Interviews

Hank Willis Thomas on Black Survival Guide and Creative Civic Action

Thomas and fellow artist Ebony Brown talk about interdependence and How to Live Through a Police Riot, an archival handbook that inspired his 2018 series.

Hank Willis Thomas, “First stages” (2018), from Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, screen print on retroreflective vinyl with aluminum backing, photograph of Wilmington riots and National Guard occupation by Frank Fahey, 1968 (courtesy of the News Journal), text from Northeast Conservation Association, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, c. 1960s (courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society), 62 x 48 inches; commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum (© Hank Willis Thomas;  all images courtesy the artist and Delaware Art Museum)

“IMPORTANT,” asserts the opening line of a pamphlet that contemporary conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas found a couple years ago at the Delaware Historical Society. “Because you are black, this booklet is important to you. It may help save your life.”

Thomas was doing research for a 2018 commission from the Delaware Art Museum (DAM) to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Wilmington’s grief-stricken public response, followed by a nearly unprecedented nine-month-long occupation of the city by National Guardsmen. The artist had seen photographs of the 1968 occupation of Wilmington but was surprised by this 13-page handbook titled BLACK SURVIVAL GUIDE OR How To Live Through A Police Riot, typewritten on 8 1/2-by-11-inch office paper.

The guide was full of detailed practical information for worst-case scenarios, like how to stop bleeding and identify heart attacks, ways to communicate if telephone service was cut off, how much water to stockpile per person per day, and the importance of knowing all ways to exit one’s home. The pages were a testament to violence, fear, and perseverance.

Thomas transformed the pamphlet into a screen printed series on retroreflective vinyl called “Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot” (2018), overlaying the complete text over images of the Wilmington occupation. When the DAM exhibited the series in 2018, it coincided with exhibitions of Danny Lyon’s photographs of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and drawings of the Montgomery bus boycott by Harvey Dinnerstein and Burton Silverman. The museum recently reinstalled “Black Survival Guide” when it reopened to the public in early July, in response to the recent wave of Black Lives Matter marches and protests.

I spoke with Thomas about the series this week over speakerphone, as he and his friend, artist Ebony Brown, were in a car headed to Brooklyn. They were going to an event organized by The Wide Awakes collaborative commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment with music, art, and voter registration assistance. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

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Hank Willis Thomas, “How to Live through a Police Riot”(2018), from Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, screen print on retroreflective vinyl with aluminum backing, photograph of Wilmington riots and National Guard occupation by Godfrey C. Pitts, 1968 (courtesy of the News Journal), text from Northeast Conservation Association, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, c. 1960s (courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society), 62 x 48 inches; commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum (© Hank Willis Thomas)

Hyperallergic: What was your research process for the Black Survival Guide? What archival materials did you look at, and how did you decide to use the booklet and photographs?  

Hank Willis Thomas: I was invited to do this installation at the Delaware Art Museum, and I didn’t know much about Delaware or Wilmington even though it’s really close to Philadelphia which is where my family is, where my mom grew up. My mother, Deborah Willis, she’s a historian and artist, and I grew up in libraries and archives. Through my mother’s work I learned that there’s so much hidden information in archives. So I asked the museum, and they shared with me all these photographs that they had from the newspaper.

The context was it being the 50th anniversary of the longest occupation of federal troops in an American city since the Civil War, after the assassination of Martin Luther King. So we went to the [Delaware] Historical Society to find images that we thought would be really good for that. We wound up in all these boxes and I pulled out this thing that said “Black Survival Guide” and I was like, what? What is that? It was literally a handbook on how to survive a police riot.

That was such a revelation that not only was the movement organized, but it was prepared for the worst at all times. That gave new context to all the photographs I saw of police and National Guardsmen occupying this neighborhood in Delaware. I wanted to highlight them both, and so I printed in black-on-white the text of the Survival Guide and then I printed white-on-white the photographs that I collected. I printed on a material called retroreflective vinyl, which allows the viewer to see both images when you take a flash photograph. So to the naked eye it’ll look like black text on white, whereas if you take a flash photograph a latent image is exposed.

H: You’ve used retroreflective vinyl in a number of your works. Was there a specific reason that you wanted to use that material in this series, or something specific you wanted the viewer to experience here?

HWT: There was no other way to show the photographs with contemporaneous content that was designed to respond to this police occupation. I’ve been working with retroreflective for a while because I love how it makes the invisible visible. And a lot of history, of course — most of it if not all of it — is invisible, truly.

Hank Willis Thomas, “Cherry Island” (2018), from Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, screen print on retroreflective vinyl with aluminum backing, photograph of Wilmington riots and National Guard occupation by Frank Fahey, 1968 (courtesy of the News Journal), text from Northeast Conservation Association, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, c. 1960s (courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society), 62 x 48 inches; commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum (© Hank Willis Thomas)

H: What would a contemporary Black Survival Guide look like?

HWT: I have no idea because I’m not the kind of person who could write a handbook. I would definitely ask an organizer that question. Maybe that’s a good question for my friend Ebony — she/we are doing an event around joy and positivity as core tenets to what would probably be a guide. Or maybe joy and positivity as the guides themselves to all the destructive forces that keep us separated and divided in this movement. Here’s my friend “Wildcat” Ebony Brown, from The Wide Awakes.

Ebony Brown: The first thing that comes to my mind is my grandmother and knowing that you are protected. Knowing that there is someone watching over you, that your ancestors are always with you. That is, for me, a reminder that there are forces at work always guiding us and protecting us. We can always remind ourselves of that. It’s a guide and it’s also nurturing and comforting, and provides a source of sustenance that at some times we may not feel like we have.

HWT: Especially in facing unexpected adversity. I feel like connecting with the ancestors, it doesn’t have to be written. It looks like us under strike and stress and pain, and feeling connected.

H: Going back to your series, Black Survival Guide, what are your thoughts about it being re-exhibited now? It was originally created for such a specific place and anniversary.

HWT: Actually, it was shown for the reasons that Ebony pointed out. There was already a need, and there was already a space and opportunity for that need to be addressed. What I inferred from them wanting to re-show it was, ‘oh great, someone else has tapped into this, as Ebony puts it, this cosmic connection.’ And so I’ve been thinking it, but someone at the museum was like, ‘yeah, this is why we did that work.’

Hank Willis Thomas, “How to Live through a Police Riot” (2018), from Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, screen print on retroreflective vinyl with aluminum backing, photograph of Wilmington riots and National Guard occupation, 1968 (courtesy of the News Journal), text from Northeast Conservation Association, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, c. 1960s (courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society), 62 x 48 inches; commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum (© Hank Willis Thomas; photo by Carson Zullinger)

H: What are you working on now?

HWT: We’re working on a project called The Wide Awakes. It’s a federation of artists and activists — just heart-led people — building positively towards our evolution through creative civic action. And it’s an extension of a collaboration called For Freedoms, except it’s much more autonomous.

EB: Today we’re celebrating the ratification of the 19th amendment which gave some women the vote, not everyone.

HWT: The problem is universal suffrage.

EB: So today we’re gathering at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and we’ve been creating events to share this concept of interdependence. That’s the understanding that we cannot live and survive in this society alone, it takes all of us working together for us to progress and evolve and heal. I think that’s where we need to be. All of these protests and rallies and marches are very necessary and effective. It’s also equally as important to balance it with harmony and joy as an act of resistance, and uplift the community and bring people together using music and art.

Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot continues through September 27 at the Delaware Art Museum (2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, Delaware). The museum is currently open, with COVID-19 health & safety procedures in effect.

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