Reflecting on African American History Month’s many shades of meaning to students of art and design

Illustration of Dominican fruit by Medar de la Cruz

Illustration of Dominican fruit by Medar de la Cruz

“One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” W.E.B.  Du Bois (1868-1963)

Before coming to Pasadena I rarely thought about how significant the color of my skin was to my everyday life. I was raised in a neighborhood in Miami, Florida where I was part of a majority consisting of residents who were either immigrants, multi-lingual or people of color.

Medar de la Cruz

Medar de la Cruz

But when I came to Art Center I realized I no longer fit in as easily. It was here that I was first asked: “Are you black?” This made me realize that race was going to make an impact on my experiences. It’s normal for people to be affected by stereotypes and visual representations. And it’s normal to make assumptions about someone by the color of their skin. So when I was asked this, I responded, “Yes…I mean I’m not white. My parents are Dominican, my ancestors are African, and I was born in America. So technically that makes me African American as well.” I learned that question alone helps me define who I am.

These conversations lead me to wanting to figure out how I could represent myself through my ideas. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore these situations in every single one of my classes, where I’ve concluded that honesty is key to creative representation. At Art Center I’ve learned that I am not alone. Most of the people I meet are studying art and design because of the individualistic freedom it provides. It was here that an upper-term student, Kristina Halcromb, recognized me in my first year and invited me to join “CHROMA.” At the time CHROMA was a small group where students would congregate a few times a term to meet people and share inspiration from artists and designers of African American and Latin descent. Today most of them have graduated and have allowed me the role of continuing the club activities, and inviting students of all backgrounds to join us during lunch once a week to make new friends.

African American History month at Art Center provides a moment to address the impact speaking about culture has made in the world of art, design and educational experiences. Coming to a school where personal stories and dynamic conversations are taken into account with every single assignment has widely expanded my creative sensibility. Almost everyone I’ve met has traveled from a different state or country to come study at our school and it is impossible not to notice the language barriers they have to cross in order to communicate with each other.

African-American culture has had a tremendous impact on several aspects of visual art and design by introducing a new aesthetic language based on its ancient traditions. Although it took hundreds of years for people of color to be accepted into society as equals, the unique styles of expression have been relevant to our culture since the beginning of the American slave trade in the 17th century.

Today we experience African American culture at Art Center every day by recognizing the effect these traditions have on writing, fashion, design, painting, sculpture, music…etc. We realize how much has changed for the better since the Civil Rights movement in the 60s…as well as how much has not changed. As the artists and designers of the future, we must remember our role in American culture and feel responsible for keeping these conversations alive.

This month is a reminder to reflect on how African American culture has inspired you to make the type of work you create. How can you incorporate these ideas into your daily life to make sure positive change continues to happen on our own campus? The Art Center work ethic has taught me that nothing is ever quite “finished” or perfect. So when it comes to broadening the student body, we might also acknowledge that as far as we’ve come, there is still a long way to go.

Medar de la Cruz is currently studying Illustration at Art Center.


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