A Call to Arms

Lettered on the corrugated surface of this vintage washboard are lines from the poem “Proem” (1922) by Langston Hughes. The names of two American cities appear above: Chicago, the site of a bloody race riot in 1919; and Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. A crumb brush affixed to a mammy figurine with a noose around her neck stands before a photo of a lynching. Her outstretched arms are bullets and she is flanked by Black Power fists. For decades, Saar has transformed such derogatory images into potent symbols. She has said, “When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I reacted by creating a woman who’s my warrior: Aunt Jemima.”

Saar borrowed both the Hughes excerpt and the photo from a page in The Black Book, on view at right. She regards this influential volume as a sourcebook.

Betye Saar
A Call to Arms, 1997
Washboard with stenciled lettering, toy guns, compass, clock, wood picture frame, printed photo, crumb brush, twine, bullets, wood and metal spools, and Black Power fists
Collection of David Packard and M. Bernadette Castor. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.© Betye Saar.
photo © Museum Associates/LACMA