Lift Every Voice
Elizabeth Catletts Trailblazing Prints Inspire a New Generation
In the spring of 2020, protests over systemic racism were erupting throughout the United States. During this time, I was tasked with securing a teacher for portraits and landscapes for our regional guild. I received portfolios of work from several very talented instructors, but I struggled with the subject matter and the focus of the proposed work in light of the national turmoil. What could we hook that was less Eurocentric, more inclusive, and more contemporary?
I had recently purchased a copy of Lift Every Voice and Sing after reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was unfamiliar with the hymn of the same name, written by James Weldon Johnson and composed by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in the early 1900s. The illustrations in the book captured my attention; they were block prints created by American artist Elizabeth Catlett, and to my astonishment they were created in the 1940s, in Mexico. The prints were astounding, not only for their content but also for the period in which they were created, and because they resonated so profoundly with our culture’s current distress.