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What We Can Learn From a Vanished Mural of Racist Violence

John Wilson’s 1952 mural “The Incident,” is a salient meditation on the horrors of lynching and though physically lost, the mural endures in archival images, preliminary sketches, and studies.

John Wilson, Compositional study for “The Incident” (1952), opaque and transparent watercolor, ink, and graphite, squared for transfer (Yale University Art Gallery, Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund; © Estate of John Wilson)

This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Juneteenth.”
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On the brief timeline of the United States, we can point to one year as darkly potent: 1865.

A landmark in its short history, 1865 marked a shift in the nation’s timeline from the legal subjugation of enslaved Black people (the 13th amendment was also passed this year), to newfound means of disenfranchisement and abuse. On May 13 — 246 years after the first ship carrying enslaved people took port on the coast of Virginia and two and a half years following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation — the Civil War ended. On June 19, the announcement of slavery’s abolishment reached the southernmost state, Texas, after years of Southern enslavers trafficking human bodies further south to stave off the creeping threat of abolition. On Christmas Eve in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, its legacy of terror an immediate response to the mere possibility of social progress.

When we consider the subsequent violence of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, bloodthirsty lynchings, assaults against civil rights activists, and present-day murders by police, and mass incarceration, it’s clear that post-slavery life for Black Americans remained plagued by vigilantism and systematized oppression.

John Wilson, study for “The Incident” (1952), crayon, India ink, watercolor, and charcoal; (Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College art collection, Iowa, Estate of Clinton A. Rehling, class of 1939, by exchange. Courtesy Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College art collection; © Estate of John Wilson)

Between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 lynchings of Black Americans have been accounted for. That such revolting displays of terror became a celebratory pastime for some white Americans have been fodder for some of the most devastating art in American history: from Billie Holiday’s omnipresent “Strange Fruit,” to Carrie Mae Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-96). One of these artworks, lesser known because of its eventual destruction, is John Wilson’s 1952 mural “The Incident,” a salient meditation on the horrors of lynching. Though physically lost, the mural endures in archival images, preliminary sketches, and studies from which we can glean this Black man’s perspective on racist terror amid Jim Crow.

Wilson depicts the victim’s foot exaggeratedly swollen, limp beneath him as he is dragged down from the tree. Enormous white hands, engorged by power and malice, wrap around a coiling black whip, a rifle, and the rope that hangs their victim by his neck. The victim wears white tattered pants, the same color cloaking his hooded and therefore anonymized killers. The tips of their hoods squiggle toward the sky — toward a god in whose name the self-described Christian faction committed such atrocities — yet their eyes appear angled and devilish. Behind them, a cross is licked by flames. Their trousers and dress shoes are black, standard professional clothing to signal their jobs as doctors, salesmen, lawyers, and police officers, careers to which they will return when the killing is done.

Documentary photograph of “The Incident” (1952) in Mexico City, Gelatin silver print (Courtesy Julia Wilson; © Estate of John Wilson)

Wilson’s exploration of racist brutality stemmed from a lifetime of traumatic reckoning with lynchings. Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts to Guyanese immigrants, Wilson’s father was an ardent activist and avid reader of Black chronicles such as the Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender, and the Pittsburgh Courier. Through these same papers, John’s eyes opened to the reality and prevalence of anti-Black terrorism in the 20th century. He once said “The Incident” was the means through which he could “exorcise” his emotions about the lynching images he had held onto since childhood.

Wilson created the mural during a stay in Mexico City from 1950 to 1956, when he studied at La Esmerelda, as well as with print collective Taller de Gráfica Popular and at the Escuela de las Artes del Libro. “The Incident” — vaguely titled to indicate that lynchings persisted as a daily threat at the time — is a graphic and poignant portrayal of the terrorism sanctioned by the Ku Klux Klan. No longer in its original physical form, “The Incident” only exists in the studies and sketches made by Wilson in chalk, crayon, graphite, gouache, and oil. In all of these sketches he exaggerates the features of his figures, tweaks and distorts their proportions, ultimately making the mural more than double life-size.

John Wilson, Study for “The Incident” (1952), Charcoal and crayon (Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College art collection, Iowa, Estate of Clinton A. Rehling, class of 1939, by exchange. Courtesy Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College art collection © Estate of John Wilson)

“The Incident” was created for a course at the school taught by Ignacio “Nacho” Aguirre; each student’s mural was intended to be temporary. However, Elisabeth Hodermarsky, who co-curated the Yale exhibition alongside Pamela Franks, tells me that, “at the time it was created, David Alfaro Siqueiros — who was then head of Mexico’s Department for the Protection and Restoration of Murals — saw Wilson’s mural and advocated for its preservation.” It remained intact throughout John and his wife Julie’s tenure in Mexico in 1956, but art historians “do not know when it was destroyed.”

