New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, University of Chicago professor Jaqueline Stewart, and Northwestern University professor Michelle M. Wright in a conversation on the intersection of art, race, and African American history that considers the following question: What is the relationship between black aesthetics, art, and transformative social change today?
Ann Meisinger: The impetus for today’s conversation at the MCA was our recent retrospective by the painter Kerry James Marshall. Kerry’s important work led us to convene a conversation on the intersection of art, race, and African American history that considers the question: What is the relationship between black aesthetics, art, and transformative social change today? Please join me in welcoming all three of our speakers to the stage.
Michelle Wright: I was asked to start off with a few comments in response to this rather broad and wonderful question that Ann asked us to consider. I'm the person on the panel who does the theorizing of blackness in different types of discourses, so I'm the one that's going to raise problems, and then I think Hilton and Jackie are going to be the ones who have gorgeous solutions and insights. I can only point to things that we have to consider and think about.
As you can imagine, I would imagine in fact, that all three of us have been asked at various times, "Well, what is the role of the black artist? What duty do we have towards the black collective?" And that's the kind of question that is both wonderful and annoying; and maybe it can be annoying, because there are times when, at least for me, I encounter people who have a very clear yes or no.
“The black artist bears no duty towards the community,” or “the black artist must utterly submit themselves to the community.” And, you know, both of those really hard and fast answers, to me, sort of – they dodge what the question is really about, which is to get into the whole question of, for me, "What is blackness?" But also we can get into that question of, "What is the role of art in society? What is it meant to do? Is it meant to instruct? Is it meant to give us moral guidance? Is it meant to reflect?"
As I often ask my students in literature classes when we're talking about a piece, we have to determine whether or not the novel, or the poem, or the essay is either descriptive or prescriptive. Descriptive meaning, "I'm just showing you how awful the world is, I'm not advocating that the world should continue to be this bad." Or, they're being prescriptive and saying, "My characters are showing you how I think people should behave in certain circumstances and move forward."
So that's one thing that we always have to try and determine with a piece of art; although I think as you can imagine, with great art such as with Kerry James Marshall, we're getting a little bit of both going on, prescriptive and descriptive, because maybe it gets close to what – very odd person to bring up, but nonetheless – Theodor Adorno said about art, that there should always be attention with art, and there should always be some sort of unreconciled ambiguity that keeps you moving. And maybe that's because it's true with literature, too; you can't finish a good book and not ever think about it again, it keeps you going back to it on some level or another and returning to it.
So I'll sort of finish up my comments by simply saying, when I'm asked, "What is the role of the black artist?" my response is always, "Well, what is blackness? How are you defining blackness in this moment?"
And it's still a striking thing to me that here we are in the 21st century, and as you know, Western civilization likes to consider itself highly scientific, highly rational, unlike all those other crazy civilizations out there that do strange things and we don't understand why. But one of our biggest, almost sort of religious beliefs is in the fixity of racial difference; and the way we talk about race almost always suggests that race is biological, that it is something fixed in the body.
And for over 100 years scientists have been looking for the black gene, the thing that causes blackness. They've been looking for black DNA. They have not found any trace of it; but maybe this is one of those situations where science kind of needs a history book to realize that race was never a biological discovery. It was not a scientific discovery. It was instead a social, economic, and political argument that came up, especially at the moment when Western democracies were engaging in the slave trade, and later in colonialism. It was a way to say, “we actually aren't violating any human rights here, and we still are very much a democratic nation, because you have to understand that those people over there are different from us,” or as Thomas Jefferson himself said, "Nature has placed a veil of black onto the negro so that we know not to treat them as a human being." In other words, imagining blackness as a thing. And here we are a couple centuries later and we still do that. We still tend to imagine blackness as a thing.
So when we ask, "What is blackness and the role of the black artist?" I would say that in this moment, thinking about Kerry James Marshall, we have to become more specific about the type of blackness we mean, and one way we could describe it is, what I would call, Middle Passage blackness. It's a type of blackness experienced by US blacks who understand themselves as black through several centuries of history that begin with the forced entry into the Americas, enslavement, and then a very long complicated history of pushing forward for greater freedoms and having to deal with constant pushback on that at various moments. So this is the way we can think about blackness as a historical product.
There are plusses and minuses that I'll finish up with. There are a lot of plusses to this type of blackness, it carries an enormous moral and political weight, and it is absolutely central, I would argue, to understanding US history. We often think that things like African American literature, African American history: "Oh, it's all about black people, you know, I get it. I'm not really that interested in them, so I won't read it or look at it, et cetera.” But imagine trying to learn the history of this country, its morality and its politics, while skipping over the slave trade, or simply treating it as a blip, that there's nothing more really to know except, "We did this weird thing. It wasn't really us, it was mostly white southerners. And then finally we got fed up, and if you look at the movies you can see that the FBI told the South, 'You have to stop this.' But they went down and they just said, 'Stop it, you're being terrible.' Like we thought Lincoln was enough, and clearly –" you know. There's a lot more that has to be understood there.
