Donald Black Jr.: The Spook Who Sat By The Door

Photo by Donald Black Jr., courtesy of the artist.

Donald Black Jr. is a fine artist with a vision—you can ride with him or without him. We talk about selling art at an early age, what his camera is trying to say and the luxury of the (pre-assembled) Parachute Man. Also, if you make art Cleveland doesn’t see, is it still art?

Photo by Donald Black Jr., courtesy of the artist.

JIMI IZRAEL: Where you from, Mr. Black?

DONALD BLACK JR: I am from Carver Park, East 40th and Quincy, {in the heart of} Cleveland.

JIMI IZRAEL: Let’s talk about your life on Quincy.

DONALD BLACK JR: My life on Quincy? (pause) Okay.

My life on Quincy started out rough. My mother was violated with me in the bed with her when I was a kid. My dad kidnapped me as a kid running from the police. And then… and I don’t remember that but as far as what I remember, me and my cousins going to the ice cream truck and get the little parachute man, throw him out the window on the second floor, and run outside to see if we can catch him.

Photo by Donald Black Jr., courtesy of the artist.

JIMI IZRAEL: For people that don’t know what the Parachute Man is—because you and I know—what’s the parachute man?

DONALD BLACK JR: Parachute Man is the army figure.


DONALD BLACK JR: And he had a parachute attached to him—like, a paper with a string. So, the army man could fly.

JIMI IZRAEL: Or he could float.


JIMI IZRAEL: You threw him from the window and you could attach them to a napkin or a bandana or some such. And you would tie each of the corners down and then tie to the back of homeboy’s back—the action figure.

DONALD BLACK JR: Right. Well, it’s funny because the ones we were getting had the parachute already attached to it.

JIMI IZRAEL: Oh well, then you was RICH. Because when I was coming up, we had to—

DONALD BLACK JR: (confused) Make the parachute?

JIMI IZRAEL: (nods) We had to make the parachute.

DONALD BLACK JR: We got off the ice cream man that had a little paper parachute attached to it that unfolded. But I might…wait. (squints, points) How old are you?

Photo by Donald Black Jr., courtesy of the artist.

JIMI IZRAEL: (deflects) At least thirty.

DONALD BLACK JR: I was just trying to figure you might be older than me.

JIMI IZRAEL: (pivots) Do you remember the first piece of art you saw?

DONALD BLACK JR: Something I made.

JIMI IZRAEL: So you didn’t have an encounter with a painting or—

DONALD BLACK JR: I’ve been drawing since I was two years old. My parents are artists and I didn’t have anything that they had made around me that I had seen. I’d started seeing my own name and I was drawing before I can remember. So no, it wasn’t this thing that inspired me.

JIMI IZRAEL: What were your early drawings like?

DONALD BLACK JR: Birds and horses. Birds, horses, trees is what I was drawing. My uncle was buying my artwork when I’m five or six years old.

JIMI IZRAEL: What became your principal medium?

DONALD BLACK JR: Initially? Drawing.


DONALD BLACK JR: And then at some point, I had to be maybe six or seven, my mother showed me some of her drawings, some portraits. I can remember a couple portraits she showed me. And she drew a spark plug. And then that made me want to draw more. It made me sit down and get her to draw with me. Then I realized she could draw better than me. That crushed me. It challenged my perception of what I had already found very comfortable for me to do. And when I went to school, it was art class and it was art awards and it was art competitions.

JIMI IZRAEL: At what point did you discover photography?

DONALD BLACK JR: At thirteen. Well…that’s not true. (deep sigh)

So, in one instance—I mean out of habit—I would say I discovered photography at thirteen because I’m used to talking to a bunch of white people in museums and galleries. And they’re talking about photography in a formal kind of way. I first started taking pictures at four years old of my mother before she would go out to Vel’s [a popular black-owned nightclub]. So, her early eighties look-book and photo album of her going out with my aunt to Vel’s is me not cutting off her head and not cutting off her feet with a Polaroid camera. That’s my introduction to the camera.

JIMI IZRAEL: That was your introduction to composition and—

DONALD BLACK JR: Exactly. But when you are in a formal creative setting, coming from the projects, coming from the hood, what I experienced is I was being taught that ‘this is the standard.’ And for a period of time of my experience as an artist, I spoke from that standard. And I had an experience at a portfolio review several years ago where a photographer called it out.

Photograph by Donald Black Jr., courtesy of the artist.

JIMI IZRAEL: What’d he say?

DONALD BLACK JR: “Don’t say to me the same shit you say to white people.” And I said, “Oh.” He says, “You know what I mean by that?” I said, “I know exactly what you mean.” He said, “Prove to me that you know what I mean.” I said, “I learned to talk about my work and talk about art in a formal white driven art system. So, that’s how I learned, based on what they were saying.” I said but the stuff when I’m explaining my work and talking about my work to the niggas that’s in these pictures, I’m having a different fucking conversation.

