Ernie Barnes used his canvas to celebrate black American life in elongated, vibrant strokes. “The Graduate” (shown above) is one of the professional football player-turned-artist’s best-known paintings, which is part of a body of work Barnes called “The Beauty of the Ghetto.” Barnes passed away in 2009.
According to his long-time assistant Luz Rodriguez, “The Graduate” is rooted in Ernie Barnes’ experiences growing up in segregated Durham, North Carolina during the 1940’s and 50’s:
“Because it was rare at that time for a member of the family to graduate from high school, it was commonplace and an honor for the new graduate to walk home from campus still dressed in their cap and gown. As the new graduate walked home, people on their front porches stood and clapped, which instilled a sense of pride in the graduate as well as the community. This image always remained in Barnes’ psyche.”
The creative inspiration for “The Graduate” came many years later while Barnes was in his car, parked at a stop light. Peering out the window, he noticed a young man striding across the street. “He expressed the attitude and confidence that Barnes captured for the mannerism in ‘The Graduate,’” says Rodriguez.
Even though “The Graduate” depicts a solitary figure, it tells a story of collective pride and accomplishment. For Barnes, who attended North Carolina College on an athletic scholarship and graduated with an art degree, the graduate’s achievement buoys a family and a community. One person’s success may inspire a succession of possibilities.
Valedictorian Lawyna Taylor, one of 11 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, celebrates after commencement was held in Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)