Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot

July 27, 2018

The past is always present. It is not always visible, but like the molecules that we are composed of, it is everywhere, ever-changing, and always part of us. — Hank Willis Thomas

How to Live through a Police Riot [Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot], 2018, Hank Willis Thomas (born 1976), Screen print on retroreflective vinyl with aluminum backing, 62 x 48 inches. Commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum. Photograph of Wilmington Riots and National Guard Occupation by Frank Fahey, 1968. Courtesy of The News Journal. Text from Northeast Conservation Association, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, c. 1960s. Daniels Collection, courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

On Sunday, December 4, 2016, The News Journal published an extensive piece on the 1968 National Guard occupation of Wilmington and recently-found photographs from the period. The images were taken by staff photographers including Donaghey Brown, Fred Comegys, Ron Dubick, Frank Fahey, Tom Keene, Chuck McGowen, John Peterson, and Godfrey Pitts. The photographs are striking. Guardsmen patrol Market Street; a gun is aimed at crowd mixed in race, gender, and age; smoke plumes rise from West Center City, congregations gather in a church, and youth stride with passion through downtown Wilmington. Many have talked in the past about the powerful affect the occupation had on the community but seeing the photographs added a visual understanding of this history.

The Delaware Art Museum had already intended to mark 50 years since the powerful and community-changing public response that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Exhibition programming for 2018 was planned to include a survey show of photographs by Danny Lyon taken in the early 1960s for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A question remained about how to examine what happened here in Wilmington.

Familiar with the work of the New York-based conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, an invitation was extended to Thomas to respond to the events of 1968 through the creation of a new work of art. The resulting exhibition, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, sheds light on this complicated moment in our city’s history.

Thomas explores the complexities of race, gender, and class in his photography, sculpture, and video-based artwork. For this project, he combined the historic News Journal photographs with a pamphlet written and distributed in 1968 by the Northeast Conservation Association. The document Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot was found as Thomas researched this project at the Delaware Historical Society and was used with their permission.

Informed by the uprisings of 1967, Cold War-era nuclear fallout pamphlets, and “green books” which were guides published by and for African Americans to navigate institutional racism during segregation. The text of the “Black Survival Guide…” served as a practical manual for surviving the impending occupation. The guide outlines that police and media response will be followed by business closures, electricity outages, and travel restrictions. Provisions—food, water, and basic medical supplies—must be gathered, and those under siege must also know how to provide basic care for medical emergencies.

Thomas created a powerfully unique physical and visual viewing experience by combining image and text on retroreflective vinyl—a material widely used in road signage. The pages of the survival guide are activated when a flash of light catches the News Journal photograph underneath. Events on the verge of being lost to historical amnesia are revealed again. With this rediscovery, the viewer is placed in the position of the many individuals who directly or indirectly experienced these events—city residents, Wilmington firefighters, and National Guardsman.

It is a powerful visual reminder of the subjectivity with which every moment, past and present, is viewed. For Thomas, this is how the past remains current, and how the “holes of narrative history” are exposed.

Margaret Winslow
Curator of Contemporary Art

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