not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Kerry James Marshall (born 1955)
Lost Boys: AKA BB, 1993

In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the Lost Boys are Peter’s companions in Neverland, happy to never grow up, frozen in an eternal childhood. In contemporary African America, this conceit can assume a more harrowing dimension, with too many youth being denied the opportunity to grow and reach adulthood unscathed. Kerry James Marshall was inspired to paint his series of Lost Boys by the experience of his younger brother’s incarceration, which drove home to him the precariousness of Black lives. He speaks of taking “that concept of being lost from Peter Pan and then applying it to a concept of being lost—lost in America, lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in illiteracy.”

But the tone of Lost Boys: AKA BB is elegiac, not despairing. BB looks out at us solemnly, a thin gold chain with his initials around his neck. Behind him, the letters AKA—“also known as”—appear scrawled in white against a brick-red ground, almost disappearing amid a cluster of imprinted white forms that come to resemble a wreath of flowers. At bottom, half-hidden beneath white brushstrokes, we can just make out the year 1993 written in careful script. The connotations are unmistakably funereal, a stunningly beautiful memorial for one of America’s lost children.

Click here to hear Cyree Bowen talk about this work.

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