David Driskell remembers, "My parents would look at me and look at Jimmy, my white playmate, and they'd say to me . . . 'You can't be as good as Jimmy. You've got to be better than Jimmy, or else you won't make it.' "
He made it. Today, at 60, David Driskell has written half a dozen books and organized 27 exhibitions on African-American art. He has become so widely known an expert that he has lectured on the subject from New York to Amsterdam to Cape Town, and two years ago the Arts Council of Great Britain funded a documentary film on his contributions to African-American art history.
And that's only a third of his professional life. As a teacher, he is professor of art and former chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland, and has been a visiting professor from Maine to Nigeria. As an artist, he has been shown at museums including the Whitney in New York, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the High Museum in Atlanta and has had dozens of one-man exhibitions, including the current one at School 33 Art Center in Baltimore.
Despite the eminence of his reputation as a scholar, "I would love to just be an artist," he says. "I want to go into my studio and just be me, just paint, because that's my first love."
Mr. Driskell, however, gives the impression that he's able to "just be me" wherever he is and whatever he's doing. Sitting in his comfortable, moderate-sized house in Hyattsville, amid his collection of African and African-American art, he converses easily and naturally about everything from great black artists to his own origins as an artist.
He remembers coming to art naturally when he was growing up in Georgia and western North Carolina. "On my father's side of the family they were farmers and craftspeople, and on my mother's side they wove baskets and did a little drawing and things like that and I guess that rubbed off on me. When I went to school the teachers saw that I had some talent and encouraged me."
He went to Howard University in 1949 with "the intention of studying history and becoming a social scientist or a teacher, but I was exposed to a painter and art historian from Baltimore named James A. Porter, and he was quite a scholar on what was then referred to as Negro art. It was he who really encouraged me not to just study history but to study art history and to become a painter."
At that point, the study and exhibition of black American art was in its infancy. Mr. Driskell singles out an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, "Negro Art," as the first major show to present black art to white America; artists included Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald J. Motley Jr. and Hale Woodruff. And Mr. Driskell calls his mentor Porter, active from the 1940s to the 1960s, "the first major scholar in the field."
In more recent years, largely thanks to such books as Mr. Driskell's "Two Centuries of Black American Art" (1975) and his book and exhibition "Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art" (1985), knowledge of the African-American contribution to American art has grown significantly. Museumgoers now may recognize not only such modern artists as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, but earlier figures from Joshua Johnson (or Johnston) of Baltimore to Robert Duncanson, Henry O. Tanner, William H. Johnson and others.
A long way to go
But Mr. Driskell doesn't by any means think the job is finished.
"I think we've come a long way in the sense of knowing this is an important element of the culture, and by that I mean the broad American culture," he says. "I still don't think we're where we ought to be. People . . . say, 'Are you still doing those black shows?' And they're serious. Some of them feel like, 'Well, now I know about black art, so you don't have to keep doing that.' But if you go to the museums there isn't too much visual evidence. So it's very important to keep doing shows by blacks [and other minorities] until there is a much brighter awareness."
The day might come when such shows are not necessary. But not soon, he thinks. "It is my fervent hope that one day we will look out there and say, American art, yes, without any distinction of race or gender, etc. I know I won't live to see that.
"Indeed, I have friends who say to me, 'Let's be realistic. You don't expect this to happen in America, do you?' But somehow or another I do. When I was 10 years old I never thought there would be something workable that we refer to as integration, or an assimilation of sorts that gave people certain rights. It was out of my wildest dreams."
One way to educate the public is with shows. Another is with education itself, and Mr. Driskell thinks everyone should study African-American and other minority art.
"The European influence is not going to go away, but unless we nurture the others they won't last, so we've got to really buttress it at the lowest level and bring it all the way through to the highest. I would require it in the academy as well as in the elementary levels."