On January 15, 1970, Boston-based artist and activist Dana C. Chandler Jr. submitted a document he titled “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” to the Museum’s director, Perry T. Rathbone, cc’ing the Museum’s board of directors. In the letter, Chandler argues, “Through all the history of America, white museums have ignored, avoided and denied their obligation to portray the contributions of the black man to American history, be it cultural, scientific or aesthetic. We find this museum no different.... We can’t believe that this is simple ignorance or unconscious racism—but we’ll soon know.” Chandler also distributed copies to local media outlets to ensure wide coverage of his statement and demands of the MFA.

Building on, and sharply critiquing, the MFA’s recent effort—in collaboration with the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA)—to found a new museum dedicated to Black art in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Boston, Chandler outlined a plan for both an adequately funded autonomous institution and the integration of Black art into the canon of art histories then operating within the MFA’s own walls. While Chandler’s manifesto contributed to the MFA’s swift staging of a landmark exhibition “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston,” curated by Barry Gaither, in May that year, the long-term commitment to systemic and programmatic change remained, in the artist’s own words, “essentially unanswered.”

Chandler and his family did not have a copy of the original letter, which was lost in the MFA’s archives for decades despite numerous attempts to locate it. In December 2020, 50 years after Chandler wrote this critical document, Fred Hampton’s Door 2, one of his major works, finally entered the Museum’s collection, following extensive conversations between Chandler’s daughter and advocate, Dahna Chandler, myself, and MFA Associate Curator Akili Tommasino. Shortly thereafter, coincidentally on the artist’s 80th birthday, MFA archivist Maureen Melton finally located the original letter.

—Liz Munsell, Curator of Contemporary Art

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Liz Munsell:
I know, Professor Chandler, that you were born in Lynn, Massachusetts, and raised in Boston. We should start from the beginning, from your childhood and youth, and the question of how, when, and why you decided to become an artist?

Dana Chandler:
I was born on April 7, 1941, at two o’clock in the afternoon at 72 Neptune Street in Lynn, which was my grandmother’s house. And my grandmother was a very diminutive woman who was at that time, I believe, either in her late 60s, early 70s. She was, in a way, a typical Afro-Native American woman. She was very strict and tough. Half the time she scared me out of my mind, because when she spoke everybody did whatever it was that she wanted them to do. And I was certainly part of that group. She was extremely wise, and she taught me a great deal.

I believe we moved to Boston because my mother and my father were at that time on the outs, as a lot of young people were, since that was the war.

I made my decision [to be an artist] in kindergarten. [The teacher] decided to have a contest where the kids would do portraits of themselves (or it could have been their parents) and I found that eye for it. I was a little tiny child, I guess, very good with my paints, and I won a first prize with a portrait, which was hung up on the wall. I loved the attention and it was so much fun. And I knew that people became what was called an artist, and I decided that that was what I wanted to be and dedicated my life to art in kindergarten.

My mother was my first revolutionary spirit because she would be cussing quietly to herself about all of the different things that were going on around her during the Second World War when I was very young. She would talk out loud about the things that she had no affection for in terms of what was happening to Black people. I was precocious, as Dahna became, and would ask lots and lots of questions. “Why this, why that and why the other?” when I was very, very young.

Dahna Chandler:
I was your “why” baby. Everything was “why, why? But why, Daddy?” Your mother used to say, “Diction, diction, diction. Remember your diction.” That is something that I remember very vividly.

Dana Chandler:
One of her things was, she would smack you off the top of the head if you said “ain’t” and some other colloquialisms. She wasn’t having it. She wanted us all to have perfect English because she had a clear understanding of what to our lives would be like if we were not eloquent. So, all of us spoke very well.

My mother was the way that she was because my grandfather was from Barbados, which, of course, was an English colony. And he went to the British schools in Barbados where all of the teaching staff were very much like what my mother became. It was always about diction and speaking perfect English.

Dahna Chandler:
We used to have to sneak and speak slang. We couldn’t speak slang around my parents or their contemporaries, my aunts and uncles. So we were teens when we became rebellious and started to speak slang anyway. But before that, we were not allowed to speak it in the house, and my parents don’t do it at all.

Liz Munsell:
And how amazing that this is a generational value system and that, Dahna, that you got to know your grandmother in your lifetime.

Dahna Chandler:
Yes. I absolutely adored my grandmother. She’s a big part of the reason I’m the woman I am today. And a lot of what she gave me was around my Black identity. My grandmother had this gorgeous, absolutely perfect dark, very dark skin. And she made me feel proud of who I was as a Black woman in the context of my skin. I never questioned it.

Liz Munsell:
And was she supportive of your artistic practice, Professor Chandler? What did she think about you being an artist?

Dana Chandler:
Oh, she loved it. She always encouraged me to be an artist. She thought it was astounding that I was good at it as young as I was. Her way of putting it was, “I want of all you to be whoever you want to be.” She pushed that for everybody in the family. She was quite happy with my accomplishments as an artist. And for me, my mother was my shero. She was my chief shero.

Liz Munsell:
What was your relationship to the MFA as a young person? When did you start coming?

Dana Chandler:
The Museum of Fine Arts was walking distance from my school. It was about a block and a half away from a park called Madison Park, which was a small urban park with a bunch of trees and walkways for the neighborhood. And it was built before that area became part of the Black community. We would walk to the MFA from the school and they would, of course, take us on tours of the various exhibitions that they had. And I just loved it. I felt very at home in the Museum.