JIMI IZRAEL: When did you start to ascend into the fine art world?

DONALD BLACK JR: In college.


DONALD BLACK JR: There was no portrait program. So, I started doing independent studies, replacing all of my assignments. And I started doing independent studies with all of the different professors on the staff. I started shooting portraits. I started shooting nudes. I wanted to have an exhibition. I’d already made the shift in college. I mean, honestly, I started my photography program in Cleveland School of the Arts.

JIMI IZRAEL: Let me ask you a question. Because we’re all trying to say something, right? What’s your camera trying to say?

DONALD BLACK JR: What’s my camera…? (beat) “Look at this from THIS perspective.”

JIMI IZRAEL: You only take pictures of black people?


JIMI IZRAEL: Primarily, you take pictures of black people?

DONALD BLACK JR: I’m primarily around black people. I take pictures every day. And black people seem to want me to take the pictures. White people seem to want me to take a picture that they want. So, I guess my level of engagement with folks has… White people want me to work for them. Black folks want me to work with them.

JIMI IZRAEL: When was the last show you had?

DONALD BLACK JR: It’s current right now. The name of the show is A Day No One Will Remember, which is a show of a lot of the images of kids that I photograph since I moved back to Cleveland from New York, twelve years ago.

JIMI IZRAEL: Where’s it hanging?

DONALD BLACK JR: At McDonough Museum at Youngstown State.

JIMI IZRAEL: Okay. Why come back to Cleveland from New York?

DONALD BLACK JR: Because it didn’t make sense to me to try to pursue a creative career as a photographer without pictures that represented who I was or where I come from. As a part of it.

JIMI IZRAEL: That’s a big sacrifice because you are in the heart of it all. Cleveland is not a city known for its art or its art scenes, artworks, art aesthetic.

DONALD BLACK JR: No, it is known as a city where artists live.


DONALD BLACK JR: So, I thought it was creative as fuck to come back before I’m eighty… I felt like I wanted to change and define my own path and direction.

JIMI IZRAEL: How’s that going?

DONALD BLACK JR: Fucking amazing. I got ninety terabytes of digital photography and twelve years of it I’ve accumulated in Cleveland, Ohio—not hired by any organization to skew my perspective of what I’m photographing at a time period where digital assets is a real thing. When I didn’t know that was going to be the case, at a place that is in the newspaper for all kinds of ills, from an outsider’s perspective.

JIMI IZRAEL: Let me go back to something I meant to… Why black and white?

DONALD BLACK JR: Because I started in the dark room and be starting in the dark room. Let me back up. I don’t a hundred percent know. And the reason why I say I’m a hundred percent know is because what I do recognize is when I was drawing in school, I hated when they made me paint it. I didn’t like it the same way. I love the sketch. I love the charcoal. I love the black and white. So, that attraction I recognize may have superseded me going into a dark room. Photography was already black and white and I was attracted to it instantly because it was like, “Oh, I don’t have the color, the color doesn’t matter.” And then the more I grew into photography, the more I started to have an opinion form on visual principles and elements based on it being a black and white photograph. I felt like it helped me kind of zone in and narrow down on those elements in a way where me going to college, needing a medium format camera and me finishing college and those freshmen needed a digital SLR.

Put me right on the side of the coin, where I wanted to continue to develop what I had already started doing. I didn’t use the digital camera as a way to start to shoot color. I always was shooting in color, but I would convert to black and white. When I moved to New York, I was in a dark room printing for photographers that I read about and it made me fall in love with the dark room even more. And it made me miss seeing my images in the dark room. And I think all those elements made me consistently more visually stimulator attracted to my images in black and white.

JIMI IZRAEL: So what is your relationship to Cleveland? Because I’m going to tell you I had to look for you. I mean, you are not out there like that.

DONALD BLACK JR: I’m the spook that set by the door, man. I didn’t know that’s what was happening. It’s like I went through the system of Cleveland School of the Arts. Once I skipped and didn’t go to the Cleveland, CIA, it changed my trajectory. It didn’t put me into the ecosystem of all of, what I guess, an out there Cleveland artist would be. But, I had the relationships. I knew the people. I knew the players because I showed my work in high school at moCa. So, I’m around the world of it when I moved back from Cleveland and when I’m coming and I’m like, “Okay, well I’m already doing art education.” So when I come to a situation, now you got a grown man who’s an artist who used to be one of the kids, which means my mind is not wired to rubrics…I didn’t move back to Cleveland to… I didn’t know it was an ecosystem in Cleveland of art and $300 million of a cigarette tax that was blatantly going to all of the white organizations and being extracted from the black neighborhoods. I didn’t know that. I came back to Cleveland because I felt like I wanted to make the work here.

I wanted the space and the place to make the work. I was naive to the system that I was a part of when I’m going through school and then transitioning back to Cleveland. So, I kind of come in the room at Cleveland School of the Arts, at NewBridge, at moCa, at the museum, at all these places growing continuously into myself, which I feel like I was already recognizing that when I’m a part of these shows. My picture ain’t on the flyer and they looking at it like, “Donald wants his picture on the flyer.”