But at the same time there can also be moments when we come back to this question about, "What is the role of the black artist in their society?" where we also have to understand that that type of history works a lot of times to make profound arguments and give us important insights. But there are times when it won't fully work, and that is because there are times when we're stuck with the fact that Middle Passage history is simply blackness as an object of history rather than an agent.
In other words, if we restrict our understanding of blackness only to this particular history – and, of course, I'm leaving out all the other types of blacknesses that are in the US that do not come through the Middle Passage; I just sort of want to do a shout out there, but I can't do a whole lecture. I think they'll come kick me off stage if I, you know, got up to the front, "Let me talk to you for two hours about this," because whiteness is the agent in Middle Passage blackness, because whiteness created the slavery.
Whiteness determined when slaves were going to be freed. Whiteness started the Civil War. Whiteness started Jim Crow. So if we limit our understanding of blackness only to that history, only as a product of that history, then we reduce black art to nothing more than a reaction to whiteness: "This is up here, because it's protesting what white people did.” It means white people are always in the background. So when engaging with Kerry James Marshall and looking at his work, we know that it goes much further than that.
Great work keeps you thinking; you don't simply glance at it and say, "Okay, I got it; terrible things happened," or, "This is so healing. Thank you, goodbye." So what we could really sort of get into in this moment is thinking about the other ways in which blackness exists as a cultural expression and not always necessarily only the culmination of history. I'm done.
Hilton Als: Beautiful ladies before broken, tired gentlemen.
Jacqueline Stewart: That's very diplomatic.
JS: That was really evocative, and I want to pick up on a couple of things that you mentioned, one having to do with the ways in which blackness needs to be defined. If we're going to have any kind of helpful, useful conversation about what we mean when we talk about black aesthetics or black art – and I think one of the things that makes art a place that is so productive in thinking about definitions of blackness is that we have to think about content and form; and this is one of the reasons why I think Kerry James Marshall's work is so evocative and cannot fully be appreciated in one glance, and just calls for so much unpacking, because he makes these really unique and, I think, powerful decisions about how to render blackness.
So one of the things that gets commented on the most, for example, is the blackness of the black subjects in his work; in choosing the darkest pigments to represent black skin color; and not creating a lot of variation. And we're always, you know, talking about how blackness is diverse, this is one of the ways we demonstrate that we're, you know, not a monolith. He creates a visual monolith; and in doing so, then he forces us to think about what we mean when we are calling ourselves black and when we call a subject black. That's a formal decision, and it's a way that an aesthetic question then becomes simultaneously this really important set of political questions and social questions.
I think another thing that he does that makes me think a lot about –
HA: And also, I think also – no, no, please – but I think that his work was such an impetus for people that came after him, people like Kara Walker who used blackness not only as a figure, but as an abstraction, that one of the wonderful things about his catalogue— which you should all buy—is that it really brings up his relationship to people like Al Held and other monochromatic painters, and what that meant in terms of the figure. And I think that Kara's blackness in her work is flat in a way – equal to the flatness of the whiteness, so that the drama of history doesn't get played out against or for one side or the other. She's showing a kind of general holocaust of experience.
And I think that Mr. Marshall has – it's sort of – he has a more different generation, and so he has a kind of more hopeful love for the people in his paintings that I think he really wants to convey to the viewer first. He wants us to love them as much as he loves us. And I think that the issue or the question or the reality of love is something that gets not articulated very much vis-á-vis his work or the work of black artists. Generally what we get is anger or degradation or oppression, and it makes you feel as if you're entering a gallery space or a museum with a meat cleaver in the back of your neck before you've even seen the work. And so what you've both been talking about really so energetically is, "How do we define in those possibilities certain human things like love or attention?" And he's paying enormous attention to black bodies, and in the way that, let's say, Zora Neale Hurston paid enormous attention to black bodies.
And this goes to your point; I think when it comes to black, for me, that when it comes to blackness as subject, really what I'm looking for is style more than ideology, or style as ideology, but not the ideological before I get to the magic of style. I think Zora Neale Hurston, her best writing was an essay about aspects of negro style, when she sort of breaks down how bodies and clothes and behavior comes together as a style.
And there's a wonderful documentary coming out soon about James Baldwin, and in the voice-over narration the man is reading a letter that he wrote to his agent saying, "I've been in Paris too long," talking about the Algerian situation, "I have to go back and see those people that look like no other people and dress like no other people in the world." And so I think if we can just claim a little bit of our individuality back, and also the love, then it's less monolithic a subject and much more sort of personal to who we all are.