I was astounded by the collections of different kinds of art that they had. I was particularly interested in, and this will be no surprise to you, Dahna, the furniture collections, particularly the colonial furniture, several of which I came to find out later were put together by the slaves out of New England, who were apprenticed to the carpenters in and around the New England area.

I loved being in the Museum. I loved the color and I loved to wander and listen to the guards say, “Don’t touch, don’t touch, don’t touch, don’t touch.” Which, of course, I was not doing at all. I was simply looking. But they were looking at this little Black kid from the ghetto and having their fears that I might touch something. I learned to ignore them and keep traveling around in their view. So, my relationship goes back to about the age of five, because I believe we started going to the Museum when I was in kindergarten.

Part of the fun of going to the Museum was sometimes people who were there would look at me as though—“Who the hell is this little Black kid walking around in our museum?” And they would ask me a question of some kind and I would come back in my most perfect English that my mother absolutely insisted we all spoke.

Liz Munsell:
Having decided at such a young age that you were going to be an artist, as you progressed into your youth and young adulthood, what were your major artistic influences? What art or artists were you looking at?

Dana Chandler:
I was looking at German expressionists, I was looking at Picasso, Braque, and Léger and a whole bunch of other folks. I was also affected by some of the portraiture coming out of Boston during the Revolutionary War. Just to see how people did portraits. I was interested in anything that had to do with painting, not so much a deep interest in artifactual kinds of stuff, but painting. I did love the Japanese katana swords and that sort of stuff. I made a point of finding my way everywhere in the Museum of Fine Arts.

Liz Munsell:
Later on, were you looking at the Black Panther Party newspaper and the graphic identity that Emory Douglas in particular was developing? What did you think of that?

Dana Chandler:
I loved him. Oh man, I really did. I think that everybody idolized him because his work was just so specific and to the point. I would look at it and go, “Damn. That’s exactly how I feel about this, that, or the other thing.” He’s one of our major African American artists. And I’m glad to see there are people starting to treat him that way. Took them long enough.

Liz Munsell:
You mentioned being influenced by cubist artists. I’m thinking of a print from 1968 that we have in the MFA collection, of your signature fist breaking through an egg—

Dana Chandler:

Black People break free of the Sucking, Mother-F—ing White Egg.

Liz Munsell:
Yes, exactly. Can you talk about the development of what I consider to be your very signature graphic and figurative style? How did you develop your imagery? Were you looking at source materials at all?

A black arm with a clenched fist breaks through the shell of an egg, spreading shattered eggshell as it pumps upward.
Dana Chandler, Black People break free of the Sucking, Mother-F—ing White Egg, from the portfolio The Fifteen Days of May, 1968. Lithograph. Gift of Impressions Workshop. © Dana C. Chandler Jr.

Dana Chandler:
I had a whole period of time [when] I did a large number of prints, that you’ve seen, about the Black family. And that particular piece is because I was saying to myself, “How can I say to the world how I feel about all the crap that we go through as a people, because of white people who have invented all the crap that we go through?” And I can remember, flashing through my mind, like somebody had slapped me in the face, an egg, and a big, muscular, black fist busting through that egg with great power, like an explosion. Because that’s what I saw happening around me, in terms of the cultural growth of very highly educated African American people. That we were just busting through all that bullshit. And so that came into being.

I wanted [my work] to be unmistakable. There was an artist, who is no longer with us, called Jeff Donaldson. Jeff used to call my work Kool-Aid images because of the very, very bright colors. Jeff created an organization that became AfriCOBRA: African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.

Liz Munsell:
So in addition to looking at work by Picasso and modernists and Revolution-era portraiture, you were also looking at your peer artists at the time? Folks like AfriCOBRA?

Dana Chandler:
I completely switched away from anything that was Eurocentric in orientation and became part of the movement that was working to develop our own perspective on African American art. We were all cognizant of the fact that there’s no way for us not to turn around and find white people stepping into the middle of whatever we do. That has not changed.

Liz Munsell:
What led you to begin to work in public spaces as a muralist? Was that a function out of necessity because the museums and galleries were excluding Black artists?

Dana Chandler:
Exactly. Your people wouldn’t let us into their museums, even though they were using our tax dollars very readily to do whatever they thought would make their tribe look good. So what I wanted to do was find a way to get art on the walls in the community, because we couldn’t get art on the walls in the museums.

Liz Munsell:
Who was the primary audience for your work at time? When you made a painting, who were you thinking of as your ideal person to encounter it?

Dana Chandler:
I was thinking about the woman in my life and our children, and the Black community. I am never thinking about Europeans. I have always been profoundly disinterested in what European people think about my work. I’ve been interested in what African American people think about my work, and Asian people, and [other] people of color. And I have been a deliberate provocateur because I needed to get the attention not only of white people, but of my own people. Plus, I always recognized that that would keep me in constant trouble, and that it would be very difficult for me to make any money creating that kind of imagery.

That there would be a point...and I told my daughter this, back in the last century. Because I told her I would not be the artist of the 20th century, but that I’d be the artist of the 21st century, because of that very thing. But what it did was it allowed for all the other brilliant artists to be able to step onto the platform. And a whole lot of us, as artists…for instance, with the Black Panthers, we would act as their cover. So you want to have somebody to step on? You want to punch somebody and say...so you want to step on their art? We’ll take that role.

Liz Munsell:
That is a perfect segue into a question I have, because we encountered an image in artist Bouchra Khalili’s publication Radical Ally of a massive rally organized by the Black Panther Party in [Boston’s] Post Office Square in May 1970—precisely when your show was going up at the MFA. What was your relationship to the Black Panther Party in Boston? Did you intersect with them?

