The jarring moment in the amazon television series “THEM” stood out to me amongst many scenes about the horrific failures of the great American Migration. Henry Emory finally defeats his demented alter psyche, a manifestation of early American blackface. What nudged me harder wasn’t the violent gunshot to Henry’s blackfaced alter psyche’s head; it was the true reveal behind the darkly painted villain. Because up until that point I had almost identified myself with this villain, his isms and reflections on the white middle class families surrounding Henry are twisted and evil yet truthful and at times heartwarming. But upon his death Henry walks triumphantly toward his nemesis to uncover who he really is throughout the series, and with a crisp white handkerchief from his pocket Henry smudges away the blackface revealing a whiteman. Despite feeling familiar with the history of blackface the moment when the villain is revealed to be a whiteman astonished me and trickled me with fear. That a character so cynical and at times relatable had not been a blackman at all and in actuality was the most traditional blackface. The message was a clear representation that whiteness isn’t as nuanced as it seems, this family’s physical and mental abuse had not only been a literal device but that there were ways of tormenting black people beyond simple aggressions. The very fears of this family completed the violent circle that they found themselves in agony against. It had a very determinate message that autonomy is an everlasting virtue in the struggle against white patriarchy, for it seemed that this is what frightened the white
citizens most, was that beyond the political tensions and dark traumas this family chose to still live, to still love, to still remain. Black autonomy seems to be a common obsession not only in cinema portraying racial dynamics but in our real and current world. Whatever remains of black people, after all of the destruction and terror, is after all what matters most, the ability to find resilience within an overwhelmingly bleak and subjugating world.
I want to step into the contemporary art sphere for a moment, not with an intent to prosecute but rather to distill a controversy that in many ways has its depths but also has its utterly blatant shallow contradictions. Artist and Professor Joe Scanlan revisits blackface for a performance at the Whitney Museum in 2014 which in no surprise sought out said controversy knowing that him as an affluent white male artist portraying the late Richard Pryor would spark conversation about exploitation and irony. I’ve read many sentiments regarding this controversy where writers expand on the implications of a valued white cube artist rehashing Richard’s comedy sketches, many created strong points examining the art world’s history with identity impersonations, however this sketch of neo-liberal art institutions almost felt generic rather than a tipping point into new discussions about how black artist exploit or rebrand their own blackness for financial stability. Rather, this spectacle felt more disguised as an envious response toward the sudden change and value that white institutions and buyers now have toward marginalized histories.
On the surface, Joe is masked with intrigue and the possibility of underlining a lost clause within the functions of an art industry, or if you’d rather, is deeply invested into controversy and trolling his way between the inconsistencies of neo-liberal identity arithmetic, however deep within is a envious effort to in someway regain or embellish the white autonomy that has been lost within our worlds new admiration for black artists. It is no doubt that buying black is now a trend within the artist bubble and within the world around us and that there are covetous emotions from white male artists who at one time had predominate ownership of the industry. When looking into the scandal of Joe Scanlan’s artwork I see familiar anecdotes from my own life as a black trans woman navigating an American society obsessed with not only the destruction of black bodies but obsessed with the creative resilience that black influencers spawn from the peril of being powerless. What Joe’s criticism does reveal is his acceptance that the art industry was at one time intentionally unequal and that this new support from the art industry leaves artists like him struggling to compete with black artists whose subject matter can scale a multitude of academics. The reality of Joe’s work is that he is not toying with any other identity except his own. Just as the original forms of blackface were a created myth of white Americans, Joe’s reclamation of Richard Pryor becomes less about black ownership and more about white rejection.
In response to James Baldwin’s text The Fire Next Time, James stands at a podium reluctantly frustrated at the questions brought against him, antagonizing his writing career as being especially bigoted towards a white people that are trying to be civil. What James makes clear is that the issue of racial violence has nothing to do with his
speech or thoughts and has everything to do with the history that white Americans have failed to take ownership of. For the case of Joe, he is under the impression that once again his ownership of whiteness and blackness is what has the uttermost power in this struggle between the marginalized and the opulent. In reality it is is own game of destruction, using black actors as memes for his own self rebuttal. These hurt feelings can be complicated with academic research and neo-liberal antics, but the blatant truth of the matter is that race does not bring on this complexity and inability to decode, it is the misinformed intentions of white people that over complicate a situation that is most simply obvious to all of us other Americans who have done our work and lived our experiences under the dismay of white America. Rather than doing the work of examining his own experiences with whiteness instead we get a childish distraction in the progression of unpacking white American violence.
There is something timeless about this cycle, I think about this while I watch two art handlers prepare my purchased painting to be shipped across the country to Boston, Massachusetts. One of the art handlers was a black man, tall with long hair pulled back. I watched how prepared this man was in admiration at his skill and grace. The way in which he moved inside the space was rhythmic and harmonious. He knew what had to be done and where things needed to be. His fellow art handler was a brighter skinned man, possibly of latin decent, who was the utter contrast of the blackman. He was slow, unprepared, jaded and followed every action as an afterthought. The blackman reminded me of my father and how determined of a man he was, how he woke up and moved through the atmosphere with purpose and autonomy. He had no business with
the foolishness of the outside world because he had made his peace with it. He had understood all that he wanted to hear from America and finished each day as a statement, never as a question. The black art handler had an ability and stern focus to not only care for the being of himself and my artwork but to also pick up whatever slack his fellow coworker had left. I grew up with many black men who had this form of professionalism, who not only dug the toll of having to be labeled black in America but also cleaned after the mess of white and non black individuals without missing a step within their own needs. This autonomy is what makes black people such a target, it is that even within the dysfunctions of some of our upbringings there is still the root intellect that black people have about themselves that supersedes all other forms of excellence, and this is what I am sure is the envy of those unoccupied with the intensity of the state we are living within. It is from this naiveté and negligence that white minds living with in and without this concentration on the important matter of fact (that white violence is not a black problem) that we receive the childish attempt to draw attention, because that attention soothes the overwhelming presence of racial violence being a complicated affair. When in actuality, racial violence is very plain and simple. There is no hidden agenda, no mathematical equation of who can be the more oppressed. It is common knowledge that many of us black people need no regard for. It is nothing new, nothing rebranded, repackaged. It is the same distraction from the blatant truth.
