toward Freedom. During a book signing in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener. He narrowly escaped death with the help of surgeons and was hospitalised for three weeks. The attack was not deemed a racial offence as the perpetrator was a mentally ill black woman called Izola Curry, who believed King was conspiring against her with a group of Communists. 

After recovering from his near-death experience, King returned to the fore of the Civil Rights movement and led several non-violent protests and marches. These aimed to provide black citizens with the right to vote and provide labour and civil rights, most of which were granted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

King and the SCLC involved themselves with uprisings around the country. In Albany, Georgia, King was arrested at a peaceful demonstration in 1961 and again in 1962. The following year in Birmingham, Alabama, King was arrested again for campaigning against racial segregation and economic injustice. This was his 13th arrest, and by the end of his life, he had been arrested 29 times. Nonetheless, he remained undeterred and joined or organised protests in New York and Florida in 1964.

Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous “I have a dream” speech took place during the March on Washington in 1963. The march demanded the removal of racial segregation in schools, a law to prevent racial discrimination at work, a minimum wage for black workers and protection from police brutality, amongst other things. King’s speech has since been listed as one of the finest speeches in the history of America.

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

King continued to organise marches, speeches and protests and, in 1967, involved the SCLC with the protests against the war in Vietnam. Not only was King concerned about black rights, but he also spoke strongly against the USA’s involvement in the war in general. Following this, in 1968, King organised the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address the issues of economic justice across America. By then, some circumstances had improved for black people, and King emphasised that black and white were equal and everyone deserved the same rights.

On 29th March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support the strike of black sanitary public works employees, where he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The following evening, whilst standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where he was staying, Martin Luther King Jr was fatally shot in the face by James Earl Ray. Despite being rushed to hospital, King passed away an hour later. His death resulted in mass riots in cities across America until, on 7th April, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for the Civil Rights leader. Just days after his death, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed to prohibit discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions based on race, religion, or national origin.

Despite dying at the age of 39, Martin Luther King Jr’s actions and legacy changed the lives of black people forever. The struggle was by no means over, but black and white were beginning to live in harmony. His dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” was finally coming true.

Lead like Harriet

Araminta “Minty” Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland but later escaped and became one of the leaders of the “Underground Railroad”, which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It is not certain when Harriet and her eight siblings were born, but it is estimated to be between 1815 and 1825. Plantation owners owned her parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, and some of their children were sold to other plantations in other states.

Physical violence was a common occurrence for Harriet and her family, particularly in the form of whipping. Harriet carried scars on her back for the rest of her life. On one occasion, when she refused to do something, Harriet’s overseer threw a two-pound weight at her head, knocking her out. This led to seizures, headaches and narcolepsy, which Harriet suffered for the rest of her life. On the other hand, the seizures caused her to fall into intense dream states, which she believed to be religious experiences.

Harriet’s father became a free man at the age of 45, but having nowhere to go, he remained working on the plantation in slave-like conditions. He did not feel he could leave his family, who remained in the plantation owner’s possession. Even when Harriet married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, she was not released from slavery.

In 1849, Harriet made her first trip from South to North following a network known as the Underground Railroad. Following the death of her owner, Harriet decided to escape from slavery and run away to Philadelphia. On 17th September 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers began the long journey, but after they learnt that Harriet was being sought in the papers for a reward of $300, the boys had second thoughts and returned home. Harriet’s husband had also refused to go with her and later took on a new wife.

Continuing alone, Harriet travelled almost 90 miles to Philadelphia, where she finally entered a Free State. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But this was not the end of Harriet’s story. No sooner had she arrived, she returned to the South to help more than 300 people escape from slavery. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet made 19 trips, the first being to help her niece Kessiah and family flee from the harsh conditions. 

Things became harder when the Fugitive Slave Law came into practice, stating that escaped slaves could be arrested and returned to their owners even if they were living in Free States. Nonetheless, Harriet persevered, rerouting the Underground Railroad to Canada.

Harriet had a prophetic vision about the abolitionist John Brown, who she later met in 1858. Although Brown advocated violence, he ultimately wanted the same result as Harriet, and they began working together. Unfortunately, Brown was arrested and executed, for which Harriet praised him as a martyr.

