The Big Ship (Negroes Coming and Going)

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    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Pencil, pastel, and watercolor on paper
22 x 30 inches
Collection of
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco museum purchase American Art Trust Fund and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

During the Atlantic slave trade period, approximately ten to fifteen million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. An estimated fifteen to thirty percent of captives died while still in Africa, and another ten to fifteen percent passed away from malnutrition, disease, suicide, and rebellion during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. For every one hundred slaves who reached the New World alive, approximately forty had perished.

A prominent flag on the stern of Thornton Dial’s ship indicates that this symbolic ship of state represents the United States. At first glance, no “negroes coming and going” are visible, but a closer look reveals a small figure in the water beneath the vessel. This figure may represent the dead slaves who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage from Africa to America, or it may symbolize the African Americans who helped to build the “big ship” of the United States, but were left in its wake when it came to equal rights and opportunities.  —Timothy Anglin Burgard