Dana Chandler:
Oh, yeah. Very much. The Black Panther Party office was located on Blue Hill Avenue. I knew all of the Black Panther Party members at that time in Boston.

Dahna Chandler:
I remember you taking me to meetings. I vividly remember being taken to meetings.

Dana Chandler:
I really did take her everywhere.

Dahna Chandler:
I met Martin Luther King because of that. I was about three years old, three or four years old. My dad took me every place, and I remember him taking me to Black Panther Party meetings. I remember three things: how beautiful everybody was and how perfect they were to me; how well they would dress—many of them, they’d actually gotten fabrics from Africa, and they were everywhere in their houses, African everything; and the third thing I remember was how erudite they were. How absolutely intellectual they were. These were brilliant young people.

I remember the conversations they were having about the community and what they intended to do. It was a very organized thought process. They wanted to organize around unifying poor people, and particularly Black people. They had different things that they wanted us to do in the community. And I literally still remember this at the same time I’m doing things like climbing under the table so I could pretend that I was in a tent. I wanted to smell all the fabric. They were very, very nice to me. They loved having this little kid around. And I still remember these beautiful women with these afros, and just how intent they were on making certain that I and other children had a better experience growing up than they did. So yes, I do remember the Black Panther movement, and the location. You said Blue Hill Ave. I saw the location in my head. I have very vivid memories of your involvement with the Black Panthers.

Dana Chandler:
She also happened to be quite gorgeous, by the way. And that’s just the truth. I got the pictures to prove it.

[By 1974] I had a [studio space] at Northeastern University that [was later founded officially as the] African American Master Artists-in-Residency Program. I had eight thousand square feet of space, effectively one of the largest studios in the City of Boston. And the one of the things that I did that made a significant social difference is I would give parties every weekend. Thousands, literally thousands of people would come from the greater New England area. People would start off their day getting in their car with their friends to ride up and come to the parties that I was having at Northeastern University.

Liz Munsell:
Black Panther Party members that you knew from meetings might come to your parties? It was just all part of the same social mix?

Dana Chandler:
Absolutely. And it was never segregated. I did not do what white people were doing at that time, because, of course, they were having parties, too. It took them a while to get used to the fact of having us partying in their spaces as equals. With my parties, you came because you wanted to party. And everybody came. The politicians came. The police officers came after work. People who worked in hospitals, who were teachers, the community in general. Plus the Black Panther Party members.

Liz Munsell:
Just to confirm, since you would go to Party meetings, were you a member of the Black Panther Party?

Dana Chandler:
No, I was not. I was friends. They would come to my parties. They would come to my house. And so did the FBI, who wandered into my house one day. Two very young men who looked like they were 21 or 22, or something like that, and were brand new federal agents, came to visit my house, while my wife and kids were upstairs, to talk to me in my front room at the new house I had purchased just at that time. They sat in my living room and drank tea with me while we discussed what I knew about the Black Panther Party. And I said to them, “You know more than what I know about the Black Panther Party, because I have watched you watch me and my friends. So you already know the answer to whatever question you’re asking.”

Dahna Chandler:
Even I saw that. I was seven.

Dana Chandler:
You ran into the meeting two or three times. I was so annoyed. I couldn’t believe they were in our house. You know, we see you everywhere we go. Why are you now in our house? You remember that was the first question I asked them. I said to them, “Why are you here?” And they said back to me, “Well, we wanted to talk to about your relationship with the Black Panther Party.” And that’s when I said to them, “I don’t know why you want to ask me any questions at all.” I said, “You got my phone bugged. You got everybody’s phone bugged. You know more about what I do from day to day than I do.” And the both of them looked at each other and smiled, because that was the truest sentence that they heard. So that was the first and last time the FBI showed up at my house. That was not the first and last time they bugged my phone.

Liz Munsell:
1970 was a pivotal year—what led you to draft and send the letter “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts”? The proposal is crystal clear. It includes a budget, staffing and institutional structures, and a path forward. So what type of research did you conduct and what informed the exact proposal that you put forward?

Dana Chandler:
The Museum of Fine Arts was in the process of gaining a great deal of money to create the new wing. I can’t remember whether they had their addition already or they were building their addition at that time, but I knew they were using a lot of public money to do so. And since I paid my taxes, I wanted to see people who looked like me. I was tired of seeing all those old dead white people.

We didn’t have access and we did not have inclusion in anything. And we certainly did not have equity. I was determined that we would have some of those things. So I went about the business. I really studied. I’m a scholar, and even though my way of studying may be different from some scholarly people, I read a great deal of stuff. And my mind always takes that information and puts itself in a position to do something that’s helpful to my people.

Here we were, right across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, and they did not have a collection of Black artists. I was always looking for the Romare Beardens, I was looking for the Jacob Lawrences, I was looking for the Elizabeth Catletts, and so many artists. I was looking for John Wilson’s work, and Calvin Burnett, and a bunch of other Boston artists. And I didn’t see it anywhere. All I saw was the usual self-aggrandizing investment in Eurocentric artists, who, for the most part, at least at that present time, we’re doing nothing but crap. What the hell was color field painting?

Liz Munsell:
You would have seen Morris Louis’s work in the early ’70s at the MFA. But there was also Frank Bowling, the Black British artist who was working in the color field arena and frequenting the US at the time.

