Dad was a revolutionary.
A prolific artist and intellectual, a driving force in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, founder of the artists' collective AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) and retired dean of the Howard University College of Fine Arts, Jeff R. Donaldson created works that are world-renowned, brilliant and timeless.
But enough of that; stats, facts and figures are best left for Google. Ultimately, what I remember most about my father, who died in 2003, can't be found in an Internet search—things like how he spoke French; didn't wear neckties; smoked cigarettes; loved basketball, the blues and sweet potato pie; and hated talking on the phone. He taught me early on that C's were unacceptable, black was beautiful and that it wasn't about who won or lost as long as the game was good. He made sure that the appreciation of education, art and excellence was paramount in my life. And for that I am eternally grateful.
My father believed black people had a responsibility to project an image to the world of pride, dignity, excellence, beauty and strength. As such, his paintings symbolized power, rebellion and the beauty of the black figure. He wanted to inspire, and he is my inspiration. And though I can't paint a stick figure, what I did inherit from Dad was his free spirit, bushy hair, revolutionary nature, impatience and, ultimately, a passion to seeing black people painted in a better light.
All of which begs the question: How did the daughter of such a dynamic, revolutionary artist become the Queen of Hot Ghetto Mess?
Just as my father wanted to show a proud, vibrant, strong black community by painting us not as we were, but as all we could be, Hotghettomess.com was borne of an anger and frustration at seeing my generation and our children abandon all those things my dad and his peers worked tirelessly to attain.
Victory in the Valley of Esu, 1971; Jeff R. Donaldson
At first glance, my dad and I couldn't seem more different. And frankly, it wasn't until I became a "controversial figure" (whatever the hell that means) in my own community that I realized just how alike my father and I truly are.
Dad told me how as a young man, he grew frustrated by constantly seeing artists depict black people as sad, forlorn, poverty-stricken, grim and solemn. Born in 1932, he lived in a time when blacks had little control over our images in popular culture. He aimed to visually transcend the limitations placed on our people by racism and Jim Crow. He felt that much of the art of the early and mid-20th century focused on the struggle of black life rather than on the resilience of our spirit. He wanted the world to understand and appreciate that side of us. So that is what he painted.
By illustrating an inspiring, prideful black experience, my father presented an alternative image that was not depicted in the media. When mainstream opportunities for blacks to define themselves were nonexistent, he painted another reality into existence.
Where my dad sought to create positive images, I seek to denigrate negative images. For the last 20 years, I have seen our precious black image bastardized, monetized and then arrogantly sold back to us as "culture." The positive imagery our elders fought so hard to cultivate and preserve has been replaced, with scarcely a second thought, by hos and thugs. And not only have we failed to reject these images as dysfunctional and dangerous, but we continue to participate in their perpetuation. Frankly, this pisses me off.
As the daughter of an artist, I have been an avid student of black imagery for as long as I can remember. However, I don't use paint and brushes; my easel, in recent years, is the Internet. My pictures and my words are my art, all pleading with my community to take a look in the mirror and challenge what you see, change what you see. Yes, my methods are controversial; I'm a smartass, and my style can be a bit much for some. Like my father, I am an acquired taste. But, like my father, I love my people.
Donaldson's Web site, www.hotghettomess.com
Dad was a revolutionary. It is from his strength that I gained the courage of my convictions and the balls to say what so many won't. He is my hero (albeit a hero who refused to buy me name brands and made me get off the phone by 8 p.m. But I'm over that. Really.). At first glance, we are an odd couple, my dad and me, but just like the dots in a Seurat painting, when you see the whole picture, it makes perfect sense.
Besides, who do you think came up with the name of my Web site? ;-)
Happy Father's Day.
Jam Donaldson is a writer, attorney and television producer based in Washington, D.C.