A design justice reading list for Black History Month
For nearly a century, the Association for the Study of African American Life (ASALH) has annually chosen a theme for Black History Month. Their aim is not to dictate or limit the exploration of the Black experience but to focus the attention of the public to crucial developments that deserve attention. This year’s chosen theme is “African Americans and the Arts.”
To celebrate, we’re spotlighting a vibrant collection of recent books, at once enlightening, inspiring, and practical, that challenge and reshape our perspectives and truly help us see the world anew. The collection features scholars exploring racial justice, artists speaking to Black experiences in America, and theorists building roadmaps for inclusive design.
Read on to explore books that highlight Black achievement and experience in the arts and design.
Mortevivum: Photography and the Politics of the Visual by Kimberly Juanita Brown
Since photography’s invention, black life has been presented as fraught, short, agonizingly filled with violence, and indifferent to intervention: living death—mortevivum—in a series of still frames that refuse a complex humanity. In Mortevivum, Kimberly Juanita Brown shows us how the visual logic of documentary photography and the cultural legacy of empire have come together to produce the understanding that blackness and suffering—and death—are inextricable. Brown traces this idea from the earliest images of the enslaved to the latest newspaper photographs of black bodies, from the United States and South Africa to Haiti and Rwanda, documenting the enduring, pernicious connection between photography and a global history of antiblackness.
Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook by Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall
From the excesses of world expositions to myths of better living through technology, modernist design, in its European-based guises, has excluded and oppressed the very people whose lands and lives it reshaped. Decolonizing Design first asks how modernist design has encompassed and advanced the harmful project of colonization—then shows how design might address these harms by recentering its theory and practice in global Indigenous cultures and histories.
An Anthology of Blackness: The State of Black Design edited by Terresa Moses and Omari Souza
An Anthology of Blackness examines the intersection of Black identity and practice, probing why the design field has failed to attract Black professionals, how Eurocentric hegemony impacts Black professionals, and how Black designers can create an anti-racist design industry. Contributing authors and creators demonstrate how to develop a pro-Black design practice of inclusivity, including Black representation in designed media, anti-racist pedagogy, and radical self-care. Through autoethnography, lived experience, scholarship, and applied research, these contributors share proven methods for creating an anti-racist and inclusive design practice.
Racism Untaught: Revealing and Unlearning Racialized Design by Lisa E. Mercer and Terresa Moses
Anti-racist design interventions can be difficult. Well-intentioned conversations can fuel tensions, activate racialized trauma, and lead to misunderstandings, especially in spaces not typically focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Even when progress is made, white supremacy culture can resurface. We need anti-racist guidelines and approaches that lay bare racialized systems of oppression and fundamentally disrupt their replication. In Racism Untaught, Lisa E. Mercer and Terresa Moses, two veteran anti-racist educators, deliver this exact approach.
Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation by Kevin G. Bethune
Design offers so much more than an aesthetically pleasing logo or banner, a beautification add-on after the heavy lifting. In Reimagining Design, Kevin Bethune shows how design provides a unique angle on problem-solving—how it can be leveraged strategically to cultivate innovation and anchor multidisciplinary teamwork. As he does so, he describes his journey as a Black professional through corporate America, revealing the power of transformative design, multidisciplinary leaps, and diversity. Bethune, who began as an engineer at Westinghouse, moved on to Nike (where he designed Air Jordans), and now works as a sought-after consultant on design and innovation, shows how design can transform both individual lives and organizations.
Amaza Lee Meredith Imagines Herself Modern: Architecture and the Black American Middle Class by Jacqueline Taylor
Amaza Lee Meredith Imagines Herself Modern tells the captivating story of Amaza Lee Meredith, a Black woman architect, artist, and educator born into the Jim Crow South, whose bold choices in both life and architecture expand our understanding of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, while revealing the importance of architecture as a force in Black middle-class identity. Through her charismatic protagonist, Jacqueline Taylor derives new insights into the experiences of Black women at the forefront of culture in early twentieth-century America, caught between expectation and ambition, responsibility and desire.
A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See by Tina M. Campt
In A Black Gaze, Tina Campt examines Black contemporary artists who are shifting the very nature of our interactions with the visual through their creation and curation of a distinctively Black gaze. Their work—from Deana Lawson’s disarmingly intimate portraits to Arthur Jafa’s videos of the everyday beauty and grit of the Black experience, from Kahlil Joseph’s films and Dawoud Bey’s photographs to the embodied and multimedia artistic practice of Okwui Okpokwasili, Simone Leigh, and Luke Willis Thompson—requires viewers to do more than simply look; it solicits visceral responses to the visualization of Black precarity.
In the Black Fantastic by Ekow Eshun
A richly illustrated exploration of Black culture at its most wildly imaginative and artistically ambitious, In the Black Fantastic assembles art and imagery from across the African diaspora. Embracing the mythic and the speculative, it recycles and reconfigures elements of fable, folklore, science fiction, spiritual traditions, ceremonial pageantry, and the legacies of Afrofuturism. In works that span photography, painting, sculpture, cinema, graphic arts, music and architecture, In the Black Fantastic shows how speculative fictions in Black art and culture are boldly reimagining perspectives on race, gender and identity.
Devotion by Garrett Bradley
Garrett Bradley works across narrative, documentary, and experimental modes of filmmaking to address themes such as race, class, familial relationships, social justice, and cultural histories in the United States. Her collaborative and research-based approach to filmmaking is often inspired by the real-life stories of her protagonists. This book explores the many varied themes of Bradley’s work and features interviews and conversations with, as well as commissioned essays from, Tina Campt, Josie Roland Hodson, Ashley Clark, and Kevin Quashie. This is the first volume in a new series of readers co-published with Lisson Gallery entitled Re:, which will respond or refer back to a number of its artists and themes past and present.
Hugh Hayden: American Vernacular edited by Sarah J. Montross
This pioneering study of Hugh Hayden’s work includes 90 full-color images of the artist’s remarkable, labor-intensive sculptural practice over the past decade, as well as critical essays by curator Sarah Montross, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Carmen Maria Machado, and an interview between the artist and curator Horace Ballard, PhD. Hugh Hayden is best known for creating hand-hewn wooden picnic tables, fences, and chairs from which countless tree branches seem to grow maniacally outward—as if nature herself is lashing out in self-protection from these unthreatening icons of leisure and domesticity. He surveys many dimensions of American life, noting, “All of my work is about the American dream, whether it’s a table that’s hard to sit at or a thorny school desk. It’s a dream that is seductive, but difficult to inhabit.”
Carrie Mae Weems edited by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis
In this October Files volume, essays and interviews explore the work of the influential American artist Carrie Mae Weems—her invention and originality, the formal dimensions of her practice, and her importance to the history of photography and contemporary art. Since the 1980s, Weems (b. 1953) has challenged the status of the Black female body within the complex social fabric of American society. Her photographic work, film, and performance investigate spaces that range from the American kitchen table to the nineteenth-century world of historically Black Hampton University to the ancient landscapes of Rome.
Kara Walker edited by Vanina Géré
Kara Walker’s work and its borrowings from an iconography linked to the fantasized and travestied history of American chattel slavery has been theorized and critiqued in countless texts throughout her career. Critical interpretations of her work have been shaped by the numerous debates on the very discussions it generated. How, then, do we approach a work that has been covered by such “thick theoretical layers”? This collection is unique in emphasizing Walker’s work itself rather than the controversies surrounding it. These essays and interviews survey Walker’s artistic practice from her early works in the 1990s through her most recent ones, from her famous silhouette projects to her lesser-known drawings and lantern shows, stressing the full range and depth of her remarkable body of work.