Treasures from the Vault: Margaret Burroughs

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs found her voice as an educator, poet, community organizer, and visual artist.  She was an advocate for African American representation in public history, literature, and art when its presence was limited or non-existent.

Born in St. Rose Parish, Louisiana in 1917, the Taylor family moved to Chicago in 1922 during what is known as the Great Migration.  From 1915 to 1970 more than six million African Americans left the rural South for cities in the North and West, in search of an improved standard of living, political conditions, and economic opportunities. Burroughs received her certification from the Chicago Teacher’s College as well as a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in education from the Art Institute of Chicago.  She spent 18 years teaching in Chicago’s public schools and also taught humanities at Kennedy-King College.

An accomplished writer, Burroughs contributed articles to journals, wrote children’s books, and edited anthologies.  Her poignant poem “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” written in 1968, still resonates powerfully today and has been translated into many different languages.  Her poetry speaks of beauty in being black and seeks to instill pride and value in a rich, ancestral African heritage and African American history.

She made an indelible mark through her community work to nurture black culture and preserve black history in Chicago.  She co-founded the South Side Community Art Center (funded by the Works Progress Administration), which continues to provide an array of exhibitions and art classes to the south side Bronzeville neighborhood.  Dedicated in 1941 by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, it is the oldest African American art center in the country.  Burroughs co-founded the DuSable Museum of African American History in 1961, which became the first independently-owned museum celebrating black history, art, and culture.  She was also an honorary advisor to Fort Wayne’s own African/African American Historical Museum.

In the center stands a Black woman who stands on the sea, emerging from a clam. at her feet are fish and another woman, while around her head are two angles with palm leaves fanning her. An interpretation of Botticelli's "Venus".
Margaret Burroughs, American, 1915-2010. Black Venus. Linoleum block print, ca. 1957. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2013.67. Used with permission from the Estate of Margaret Burroughs. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Burroughs’ work in the visual arts took the form of painting, some sculpture, and a large body of relief prints.  In Black Venus, Burroughs surely sought to reinterpret Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli’s iconic Birth of Venus.  Dr. Alain Locke, along with other Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and writers, set out to redefine their image as the New Negro, which would counter the stereotypes associated with Jim Crow America.  They challenged artists to forge a new, authentic iconography for a re-envisioned identity.  The arts would draw inspiration from the South, the Caribbean, and pre-colonial Africa—their true cultural roots.  Burroughs borrowed compositional elements from Botticelli’s painting of the classical goddess rising from the sea, but provides a renewed definition of beauty by replacing her fair hair and complexion with a rich, dark skin tone.

In What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? Burroughs’ own words to a poem entitled “Let It Be Known” aptly describe her life’s work in poetry, art, and activism: “Let it be known to all,/The story of the glorious struggles of my people./Too long. . . Too long has it been kept from us.”

To learn more about Margaret Burroughs:  Mary Ann Cain, Fort Wayne author and professor of English at Purdue University of Fort Wayne, has written the scholarly biography, South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs, available in October 2018 through Northwestern University Press.

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