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"Lessons from Below: Otabenga Jones & Associates"

Otabenga Jones & Associates teach us a few things at the Menil

Otabenga Jones & Associates present other figures from their archives. There's "The Falcon" circa 1979, its tattered cape evidence of a lot of play, probably by a kid who was thrilled there was a superhero that finally looked like him. Then there's the new-in-the-box Green Lantern, with an Afro and glowing eyes, a Muhammad Ali and a WWF figure of the roid-y looking "Junkyard Dog." It's not exactly a big selection — you realize how few black action figures there are/were for kids.

A collection of 1970s greeting cards effectively conveys the era's zeitgeist. A black card has white letters on the front that read "Black is beautiful...," and on the inside is a reflective square of silver and the words "don't you agree?" Another card in vivid '70s hues shows a drawing of a bearded man in a white turtleneck and fuchsia dashiki against an orange background. He sports a large Afro, rendered in black flocking on the card. The text reads, "Grow an Afro, man...and no one will dare call you boy." People might think you're one of those badass Black ­Panthers.

But the learning isn't only object-based. The exhibition also included a series of Saturday lectures that ended with a big name. In conjunction with the show, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), famed writer, poet and activist, gave a talk in the installation as well as a reading on the lawn of the Menil. For those who missed him in person, a DVD of his classroom lecture plays in the installation on a monitor next to the lectern where he spoke. You can also see footage of Baraka as a young firebrand in his 1970 speech at Texas Southern University on monitors Otabenga Jones and Associates inserted into the Menil's surrealist and 20th-century galleries. It's pretty amusing to see Baraka lecturing all that dead white male art.

A 1909 poster depicts the talented, persecuted Jack Johnson.
A 1909 poster depicts the talented, persecuted Jack Johnson.

"Lessons from Below" mixes reverence and irreverence, sadness and joy, humor and gravity with a goodly amount of righteous anger. One of the stated goals of Otabenga Jones & Associates is "to teach the truth to young Black youth." But they're also managing to teach people who aren't young and aren't black.

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