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Starting with the landmark Plessy v Ferguson case of 1896 and continuing until the 2009 inauguration of the first US President with African heritage, the Smithsonian has launched Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights through American Art at the Smithsonian, which is a new web-based project developed jointly by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

While the concept is welcome, the site still has a ways to go until it accurately tells the story of African-American art and its relation to civil rights. Looking at the 1970s alone there are only five works listed — Barbara Jones–Hogu’s “Unite” (1971), Roland L. Freeman’s “South Capitol Street at M Street. Washington, D.C., February 1972” (1972), Elizabeth Catlett’s “Phillis Wheatley” (1973), Ed McGowin’s “Untitled” (1973) and Romare Bearden’s “Roots” (1977) — which is rather unbelievable considering the flowering of black identity and art that occurred during the era. I can only assume that this sparsity will be remedied as time goes on and more content is added.

The most distressing part of the site is that only four of the 31 artists listed are women and there is no single mention of LGBT African Americans. How is this possible? Are the struggles of LGBT African Americans not part of civil rights? Are there not enough talented female artists to be included on the timeline?

The Smithsonian promises that the site will allow users to draw “connections between art and history” and it will give “educators tools to help students interpret the long struggle for civil rights.” But they also claim that “Oh Freedom! broadens the definition of the civil rights movement beyond the 1950s and 1960s, presenting it as a longer and more complex quest for freedom, justice and equality throughout the course of the 20th century and into the present.” This is something that Oh Freedom! doesn’t deliver. The narrative here is not complex as much as streamlined and it’s quite telling that the only 21st century art work listed on the timeline is Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster, a work by a non-African-American artist.

While I understand that the resource is designed for a national audience and that many schools are located in districts controlled by homophobic school board members there’s still no excuse. If some people would rather not make the connection between civil rights struggles and the rights of LGBT Americans or the need for greater female visibility then that’s their choice, but to think that the history of civil rights can be told without women’s artistic voices and without at least a nod to the contributions of LGBT people is a major oversight that should be remedied immediately.

And if the educators at the Smithsonian need a primer on notable female or LGBT African-American artists they may want to consider adding to the timeline, this and this should help.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.