Aaron Douglas worked during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s. During this period, African American artists, writers, and musicians in Harlem, a New York City neighborhood, expressed ideas about Black people’s shared experiences in the United States. In his 1936 Aspiration, above, Douglas uses light to represent the journey to freedom.
In the foreground, Douglas paints hands bound in chains and shrouded in dark shadows, symbolizing enslavement. Above the hands, light bursts from a star, representing the North Star, which led many escaped enslaved Black people to freedom before the Civil War. In the center, the artist renders three silhouettes. One of the figures points toward a bright, modern city on a hill. Douglas leads the viewer’s eye from the shadowed past at the bottom of the composition to a bright, hopeful future at the top.