During the Civil War, Harriet entered the Union Army as a cook and nurse, although she ended up working as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, which resulted in the liberation of over 700 slaves in South Carolina.

In 1859, Harriet bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York, from fellow abolitionist Senator William H. Seward. Ten years later, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis and, in 1874, adopted a baby girl called Gertie. They lived happily in their own home, despite never being financially secure. Friends and supporters endeavoured to raise money for her. One fan, Sarah H. Bradford, wrote Harriet’s biography and gave her all the proceeds.

In 1903, Harriet opened her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, five years later, opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Sadly, Harriet’s health was not good. The physical abuse received as a slave caused her severe problems, resulting in brain surgery to alleviate some of the pain. She died in 1917 from pneumonia and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery with military honours.

At the end of the 20th century, Harriet Tubman was named one of the most famous civilians in American History, and she will soon be the face of the new $20 bill. Yet, outside of America, Harriet remains unknown, although, in 2019, a film was released titled Harriet, which documents her life as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. A Woman Called Moses from 1978 also documents her career. 

To be continued…


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Walter Sickert

Until 18th September 2022, Tate Britain is exhibiting the works of Walter Sickert, one of Britain’s most influential artists of the 20th century. Taught by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and influenced by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Sickert became a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism. As painting techniques developed in Britain, so did Sickert’s artwork, and he was not afraid to depict the lives of ordinary people and places rather than the idealised scenes of yesteryear.

Walter Richard Sickert was born on 31st May 1860 in Munich, Germany, although neither of his parents were German. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-85), was a Danish painter of landscapes and genre scenes who travelled to Munich for his studies. Sickert’s mother, Eleanor Louisa Henry, was the daughter of the English astronomer Richard Sheepshanks (1794-1855). Following the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein when Sickert was eight years old, the family moved to London and obtained British nationality.

Sickert initially attended University College School, an independent school in Hampstead established by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), but transferred to King’s College School in Wimbledon at the age of 11. Despite his father’s artistic influence, Sickert initially pursued a career in acting and joined Sir Henry Irving’s (1838-1905) company. After taking on minor roles in a few productions, Sickert switched to studying art.

After a short attendance at the Slade School of Art in 1882, Sickert left to become a pupil and assistant of James Whistler. Many of Sickert’s early works were influenced by Whistler, particularly the art of painting alla prima (literally “at first attempt“), which meant layering wet paint upon wet paint rather than waiting for individual layers to dry. The technique allowed Sickert to paint from nature and capture images quickly.

Sickert’s painting technique changed after he travelled to France in 1883 and became the mentee of Edgar Degas, who encouraged him to plan his paintings with preliminary drawings. Sickert began using a grid system and leaving layers to dry between coats.

Under Degas’ guidance, Sickert’s paid attention to individual components of a painting, resulting in precise details rather than the blurred outlines of his earlier work. Sickert preferred sombre colours, although Degas tried to persuade him to introduce brighter tones. Sickert’s previous training focused on Impressionism, a style often painted en plein air, but Degas persuaded Sickert to work with drawings and memory in a studio to focus more on the artwork’s details. Sickert took this advice on board, and many of his future works were created in a studio, sometimes using photographs as a reference.

In 1888, Sickert joined the New English Art Club (NEAC), an alternative organisation to the Royal Academy, influenced primarily by French artists. Founded in 1885, the NEAC held annual exhibitions at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Whilst the Royal Academy preferred traditional painting methods, the NEAC embraced Impressionism and other figurative styles. Ironically, the NEAC continues to exhibit similar artworks at the Mall Galleries, whereas the RA has embraced abstract and conceptual art. Some of the artists belonging to the NEAC included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916), William Orpen (1878-1931), and Neville Bulwer-Lytton (1879-1951).

Inspired by his previous career ambitions, Sickert’s first major works after joining the NEAC focused on the stage, including theatres, music halls, café concerts and the advent of cinema. One example, which Tate Britain used for the exhibition’s promotional material, is Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall (1888-9). Sickert frequently depicted the Old Bedford on Camden High Street in his paintings. In this scene, Sickert captured Hetherington singing The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, a music hall song written in 1885 by George Ware (1829-95).