JS: That documentary you just mentioned, I’m Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin is going to be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival.
HA: Oh, goody.
JS: So you should definitely check that out. Shout out.
JS: But I want to get back to something that you said about Kerry James Marshall's evocation of love for his subjects, and about humanness, humanity. Like the project of African American art for so long has been to demonstrate black humanity.
HA: To show, to show.
JS: Have a consciousness and have feelings. This then lays the groundwork or arguments for, you know, full citizenship or something, the creation of empathy from the white world, but also a kind of reflection that would be less dehumanizing than we see across the history of Western art. And I would love to hear what you guys think about this question of demonstrating humanity. This is an argument that I've made a lot in my really defenses of African American filmmakers, like the filmmakers of the LA rebellion movement. What they, I think, sought to do was to demonstrate the humanness of the black subject over and against a long legacy of racist representation in film. But we're at a moment now in critical theory where we're questioning the category of the human at all –
JS: – with animal studies, and with a kind of post-humanism. And the question is, "So where does the kind of thinking about race and where does the project of black liberation, how does it fare if we destabilize the notion of the human?" And it seems like this is something that black artists are really, you know, in this kind of generational split that you pointed to between Kerry James Marshall and someone like Kara Walker, that this might be animating some of the differences that we see in the way that they're approaching blackness.
HA: Well, historically, it's one of the differences, let's say, between Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Bluest Eye. In Uncle Tom's Cabin there are those bizarre scenes where the woman is cooking food and basically throwing it to children on the floor.
And I brought this up once to Toni Morrison. She said, "I know." She said, "When I read that I sort of blinked and I reread it," and she said, "and one of the ways that The Bluest Eye happened was that these children, there was no defender of these children, and there were no stories; they were just throwing vittles at these kids on the floor."
And I think when I weigh both things in my mind and heart, what I feel is there's been this kind of continuum where we don't get to articulate complexity as greatly as we live it. Just backstage talking about things, we've never met, but we were talking very intimately very quickly, and that is what, to me, is the most moving things that blackness allows you, to have a conversation about intimacy with one another very quickly, because there's no danger that we're going to hurt each other.
There's nothing I love more than sitting around with intelligent black people and complaining or questioning blackness. It's like my favorite thing. And one thing that I used to do with a very close friend of mine, who is from Chicago actually, was he was very stylish. He's a very stylish man of color. And one day I was complaining about hoodies and layers. I was just discussing hoodies and layers and stuff, and I said, "Gosh, you know, they – you know. Why is that a look?" And he just was very quiet for a minute and he said, "Hilton, we didn't wear bikinis in the desert," and I thought, "There you go." That was one of the first great lessons in what it means – style as a continuum and also as an expression of where our bodies are and what it requires to survive.
MW: I think I would want to stir the pot a bit with some tensions, because you're making me think about the ways in which – in the humanities right now there really is a bit of an ideological clash happening. And I love hearing these conversations about, "We need to discuss our humanness. We need to discuss the intimate. We need to embrace the nuance that makes up blackness,” because there is a very strong movement right now, it's called anti-blackness, which argues that, in fact, no, blackness is homogenous, and it will always be abject before whiteness; whiteness will always control it.
So at strange moments it actually begins to resemble, to my mind, to my very, you know, jaundiced eye, it begins to resemble sort of white supremacists ideology that white people and black people can't be near one another because white people will always dominate black people. And on one level I understand, or I think I understand, where the anti-blackness is coming from. There's that sense of desperation and anxiety from Black Lives Matter, from the police.
So we get into that question of, "So how do we continue to express our humanity in these moments of crisis with the fear that, 'Oh, people are watching us, and if they see our vulnerabilities they will take advantage of them.'"
HA: Michelle, say the last bit again. How do we help…
MW: How do we continue to explore and theorize nuances of blackness that show the vulnerabilities, that show the nuances –
MW: – that show even the ugly bits that all human being have –
HA: Oh, sure.
MW: – in that moment when we feel like we're in the spotlight and being constantly judged.
HA: Oh. Maybe sleep with more white people?
I do. I do my bit. But I feel there has to be – that's a very powerful question, other than my sex life. So aside from my sex life it's a very powerful question. I think – why is it a question though? Are we not men?
MW: Oh, I'm sure we are men.
MW: It's coming up in this moment in the humanities where a lot of scholars, especially graduate students are feeling –
HA: I've never heard of this before, I'm sorry.
MW: Oh, it is the big thing; start reading on it. At your own peril start reading about it.
MW: It's basically this argument –one of its biggest adherence has argued, "There's no point in getting up in the morning because I am black. I have no good reason to get up in the morning."
HA: Oh, no-no-no-no-no-no-no. That would be like an ass whipping from my mother. Are you kidding?