“About Joe Scanlan”, 2021, Shuriya Davis (2:12)
The black family from “THEM” come into this consciousness finally after struggling with their own psyches, that the distractions and foolishness of the world is what creates the feeling of overwhelming trauma. But the autonomy to live, to breathe, to awake where
they choose, to no longer feel embarrassed or ashamed is the very thing that interrupts white Americans will to over complicate and mystify the lives of black people. Once the family finds peace with themselves again they regain their power and the integration has successfully begun, because in reality to the struggles they found themselves within , it was not the true process of integration but rather the distraction of their white neighbors who sought to diminish this peace of mind. As artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn mentions, that piece of mind is more valuable than anything else within this universe. It is not only the answer it is the pathway to more abundance in spirit. It is the true freedom and the very thing that white capitalist patriarchy seeks to overly complicate with discouragers and ignorant minds.
Let us return back into the art sphere for a second and final time as we watch the total opposite of Joe Scanlan. A black artist who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person while I was a collaborator for the RISD Museum Student Guild. A black artist whose posturing, frame of mind, and spirit exhibited the very grace and excellence that his work also carried out. When I met Fred Wilson I was a black artist troubled with an issue that on surface seemed rather objective. In actuality institutional racism was all too common and not as complex as my professors of anthropology might’ve made it. Fred Wilson stood in the RISD Museum cafe, dressed with a simple sweater, fresh wash and go, and quiet awkwardness. I sat down not only hearing what he was saying but admiring what he was doing, how his spirit addressed his own ideas and consciousness. There were no smoke and mirrors, no heavy vocabulary, only this beautifully intelligent, calm, peaceful soul. Before Fred began his artist talk I waited until
my supervisor was out of earshot and asked him a question that was truly tugging at my mind, how do black students address the blatant racist ideologies within academia? Fred innocently admitted to having no clear response other than the earnest commitment that he had towards his work. The unveiling of racial violence, similarly to Henry Emory’s revelation of the real culprit of blackface. For as complex and at times existential as it is (the work of Fred Wilson) there is nothing more plain and simple that the issue of white violence is not an issue of black Americans, no matter how eloquent our emotions are, no matter how strong our music is, the so called hidden truth is actually disguised within white ignorance, no more ephemeral or nuanced. In the case of Fred Wilson’s work, his method was no more deeply intellectual than the black trash man, the committed black art handler, it was to simply pull out from the dark the very history white people owned. The very objects and souls that they tuck between the afterthought. In Joe Scanlan’s attempt at addressing black exploitation, there were plenty of other relics and artifacts (truest to the violence of his people) sitting in the closet just waiting for the tender hand of a black caretaker.
As the black art handler finished securing my painting within a box I told him how proud my dad would have been to see this. The black art handler asked whether my dad supported my artwork. Well yes but I was referring to you, the way that you packed that painting reminded me of how professional he was. With that I finished on the dotted line my new name, my new ambition and with that the art handler took the painting and left. The topic of Joe Scanlan would be prime material for black American artists to address but more so it should be a topic that white artists address because it is not up to us
black Americans to reveal the truths of white violence, it is for us black Americans to take and make use of what has been done and will be done to us. We will continue to become resilient because our autonomy and mediated knowledge of ourselves outlasts any perverted folklore, and gossip or scandal. We know where the cards may lay, where the world will turn, and who’s spirit shines brightest. We don’t even need anthropology’s education, academia’s thesis, because our intellect and tapped in intention will always guide us and lead us into the new iteration of the modern world, with non-blacks following behind us. Though artists like Joe Scanlan are a surprise to the art industry it is no surprise to me the child of former sharecroppers, I grew up with many sentiments on how to prepare and avoid racial tension with white people. I grew up with a black community that did not cluelessly live, whether time was spent detailing cars, polishing records, or enjoying cigarettes, the overlooked presence was the world’s continuous subjugation that they were black and therefore should be treated as such. It was not a question about inequality, even for those outright black conservatives hoping to entirely integrate. It was a question about when? When will it stop? When will they learn?
What makes my work so prolific is not the physicality of my labor, how determined I am to fight against mediums and criticisms, it is that I am in tune with my inner self, I am not searching for genre, scam, or gimmick, I have viewed my cards and have responded to them as such. I am not trying to appear great, I simply just am. I work hard, I speak honestly, and I love compassionately, to some affect which creates a magnitude of vulnerability. I crash loudly, I struggle to get back up, to have a grandiose confidence in my purpose. It has become more aware to me that this is what separates me from my
colleagues, I am not afraid to be painted in any light, I make marks with full confidence that nothing is too complex for me to figure out. All that is a matter is whether or not I am ready to receive and nurture. For the majority of us blacks we do not have the privilege of hiding our intentions, life moves so fast, our breath becomes so commodified, it is in our best interest to boldly accept ourselves as we cause disruption in a Eurocentric world. I can not speak for white people other than my perception that perhaps they do not intend with that part of their existence, they are not actively struggling to place themselves in context, transforming themselves into suitable identities, they are merely existing in this atmosphere of disorganized grief and the screams of the minority. They are so preoccupied with being identified that they are not even able to truly identify themselves, to peel back the layers and vulnerably enter into the society that strips black Americans of our self regard.