Dana Chandler:
Oh, my friend [Bowling]! We used to fight. We would have fun fighting. He would try to explain to me what he was doing. And I would look at his work and just start laughing. I used to infuriate him. Now I have, at this age, a much better appreciation for his work. There was an artist in Washington who also was doing abstract stuff, [Sam Gilliam]. He and I got into a great fight one time at Howard University. He was having a show and I guess I was into my articulate revolutionary state of mind. And he asked me what I thought of his work, and I said crap. It didn’t relate to anything that was going on with the Black community. I mean, we have, for the last 60 years, to be blunt, been in the shit. White people were killing us on a regular basis. That has not stopped. They were doing serious rapings of our Black women that has not stopped, and that was what we were living through at that time. The police was just going berserk on the Black community, which has not stopped. We wanted people to be doing what we thought related to what’s going on in the Black community, which, as a matter of fact, AfriCOBRA was doing. If you look through AfriCOBRA’s work, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and we didn’t see these [other] folks as doing it.

At that time, I was doing Fred Hampton’s Door and a bunch of things that had to do Black people being killed. A number of other African American artists were, at that time, as far as I was concerned, piggybacking onto what people like AfriCOBRA were doing, and making all this money from all the white folks—they bought five of his works for the museums, and so on, and so on—and shows that we couldn’t get. Am I glad now that they were doing what they’re doing? Yes. But did I think that it was relevant at the time, Frank Bowling’s work and other people’s? Absolutely not, because we want[ed] to know: How was that stuff uplifting Black people? How was it saving a life? How was it a statement that might get somebody not killed? We were concerned about that kind of stuff. It took me awhile to go back to the primary Eurocentric thought, which is I can do whatever I want in the way in which I want to do it, and it’s all relevant.

I can remember Benny Andrews and I got at some of the work, and just having a few words to say about how we were disaffected by all of it. Benny Andrews and I were great friends at that time. I used to come to New York just to go to his and Romare Bearden’s studios. Romare Bearden I enjoyed a lot. I remember his wife had a real affection for cats. The cats would be walking across Romare’s work, which was on the floor and on the tables. They wouldn’t be destroying it, because the work would be dry. I have no idea how he personally felt about the cats, but they were there. And she was just such a lovely, lovely lady. She really was. She would fix me drinks. He and I used to love Bacardi. So we’d be talking about each other’s work and drinking scotch, you know? And having a good time. As a matter of fact, he wrote a nice little piece about my work in the catalogue that I had for the show that I did at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists around that same time.

Two men stand and have a conversation in front of artwork in a gallery.
Frank Bowling (left) and Dana Chandler at the opening for “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston,” 1970. Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists records (M042). Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, Boston, Massachusetts. Box 26, Folder 1.

Liz Munsell:
Did you work with Barry Gaither at all on the budgetary aspect [of the memo]? At the time, the MFA had already established a relationship with the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and the two organizations had worked together to found the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. Barry arrived in Boston in September 1969 to serve as the Museum of the NCAAA’s founding director and curator as well as a special consultant at the MFA.

Dana Chandler:
Barry and I have been collaborating since he first came to Boston, back in the days before the [“Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston”] show went up. The Museum of Fine Arts asked me, should they hire him? I said, “You haven’t hired him yet? What’s wrong with you?” because Barry is one of the greatest geniuses about African American just about anything. He’s far more articulate than I am. We just have so much fun together and we’ve done so many things together that have been relevant to the creation of art—that’s the vocation itself. It really is.

Speaking of a crowd. And Barry Gaither was probably the most erudite Black man I had ever met. He knew a little bit about everything and could speak most eloquently about everything. Whenever he was given an opportunity to speak in front of a crowd or do a gallery talk or anything that had him doing public speaking, everybody leaned on every word that he said and enjoyed the way in which he said it.

Liz Munsell:
You said they asked you if they should hire Barry Gaither. Were you in any formal capacity serving as a so-called community consultant?

Dana Chandler:
I never got paid for anything associated with that museum. Ever. I was never offered any of that. You, you got millions of dollars. I’m trying to find enough money to feed my kids.

I got to know the guards there because it’s important. It’s smart to know the people who actually run the place, and I got to know the curators and the secretaries and all of those of people. I would walk to the back where all the staff would come in and I would walk in like I was a member of the staff.

Liz Munsell:
Did you have a role in choosing any of the artists or organizing the show with Barry at all?

Dana Chandler:
And I knew 90 percent of all the artists who were in that show. They were all my friends. [The selection] was done by Barry Gaither and Barry Rubinstein, who was appointed by the Museum to help Barry put together the show because they couldn’t have just Barry curate the show, because then they would have to release money and other kinds of things to Barry. Oh no, couldn’t do that. So you want to know, was there racism in the production of that show? Absolutely. Barry, who is very cool, of course understood that that was going to happen anyway. And he may have had a hand in selecting Barry Rubinstein, who I didn’t think had any more knowledge than anybody else to put together that show. I think that Barry Gaither taught Barry Rubinstein about most of the people that were in those shows.

Liz Munsell:
What was the opening of the exhibition like? The pictures are so vibrant, they really give you a sense of many communities comingling in this formal environment with great art on the walls. Who was there? Did many artists come up from New York?

Dana Chandler:
Everybody. Everybody from everywhere. Of course, as you can see, tons and tons of white people. Because that was the first major African American exhibition the Museum had ever had. From time to time, they would include people like John Wilson and the Calvin Burnett in various exhibitions they had, but that was the first time they ever had a full exhibition from two cities, Boston and New York, in the Museum of Fine Arts.

