Hank Willis Thomas on Black Survival Guide and Creative Civic Action


Thomas and fellow artist Ebony Brown talk about interdependence and How to Live Through a Police Riot, an archival handbook that inspired his 2018 series.


Karen Chernick for Hyperallergic


“IMPORTANT,” asserts the opening line of a pamphlet that contemporary conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas found a couple years ago at the Delaware Historical Society. “Because you are black, this booklet is important to you. It may help save your life.”

Thomas was doing research for a 2018 commission from the Delaware Art Museum (DAM) to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Wilmington’s grief-stricken public response, followed by a nearly unprecedented nine-month-long occupation of the city by National Guardsmen. The artist had seen photographs of the 1968 occupation of Wilmington but was surprised by this 13-page handbook titled BLACK SURVIVAL GUIDE OR How To Live Through A Police Riot, typewritten on 8 1/2-by-11-inch office paper.


The guide was full of detailed practical information for worst-case scenarios, like how to stop bleeding and identify heart attacks, ways to communicate if telephone service was cut off, how much water to stockpile per person per day, and the importance of knowing all ways to exit one’s home. The pages were a testament to violence, fear, and perseverance.


Thomas transformed the pamphlet into a screen printed series on retroreflective vinyl called “Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot” (2018), overlaying the complete text over images of the Wilmington occupation. When the DAM exhibited the series in 2018, it coincided with exhibitions of Danny Lyon’s photographs of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and drawings of the Montgomery bus boycott by Harvey Dinnerstein and Burton Silverman. The museum recently reinstalled “Black Survival Guide” when it reopened to the public in early July, in response to the recent wave of Black Lives Matter marches and protests.


I spoke with Thomas about the series this week over speakerphone, as he and his friend, artist Ebony Brown, were in a car headed to Brooklyn. They were going to an event organized by The Wide Awakescollaborative commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment with music, art, and voter registration assistance. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.


Hyperallergic: What was your research process for the Black Survival Guide? What archival materials did you look at, and how did you decide to use the booklet and photographs?  

Hank Willis Thomas: I was invited to do this installation at the Delaware Art Museum, and I didn’t know much about Delaware or Wilmington even though it’s really close to Philadelphia which is where my family is, where my mom grew up. My mother, Deborah Willis, she’s a historian and artist, and I grew up in libraries and archives. Through my mother’s work I learned that there’s so much hidden information in archives. So I asked the museum, and they shared with me all these photographs that they had from the newspaper.


The context was it being the 50th anniversary of the longest occupation of federal troops in an American city since the Civil War, after the assassination of Martin Luther King. So we went to the [Delaware] Historical Society to find images that we thought would be really good for that. We wound up in all these boxes and I pulled out this thing that said “Black Survival Guide” and I was like, what? What is that? It was literally a handbook on how to survive a police riot.

That was such a revelation that not only was the movement organized, but it was prepared for the worst at all times. That gave new context to all the photographs I saw of police and National Guardsmen occupying this neighborhood in Delaware. I wanted to highlight them both, and so I printed in black-on-white the text of the Survival Guide and then I printed white-on-white the photographs that I collected. I printed on a material called retroreflective vinyl, which allows the viewer to see both images when you take a flash photograph. So to the naked eye it’ll look like black text on white, whereas if you take a flash photograph a latent image is exposed.