“Let Your Motto Be Resistance” Makes Its Last Stand

Exhibit Featuring Photos of African Americans to Close This Weekend

A diverse crowd moseyed around the hallway and exhibit rooms at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Chinatown on a Sunday afternoon. They gathered together to view the “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” exhibit. They gazed on 100 black and white photographs of African Americans who had “resisted” and succeeded over the past two centuries. The New York Times had described the exhibit, which closes after this weekend, “A praise song in pictures.” The exhibit, which borrows its theme, “Let your motto be your resistance!” from Henry Highland Garnet, an abolitionist during the mid 1800’s, captures the lives of those who embodied this theme in the fight for freedom.

“I made sure I came out today, because I heard the exhibit was going to be closing,” said Eliza Young. “One of my co-workers mentioned it to me, and I must say that I am very impressed. I usually do not go to exhibits.”

A photograph of a young Sarah Vaughan, eyes closed, mouth open, and hands out stretched in a beautiful beaded white gown, greets visitors at both entrances to the exhibit. Other photographs of prominent Blacks from all walks of life line the hallway. A picture of author Toni Morrison is featured along with pictures of artist Jacob Lawrence, boxing legend Jack Johnson, photographer Gordon Parks, and civil rights icon Malcolm X. Photographs like the ones of Booker T. Washington standing in front of a large crowd of smiling faces, George Washington Carver working in a laboratory, and Malcolm X championing the cause of the Nation of Islam give exhibit visitors a chance to see these individuals in action, doing what made them household names.

The image of “Gordon” hangs in the hallway, displaying the ex-slave’s scars from the lashes of whips, permanent reminders of the life of bondage he fled in Louisiana.

“That was a real touching picture,” said museum visitor, Comfort Lencho. “It is one thing to read about these images but to see them in his back like this is real moving.” The exhibit also displays photographs of prominent members of the Howard University community. Alain LeRoy Locke, who played a crucial role in the Harlem Renaissance, and Ernest Everett Just, who was an extraordinary scientist of his time, both taught at Howard University and have buildings named after them on the campus.

Also on display are pictures of legendary entertainers. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the husband and wife tandem that paved the way and inspired many of today’s Black thespians, are pictured. Tap dancing legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, comedian Richard Pryor, and blues guitarists Jimi Hendrix are also featured.

“This is long overdue. African Americans should have been received this recognition,” said Doug Matthews, another visitor at the museum. The exhibition ends this Sunday, March 2, 2008. The exhibition is also on the National Portrait Gallery’s Web site at www.npg.si.edu. A catalogue, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits,” edited by Deborah Willis, contains all photographs in the exhibit with captions and a detailed biography of each individual. The book is available in the museum store, the Howard University Bookstore as well as other book retailers. For more information, call The Smithsonian Institute at (202) 633-1000.