My good friend Benny Andrews came up to do a gallery talk. He was very famous for his gallery talks, and he did them all over the country. His work was the kind of work that a lot of white galleries and white people would buy. He was an extremely personable fellow. There was no way for anybody not to like him when they met him. Benny was one of the funniest human beings I had ever met. I mean, he could make a joke out of anything. He would speak with this profound Southern accent, and Benny was very, very good at getting whatever he needed to get out of the university museum system because he knew it very well. Benny was so light skinned that that Afro that you see had a reddish tinge to it. So he was a red-headed, light-skinned Black man and had come out of the southern system, and his family had been slaves and all of that kind of stuff, I believe. A lot of our people are the color they are because of the invasion of Black women’s bodies. And his family was a family that came out of that whole system. And boy, could he paint. He’s one of the greatest African American artists, as far as I’m concerned, who ever lived.

A bearded man stands in front of artworks on a wall.
Benny Andrews delivers a gallery talk in “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston,” 1970. Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists records (M042). Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, Boston, Massachusetts. Box 26, Folder 2.

Liz Munsell:
And do you remember if any Black Panthers came to see the exhibition locally?

Dana Chandler:
The Black Panthers were everywhere. You could not know them, but they were there. And they were there generally with their wives and their kids, because of course. It’s one of the reasons I can identify with them. They initiated the first school lunch program in America. And most people don’t realize that [more] school lunch programs came out because of them. But anyway, they would be there with their wives and kids.

Liz Munsell:
Do you remember which paintings you exhibited as your contribution to that show? Fred Hampton’s Door, the first version, appears in the catalogue, but I’m not sure if it was in the show.

Dana Chandler:
Yes, and the portrait of Bobby Seale.

Dahna Chandler:
I’m in a picture we have of my dad lecturing in front of [the Bobby Seale] painting. You can see my little head. I’m walking about as my dad’s talking because this is so normal to me.

Liz Munsell:
What did it feel like to be a young child at the MFA?

Dahna Chandler:
It did not feel like a space that was welcoming. To be honest, most spaces that were white dominated did not feel like welcoming spaces to me, and the Museum of Fine Arts at the time was not an exception to that rule. It was actually a bit less welcoming than say City Hall or the Massachusetts State House, which are places where I spent a vast amount of time as well. They wanted to exploit Blackness but they didn’t want to see it in real life, and Black children represented the reproduction of the very thing they did not want to have. I was treated pretty much the same way as the Black children who came to the Museum in recent years and it became a national scandal, the way they were treated. Except it was very much more overt because of who my father was and who I was connected to.

It also made me angry that I did not see enough of us reflected. There were all these inequities that I viscerally knew, even though at the time I was probably about six or seven. I viscerally understood.

Boston is still not very welcoming to Black folk and it does everything it can to suppress us. I’m watching a lot of Black people do a lot of great things in Boston, but Boston feels claustrophobic to me, and the Museum was just a piece of that, but it was a prominent piece of that because of who my dad was and how much I loved Black art and Black artists. And just knowing how absolutely amazing they were as people, as intellectuals, scholars, just as humans, and then going into this museum and not seeing us represented.

Liz Munsell:
Can you comment on the graphic design for the exhibition catalogue and poster? Who was the artist behind it?

Dana Chandler:
I’m pretty sure it was Jerry Pinkney. He’s probably one of the most famous Black illustrators of books in the history of the country. He was a book designer for children’s books. And I think that he did some of his greatest major paintings, period, when he was illustrating children’s books. The most superb painting. He was just magnificent. He also was a very good friend, and had a great sense of humor. And his wife was very involved in the African American freedom movement while he was doing all of his illustration, as was he.

Liz Munsell:
That’s a perfect segue to Fred Hampton’s Door and Fred Hampton’s Door 2. The first version is a relatively small painting and a very topical work. When did you decide to make it? I’m wondering where you saw the news of Fred Hampton’s murder. Was it in one of The Black Panther newspapers or the white, mainstream news?

Dana Chandler:
It was all over the Black Panther Party’s newspaper and all over the Nation of Islam paper, and it was all over every other paper in America because that was a nationwide situation, the constant murder of our brilliant young people. Just kill them—that’s the attitude I saw all around me. Of course, it was also disconcerting and annoying and frustrating to listen to white people talk about, “He must’ve done something wrong.” Why would they do that? “He was a troublemaker.” Well, what do you mean by troublemaker, you whitewashing sons of bitches? I was so angry, because this was a brilliant young man, and they were working on killing off our best leaders, the ones who are great articulators.

I remember spending a great deal of time, and so did Dahna, being very publicly angry about the killing of this brilliant young man just because what he was trying to do was get both Blacks and whites together in a movement to make things better for people of color and poor people. He was a young version of Martin Luther King and they killed him outright. They shot him to death in his bed, and I was so pissed off. It was making me crazy. [I knew I couldn’t] do a figurative painting, because white people would ignore that and so would a whole lot of Black people. What can I do that will be very pointed and will express how much rage I have at what they’ve done?

And there was this big, very hard board that was used in construction. I saw that and I was thinking about how much I would really like to shoot up some white folks. So I said, “Let me make something that speaks to that.” And that’s what popped out. But this was not a large work. I don’t think it was even 24 by 36 [inches]. It’s also what I was standing next to when they photographed me for [Time magazine]. That’s what I used to represent my anger.

