by Rebecca Zorach. Duke University Press, March 2019. 416 p. ill. ISBN 9781478001409 (pbk), $28.95.

Reviewed September 2019
Stacy R. Williams, Head, Helen Topping Architecture & Fine Arts Library, University of Southern California, stacyw@usc.edu

zorbachIn 1967, members of the Chicago-based non-profit Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) gathered together to paint the Wall of Respect, a twenty-by-sixty-foot mural painted on the exterior wall of an abandoned building in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. During its existence from 1967 to 1971, the Wall of Respect was considered an assertion of black identity that inspired a movement of mural creation in black neighborhoods across the United States. The artists who worked on the mural were all members of OBAC. Depicting African American heroes, such Nina Simone, Ray Charles, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X, the Wall of Respect involved not only the members of OBAC but also the residents of Bronzeville, who freely shared their feedback about the mural’s design.

This artwork serves as an introduction to Chicago’s Black Arts Movements in the 1960s to the early 1970s in Rebecca Zorach’s book Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965-1975. Primarily a specialist in European art, Zorach is a professor of art and art history at Northwestern University. Having previously written about the Wall of Respect, Zorach acknowledges early on that art history as a discipline had not readily accepted that the Black Arts Movement in the United States was a movement that required study and to study it, particularly for Black scholars, was a “real risk.” As a white art historian with tenure, Zorach “was not at risk.”

Art for People’s Sake is an illustrated history of African American art history, community organizing, demographic shifts, restrictive covenants, and urban renewal projects in Chicago’s African American communities. Using interviews, archival collections, poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, historic census data, and other documentation, Zorach provides a detailed story of the artists, residents, and educators who worked together to transform Chicago communities struggling with the spatial constraints of systematic racism. Giving textual space to the organizations that were a significant part of the Black Arts Movement in Chicago, OBAC and African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBA), one of the most important arguments that Zorach makes is how the youth organizations, a.k.a. street gangs, participated in and influenced the development of the art and culture of their neighborhoods. Zorach writes that, “This is not to excuse some of the other things they did. But it is to acknowledge this real aspect of the “Black Power” moment: the capacity for street organizations to get things done.”

The book includes color images, chapter notes, a list of archives consulted, interviews, and published works. This would serve well as a resource on the Black Arts Movement in Chicago, community mural history, and African American art history. It is highly recommended for all libraries.