The Wall of Respect: A New Book on Public Art and Black Liberation

This post is part of my blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Today is the release date for The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, published by Northwestern University Press. 


The co-editors of The Wall of Respect are Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca ZorachAbdul Alkalimat is an activist and the founding chairperson of the Organization of Black American Culture, which led the creation of the Wall of Respect in 1967. He is an emeritus professor of the School of Information Sciences and the Department of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago. His research interests include digital inequality, community informatics, and African American intellectual history. He moderates the largest African-American Studies discussion list, H-Afro-Am, and created and edits Malcolm X: A Research Site as well as eBlack Studies.

Romi Crawford is an associate professor in the Department of Visual and Critical Studies and in the Department of Liberal Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her research revolves primarily around formations of racial and gendered identity and the relation to American film, visual arts, and popular culture. She was previously the Curator and Director of Education and Public Programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem and founder of the Crawford and Sloan Gallery (NYC, 1994–1998). Her publications include writings in Art JournalCinema Remixed and Reloaded: Black Women Film and Video Artists (University of Washington Press, 2008); Black Light/White Noise: Sound and Light in Contemporary Art (Contemporary Art Museum Houston, 2007); Frequency (Studio Museum in Harlem, 2006); Art and Social Justice Education: Culture as Commons (Routledge, 2011) and Service Media (Green Lantern, 2013).

Rebecca Zorach is the Mary Jane Crowe Professor of Art and Art History at Northwestern University. She teaches and writes on early modern European art (15th-17th century), contemporary activist art, and art of the 1960s and 1970s. Her particular interests include print media, feminist and queer theory, theory of representation, ​​and the multiple intersections of art and politics. Before joining the faculty at Northwestern she taught at the University of Chicago for fourteen years. She has been a visiting faculty member at Yale University, the École des Hautes Études in Sciences Sociales, and Williams College, where she was Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor in 2013–14. Her books include Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 2005); The Passionate Triangle (University of Chicago Press, 2011); the edited volumes Embodied Utopias: Gender, Social Change, and the Modern Metropolis (with Amy Bingaman and Lisa Shapiro Sanders, Routledge, 2002), The Idol in the Age of Art (with Michael Cole, Routledge, 2009), and Art Against the Law (School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2014), among others.

The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago is the first in-depth, illustrated history of a lost Chicago monument. The Wall of Respect was a revolutionary mural created by fourteen members of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) on the South Side of Chicago in 1967. This book gathers historic essays, poetry, and previously unpublished primary documents from the movement’s founders that provide a visual guide to the work’s creation and evolution. 

The Wall of Respect received national critical acclaim when it was unveiled on the side of a building at Forty-Third and Langley in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Painters and photographers worked side by side on the mural’s seven themed sections, which featured portraits of Black heroes and sheroes, among them John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The Wall became a platform for music, poetry, and political rallies. Over time it changed, reflecting painful controversies among the artists as well as broader shifts in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements.

At the intersection of African American culture, politics, and Chicago art history, The Wall of Respect offers, in one keepsake-quality work, an unsurpassed collection of images and essays that illuminate a powerful monument that continues to fascinate artists, scholars, and readers in Chicago and across the United States.

This book recovers The Wall of Respect, a pivotal piece of public art conceived by Chicago artists and neighbors that effectively spurred a new mural movement nationwide in the 1960s. Detailed analysis and personal recollections of this incredible object and its milieu provide nothing less than a new and expansive framework for understanding the impact of this vital work.  A dazzling collection of primary documents—poetry, letters, articles, and photographs—are at the book’s core. The significance of photography, as part of The Wall itself and as indispensable documentation, sheds light not only on the role of photography in shaping our understanding of this public project and its context, but illuminates the influence of Chicago’s photographers and other artists in the postwar era.”—Kellie Jones, Associate Professor of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Ibram X. Kendi: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?

Abdul Alkalimat: The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago is a book about a mural painted in Chicago during the summer of 1967. The authors include myself, a scholar-activist who was part of the making of the Wall, and two art historians. The book contains primary documents, many photographs documenting the life of the Wall, poetry and newspaper articles about the experience, and essays. The Wall of Respect launched a movement that led to nearly 1,500 public murals being created in virtually every urban Black community. It has been much referenced, but never seriously studied.

This book makes a contribution in several important ways. First, it is a full documentation of an important event of cultural production. You can experience and see it via the contemporaneous documents and photographs. It also places the Wall of Respect in the history of the political culture of the city, adding to recent work by scholars such as Adam Green, George Lewis, and Carmen L. Phelps. Detailed discussion of people, organizations and movement forces in Chicago shows how they served as the foundation and political motivation for this act of Black Power cultural production. The book also answers a silence in the Black arts literature about the visual arts. The OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) Visual Arts Workshop that created the Wall emerged in the wake of artists nurtured by the South Side Community Art Center. The Wall then gave rise to the important art collective AfriCOBRA. Additionally, our book introduces the theoretical concept of Black Experientialism. This was the basic philosophical orientation of OBAC and this is the first book to explain this concept. Finally, The Wall of Respect adds to our understanding of the role of the Black photographer in the Black arts movement by demonstrating the important of the Chicago School of Black Street Photography. Placing photographs on the Wall was a new innovation that put the photographer on par with the painter.

When Harold Cruse wrote The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, he continued the national focus on New York following the Harlem Renaissance. Others have since written of a Chicago Renaissance associated with Richard Wright, Ted Ward, Margaret Walker, Marion Perkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others. This book on the Wall of Respect continues the process of bringing the Chicago Black arts experience into the general understanding of the movement of the 1960s.

The Wall of Respect was a cultural act uniting with the Black Power movement. How might today’s artists reunite with the Black liberation movement? Scholarship about Black cultural production can shed light on this process by grounding cultural production within the broad contours of Black political culture.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.