But I wasn’t just thinking about [Fred Hampton]. I was thinking about how many Black people were dying because the police has gone berserk as they had all over the country, since they are the biggest gang in America, and they were doing the kind of things that they had long ago been taught to do when they were the slave catchers, which is how the police came into being in the big cities. I was thinking about all of that, how it was nonstop all the time, every single goddamned day, and I was so pissed. That’s how that came about, and it hasn’t ceased.

Dahna Chandler:
When my dad was doing Fred Hampton’s Door 2, I was about nine or ten years old and I was as enraged by the murder of Fred Hampton and the racial brutality as he was. And we knew in the community that it was a conspiracy between the FBI and the Chicago police to murder this young man in his bed because J. Edgar Hoover did not want Fred Hampton to become a Black messiah.

And my dad—from my perspective, when you look back at the pictures of him, he was this gorgeous representation of the power and the intellect that came out of being a Black man of that time, and so was Fred Hampton, and they were threats in multiple ways to white folks who were terrified of being annihilated. They would do anything they could to try to annihilate us. When my dad did Fred Hampton’s Door 2, I was grateful on the one level, because I remember how angry he was and I was terrified he was going to do something that expressed that anger, like get a machine gun, because it’s that level of rage.

I remember him getting the door and me asking what he was going to do with it. And then feeling a sense of relief, knowing that he was going to channel that rage into that art, because there was so much of it, because of the constant, nonstop slaughtering of Black bodies simply because they existed and they represent the annihilation of whiteness. And white folks that embrace whiteness, they want to maintain the power and the privilege that they’ve stolen from other people. They’re also terrified that we will do to them what they’ve done to us. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I’ve just spent the last 18 months deep in the research around whiteness and white supremacy, and I tend now to separate white-skinned people by those who are proponents of whiteness, which includes white power, white supremacy, white superiority, white privilege, colonialism, imperialism, and white colonialism, which is always white imperialism. Anything that has been a system of oppression and marginalization of Black people is considered whiteness. And then those who are allies, who, as Liz will agree, are as exhausted by all of what’s going on and fighting it constantly, as we are. Just not understanding why it is that people who look like them can’t get their minds right, will not let go of the lie. It’s amazing that I am having to do, in my generation, the exact same work that my parents—my dad and his contemporaries—had to do to try to shift this.

One thing that I’ve learned as a doctoral scholar is that racism is adaptive. It changes based on the times we’re in. It’s just been adapted to today’s culture [but] it hasn’t changed, it’s no less violent, and it’s no less destructive.

Dana Chandler:
I always told my kids—not just Dahna—he or she who controls the narrative controls the world.

Liz Munsell:
According to Time magazine, the first version of the painting that you, Professor Chandler, created just in the wake of Fred Hampton’s murder in December 69 had actual bullet holes, too, like the second version. Is that true or did you paint what look like bullet holes?

Dana Chandler:
I will never tell you that. And I’m sworn to secrecy, so I can’t tell you.

Dahna Chandler:
Yes, you are.

Liz Munsell:
You don’t have to tell me anything about who shot them, but I just wanted to confirm—on the first version, were they painted bullet holes or are they actual bullet holes?

Dana Chandler:
You just asked the same question twice. You’re going to get the same answer twice. I love you very much, Liz, but I’m not giving up.

Liz Munsell:
Okay! So the first version, it was exhibited in [Expo ’74,] the world’s fair in Spokane, Washington, where it was outright stolen from the exhibition. Do you remember anything about the framing of the show, what kind of exhibition it was, and why your work was stolen? Was it the only work that was stolen from the pavilion?

Dana Chandler:
It was in the African American pavilion of the world’s fair in Spokane, Washington.

I have no idea. When they were supposed to send the artist back the work that was in the show, I never got it back. And they never sent me a letter explaining that it had been stolen or offering to pay for it or anything. It was silence from their end of things. But the painting is documented as being in that show. I’m sorry, folks, you documented, it was there. I was totally pissed, of course, on a number of levels. First of all, I thought my work there was insured. I found out that the work was not insured, so I was not going to be compensated for any of that. And it seemed to me that the officials of that particular organization didn’t really give a damn because they never contacted me that the work had disappeared. I simply never saw it returned. So when I called them about my work, they acted like they knew nothing about it, and of course I felt that was extremely disrespectful. I was never compensated for any of that. Nor was the loss ever recognized.

Liz Munsell:
You’ve been quoted as noting that your work has been stolen or vandalized more than it has been purchased. Can you comment on other instances of this happening?

A man stands in front of a painting that has been defaced with white paint.
Dana Chandler with one of his paintings, 1976. Jet Commercial Photographers. Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, Boston, Massachusetts. Box 1. All artwork pictured © Dana C. Chandler Jr.

Dana Chandler:
The picture that you see me holding was a picture I had painted that someone came along and threw white paint on at a library gallery in Lexington. They threw white paint on the paintings that were in that show. And of course the police wanted me to take a lie detector to make sure that I didn’t throw the paint on myself, which I allowed them to do, because obviously the whole idea was ridiculous. But it was something that made the papers quite a bit at that time. [That show] was about what all of my shows have been about: the racism and the murder and the oppression of people of color by Europeans, particularly European males. [The painting later] disappeared from my collection. How, I don’t know, because people used to steal my paintings quite a bit.

Liz Munsell:
After the original Fred Hampton’s Door was stolen, why did you decide to create the second version, four years following the murder of this amazing young party leader? Why did you feel that this was a painting that just had to be made in 1974?