No, I want these niggas on the flyer. You got all this stuff and you’re trying to figure out how to get us to come. I just want you to run 10,000 prints of my image like Cleveland Public Art did before they turned in the LAND Studio. My history and my roots here has created a situation where none of these places seem to be ready to jump behind what I’m talking about.

Photograph by Donald Black, Jr., courtesy of the artist.

JIMI IZRAEL: When’s the last time you showed in Cleveland?

DONALD BLACK Jr. The last time I showed in Cleveland, like in the art world realm of it?

JIMI IZRAEL: I mean like last time you showed work in Cleveland.

DONALD BLACK Jr.: (points to walls around him, incredulous) Right now.

JIMI IZRAEL: Okay. Well, then let’s go art world.

DONALD BLACK: Solo show? Solo show when I first moved back, 2009.



DONALD BLACK JR: So, that experience was easily the bar. Everything else’s been… Oh yeah, I’ll put a piece in here, I’ll put a piece in there.

JIMI IZRAEL: So you haven’t really shown in fourteen years.


JIMI IZRAEL: Why do you think that is?

DONALD BLACK JR: I ain’t trying to.

JIMI IZRAEL: How you eating?

DONALD BLACK JR: How I’m eating is—

JIMI IZRAEL: Shit, I’m asking.

DONALD BLACK JR: I mean, honestly, how am I eating? Osmosis. I don’t know, it’s like this.

JIMI IZRAEL: So if you’re doing art that [Cleveland] doesn’t see, is it still art?

DONALD BLACK JR: Cleveland. See, I ain’t at the mercy of being in Cleveland.

I go to Houston, go to a portfolio review, them reviewers is like, “Donald, the conference is coming to Cleveland for the photo national…” What is it? SPE, it’s society of photographic education. They coming to Cleveland. Oh, okay. “Hey, you apply, so you can be a speaker.”

So that’s what I do. So, when all these people, who I’m not sitting there, letting them smack my work down and shun my book and tell me my shit ain’t good. That’s where they see me at, I’m on that. I had a white lady coming in and she said, “How can you afford to not be coming to none of this stuff that we’re doing? How can you afford to still be out here doing this?” Because I started doing this when I was six years old. And if I need some money, I can go do construction, but I don’t go do construction because I would be wanting to focus on this.

JIMI IZRAEL: To my ear—

DONALD BLACK JR: I’m listening.

JIMI IZRAEL: You have this resentment about Cleveland, a system that you refuse to participate in.

DONALD BLACK JR: I don’t have resentment about Cleveland.

JIMI IZRAEL: You don’t?

DONALD BLACK JR: No, I have observation. I don’t have no resentment. I understand how this system work. I’m trying to contribute to it.

JIMI IZRAEL: But you say you’re trying to contribute to, but you’re not showing.

DONALD BLACK JR: I’m not showing because I’m not going to be able to contribute to it by trying to show. Cleveland is… I mean you’re from here, Cleveland is a place that you got to make your bearings kind of elsewhere. And as you do that, then Cleveland will kind of fall in line. I don’t have resentment to Cleveland. I don’t feel like I’m being excluded. I ain’t fucking with this shit right now. Because it ain’t time. I’m chasing Cleveland and I say this all the time, I chase Cleveland’s art world like I chase a girl. Like I ain’t paying her no attention…because I don’t want her to reject me before she realize who the fuck standing in front of her, but I can critique the system because I’m a part of it and I’m in it. And I know these people and I’m teaching the programs and I’m participating in group shows, but I’m not about to let my mind be fucked with by trying to figure out who’s going to usher me in, when I recognize that ain’t nobody about to usher me in. I don’t need them to.

I love going to the Cleveland School of the Arts. I love what it taught me, what it allowed me to do, how I can engage, communicate, my ability to be able to not only survive but to live. But if I’m critiquing, it’s a whole lot of stuff that can be done better. But I get it: you ain’t got a relationship to these kids, you don’t give a fuck about them. You don’t see them at the store. You think you’re dealing with poverty and you’re going to tell me that. You don’t realize that I don’t turn poverty off when I live as an educator. But guess what? I’m an educator. I’m one of the kids, grown up here, just to show some of the stuff I learned how to do. It ain’t resentment—it’s observation.

Donald Black Jr.’s most recent solo show, A Day No One Would Remember, was on view at the McDonough Museum at Youngstown State University January 21 – March 5, 2022.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door is a 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee, and a 1973 action film directed by Ivan Dixon, co-produced by Dixon and Greenlee. It starred Lawrence Cook, Paula Kelly, Janet League, J. A. Preston, and David Lemieux, and had a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock. According to Wikipedia, it is “both a satire of the civil rights struggle in the United States of the late 1960s and a serious attempt to focus on the issue of Black militancy.”

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