Amos Paul Kennedy sits in Coffee Makes You Black, 2803 N. Teutonia Ave., in Milwaukee’s North Division neighborhood. Kennedy, a printer who has a work of the same name (“Coffee Makes You Black”), is visiting the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) as part of the school’s Creativity Series. But this isn’t his first time in the city.
Kennedy’s family moved to Milwaukee — technically, Bayside — in 1995, his sons both attended Nicolet and he earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) from UW-Madison in 1997. For Amos, it was the beginning of a still-blossoming career in printing and a different way of living. But, it was also the beginning of the end of Kennedy’s family, as it had been. “Our values changed. I no longer needed to buy a new car every three years for a degree of satisfaction or as a status symbol,” he says. “I kind of gave up the middle class life.”
Kennedy was born in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1950. But he wasn’t there for long; his parents moved when he was a month old. “I spent five years in Michigan, then I spent one year in North Carolina, two years in Maryland and then 20 … no, 14 years in Louisiana. Actually, 13 — there was a year I spent in Michigan.”
Where was home? “Well, Grambling, Louisiana, ended up being the home. So, that’s where we spent the 13 years, in Grambling. And, then, I graduated and I left,” says Kennedy.
By all accounts, Amos’ life has been anything but normal, and his childhood was no different. “My childhood was very unusual ‘cause Grambling was a college town. So, for example, all of my elementary and high school teachers all had master’s degrees — and this was back in the 60s — because they were all part of the faculty at Grambling,” he says. “It was extremely unusual. It was a middle class enclave of blacks in the middle of Louisiana.”
“Grambling was the cultural center for blacks in North Louisiana. So, if the university had a traveling [theater] group come through — they’d do Hamlet or something — they would schedule a matinee so the high schools, black high schools, could attend it. If there was a symphony playing, they would schedule a matinee the next day. So, it was this Mecca in the middle of North Louisiana.”
He adds, “I didn’t appreciate it ‘till I left.”
But, once he left, Kennedy realized what an immense advantage he’d been given, though he admits it wasn’t something he took full advantage of.
“It’s like some comedian said: ‘I didn’t know I was poor until I left home, ‘cause everyone was poor.’ And, I didn’t know that people didn’t read Homer in high school until I left and found out that people didn’t even read it in college, you know, that sort of thing.”
It wasn’t only the education level of his teachers that influenced what Amos learned — it was also the personal attention. Because his school was a “lab” school, people majoring in education at Grambling would observe classrooms and do their teaching apprenticeship (student teaching) there. Because of this, for about 18 weeks out of the year, the student to teacher ratio at Kennedy’s school was about eight to one.
“That’s remarkable, that’s a luxury,” Amos says. “That’s like going to a private school some place where, you know, you pay $10,000 a year or, maybe now, $30,000 a year.”
“It was just the norm because we didn’t know the other.”
Kennedy is the third of five children. He describes it a different way, though. “I am the most loved of all the children,” he says with a smirk.
When it comes to his parents, Amos adopts the same seemingly-glib tone. “Let’s put it this way: I devoted much of my early life to improving their character.”
“When I was born, my father had a bachelor’s degree and my mother had a bachelor’s degree. But, one month after I was born, he felt that that was inadequate so he went back to get a PhD … because my birth was very important to him, you know. So, I altered his life,” he says.
“And my poor mother, she … you know, I spent the best years of my life grooming her, giving her confidence, making her a better person so that, when I left after graduating college, she was able to go on and get an MBA and a PhD,” Kennedy says. “It was through that hard sacrifice on my part.”
“Yeah, I was a troubled child.”
After high school, the way Amos tells it, he didn’t have many options. “Well, there was something called the Vietnam War, so college happened,” he says. “That was all that could happen, either that or Vietnam and I felt college was better.”
Kennedy went to school for four years and graduated with a degree in mathematics. After school, he worked for IBM for a few years — he can’t remember exactly how many anymore — and “kind of, floated around in corporate America until about 1990.” At 40, the man who had worked as a computer programmer for most of his adult life, decided to get out.
“The United States economy came to the realization that there were more people than jobs,” Amos says. “Companies were downsizing and getting rid of people and I was just an early victim of that.”
However, the change in lifestyles — from a corporate, middle class suburban life to something a bit simpler — wasn’t without its casualties, either. Kennedy, who was more involved in the domestic responsibilities than most men at the time and had a large hand in raising his sons, says he found himself gravitating toward “a non-traditional sort of model of family.”
Then, of course, there was the distance, as well. “I got a job in Indiana and the rest of ‘em couldn’t move,” he says. “That creates a tension, you know, and an absence, also.”
