Thornton Dial’s New Light commemorates the advent of electrical power in his hometown of Emelle, Alabama, in the late 1930s. The late arrival of basic utilities to poorly served African American communities may be traced back to the Supreme Court’s infamous “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy Vs. Ferguson (1896), which condoned segregated public facilities that often had inferior—or nonexistent—services. The absence of paved roads, plumbing, and electricity soon stigmatized many African American neighborhoods.
The Foundation of New Light is a picket fence or wall, an emblem of segregation, with a jagged upper silhouette that resembles a city skyline. A globelike tangle of power lines represents a form of integration that appears to connect the urban landscape at the top with the rural realm (symbolized by cow bones) at the bottom. Dial’s black-and-white composition with its Biblical undertone of the phrase “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) represents the newfound power of African Americans to see—and to be seen—during the Civil Rights era. —Timothy Anglin Burgard