Words Like a Fire: MARBL's Kennedy and Sons Collection
Southern Spaces is pairing with Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) to publish short features on MARBL collections, events, and exhibits that tell the history of spaces and places in the US South. These posts investigate the geographical, historical, and cultural study of real and imagined southern spaces through the lens of archival sources and materials and are featured on both the Southern Spaces and MARBL blogs.
|Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. prints, Kennedy and Sons Collection, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.|
Printmaker Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.'s posters and artists' books memorialize and celebrate African American history and culture. His work, housed in the Kennedy & Sons Collection in Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), tells complex, personal, and painful stories that contribute to a new vernacular in the depiction and description of African American experience in the United States. In describing his work, Kennedy writes, "I am a SOCIAL PRINTER! Whatever I print—because my work is dedicated to the documentation of Negro culture—whatever I print is political."1 Kennedy's posters, on which he literally spells out his messages, are the most blatant example of the political nature of his work. The two posters that bear the text "Equality is a Privilege Reserved for Blacks" and "Coffee Makes You Black" demonstrate that Kennedy's voice is both witty and insistent, challenging the viewer to reconsider perceptions of black culture, history, and art.
A self-described "humble negro printer," Kennedy creates many of his letterpress posters and postcards on commission. In the 2008 documentary Proceed and Be Bold!, which explores Kennedy's life and artistic output, Kennedy stated, "I don't believe in the thing called art . . . I think people just make stuff."2 Following this artistic vision, many of Kennedy's prints function as both advertisements and art, emerging from and responding to the idiosyncratic needs of the communities they illustrate and inhabit. As an artist, Kennedy has lived and worked in the rural towns of Gordo and York, Alabama, as well as the urban center of Detroit, Michigan, where he currently resides.
|Print from The Children Don't Count Exhibit, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., Kennedy and Sons Collection, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.|
Kennedy relies less on traditional locales for exhibiting his art, such as galleries or museum spaces, and instead prefers more direct and democratic communication with the public. He sells prints online for $25 and in-person at local fairs. When he exhibits his work in museum spaces, Kennedy utilizes the space in both creative and political ways. For example, viewing the gallery exhibition of Kennedy's The Children Don't Count, a multiyear project dedicated to children killed in Chicago in the early 1990s, required visitors to walk over a series of prints bearing the name of a child and how his or her death occurred. Sample prints from the first instance of The Children Don't Count in MARBL's Kennedy & Sons collection remembers Chicago children who died in 1992.
The activist motivations that undergird much of Kennedy's work inflect his artist's book sculpture of a burned church included in MARBL's Kennedy and Sons collection. This piece takes its inspiration from the series of arsons of African American churches that swept the southern United States in the 1990s, echoing similar church burnings that took place during the civil rights movement. These incidents, which occurred at predominantly black rural churches from Arkansas to Virginia, targeted the very places that writer Amiri Baraka has described as the "social focal points" of black life.3 Kennedy's "Burnt Church" is part of a series he is creating to commemorate these recent burnings; "One . . . for every church," Kennedy writes about the project that is at once art, protest, and community rebuilding.4
|Burned church artist's book, exterior, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., Kennedy and Sons Collection, Emory University Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.||Burned church artist's book, interior, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., Kennedy and Sons Collection, Emory University Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.|
Kennedy's artists' books combine the written word he privileges in his posters with the provocative space of a church building decorated with long strips of bible pages that leap almost flame-like across the model building and onto its roof. The words of varying size and font wrap the building with flowing ribbons of text. While some of the text is legible, its function here is not to represent a literal, scriptural message, but rather to emphasize the power of the biblical words that survived the church burnings. The building itself, despite the ruin and decline suggested by the ashes scattered below it, emanates an otherworldly power. Upon close examination of the model building, it is apparent that the roof of the church can be lifted, revealing a charred Bible nestled in its core. The experience of opening the church sculpture is akin to that of opening a treasure chest: awe, disbelief and a certain reverence. In addition to highlighting the power of the violence that resulted in the series of fires the model church commemorates, Kennedy's sculpture emphasizes the imminent power of the communities and their sacred texts that have survived.
MARBL's collecting strength in black print culture also includes the papers of Carter G. Woodson and Kelly Miller, both notable African American artists and intellectuals. Kennedy's addition of this living memorial to MARBL joins the numerous collections in the archives documenting African American history and culture, all of which are available for further reexamination, interpretation, and study by researchers, scholars, and the general public.
About the Author
Claire Ittner graduated from Davidson College with a degree in English and Art History. She worked as a project researcher at MARBL until May 2014, and is now working in the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University.
- 1. Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., "Social Book Binding," in Talking the Boundless Book: Art, Language, and the Book Arts, ed. Charles Alexander (Minneapolis: Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 1995), 47.
- 2. Proceed and be Bold!, directed by Laura Zinger (Chicago: Brown Finch Films, 2008), DVD.
- 3. LeRoi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1963), 40-41.
- 4. Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., letter to author, March 14, 2014, Kennedy and Sons Collection, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University Archives.