Sickert also painted other examples of entertainment, including the circus. The Trapeze (1920) depicts an acrobat from the Cirque Rancy preparing to start her performance. Established by Théodore Rancy (1818-92) in the 19th century, the Cirque Rancy was a group of travelling circus acts across France. Still existing today is the Cirque Jules-Verne of Amiens, established in 1889 under the presidency of French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905). Sickert probably experienced the delights of the circus while living in Dieppe.

Other examples of entertainment in Sickert’s artwork include British Pierrots at Brighton, providing tourists with wartime relief, and orchestras performing from the pits of theatres. In the early 20th century, some music halls became early forms of cinemas, such as Middlesex Music Hall on Drury Lane, London. Using projectors and large white sheets or screens, the Old Mogul, as the hall was nicknamed, occasionally played films during their evening schedule. Sickert’s painting Gallery of the Old Mogul (1906) depicts men clambering to see the screen from the gallery. Only a tiny portion of the film is visible in the painting, but art historians believe it was one of the first Westerns ever shown. It could potentially be The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is generally considered the first of the genre.

During the 1880s, Sickert spent a lot of time in the French commune Dieppe on the coast of the English Channel. It is suspected that Sickert kept a mistress in Dieppe and potentially an illegitimate son. Artists at the time were known for having numerous mistresses, but Sickert also had three wives. He married his first wife, Ellen Cobden, in 1885 but divorced her after four years. He married his second wife, Christine Angus, in 1911 and remained with her until she died in 1920. In 1926, Sickert married the artist Thérèse Lessore (1884-1945), with whom he was still married at his death in 1942.

While in Dieppe in the 1880s, Sickert produced landscapes of the streets and buildings, including the church of St Jacques. Inspired by Claude Monet, Sickert painted the same scenes at different times of the day, exploring the effects of daylight on the architecture. In 1902, the owner of L’Hôtel de la Plage commissioned a series of paintings, which included a scene depicting bathers on the nearby beach. For reasons unknown, Bathers, Dieppe was never installed at the hotel. Instead, Sickert exhibited it at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903.

Between 1894 and 1904, Sickert visited Venice several times. During these trips, he focused on painting the city’s topography. He was particularly fascinated with St Mark’s Basilica, which like the church in Dieppe, he painted several times. Due to inclement weather during his last trip, Sickert began painting indoor scenes featuring groups of people. He continued exploring this theme on his return to Britain, using friends, professional models and possibly prostitutes to create tableaux from which to paint.

In the early 20th century, Sickert started painting nudes. Rather than depicting the idealised female body, he painted working-class women in dimly-lit rooms with crumpled bed sheets. Instead of glamorising nudity, Sickert’s artwork suggested poverty. When he first exhibited these paintings in Paris in 1905, they were well-received, but at the British exhibition in 1911, critics objected to the subject matter.

In 1907, Sickert became fascinated with the Camden Town Murder Case. In September of that year, the part-time prostitute Emily Dimmock was murdered in her bed by a client or lover. After having sex, the man slit Dimmock’s throat while she slept. Her body was discovered by her partner and the murder quickly became a press sensation. Causing controversy, Sickert renamed four of his previous nude paintings The Camden Town Murder. Each artwork featured a naked woman and a fully-clothed man, and although there were no signs of violence, the new titles gave the scenes a new interpretation. One painting shows a woman asleep on a bed while a man bows his head in thought. Originally called What Shall We Do for the Rent, the audience perceives the man as worried about money troubles; yet under the title The Camden Town Murder, the man may be psychologically preparing himself for the horrible act.

Shortly before the First World War, Sickert founded the Camden Town Group of British painters, named after the area of London he resided in at the time. Members met regularly at Sickert’s studio and mostly consisted of Post-Impressionist artists, including Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914), and Ethel Sands (1873-1962). The artists were influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who worked in heavy impasto. Sickert’s paintings of nudes are evidence of this style of art.

From 1908 to 1912 and 1915 to 1918, Sickert taught at the Westminster School of Art. The school was originally based in the Deans Yard, but by the time Sickert joined the staff, it had merged with Angela Burdett-Coutts‘s (1814-1906) Westminster Technical Institute in Vincent Square. Between Sickert’s two spells at the school, he established the Rowlandson House in London and another in Manchester. Unfortunately, they closed due to the outbreak of the First World War.

