David P. Bradford, "YES, LEROI," 1968
Bradford uses his imagery wisely, employing references to Leroi Jones with the known symbol of the American flag, as a collage on canvas. These images are included with careful purpose and placement—they have pre-established connotations and meanings. For example, Leroi's face on the shirt alludes to the more militaristic and sometimes violent philosophies for black unity and liberation. In a way, YES, LEROI is a call to arms for artists to protest against the oppression that the flag represents. Rather than creating “art for art’s sake”, Bradford finds it imperative to depict a black narrative countering American patriotism. This is how he makes his art political, as the black experience is in itself political in America. In the artist’s own words: "Only when we omit the desire to make it in the white man’s art world, only when we omit the desire to place the making of money first with our art, can we produce a popular art, a black art, an art that speaks to and for the black people…I want to show the inner beauty and strength of black Americans and glorify those black people who have contributed so much to our people."
That the piece makes a nod to Leroi Jones (later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) by first name alone is telling:YES, LEROI made its debut in the nexus of the Black Arts Movement itself, wherein Jones was so integral and ubiquitously present that no surname would have been necessary. It was an era where slogans such as “arm yourself or harm yourself” were prevalent, and Jones himself had been arrested and convicted (later overturned) for possession of illegal firearms, while participating in 1967’s Newark Rebellion.(1) He later quipped that he’d been accused for holding "two revolvers and two poems." (2) These words exemplify the relationship he saw between his art and his actions: inextricably unified. In Black Art (1965), he declared: “We want poems that kill.” After his sentencing, Jones penned Black People (1967), in which he delivered a line that became infamous (notably, after it was read aloud by a judge in court): "All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: ‘Up against the wall motherfucker this is a stick up!’” (3) As a prolific artist, writer, publisher and social critic, Jones was a major leader of the Black Arts movement. Although controversial, his incendiary clarion call was heard throughout its constituent communities: leading up to and through Bradford’s debut of YES, LEROI in 1970.
Page created by Kellen Holt, Christina Sabin, and Leila Wang in December 2016.
(1) Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual", by Jerry Watts, pg 299
(2) Gates (2014). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. p. 542.
(3) A phrase co-opted by the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and used as a slogan by other radical groups.