That’s the question artist Richard Haynes is asking.
He grew up in the deep South in the 1950s, a tough time for African-American children like him – segregated schools, restaurants, water fountains and all the other implements of discrimination profoundly shaped his life.
Today, at age 61 and living in Portsmouth, he looks back on those days with amazement, saying, “What in the world were we thinking? Why did it have to be that way?”
He’s grateful so much progress has been made -“we’ve come leaps and bounds,” he says – but he nonetheless finds himself more and more absorbed with the past.
“I’m reflecting back on those times, thinking more deeply about them,” he says. “At a certain age, you want clarity.”
That process has led to what Haynes, an accomplished artist, calls “painting my life” – not as it was, but as he wished it had been.
He’s created a series of 12 acrylic paintings done in his signature style – semi-abstract faceless figures rendered in flat, bold colors – that portray blacks and whites harmoniously living, working and playing together, side by side, even touching, something that was forbidden in Haynes’ childhood world.
The only disturbing image in the otherwise idyllic series is the first (not shown here) – an image of the lynchings once common in the South, painted ironically in bright yellow on yellow. “It’s yellow because that’s where I am in life,” Haynes says. “I’m far more peaceful and compassionate. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I want us to think deeper about where we were than as to where we are today.”
The last image, book-ending the series, is yellow, too. But this one portrays the souls of people who were lynched coming from the earth to plead with today’s society to continue to create – and maintain – the world that Haynes has envisioned.
As he asks, “Why not?”