A painting with a large letter V for Victory in the center that has a split down the middle caused by a white figure with an axe. The V is also flanked by various Black and Caucasian figures, including a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the Statue of Liberty rendered in dark brown, World War II soldiers, a doctor, a pilot, and others.
Mr. Prejudice, 1943, by Horace Pippin (American, 1988-1946), 1984-108-1. (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Matthew T. Moore).

The Timelessness of Horace Pippin’s Concern

Dr. Synatra Smith, Postdoctoral Fellow

Looking for signs of change in the eight decades since Pippin made his iconic painting about American racism

In 1984, the museum acquired Mr. Prejudice (1943), by African American self-taught artist Horace Pippin. In the press release announcing the acquisition, which is housed in the museum’s archive, the painting is described as using “imaginative symbolism” to depict the artist’s his concern about “what was going on down South.”. The press release goes on to say: “Mr. Prejudice, while concerned with a particular time and conflict, expresses a universal vision of moral conflict and human tragedy.” 

Press release for Horace Pippin acquisition, Marketing & Communications Department Records, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives.

Almost eighty years later, Pippin’s concern not only continues to linger but it does so out loud, boastfully, and it’s terrifying. As I reflect on the symbolism of Mr. Prejudice I’m reminded of the 2020 horror drama series, Lovecraft Country, on HBO Max. Fraught with similar symbols of white supremacy and Black oppression, the series left me with the realization that racial violence will always be more terrifying than any ghoul, goblin, or ghost. I’m reminded that despite a global pandemic, racial violence still found a way to prevail through the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in 2020, through the Capitol insurrection and the murder of Ma’kiah Bryant and Daunte Wright in 2021. I’m reminded of the controversy over Critical Race Theory in the K-12 public education system, and of Black voter disenfranchisement that upholds systemic racism. 

At the same time, we’ve seen a lot of symbolic victories: the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The widespread support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement by companies and organizations across the country. And the election of the first Black (and South Asian) Vice President. I’m left feeling somewhere between skeptical and cautiously optimistic; the prosecution and conviction of the murderers of Arbery, Floyd, and Wright send me a little further toward the cautiously optimistic side of that spectrum. 

As a Black scholar working in Black history, things often feel emotionally heavy in both my personal and professional life. In this moment of the nation’s Pluto Return, a time to energetically reckon with its relationship to power and control, I’m encouraged by Nina Simone’s song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” 

“You are young, gifted and Black,”

We must begin to tell our young.

There’s a world waiting for you,

Yours is the quest that’s just begun.

Dr. Synatra Smith is an Afrofuturist cultural preservationist focused on demonstrating the creation, perpetuation, and transformation of Black cultural landscapes. Her work pays special attention to the ways in which virtual and physical space are used as environments to transform access to archives and special collections, both conceptually and in practice, and how material culture contributes to this phenomenon. She is interested in developing immersive digital humanities projects that showcase current local Black art and scholarship in Philadelphia through an Afrofuturist lens that reimagines time and space in order to speculate about the future. She is the museum’s CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for African American Studies.