Dana Chandler:
I immediately said, “Fred Hampton’s Door. Okay, let me do it on a door.” I went about the businesses finding a door, which I knew would not be difficult because they were busy tearing down neighborhoods at that time. So I knew there would be plenty of doors around. I knew where to find them in and around my own community where the buildings had been torn down. And it was at a time when there was very little respect for the Black communities—as if there ever had been. So they would tear the houses down and just leave the results of their destruction right where the house used to be. We looked around for an adequate door, took it to my studio at Simmons College, and began the replication of my work in a much larger size. And my commentary, I think, was, “Let them [try and] steal this.”

A bullet hole–riddled green door with red trim and a blue sticker reading "USA Approved."
Dana Chandler, Fred Hampton’s Door 2, 1974. Acrylic paint on wood. William Francis Warden Fund, The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, and Gallery Instructor 50th Anniversary Fund. © Dana C. Chandler Jr.

Liz Munsell:
Dahna, what are your memories of the creation of this work?

Dahna Chandler:
I remember the story a little differently. I remember my dad coming home and saying that the piece had been stolen and he was outraged about it. I was pretty young at the time but I knew enough to be angry that this piece had been stolen. I didn’t know the rest of the backstory about [the exhibition organizers] not even caring that the piece got stolen, but I’m also not surprised by that. And I asked, “Daddy, what do you want to do, daddy?” He said, I’m going to make a piece that they can’t steal. I remember him finding a door, but it wasn’t at Simmons, it was at Northeastern. I still remember the doorknob it had on it. And then I remember my dad setting about to create this work, this sculpture.

And that’s all I’ll say, because then I’d have to tell secrets. And my father doesn’t want me to tell secrets about how he created the doors, so I’m not going to do that, I’m going to respect that. But I do remember. I remember him beginning the process of preparing the door for being painted, then priming the door, and putting the color on, and in the end what stuck out to me was not just the replicated bullet holes but the way he made sure we understood that there was blood on the door, with the stamp that said “USA Approved.”

There wasn’t a conversation like that that my dad did not allow me to hear. There was a lot of talk in the community about this being a government conspiracy. And so I was pretty pleased that my dad had acknowledged that, because by then I was starting to be a young activist myself. I was starting to resist certain things. By the next year I was in an all-white school and I wouldn’t say the pledge of allegiance, because I knew the history of the country by then, both in terms of African Americans and Indigenous people, of which is a large part of my heritage. So the flag to me was like a swastika or the Confederate flag.

I have a lot of different memories about how the door happened. I remember my dad putting the door on a stand, and the stand had a black and red coloring and there was blood on it. So he represented the red, black, and green of the African American flag. It was just a powerful piece and statement, that this is what America thinks about Black bodies. And, of course, we’ve seen in recent history multiple times when Black bodies have been brutalized that way. I thought it was important that he did it even at a time when white people were just determined that they were going to gaslight us into believing that we weren’t seeing what was happening.

Dana Chandler:
There’s another part I remembered as my daughter was speaking. It became “USA Approved,” but that stamp was related to “USDA approved.” We get our meats once the meat has been approved by the government. And if the meat is then stamped approved, I believe—well, that was us. We were meat to be approved for murder by the American government. So it was.

It was a while before I created [Fred Hampton’s Door 2]. And as a matter of fact, it was shortly after the time that my studio, which was in the South End of Boston, was destroyed by who knows who, and a lot of my work was destroyed in fire. First, they ran water all over it, the basement where a lot of it was kept, then somebody came along and set the studio building on fire, so whatever was still there was lost.

I have lots of suspicions but I can’t prove anything. I believe that white folks came into my studio and destroyed it and opened up the door so that the mostly Latino community [in the neighborhood at] that time could wander in and steal everything that was left. I found one of my paintings hanging in a playground on the wall. One of my large paintings.

Dahna Chandler:
I wrote about this on [my dad’s] website. I came right out and said that I believe it was the government. It was a government operation that sent people—Black and Latin[x] folks so they wouldn’t be conspicuous—who were FBI operatives or government operatives, and they came in and they destroyed everything. It took a while to do the level of damage they did. They would have been noticed if they didn’t look like everybody else in the community.

The thoroughness with which it was done very clearly indicates this was a plan. This was a strategy, a scheme to absolutely destroy your work. And, as we talked about, [this followed] the FBI visit and the disdain with which you dismissed them.

I remember you taking us down to the playground where the art had been distributed. Then you took us to the studio space and you showed us. I was about nine at the time, and I just remember being horrified. Around that time you got a small studio space at Simmons. They’d given [it to] you and you took us to show us what was left of the work, and I just remember being horrified and enraged.

My father had no problem exposing us to what was going on in the world. He wanted us to know what folks were doing, and not just white folks, any folks who were not about us, so we just know who to protect ourselves from.

Dana Chandler:
I need to make sure you also understand, Liz, that I have, for my entire career, always had a good number of European American allies. I would never have gotten to teach at Simmons [without] the man who was president at that time, Bill Holmes, who offered me space. And I think that he was not pressured, but he was asked by the Black students, “Could we have Professor Chandler here in the studio space?” He offered that space and then he offered me assistance in terms of getting materials and stuff to start painting again. The second door was painted with materials that I got through Simmons College.

The African American Masters Artist-in-Residence program (AAMARP) would never have been created if it hadn’t been for [then-president of Northeastern] Ken Ryder, because he received a lot of opposition from a whole lot of people, including some deans who decided that I should not have a budget, department status, or space, and he just looked at them and said, “Guess who’s president?”

