Missouri native and artist Sonié Joi Ruffin motions to the artwork behind her: a bronze statue of Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet, a handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation on papyrus and a penciled canvas peppered with the N-word.
Ruffin, visiting curator at the American Jazz Museum, says teaching, talking and learning about African-American history through art is vital.
“African-Americans have the right to expression,” she says. “That’s our God-given gift. We have the right to express ourselves. Especially through the arts.”
Ruffin is talking about “Jazz Speaks for Life: Discovering the Civil Rights Journey Through Visual and Musical Expression,” a new exhibition at the museum.
The show is set up in chronological order of the civil rights movement, starting with slavery and ending with Black Lives Matter, and features pieces by local and national artists.
Kansas City, Kan., native Ed Dwight has several bronze sculptures in the exhibit, including “Birth of Jazz,” “Ray Charles” and “Dirt Farmers,” which is modeled after his grandparents, who were slaves.
“Ed Dwight is the civil rights movement,” Ruffin says. “Everything he has done with art has been dedicated to the African-American experience. From telling the story of ships landing in this country to the picking of cotton to jazz music — he does it all with his art. You have the opportunity of visiting the past.”
Dwight says he didn’t start making art for a living until his 40s, but he estimates he has 18,000 pieces in galleries and 127 memorial pieces.
Dwight says his father, former Kansas City Monarchs second baseman Eddie Dwight, inspired him to become the best artist he could be, even though earning the respect wasn’t easy.
“My dad tried to get me ready for the white universe. He said, ‘You have to do something, but you have to do it better than them. They will not like you for it in the beginning, but if you continue to be better, they will begin to respect you,’ ” he says. “And later I found out, whatever you do you have to be better than anybody else. And then you will get their respect.”
Painter Charles Bibbs tells the African-American story in a modern way with his brightly colored works.
“Charles has a very intelligent way of taking color and pen and bringing you to the contemporary stage of the African-American story as it pertains to music,” Ruffin says. “He’s consistent within his design process, and he realizes the impact that his work is going to have on his audience.”
Keith Shepherd of Kansas City has three acrylic paintings on display. One of his works, “Eye for an Eye,” shows white and black men carrying anti-integration signs. Shepherd says he wanted to show how it would look if black people carried the hateful signs that white protesters carried in the 1950s.
“Those people protesting integration would live off the hate, they would survive on that hate,” Shepherd says. “And I thought, what if black people were walking around carrying those same kinds of signs? How hateful that would be. And those people thought nothing of that hate.”
Shepherd’s “Welcome to the Club” shows a different side of the African-American experience, with men and women at a jazz club enjoying the music and the atmosphere. He says the bright colors in the painting make it impressionistic.
“I think paint makes you look at color the way a photograph can’t,” he says. “Color is emotional. Color is passionate.”
Michelle Beasley, also from Kansas City, says Shepherd’s use of vivid color inspired her own acrylic paintings. Her piece “One More Song” shows a woman in a brightly colored dress singing into a microphone.
“I took ‘One More Song’ from the jazz perspective,” Beasley says. “It’s at the end of the night, and she’s belting out that last song for those few people that are still there. I wanted to show the love that she has for her craft.”
Ruffin says jazz music and the civil rights movement united, and much of the jazz music thrived in Kansas City.
“Jazz and the movement were such amazing partners,” she says. “All these amazing musicians, right here. It happened from 12th and Vine to 18th and Vine.”
Ruffin says sports followed music into the civil rights movement, but education has been slow to adapt.
Education was key in Ruffin’s family. She says one of the worst fights she ever had with her mother was over whether she should go to school after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“My mother sat me down and said, ‘You’re going to go to school and you’re going to behave.’ And I’m thinking, ‘No, I’m not,’ ” Ruffin says. “It took becoming an adult to understand the message that my parents were sending: Education is important, and teaching your children the right way to communicate is important.”
Race and education still clash at universities around the country. The University of Missouri made headlines worldwide after the racially charged protests on campus last fall.
Last November, the MU football team announced it would not practice until former President Tim Wolfe resigned or was removed (he eventually resigned). Ruffin says the members of the football team knew their decision not to play could cost MU millions of dollars.
“Cotton was king, and now athletics is king. That’s the revenue generator. Once you hit the pocketbook, things are going to change,” she says. “That’s why the athletes got involved, that’s why they said they weren’t going to play football. How many millions of dollars does that pull out of MU? Those young men knew exactly what they were doing.”
Ruffin says the art showcased in the exhibit shows the sacrifices African-Americans have made for future generations.
“Every single day for the rest of our lives as African-Americans we are going to have to live out our truths,” she says. “And as we live out our truths we have to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices that were made for us to be here still today.”
“Jazz Speaks for Life” runs through Sept. 30 at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St. The exhibit will feature public programs, including a spoken word performance by poet Jessica Care Moore at 7 p.m. June 15 and a jazz performance by Kansas City native Angela Hagenbach at 7 p.m. on July 21, both in the Changing Gallery. For a complete schedule and more information, go to americanjazzmuseum.org.