In this fourth installment of Black Men Reading, I’ll be introducing you to the thoughtful and prolific painter, Travis Prince, whose series of paintings of black people reading – “The Readers” – came to my attention after someone posted a close-up from one of his works on instagram for National Book Lover’s Day (yeah, I’d never heard of it, either, but, hey….!) I immediately went to look at Travis’s Instagram page, where I found images of paintings that were dripping with luminescent, colorful sheen, provocation, and sensuality – several of which depicted black people reading. I’m grateful that Travis was receptive to my invitation to participate in the Black Men Reading series. Today, in Part One of our exchange, Travis shares his background as a reader and artist, his favorite books, and the worldview he wants to help dismantle.
Travis Prince [TP]: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in Hartsville, South Carolina. Reading was instilled in me by one of my aunts. She’s one of those people who honestly loves knowledge, and currently heads an engineering department for a premier aerospace company. She lived out of state, but if there was ever a time to give a gift, she would send me books. And every time she came to visit, she would bring me something new to read: Oliver Twist, Encyclopedia Brown, Lord of the Flies and all kinds of comic books.
My favorite genres of literature are science fiction and history. Technology always fascinated me as a kid. And growing up in the 80s there was just so much great sci-fi in pop culture and literature. The Dune and Ender’s Game series being some of my favorites. But as an adult, I’ve come to an understanding that my state-provided education may have been lacking in a few areas. So, for the last 7 or 8 years I’ve been trying to read in such a way as to re-educate myself. Now I find joy in reading non-fiction and historical work. Chancellor Williams and Amos N. Wilson being some of my favorite authors.
Leslie Reese [LR]: You took me into the Way-back Machine when you mentioned Encyclopedia Brown – that was my dude!
I want to touch on what you said about the project to re-educate yourself that you’ve been on for the last 7-8 years, because its true that re-educating ourselves is an ongoing effort and intention. I continue to have my world rocked and previous notions challenged every time I read another history book.
Just as an example: I’m old enough to remember that when I was in grade school (K-12/1960s, 1970s), our American history textbooks BOASTED about colonialism! I was an adult before I really understood that colonialism also meant thievery, oppression, and exploitation.
[TP]: I went to a semi-private high school, Mayo High School for MST (Math, Science & Technology), in the city of Darlington. Basically all the classes were college prep. Art, science, and history were my favorites. But just like any other school, the history and contributions to society made by black people were greatly over-looked, and kept in line with mainstream curriculum. Also, coming from the Bible Belt, my family were/are Christians not *Garveyites. I had no one to guide me to deeper information (pre-internet).
Even though I was at a disadvantage, I was a revolutionary at heart. I stopped standing for the pledge of allegiance in 5th grade because I didn’t want to be like everyone else. Saying the pledge made me feel like a zombie. At age 13 I questioned my Grandmother, a Christian preacher, on the authenticity and factual basis of the Bible and religion. And in high school I knew something was wrong with the world, but no one was able to explain to me what it was.
[LR]: What do you mean?
[TP]: Early on I became aware of my second-class status, and recognized that popular media and entertainment were creating a perception of young black men like me as being inherently criminal. I noticed that the black is normally portrayed as the bad guy, thug, or uneducated kid who is only successful with the help of a white mentor. Even with my limited knowledge and understanding I wrote a poem about it, for a writing contest. It was rejected because it was alleged to have a “racist” overtone. Not long after that, I dropped out of high school. When I got my GED in 2000, I learned that I had scored the highest of anyone in Darlington County over a five-year period.
[LR]: I like that you said you find JOY in reading non-fiction and historical work.
[TP]: History helps to define a people, and a better understanding of history gives you a better understanding of yourself. When you know yourself you can manipulate the present…by manipulating the present, you’re able to shape the future. I want to shape my own future, and reading/studying historical texts from an Afrocentric prospective empowers me to do just that. This is where I find my joy, connection to a history, and empowerment.
[LR]: Besides reading, what else do you like to do?
[TP]: Besides reading I have a true passion for art. Most of my free time is taken up by my painting. Over the years I’ve been trying to find ways to merge my love for reading and my love for painting into my art work.
[LR]: Is there an idea that you dislike, or a paradigm you would like to help change?
[TP]: The idea of white supremacy has become a major focal point in my re-education. Just the concept of such a system was once mind-boggling, but now I seek to find ways of dismantling this machine. Boyce Watkins has great information on this topic.
[LR]: What are some of your favorite books?
[TP]: Black on Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation In Service of White Domination by Amos N. Wilson
Blueprint for Black Power: A Moral, Political and Economic Imperative for the Twenty-First Century by Amos N. Wilson
Dune by Frank Herbert
[LR]: I look forward to one day being able to see your artwork in real life, but from what I see on your IG feed, your paintings have a rich, golden/luminescent, liquid quality whether you are depicting people or things. Your figures show a range of reflection, attitude, tenderness, sensuality, and strength.
How would you describe your artistic journey so far? And how would you describe the types of images you’re interested in painting?
[TP]: My journey as an artist has been slow-paced but interesting. After dropping out, I basically ran the streets for ten years not thinking about art at all. Until one day I had this incredibly overwhelming sense of boredom. For hours I sat around the house not knowing what to do with myself. Food, alcohol, weed, girls, friends, movies, music, video games…I didn’t think any of that would help. But then, like a light switch was turned on, I remembered “I can draw.”
By this time I had no supplies at all. So I went out, intending to buy a sketchbook and pencils, but wound up getting a Bob Ross starter paint set instead. With being out of practice for so many years, once I started painting, I was unsure of myself and my abilities. Most of the time not knowing what to paint or what to do with my paintings once they were complete. That changed when I met my mentor. He said that my continuous painting was payment for taking his class. So, after that I felt kind of obligated to produce more work. But even at that time I wasn’t fully sure what themes I wanted to focus on.
The images I choose to paint are ones that show the beauty and depth of black culture. Images that will hopefully spark meaningful conversation about tough issues that take place within our community. But above all, I want inclusion. When my son and niece go to galleries, I want them to see their skin tones and facial features in art work that depicts the melanated person in a positive light. Hopefully I will create images that will stand the test of time and continue to inspire generations into the future.
Please return tomorrow, for Part Two of my Black Men Reading conversation with Travis Prince. You can see some more of his paintings, and Travis will talk about how his series “The Readers,” was first developed. We’ll also touch on the ideas of Pan-African thinker, scholar, author, and theoretical psychologist Dr. Amos N. Wilson (1941-1995); and some of the challenges and tensions of re-educating ourselves toward dismantling white supremacy.
*”But we must first understand what is Garveyism? Garveyism is a philosophy of Pan African self reliance, unity and pride promoted by Marcus Mosiah Garvey (17 August 1887 – 10 June 1940); founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
Born on the then British colony of Jamaica, Garvey was moved by the powerlessness of the blacks in the America’s and the occupation of Africa by European powers. He sought to organize persons of African descent in the Diaspora into a powerful force for political and economic empowerment of Africans – at home and abroad.
In seeking such redemption of a black race held in colonial bondage and racial oppression, he focused on building a strong organization, and the rapid acquisition of the scientific and technological means with which to construct self-reliant communities.
The UNIA thereto adopted the educational principle of respect for African heritage; instilling self respect into a race which had been demeaned by years of hate – and self hate; and the formation of banks and factories and a shipping line.” -Gabriel Christian Esq., from “What Does Garveyism Mean in the 21st century?”