In Part One of my Black Men Reading exchange with painter Travis Prince, he shared how he developed from a child who enjoyed reading Encyclopedia Brown and had an affinity for the science fiction of 1980s popular culture and literature, to immersing himself in Afrocentric historical texts as an adult.
In Part Two, Travis talks about his ongoing series of paintings, “The Readers.” We 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.
[LR]: Travis, With regard to your paintings of black people reading, how did you develop these? Is this an ongoing series or have you moved on to other things?
[TP]: I’ve been a reader since I was a child. And I’ve always been a portrait artist. Early on, when I started to understand the idea of turning a concept into an image, I wanted to make the statement “Black people are intelligent, too”. There’s an old saying “if you wanna hide something from a nigger, put it in a book.” I thought combining my two passions in an artistic way might make for some cool imagery with a fairly understandable concept. So I photographed one of my female friends in the backyard reading a book, and composed the painting to include two guns next to her.
Two of the major themes of The Black Panther Party’s ideology was (1) the education of the youth and (2) protection of the community. I wanted to express and embody this concept in a single person. I wanted to show the black woman in a relaxed state, reading and enhancing her knowledge without any fear of her environment or surroundings, to indicate that she is trained in self-defense and has the means to defend herself if necessary. I really liked that painting. The only thing I wished people could see was that she was reading a copy of Brave New World.
After that, I knew that I wanted to show book titles in some of the paintings. Not really seeing anyone else add literature to their art work in this way, I decided to challenge myself to make this work. I enjoy painting almost anything, and I even have the luck of picking up a commission every now and then. Even if I don’t add to The Readers for a while, I consider it to be my flagship series and as long as I keep reading I’ll always have new material to add.
[LR]: Being an artist, being a forward-thinker, etc., can be lonesome and challenging enough, and not everyone is able to find mentors. Can you share a bit about your relationship with your mentor? I love that your consistent work is “payment” enough for him, by the way.
[TP]: My mentor William “Bill” Harris is a portrait artist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He currently lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia and is a resident artist at Liberty Town Gallery and Work Shop. Bill is a very chill, laid back kind of guy. He’s the town’s art go-to person for murals, and is always a part of any major local art event. In 2003 he started Artattack, which is a (mostly) all-day event where local artists fill the sidewalks of downtown with easels and tables to do live painting and drawing for the rest of the city to admire. His teaching style and critiques are what have helped me get to the artistic levels I’m reaching today.
[LR]: Have there been any surprises for you in terms of people’s responses and interpretations of your work?
[TP]: I think most of my art is so straightforward and to the point, there isn’t a lot of room for interpretation. I want my art to basically say that black people are smart and beautiful. I do a live YouTube stream and a question that came up a lot that surprised me in the beginning was, “Do you only paint black people?” My question to them was “Would you ask a white artist ‘do you only paint white people?’”
[LR]: Right! I’m going to tilt the subject here, because I went looking for Dr. Amos Wilson‘s lectures on YouTube after you mentioned him. Since he died in 1995, I’m glad that these lectures were recorded.
In Dr. Wilson’s lecture on “Awakening the Natural Genius of Black children” he said that “we must lose our fear of knowledge,” which I also took to mean understanding how white supremacy undergirds so much of our experience and learning, and we have to stop being afraid of the knowledge that challenges and dismantles that.
He also talked about “the internalized idea that reading [and] acquiring knowledge is negative, for “nerds” and “fags”….” He said “Many remember that to be considered a “smart nigger,” an “uppity nigger” was a prelude to being lynched.” To me, he was critiquing, but also looking into history to show that the articulation of our curiosity, intelligence, innovation, and thirst for knowledge has been punished and associated with pejorative terms for marginalized groups.
What are your thoughts on these things? Do you think that people struggle with being literate and pursuing academic excellence without becoming aligned with oppression?
[TP]: I think where Dr. Amos Wilson excels is in his ability to verbally convey an understanding of the social structure that we as a people are aware of but can’t fully articulate. He breaks down social issues to the very core of the problem and offers logical solutions.
I’ve always been the “smart” kid who wanted to fit in. Being called “gay” because I preferred art over athletics; or being called “nerd” or “geek” because I scored high on a test made me insecure with my own intelligence. Showing interest in intellectual pursuits or philosophical quandaries always seemed to alienate me from my peer group. After reading and listening to Dr. Wilson I was able to look back over my life and see just how crippling and damning was the peer pressure to not be considered TOO smart.
In one lecture he mentioned the fact that there are very few African American science fiction writers. Me being a major sci-fi fan found this to be a revelation: I’d never considered that, before. Dr. Wilson’s reasoning was that black people in a white-controlled education system…are not taught to be abstract, objective, forward-thinking people. This makes it hard for us to see ourselves in a high-tech future where we reign supreme. We are taught that the white man has total control over the present, and there are no signs that this will change in the future.
Wanting to stay ignorant is, in itself, a learned behavior. That’s why I feel that my paintings of our people reading is very important and much needed work.
[LR]: There are more African American science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction writers now than there were when Dr. Wilson was talking about it, as well as women, and more ethnic groups, LGBTQ, and disabled writers are bringing new visions to the genre. Ironically, I think that the technology of the internet is helping to connect lovers of the genre with each other and encouraging writers to be more experimental and visionary.
Still, I think that Wilson’s observation that the education system does not nourish the imagination and encourage critical, abstract, and forward-thinking capabilities is dead-on. (By the way, in my Black Men Reading exchange with Andrew Fontenelle he shared some recommendations for black sci-fi writers.)
[TP]: I’ll definitely be looking into some new science fiction writers!
[LR]: You mentioned earlier that you were raised in a Christian household, [not a Garveyite household]. Would you care to elaborate on what being Garveyite means to you, and how your family feels about your re-education process?
[TP]: Even after all my reading and research I don’t think I fully understand what it means to be a Garveyite. I say this because, I haven’t had any experience or relationships with a group/collective/community that LIVES by this system of thinking and interacting one to the other. This makes me feel neglected and left out. Once I started my re- education, I questioned a few family members on why they focused so much on the Bible and not on African studies. Why wasn’t I given The Autobiography of Malcolm X instead of Lord of the Flies, for example? But they mostly had short answers that weren’t sufficient for me.
I stopped going to church when I was 18, and haven’t been back. I’ve been the quasi “black sheep” ever since. My family loves me and my artistic endeavors but they don’t want to talk to me about science, religion, politics, history or white supremacy…..That’s a lie…I do have two cousins who ask me questions on these topics, or want referrals on reading material, but for the most part, they feel that if they pray….everything will be ok….no education needed.
[LR]: Travis, this is touchy territory for black people, globally – probably for all communities, really – but I think we suffer from not being able to discuss science, religion/spirituality, politics, history, and white supremacy with our families and communities in healthy ways. I’m glad you remembered that you could draw, and got back into art making, because your work is powerful.
You may be interested in reading the following:
“Diversity in Science Fiction: Storytelling that fosters inclusiveness” by George M. Eberhart.