The influence of the socially engaged practice of Mexican muralism (particularly the work of José Clemente Orozco) on Wilson is unquestionable. “The aim of the Mexican muralist movement was to be spokespeople for the common man,” Wilson once said, continuing:

They wanted to create works of art expressing the reality of the forgotten ones, revealing their history, their celebrations and struggles. . . . [Mural painting] is a public thing because it’s available to masses of people. And so, through Mexican art I began to experience a sense of how to depict my reality.

One study of a female figure, clutching her baby tightly, was made in Wilson’s final year in Mexico (1956), but years after the mural’s completion. One can imagine this depiction of a woman in mourning, fearful for her people and her progeny and the world in which they will be raised, stuck with Wilson. Juxtaposed with the drawing done in the same year, the second sketch increases the level of anxiety, and the standalone figure now clutches her child. Though her body turns away, her eyes flit toward the “incident” — she clutches her baby, protecting her child in a world that may intend to destroy them.

John Wilson, “Mother and Child” (1956), study for “The Incident,” lithograph (Yale University Art Gallery, Everett V. Meeks, b.a. 1901, Fund; © Estate of John Wilson)

I have returned to this mural time after time since I first viewed it when Yale University Art Gallery mounted an exhibition of Wilson’s studies, Reckoning With “The Incident.” With each passing day, it gains newfound relevance and newfound pain — its act of reckoning is far from done. The Klan, whose inception parallels the celebration of Emancipation, has created an insidiously deep stronghold within American culture. As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, a holiday uplifted by Black Texans and other Black Americans since 1865, several Black people have been found dead, hanging from trees in apparent lynchings, including: Dominique Alexander, Robert Fuller, and Malcolm Harsch.

As the families and communities of these men mourn and unprecedented nationwide protests in defense of Black life proliferate, the United States government flounders in its decades-too-late attempt to pass legislation to identify lynching as a federal crime. In the penultimate day of Black History Month this year — the same month as the extrajudicial murder of Ahmaud Arbery — Congress passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act after 120 years of unsuccessful attempts. The bill, sponsored by Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush, classifies lynching as a hate crime, interjecting federal ruling in the failures of individual states. Months later, as the Senate attempts to reconcile the bill with its own anti-lynching legislation, Senator Rand Paul continues to stall the attempt at criminalizing racist killings.

John Wilson, Study for “The Incident” (1952), crayon (Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College art collection, Iowa, Estate of Clinton A. Rehling, class of 1939, by exchange. Courtesy Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College art collection; © Estate of John Wilson)

As the world mourns George Floyd, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Breonna Taylor, and innumerable others, it becomes even clearer that the bill is not enough to curb the tradition of deadly anti-Blackness. Last year, a Senate bill noted that 99% of lynching perpetrators escaped punishment.

I ask now, as I grieve for those who have been killed: How do we adequately acknowledge the legacy of white supremacist terror that runs through the core of the United States, and in the generational, genetic memory of the descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers?

Over 400 years later, Black folks continue to grieve, and affirmations of the value of Black life are met with revulsion and dismissal. As we approach a holiday uplifting the memories of the thousands who were subjected to chattel slavery, I continue to mourn in reflection of the ways these people have been deserted by a nation modeled on a fallacious sense of liberty. Now, the country reverberates with unprecedented action toward the goal of liberation, and I consider the words of Dr. Angela Y. Davis:

Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements — from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome. […] It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements — anchored by women, incidentally — that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.

Documentary photograph of John Wilson with “The Incident” (1952) in Mexico City, gelatin silver print. (Courtesy Julia Wilson; © Estate of John Wilson)

In our continuing consideration of Wilson’s studies of “The Incident,” we are faced with his persisting agony over the systemic defilement of Black livelihoods. He took care to depict the clutch of the husband’s hand on his wife’s shoulder. Thickly drawn fingers wrapped around a gun for protection bring to mind a quote by anti-racist journalist Ida B. Wells: “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” Wilson positions his stoic, unflinching gaze toward the scene: The victim’s life is drained from his face; the rope has been cut; the killing completed.

With his brush, Wilson pays attention to both his horror and distress at the loss of Black life and to the delicate moments between a Black family in their mourning. The anguish of seeing and of digesting violence finds its way back to his canvases and sketchpads again and again. In my reckoning, I recall Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.”

John Wilson, “Negro Woman” (1952), study for “The Incident,” oil on masonite (Clark Atlanta University Art Collection, Atlanta Annuals. Courtesy Clark Atlanta University Art Collection; © Estate of John Wilson)

Reckoning with “The Incident”: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural was organized by Yale University Art Gallery in partnership with the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum and Grinnell College Museum of Art. In 2019, it traveled to Faulconer Gallery at Iowa’s Grinnell College; the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland; and the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, before making its final stop at Yale University Art Gallery until October 25, 2020. (The museum is currently closed due to COVID-19, but the works are viewable online.)

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