“How do you explain to a kid that the world isn’t fair? That it isn’t safe?” artist Michael D’Antuono asks, referring to his latest painting, The Talk.
In the painting, no one in the room is smiling. Not Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not President Obama. Not the mother and father who lean in towards their young black son to have “the talk.” The only ones smiling aren’t in the room; they’re on TV — a once bubbly but now deceased black boy sporting a hoodie and an older white cop, sporting his officer’s uniform and a smug grin. The news title flashing on the TV screen explains the strained mood: “No Indictment in Police Shooting of Unarmed Youth.”
“That’s a hard thing to say,” D’Antuono continues, “so I don’t have them speaking. I have them struggling to find the right words.”
D’Antuono created the piece to coincide with Martin Luther King Day. The Talk explores time — the time it takes for parents to figure out how to talk to their young black boy about how to stay alive, the time it takes for a nation to truly change, and the tenor of the time in which we find ourselves in now. The artist seats the family in between hovering images of MLK Jr., who represents a painful past, and President Barack Obama, who some say represents a “post-racial America,” asking the viewer to consider the quandary of our times:
- More than fifty years after MLK’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, where Dr. King imagined a nation where children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” today, many black children are being judged not just by the color of their skin but by the choice of their clothing.
- Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African American and Latino citizens are increasingly losing the opportunity to vote due to revised voter registration laws.
- Six years ago, Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American President of the United States, but last year, he appeared in an interview to talk about the racism he had experienced as a black man in America.
- Last year, mass marches and protests erupted nationwide in response to the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other unarmed black men at the hands of police. This unrest seemed to mirror the Civil Rights protests a half decade before.
- Last year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told ABC’s “This Week” that even he had trained his black son, Dante, on how to interact with the police, setting off protests by NYPD officers against de Blasio.
- And this year, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences boasts its first black president in its history, its 2015 Oscar nominations include no actors of color.
The Talk illustrates how time — while healing some wounds — has deepened others. Like the rest of D’Antuono’s body of work, it is purposely socio-political. “I try to spark conversation on serious issues and expose hypocrisy and injustice,” he explains. “This piece is more restrained than my other paintings because I wanted to get empathy from white parents, so maybe they could feel a little bit of what black families have to deal with. Everybody can relate to protecting their kids.”
D’Antuono showed no restraint in A Tale of Two Hoodies, created in response to the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2014. When D’Antuono learned that George Zimmerman (Martin’s killer), was auctioning a painting on Ebay (that ended up selling for $100,000), he posted A Tale of Two Hoodies on the site as well, pledging to give half of the profits to the Trayvon Martin Foundation. D’Antuono says that the picture never sold, however, because Ebay removed it for its use of KKK imagery.
Michael D’Antuono is a part of an unofficial fraternity of white activist artists who, illustrative of King’s words, “have come to realize that their destiny is part of our destiny.”
The Talk answers the question it asks: What is the tenor of our times? It’s a time where some use their power and influence to destroy black lives, while others use theirs to remind us of King’s words in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on April 16,1963: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This MLK Day, artists like D’Antuono and Patrick Campbell champion the type of “creative protest” that King envisioned, “meeting physical force with soul force.” They encourage us to continue to dream that one day, the only “talk” that our children will have to hear is the one that includes trumped up stories about storks delivering babies.