Following the death of his second wife, Sickert spent some time in Dieppe, concentrating once again on buildings and groups of people, particularly in cafes. After returning to England, Sickert became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and married Thérèse Lessore in 1926. Shortly after his marriage, Sickert became unwell, potentially suffering a minor stroke. The illness marked a change in Sickert’s artwork, and he also decided to go by his middle name Richard rather than Walter.

Sickert stopped drawing from life and began painting photographs taken by his wife or those found in newspapers, such as King Edward VIII (1894-1972) arriving at a church service in 1936. Most cameras only captured images in black and white, so the colours in Sickert’s paintings are based on memory or imagination. He used the tonal contrasts in the photograph to determine colour hues and shadow.

Although Sickert only worked from photographs, he continued to receive commissions, such as from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and his wife Clementine (1885-1977). Sickert met Clementine in Dieppe when she was only 14, where she was struck by Sickert’s handsomeness. Before she could act on her attraction to Sickert, Clementine’s family returned to England, but she remained in touch with Sickert and his family. After introducing Churchill to Sickert, Clementine’s husband commissioned an informal portrait and asked Sickert for advice about painting.

Sickert’s passion for the theatre never left him. Using photographs from newspaper reviews or promotional materials, Sickert painted several actors and scenes from shows. In 1932, Sickert depicted the British actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891-1992) as Isabella of France in the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Sickert included the photograph’s caption La Louvre, meaning “the she-wolf”, which describes the fierce character of King Edward II’s wife.

Other theatre scenes Sickert painted included Edith Evans (1888-1976) as Katherine and Leslie Banks (1890-1952) as Petruchio in William Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) The Taming of the Shrew. The play opened in London in 1937 at the New Theatre, which is now called the Noël Coward Theatre. Sickert based his painting on a press photograph. He also painted stills from films, such as High Steppers, based on the story of the Tiller Girls dance troupe.

In 1932, Sickert painted Miss Earhart’s Arrival, which shows Amelia Earhart arriving during a thunderstorm near London after flying solo across the Atlantic. Earhart completed her challenge when she landed in Northern Ireland in May 1932, but only a couple of people witnessed it. Sickert’s painting of the press photograph shows crowds of people welcoming the American woman to England the following day. Sickert cropped the image to focus on the people and weather rather than the plane in the background.

During the final decade of Sickert’s life, he relied heavily on assistants, particularly his wife, to help complete his paintings. These paintings included portraits of close friends, such as Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964) and the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941). Sickert also painted landscapes of Bath, where he and his wife moved at the end of the 1930s. On 22nd January 1942, Sickert passed away at the age of 81 and was buried at the Church of St Nicholas in Bathampton.

Sickert’s art style changed throughout his career. Firstly, he imitated Whistler and Degas before adopting an impasto technique. His final works were smoother but still fell under the Post-Impressionism umbrella. Several people criticised Sickert for using photographs and suggested it showed his decline as an artist. In hindsight, these were some of Sickert’s most forward-looking paintings, which went on to inspire many artists and the Pop Art movement.

Due to Sickert’s fascination with the Camden Town Murder, some people have speculated his connection to Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five women in London in 1888. Despite evidence suggesting Sickert was in France at the time, several authors named Sickert as a potential culprit. Although Sickert was not in the country, he did find the murders intriguing and painted Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1905. Sickert based the painting on a room he lodged in after the landlady told him her suspicions of a man that stayed there a few years earlier.

In 2002, crime writer Patricia Cornwell (b.1956) adamantly claimed Sickert was Jack the Ripper in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. Years earlier, Stephen Knight (1951-85) suggested Sickert was an accomplice in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), although his sources of research were later discovered to be a hoax. All the information collected by Knight and Cornwell has since been scrutinised, and the consensus is any claim that Sickert was Jack the Ripper is fantasy.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is the first major retrospective of Sickert at Tate Britain in over 60 years. It explores Sickert’s approach to art and his changing styles and subject matter. Although it features The Camden Town Murders series, Tate does not allude to the rumours about Jack the Ripper. The exhibition is a celebration of Sickert’s work and the impact he had on future artists. It also honours the 80th anniversary of the artist’s death.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is open until 18th September 2022. Tickets cost £18 and must be purchased in advance.


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