II

Narratives of African American Art and Identity

Aaron Douglas

Go Down Death, 1934

Oil on masonite

48" x 36"


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Go Down Death

In 1934, Aaron Douglas returned to his "God's Trombones" series, originally created as illustrations to accompany James Weldon Johnson's 1927 book of Negro spirituals in verse, God's Trombones. Douglas's illustration Go Down Death accompanied Johnson's funeral sermon of the same name. The sermon describes God's decision to have the Angel of Death ride down on his winged horse and carry Sister Caroline from a life of pain into the arms of Jesus. Douglas's interpretation shows Death as he rides down from heaven on a steed whose wings are borrowed from the archangel Gabriel. His 1934 re-working of that composition adds a radiating star in the upper left-hand corner of the work. This element illustrates another aspect of Johnson's sermon, in which the arrival of Old Death is likened to a falling star. It may also refer, as in other works, to Douglas's new-found interest in Communist theory. Using symbolic encoding in much the same manner as did the spirituals, Douglas gives descending Death and the star both religious and political implications. Death is portrayed as a religious journey of the spirit and as a release from the world of slavery. The radiating star symbolizes both the North Star that led fugitive slaves to freedom and the embodiment of political principles that would lead twentieth-century African Americans to freedom as well.   T. F.

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