A visit to a slaveholding plantation in Louisiana when I was 7, followed by a trip to the slave quarters of Mount Vernon when I was 10, disillusioned me about our country's history. How could a country founded on the basis of freedom have a president who owned slaves himself? I was overcome by these horrifying facts.
During fourth through sixth grades, I was bussed to different schools with predominantly African-American and Hispanic students. This experience sensitized me to racial tension and to the reality that racism is alive and well in our country.
Since then I have always wanted to work for the cause of racial unity, and hope that in some small way my artwork can move us in the right direction. We are all One. When racism goes unacknowledged, the wounds fester rather than heal. I hope that by recognizing these abolitionists who fought together against slavery, I can bring to light their inspiring bravery, sacrifice, vision and unity. And help others recognize what we can accomplish when we work together toward a goal as important as freedom and equality for all.
The story of our American abolitionists is a beautiful example of Oneness, which I believe we should all celebrate and strive to embody as individuals living in an exquisitely diverse culture.
Before, during and after the Civil War, these men and women, who were African American, Caucasian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Polytheistic, put aside their differences to devote their lives (enduring death threats, risking their lives and those of their friends and families) in their efforts to end slavery. For this, I believe they deserve to be portrayed in my artwork as saints.
Each of these individuals had an impact on each other and many were personal friends. For example, revolutionary abolitionist John Brown was inspired by African-American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet’s speech, "A Call to Rebellion." Harriet Tubman gathered men to help John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry. Sojourner Truth's gentle talk with Frederick Douglass about passivity influenced his own desire for a peaceful movement rather than a violent one. William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass were known to be good friends who shared a passion for publishing their abolitionist newspapers. As with many close relationships, they suffered a falling out at one point, but found it in their hearts to forgive each other when the Civil War broke out, stating that whatever slights they'd endured from each other were not as important as the cause of freedom for slaves.
All abolitionists also shared great risk and suffered great danger for their cause. Frederick Douglass lived in constant fear of being recaptured and was warned by his friends to not use the real name of his former owner in his writings. But he refused to hide and poured out his true, unedited experiences of the brutality of slavery in his autobiographies, the most famous of which is "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." Douglass was also known for creating important abolitionist newspapers, among them "The North Star." While on an extended visit to England, Douglass enjoyed celebrity, comfort and safety. He was the most famous African-American abolitionist both in the U.S. and abroad. He could have lived out his life in England in relative ease; however, he returned to America to continue his abolitionist work out of his heartfelt obligation to his fellow enslaved African Americans.
Sojourner Truth was the first woman to successfully sue the U.S. government to free her son from slavery. She also was a talented orator who delivered many influential anti-slavery speeches. She was very religious and cited Eve as a reason for women to be allowed to fight for justice. She said that if "the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!" In this way she was both an abolitionist and a feminist. Many abolitionists also fought for the cause of women's suffrage.
Caucasian abolitionists faced many dangers, as well. In one case, William Lloyd Garrison was burned in effigy and physically attacked in the streets by slaveholders protesting his famous abolitionist newspaper, "The Liberator." In another, abolitionist and suffragette Angelina Grimké narrowly escaped death when delivering one of her most famous speeches. As she spoke, angry anti-abolitionists threw rocks into the windows around her; after she left, they burned the building to the ground. Grimké came from a family so wealthy that each person in her home had his or her own designated slave. She bravely left a life of extravagance and defied societal norms (women rarely left home before marriage then) to devote her life to the abolitionist cause.
I use similar objects throughout this body of work to express that these incredible individuals were connected through friendship. I also use "dangerous” items like shattered glass, rusty nails, bullets and matches to symbolize the risks abolitionists willingly suffered. And I use images found in religious icons to present these American abolitionists as saints in my mixed-media assemblage.
Among other thematic elements, I also utilize guitar picks, strings and many musical references in my work as a nod to the Blues, an original American music form emblematic of the pain and struggle of slaves and African Americans in this country.
Through the lens of "broken objects made beautiful," I like to remind viewers to look at the tragedies (or heartaches) in our lives as crucibles in which we learn the most powerful, strengthening lessons. I love the idea that we can take our tragedies (shattered glass from a traffic collision) and turn them into something beautiful (diamond-like decorations).
Presenting these dedicated, courageous souls as saints has been a joy and a privilege. Learning about the deep friendships forged between African Americans and Caucasians (at a time when it was dangerous to be friends with each other) and between men and women, has profoundly touched me, and I hope that my work can touch you in some small way as well.
We cannot forget these sacrificial individuals who devoted their lives, literally and figuratively, to the victorious end of slavery.
Hope Demetriades holds an MA in Art from Cal State Fullerton, and BA in Art and Psychology from Pitzer College. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.
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"The North Stars: Canonizing the American Abolitionists"