The Persistence of Race

Nick_Mirzoeff's picture

I find I can’t get past the Birther fiasco but I’m not altogether sure why. It’s not as if the toxicity of the racism thereby both released and affirmed is–sadly–a surprise, even if some of us had hoped that 2008 suggested something new. So palpable was it that even some liberal bastions like the New Yorker finally admitted that race was a part of Obama-hating. The Times restored order on Sunday with one of those “move on, nothing new to see here” pieces.

I think that my worry is how to respond. This is an old history: if visuality was and is a colonial technique, racialization is one of its key components, serving both to classify and separate. That these formerly legalized distinctions continue to operate under the rubric of the “aesthetic” (in the sense of what is felt to be right) is a key tenet of what I am now calling critical visuality studies. Does it help to know this? Can we say that we are equipped to respond to mediated racism? So I took a walk around some downtown galleries to see what’s happening.

First stop: Chris Marker, the film director, has a show of digital photographs called Passagers, that is to say, Passengers. The passengers in question are riding on the Paris Metro and they are for the most part visually identifiable as either immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the former French colonies.

Chris Marker, Passager

These are striking images, with a strong emphasis on formal beauty, while making the physical exhaustion of subaltern labor in the neocolonial metropole all too visible. Marker’s goal, however, is a renewed univeralism. In order to make sure you don’t miss the point, he draws resemblances to works of the classical Western canon.

Marker, Passager [After Ingres]

The resemblance between this young woman and the Ingres portrait inset at top right might serve to recall all those anonymous women who sat for the “Masters,” such as the African woman known only as Jeanne who appears in Manet’s Olympia, currently being celebrated yet again at the musée d’Orsay. I’m not sure that this gain is worth the erasure of all the differences, all the histories and, once again, all the names.

A few blocks away, Kara Walker has new video work on show. Walker was the subject of a famous controversy within the African American arts world, when Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell actively campaigned against her work as debasing the Civil Rights struggle. It’s hard not to assume that Obama would agree, with his careful evocation of Dr. King and 1960s style. Not to mention the selection of a Glenn Ligon to hang in the White House, which uses a 1961 text from John Howard Griffin’s memoir Black Like Me: “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence.”

Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me

The explicit violence and sexuality depicted in Walker’s work seems a polar opposite to Ligon’s conceptual cool. And her two location show downtown is in fact a counterpoint to Ligon’s current mid-career retrospective at the Whitney under the title America. Watching Walker’s wrenching video Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale in this moment is not easy but it is perhaps necessary. The piece uses her signature cut-out silhouettes to negotiate the interface of sexuality and violence that fueled lynching.

Kara Walker, still from “Fall Frum Grace”

The figure above is the White Man (my title), who is one of Miss Pipi’s partners, as we see in typically graphic (pun intended) Walker style. The White Man instigates a lynching of the young African Man (I call him that because his head is stylized a mask), Miss Pipi’s more experimental (and well-endowed) partner. So far, so Walker. Then we see a photograph from the terrible lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, in which the charred corpse hangs amidst a smiling crowd. Just as jarring in its own way, Walker sets the African Man’s figure on fire and we see her cutout flame and shrivel.

The scene exemplifies the successes and failures of her work. The burning figure is shocking, where the photograph is revolting, bringing out the difficulties in describing responses to violence. Yet the use of Jesse Washington–a 17-year-old accused of rape and murder convicted in one hour by an all-white jury in 1916–is troubling. The archetypal story of (the male fantasy of) white womanhood told until this point collides with a real history that was very different. Perhaps that’s the point. But unless you know this history, the photograph simply appears unexplained as one of a series of period images. At the same time, the sheer violence that any threat to white supremacy generates in this country, its intensity and dismembering fury, cannot be historicized away or neatly explained. You could argue that it has retained all its force since Reconstruction, even if it ebbs and flows.

Walker herself counterpoints this work with a short Minimalist video entitled Levee.

Kara Walker, still from Levee

By way of visual guide: the top black space is simply the wall but at the bottom, the black mass is the levee, filmed in Friars Point, Mississippi, a small town on the Mississippi-Arkansas border, an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Memphis. The dawn footage seems to presage some drama: another act of violence, or a levee breach, as is currently feared upriver in Missouri. Nothing happens. A country village. Trees. Dawn.

Joseph Kosuth, ‘Texts (Waiting for-) for Nothing’ Samuel Beckett, in play”

I was late catching the first episode of the new season of David Simon’s HBO series Treme, which I watched after going to the galleries. In a key scene, the musician Delmond has a heated argument with other jazz players in New York about New Orleans music. The New Yorkers see it as nothing more than “minstrelsy,” while Delmond calls it an “American living tradition.”  In a different register, this is the same discussion: how do we deal with the past and its violences? Treme clearly sides with Delmond. On a recent visit to New Orleans, I saw the Algiers Marching Band doing a wedding party parade: all the musicians were African American, all the dancers were white. The music was amazing, though, and there were great buskers outside the Café Beignet. I saw some very drunk white men beat up an African American man.  I can’t go on. I’ll go on.


Stage direction from Waiting for Godot, produced by Paul Chan, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA. Note the Industrial Canal wall in the background which failed after Katrina. And the satellite dish.


Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 02 May 2011 15:36:25 +0000