Black Men Reading: “Paintings by The Prince”! (Part Two)

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.

“Aldous Huxley” by Travis Prince (The Readers)

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.

“Elijah Muhammad” by Travis Prince (The Readers)

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.)

“Dr. Claud Anderson” by Travis Prince (The Readers)

[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.

“After Decades of Dwarfs and Elfs, Writers of Color Redefine Fantasy” by Donna Bryson.

15 Comments

  1. Yet another lovely interview. I love the point you make about education; I’m seeing the fixation on assessment already with my sons in kindergarten. If only more imagination were encouraged to help the students not only learn about the world, but their social/emotional health, too!

  2. Leslie, thanks for sharing Part II of your wonderful Travis interview series. What I always love about reading your blog is how well your research explores the extent your post subjects are willing to go to bring their truth to life. I love their bold expressions of freedom too, this is what it is. No apologies. No excuses!

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed getting acquainted with Travis Prince via our exchange. So far, each installment of the Black Men Reading Series has challenged me to dig a little deeper into particular issues, consider issues freshly, and hopefully layer all of that into the posts!

  3. Incorporating images of Black people reading into your art is rather unique and nicely challenges the idea that as a people we do not read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas, Travis.

    Another great interview, Leslie. I look forward to reading more these.

  4. Wow. Another great interview. I absolutely love his paintings and I share his sentiments about history. For me, my dad taught me history at home, and I would ask teachers at school why the things my dad taught weren’t in the books. They didn’t have answers for me. Needless to say, I was always angry in history class. Thank you for introducing me to the art of Travis Prince.

    1. Hi Audra, thank you for chiming in with this critical experience – being taught at home, from one’s family: history that isn’t being taught in school. That your teachers didn’t have answers, or follow-up by educating themselves is another real concern. That is the kind of thing that makes students turn their backs on what’s happening in classrooms!
      A while back, I wrote a piece called “Memory of First Reads” in which I mention how my mother supplemented my first school primers by introducing me to Golden Legacy Illustrated History Books.

  5. An excellent part two. Growing up Hispanic, I can very much relate to the attitude and concept of being “uppity,” though the term I hear is ” don’t think you’re so good just because you went to college.” Sheesh. In other words, although both my parents were educators, there was also this very subversive and underlying idea that if you got too much education or got too good of a job or made too much money, you thought you were better than the rest of your family. It’s both sad and happy to have that similar connection with other ethnicities. What is it, I wonder, that makes our collective “minority” communities so fearful of success? I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying the series. Looking forward to seeing who you interview next.

    1. Vanessa, thank you so much for engaging with this series. Often, your comments get me thinking about creating other posts because some of the questions and ideas you pose need more attention. For instance: musing on why some communities have complicated and negative reactions to the pursuit of academic excellence, and fear of success….I just can’t respond to that in the comments section!

  6. I am also loving these interviews, Leslie and am learning much about Black culture and history. What touched me about these two posts about Travis Prince was his experience of peer pressure to not appear “too” smart. It is also the experience of many women and something I felt as a teenager growing up in a small town in western Canada where I was teased mercilessly for being put in a separate class for “smart” kids. So much so, that I begged my mother to let me go back with the “regular” kids – and, even worse, she did.

    It is horrifying to think that prayer and God are offered as substitutes for education. How on earth did that happen?

    Travis’ paintings are stunning and rich and so multilayered. His use of books and including their titles is like visual poetry.

    1. Thank you, Susanne.
      One of the things I am enjoying about doing this Black Men Reading series is how we enter the conversation because of reading and books, but then it unfolds to reveal more about our personal experiences, history, culture, and attitudes….I’m happy to learn and share as I go along. I am also encouraged by how these posts connect with the experiences of people who read them.

      Your comments about being teased for being smart – now that I am an adult – make me realize that the teasing likely comes from jealousy, but teenage teasing can be fierce; and sometimes adults have ways of separating students out that contribute to divisiveness and make some students feel dumb or inferior. Do you ever wish you’d remained in the other class?

  7. Lovely to see more of “The Readers”; they are powerful indeed. They are much easier for me to understand than the complexity of race relations in the US. Mind you, race issues are complicated enough in my own country. After reflecting on the interview with Travis, I wondered about our contemporary Maori artists and found this ‘The early 80s saw (Robyn) Kahukiwa’s exhibition Wahine Toa tour New Zealand and the artist come to prominence in the groundswell of creativity that accompanied the Māori Rennaissance of the late 70s and early 80s. Her voice was unapologetically political, and remains so in her paintings to this day.’ https://www.thesapling.co.nz/single-post/2017/09/08/Robyn-Kahukiwa-Artist-Writer-Illustrator So, thanks to you I have educated myself a little more about art in my own country.

  8. I am also reading about the destruction of Black civilization. It is very good to show we were very important people. Brown people were lawyers, doctors, engineers, builders, masons, surgeons, etc., making me wonder why it isn’t taught? I have run into a younger crowd who DO want to learn. The old saying that you have to know where you come from in order to know where you are going is true, and this younger group wants to know. The entrance of my grand child makes me want to teach her about the strong women who are her ancestors. My gorgeous milk brown grand child will know her ancestors were here in America before any Europeans set foot in this country. This is one brown child who will not die from lack of knowledge.

  9. I’ve really enjoyed this series Leslie. Travis’s story, in particular, is intriguing because I like it when art inspires art. I really appreciate his use of intertextuality to depict black people as readers. Loved his response about only painting black people. We’re the only ones who seem to have to justify only including our race in the arts, etc.

    1. Thank you, Katherin. I feel the same as you about the intertextuality in Travis’s depictions of black people as readers. It’s rich; and he is the only visual artist I know of to make this a consistent theme in his work.
      I wonder what is so threatening about black people painting lots of black people?🤔

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