So, the family “dissolved.”
While at Indiana University as an assistant art professor, Kennedy decided to make a statement. At the College Art Association’s annual conference, Kennedy set up a booth to attract “minority hire[s],” as he had been referred to.
“And, so, I had this organization called ‘Nappy.’ And, Nappy had a table,” Amos says. “It just said ‘Nappy; looking for spear-chuckers, jungle bunnies, coons, watermelon-eaters,’ you know. Boom. And, these two … black young men saw it and they were just furious.”
“They were, like, hostile. I mean hostile. I love it when [people] get hostile; they were hostile.”
He also printed a card that said “Affirmative Action Is a Joke” and sent it to the school’s affirmative-action office. Some people didn’t think it was very funny. “When I was interviewed by the police, you know, I said, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t it a joke? You know, you go out and you scour the country for the best black basketball players but you don’t go looking for the best black physicist high school student. If affirmative action was really real then all these things would be happening.’”
“No one had ever confronted that,” says Kennedy, who admits he could have gone about it in a more benign way, but that, if he had, it might not have had the same effect.
“They showed up indignant but they left on my side,” he added, of the young black men.
“I think that when you bring somebody from a point of anger to a resolution, to your side, you know, you have them more so than somebody that already kind of agrees with you. Because they’ve already agreed with you but they haven’t done anything.”
Kennedy is provocative, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s all for a good reason, even his self-description as a “humble negro printer.”
“It’s straightforward; I’m a negro. And, I tell people that because I’m really not a negro. Both my parents were ‘Colored,’” he says, referring to their birth certificates. “I was born in 1950 in Louisiana and it says, ‘Race; Mother: Colored,’ ‘Race; Father: Colored.’ So, that makes me a colored person. You know, people have issues with it but that’s politically correct, in 1950.”
“I’m humble because I am humble. And people say, ‘How can you be humble and say you’re humble.’ I said, ‘I’m humble, I didn’t say I was stupid.’ I’m smart enough to recognize humility,” Amos says.
“I think that’s always been a part of my life, being satirical and poking fun. And, it is a way to disarm people and, also, make them think,” he adds. “I’m being stupid so you can see the stupidity.”
“As somebody once said, ‘Amos is most serious when he’s laughing.’ ‘When he’s not laughing, don’t worry about him but when he’s laughing check him out, watch your back.’”
That satire, that provocative nature is the basis for much of his work, as well. “I did a piece commemorating, I think, 64 children under the age of 14 that were murdered in Chicago. And, I put it on the ground in a doorway so people would have to step on it. And, people were upset that they were stepping on art; they didn’t care about the fact that this was a child that had been murdered.”
But it’s not just satire for satire’s sake; it’s not just provocation without a reason. There’s always a point. “The art is nothing; there was a child that was murdered,” he says “A crappy sheet of paper, they’re concerned about. But a human being that was murdered was like, ‘Oh.’”
Kennedy says Strange Fruit, a book he published in 1994, which is based on the 1937 poem (later recorded by Billie Holliday), was “probably, for lack of a better term, my opus piece or my masterpiece.”
“It was just the way that the whole book was put together and the way that the message was conveyed and the fact that … books are these little precious things but here’s this book that had these disturbing images and facts and words about lynching.”
Amos says the book was about “making it (lynching) personal to the person who read it.”
For a man who takes his work personally, that may just be the larger aim of his work — to make it personal. “I had to stop (working on the Chicago murders series) … because it was way too much,” he says. “And, it just makes me stop and wonder … We have the highest murder rate of children under 15 of any (Western) nation in the world. Why isn’t that an annual report? They’re gonna tell you the top 10 songs, they’re gonna tell you the top 10 movies, but they don’t tell you … where we stand, as far as the murder of children.”
“It just highlights how disconnected things are in this civilization and how it is more connected to entertainment than actual information,” he says.
Despite everything he’s seen and knows, though, Kennedy still has hope. He was recently awarded a fellowship with the United States Artists, which gives him access to $50,000 to work on, “anything I want to.”
“What I’m gonna do is I am building a printing plant in Detroit, Michigan. That’s what [those] funds and what the rest of my life is dedicated to. You know what a plant is? … One of the definitions of a plant is ‘a place for spiritual growth,’” he says. “So, I’m using that definition, a place where people can come to learn to print, come to improve their printing and, you know … just be what they want to be.”
“The only thing I want out of this world is for everybody to find something that makes them as happy as printing makes me. That’s all; it’s real simple, what I want. I want you to be as happy as I am — that’s all. ‘Cause, if everybody was as happy as me, we would be in one hell of a happy world.”
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