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An American flag painting in Winter Garden’s Black History Month exhibit encapsulates the Black experience in the U.S. — and the raging debate about teaching it.

Richlin Burnett-Ryan, My America
My America: The Ones Who Made America Great, Moral and Just by Richlin Burnett-Ryan is part of Winter Garden's Black History Month exhibit hanging in City Hall's Art in Public Places Gallery.

Just inside Winter Garden City Hall, across from the commission chambers, hangs a painting of an American flag.

The work of art by Richlin Burnett-Ryan — “My America: The Ones who made America Great, Moral and Just” — encapsulates the Black experience in the U.S. with images of the Middle Passage and the fight for civil rights from the Montgomery bus boycott to Black Lives Matter overlaid on an American flag woven on a loom.

The painting was originally created in 2018, as part of a juried show at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in South Africa. Now Burnett-Ryan’s piece is part of Winter Garden’s Black History Month exhibit in City Hall's Art in Public Places Gallery in the building's lobby. Curated by Patrick Noze, senior curator for Crealdé School of Art in Winter Park, the exhibit runs through Feb. 28.

Burnett-Ryan’s message is clear: Black history is integral to the fabric of American history. Another message is also clear: Civil rights can progress, but progress can also unravel.

It’s a message that rings particularly true at a time when the Florida Department of Education under Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected a high school Advanced Placement pilot course on Black history, developed over a decade by College Board, on the basis that the class “lacks educational value.” Florida law mandates teaching Black history, but under DeSantis, legislation like the Stop WOKE Act — the acronym standing for Wrong to Our Kids and Employees — now limits what can be taught at schools and by employers. (The 2022 law is being challenged in court.)

To kick off Black History Month, VoxPopuli talked with Burnett-Ryan about “My America,” unraveling civil rights and learning from history. The artist emigrated as a child from Guyana to Brooklyn and now makes her home in Palm Coast. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s “My America” about?

This piece documents some of the key civil rights struggles in this country from the Black perspective. I think most of the changes in this country happened through Black people struggling for their rights. Most of the struggles that Black people fought — voting rights, union rights — increased human rights for everyone, collectively. So this piece was through our eyes.

You painted “My America” in 2018. What compelled you to paint it then?

It was during Trump’s presidency. There was a movement to take away people’s human rights, what this flag represents. It’s almost like through the years, through these struggles, the flag has been woven into existence. And because of what was happening, it was unraveling. It’s a statement that all the gains we've made are not guaranteed. It could unravel.

There’s a constant weaving of the America that we have right now. There are always forces trying to undo the good, you know. It's something that you've got to constantly shore up. Look what happened with women's rights. That's something we thought was settled, and now women are wondering, What's the next step? What are they gonna take away from us next?

Where you’ve placed the images on the American flag is significant. What’s the symbolism there?

I was trying to document the struggle from slavery in the formation of the original states. Each and every state in the union had a slave foundation. You know, you don't hear it a lot about New York. We act like the northern states didn't profit from slave labor, but there were slave colonies in New York. So I wanted to represent the foundation of what makes America great is on the backs of the slaves. So, in the stars area [of the flag], the blue with the stars, is a representation of a slave ship, how [the slaves] are packed in. That’s the foundation for this country, through my eyes.

Martin Luther King, the most iconic civil rights leader, sits at the top, opposing the slavery. The figure with the hand just opposing the slave ship, the iconology there spoke to me.

Moving out, there are many different pinpoints of struggles: the [lunch counter] sit-ins, desegregation, bus boycott, [Memphis] sanitation workers strike, the Black Panther movement because I wanted to juxtapose the sit-ins with the more militant approach.

Then toward the bottom, it’s the Black Lives Matter movement, because the struggle continues.

Richlin Burnett-Ryan
Artist Richlin Burnett-Ryan: "The foundation of what makes America great is on the backs of slaves."

We are in the middle of a nationwide debate about race and teaching American history. Why is it so important to remember that Black history is America’s history?

I know the quote is “Those who don't know our history are doomed to repeat it.” The reason we should know our history is because you would love to repeat the good stuff. But you know, the good stuff, if it's good, that's gonna happen organically. But you dare not repeat the bad stuff. You should learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat the bad stuff.

I went through this school system from second grade through college, and I don't know some of the most amazing human beings that are Americans who contribute to this country. It is hidden. Look, we just had to have a movie called Hidden Figures about [three Black women’s] contributions to the space program. So many things are not taught.

And you know what? It doesn't benefit white children not to know that all human beings contribute to the greatness of humankind. Because if we know that we are all valued human beings, we'll treat each other with respect.


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