When I came to him with the idea of AAMARP, he instantly said yes. The building I was located in was empty. Each floor was 24,000 square feet. The African American Studies department was located on the fourth floor of that building. And we were located on the second floor. So if it hadn’t been for him, there’d have been no AAMARP.

Three men at a table in front of works of art hanging on a wall.
Left to right: Lawyer Ted Landsmark, Edmund Barry Gaither, and Northeastern University president Ken Ryder at a panel discussion on Dana Chandler’s Northeastern solo exhibition, 1976. Jet Commercial Photographers. Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, Boston, Massachusetts. Box 31. All artwork pictured © Dana C. Chandler Jr.
Two men stand in front of a painting.
Dana Chandler (right) with Ted Landsmark at a solo exhibition of Chandler’s work staged by Northeastern University in 1976. Jet Commercial Photographers. Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, Boston, Massachusetts. Box 31. All artwork pictured © Dana C. Chandler Jr.

Liz Munsell:
Dahna, do you have any memories of the studio that you could share or any comments on what your dad said?

Dahna Chandler:
Yes. I remember how large it was. When he first got it I was a little kid, so it was just a fun place to be. In his studios, he would make space for us. He put swings in, he put places for us to play with toys. He got special toys for us to play with that my mother wouldn’t let us have at home [laughter]. My mother was very much into gender so she wasn’t a fan of me playing with Tonka trucks. There were lots of events. Lots of people who were famous at the time came through the studio.

It had a very big place in my life. I spent literally about half my time at that studio. I would go from school to that studio. As soon as I was able to take public transit on my own, that’s what I did after school. And at one point I worked for him, for about two-and-a-half, three years, and then things changed, but I worked for him and I worked for the AAMARP program. I remember what it was before it became AAMARP. It was an old factory, and I guess they made clothes, because when he first took us to this place it was a dusty old factory with sewing machines piled up. It had the freight elevators of an old factory. It had the very, very high ceilings of an old factory. There were these humongous windows all around the studio, so most of the light that came in during the day was daylight, which is, if you’re an artist, perfect. That’s the light you want to create by. That’s what I create by when I have time to do art. I create by sunlight and I have east facing windows, and they’re wall to wall. It sort of reminds me of that space. They were big and they were almost floor to ceiling and almost wall to wall.

I have a lot of memories of that studio, a lot of memories of AAMARP, a lot of memories of the politics around AAMARP and the “politricks.” What some people did to try to destroy the program, the jealousies that happened because my dad had such a large studio. But also the good times: the college parties, the law school parties, the community events.

It was a place that was very much for the community. And I remember my father being very intentional about that. He opened it up to everybody who had a legitimate use for the studio. He didn’t allow things to happen in that studio that would cause him to lose the studio, but he also was just against certain things. There were no drugs allowed, and when people tried that they got put out. You couldn’t bring weapons in. You couldn’t do any of the kind of stuff you think you can do because it’s the hood. No. You were not going to do that with my dad.

He wanted it to be a family-friendly space and he made it that. There were a lot of kids. He would allow big groups of children to come, and he would roll out paper and give them paints and crayons and let them create. It was just a fun space. It was a fun space from what I remember, but a lot of other things happened around him taking that space. I think a lot of the reason why my dad is in the condition he is, because all the battling he took throughout his life, trying to be the artist he was, be the professor he was, be a dad, and just be a Black man in a country, in a world where white folks—or whiteness, let’s put it like that, whiteness—was trying to destroy him and his family. And it takes a lot out of you. It’s exhausting to live that way day after day after day, and watching people be harmed and trying to convey that as clearly as you possibly can in your work. I remember that as much as I remember anything else about the studio. And a lot of what I learned and what I came to be as an activist and a thinker myself happened at that studio because of who was there, who I saw. Everybody from Barry Gaither to Skip Gates. Who I call Mr. Carmichael, Stokely Carmichael. I mean, it was just an amazing experience.

I was proud of my dad. I always thought what he did was powerful. I knew what he did was risky. It was as risky as anything Fred Hampton was doing, from Martin Luther King to Fred Hampton. It was as risky as anybody else who’s out there fighting for Black liberation. And I’m grateful to God that he protected my father, but I always knew that there was danger in what [my father] was doing. Because he was hurting white feelings, and he was speaking truth to power in very powerful art, and there were a lot of people that wanted us to stay silent.

It took the MFA 50 years, from the time of my dad’s first exhibition of the original Fred Hampton’s Door to now, to get the piece that currently exists into its collection.

Dana Chandler:
I am so thrilled by that. I can’t even tell you. I call that legacy, for sure. It’s a wonderful feeling—and to be marching this path with my daughter. There are no words to explain how that feels. Except, maybe, James Brown—“I Feel Good.”

Liz Munsell:
And you have a wonderful daughter in your court. I can’t think of a better advocate and believer to shepherd your work.

Dana Chandler:
I give an Amen to that.


Participants

Dana Chandler, also known as Akin Duro, is a painter, printmaker, activist, and educator from Boston, Massachusetts. From 1970 to 2004, he was a professor of Art and Art History at Simmons College.

Dahna Chandler is a corporate communications advisor, award-winning business and finance journalist, and emerging wealth industry antiracism scholar. She is currently an EdD candidate at the University of Southern California.

Liz Munsell is the the MFA’s Lorraine and Alan Bressler Curator of Contemporary Art.