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Khalil Bey, local griot, leaves his mark

One of the missions of a library is to collect materials that speak to a certain ethos. For the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, this mission is to provide a specialized collection concentrating on the history, culture, and social and political dimensions of peoples of African descent. The library can do this in several different ways. One is through the collection of books. But a library can also collect maps, films, manuscripts, and artwork. In 2014, I asked Ithaca artist Khalil Bey to come up with a painting to reflect the contributions made by Black women. He eventually came up with a portrait titled The Sistahs. This painting highlights 17 prominent African American women, with Michelle Obama as the centerpiece.



The artwork by Khalil Bey fits into the ethos of the library and addresses a very important curriculum aspect of the Africana Studies and Research Center, and that is the engagement with gender and sexuality in areas such as Africana women’s studies. We can also look at the women in the portrait as champions of social justice. Kahlil Bey, who passed away on July 5, 2023, had incredible insight in identifying these women.


It may have been easy for Kahlil to identify the women in his painting as champions of social justice because he was one himself. He was involved in numerous organizations in Ithaca. There was the Southside Community Center, GIAC (the Greater Ithaca Activity Center), Civic Ensemble, Shared Journeys, The Men’s Group, No Mas Lagrimas (No More Tears) and AFJ (Alliance of Families for Justice).



One of the amazing things about Khalil is that he rose from the ashes as a person who was incarcerated for 22 years to one who helped shape the lives of others for the better. Retired Ithaca City Judge Marjorie Olds wrote this about Khalil in “Khalil is known throughout Ithaca and beyond for his mentorship of young people, creating murals at local sites, producing sought-after portraits during the Ithaca Festival, and exhibiting his art throughout the New York, from the Jacob Javits Center in NYC to Southside Community Center here in Ithaca.” Not bad for a self-trained artist. At his funeral, Dr. Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, director of GIAC spoke about him and the mural he painted at the pool of GIAC: “Khalil, GIAC will continue to shine bright and be a beacon of the promise of equity and social justice because of your work in the paintings on our facilities. You made legacies of Alex Haley and Muhammad Ali come alive with the generosity of your talent.” Without question, Khalil fits in as a community person who in essence served as an ambassador for so many Black folk who were not able to speak for themselves, and with his storytelling he could have been referred to as a griot. It is an honor for us to have his portrait of The Sistahs in the Clarke Africana Library. Thank you, Brother Khalil. People will continue to learn from you as time moves on.


–Kofi Acree