MW: I know. I know. Like our generation, right?
HA: "Get up. Get up. Get up. Get up.
MW: But it's a very big popular discourse in academe right now.
MW: And I think it's an attempt to respond to the activism, because I think there actually is that guilt of, "Oh, I'm black but I'm in the academy, therefore I'm not fully authentic."
HA: Oh, I see. These are black intellectuals in colleges talking – oh. But isn't that – that's just existentialism, isn't it?
MW: No, because I don't think there's a – you know, existentialism, at the end, it determines that, you know, we have to be ethical towards one another since all we have is this life, there is no afterlife.
HA: Oh, this is –
MW: This one's more nihilistic.
HA: Oh. Gee.
MW: Yeah, black pessimism.
HA: But black pessimism is just your family.
"What makes you think you can get up there, and blah-blah-blah.” Right? I'm sorry.
MW: I just wish I could bring you to campus to talk to everybody.
JS: Maybe some are here.
HA: I just don't know what to make of that. My mother's way too much in me to think that that's a thing that you can pay attention to, because if you have the skills and the means, why wouldn't you be out there in the world trying to make a difference no matter how painful it is. My father and my mother had a very tangential relationship to white people, but I never felt in particular that my father was powerless, or together that they were powerless. I remember once I was – it was elementary school, and the teacher said something really sort of homophobic to be me about how much I liked doing something, and I told my mother.
You know, you go home and you tell your mother stuff. And she said, "What?" and I repeated it, and she was on that phone in five seconds. And I swear it took maybe an hour for my father to get home, change, and for them to be at that school. I never felt that they didn't have any voice vis-á-vis their child. I felt, in the larger world, in retrospect, in seeing how their lives went, because of economic stuff they had fewer choices, a lot fewer choices than I did, but I never felt that they were powerless.
So the idea that I would engage in anything called black pessimism or pessimism of any sort is a way of discrediting them, or the people that came before them – my grandparents coming from Barbados and just working really hard in this community of black people for black people, it seems like a kind of smear on what they've given us, which is the ability to sit up here for instance.
MW: Jackie, how do you see this playing out in terms of film right now and the sort of artistic response through the moving image?
JS: Yeah. Well, what I see in work that I would classify as sort of afro-futurist or the afro-surrealist work—and I'm thinking about there's a program that was featured here, a black radical imagination of experimental films by emerging African, African American filmmakers; people like Terence Nance, Colleen Smith—is that I don't see that kind of pessimism or nihilism in that work, but I think it's responding to the same set of conditions that these folks are responding to, which is this ongoing sense of struggle, and particularly the ways in which certain promises of like the digital, for example, of a kind of broad participation in the creation of images in the ability to engage in a like universal civic discourse or something still has not produced the effects on improving the lives of black people in the world.
And I also think that there is a response to this. These are different responses to the same deplorable circumstances that are being recorded every day and broadcast every day, so that there's no surprise anymore that these things are happening, and there's not even any apprehension that people have about live streaming what's happening to them, and still there seems to be no impact. So I think that there are some black intellectuals, artists, younger people, who are trying to use those same tools to get us to look at those conditions in a different way. And I would hope the scholars would catch up –
HA: Or even in enormous pop stars like Beyoncé with working with so many different filmmakers on Lemonade, and I think that one of the great unspoken geniuses of that whole project was Octavia Butler and this idea of how – this goes back to the hoodies and desert issue of, "How does this continuum happen? How does it happen in one body?" I think that Zora was asking that too, right, was, okay, let's say it's not even a collective.
But let's say I'm seeing this woman in Harlem in 1937 walk down the street. Why is it that I've seen this woman my whole life, or historically, have seen this woman for many lives? I think in your field, Jackie, the medium is so powerful now that it's actually like a new, other language that it doesn't – that English, Spanish, French, Japanese can't keep up with the rapidity of what has been seen.
So I wanted to ask you this: how does if affect authentic American geniuses like Charles Barnett who can't get a movie made? How does that work now that we all are filmmakers, and then a great genius can't make a film?
JS: Oh, I think it's, so I've never heard him complain about this particular issue –
HA: I'm complaining for him.
JS: I complain for him, too.
HA: I told you I like complaining about black people, and for them too.
JS: Right, right. So to make an even more explicit connection, Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust, which will also be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, a new digital version of the film, which is gorgeous. Lemonade, Beyoncé's Lemonade, quotes that film rather extensively in the dress and the style and the way that it lingers on black women's beauty and hairstyles and so forth.
So on the one hand this has been a wonderful boon to Julie, because it has called attention to this work that she make in 1991, and there is always something, you know, flattering about homage. At the same time though, as much as I'm interested in what Lemonade is doing, formally it's a really weird thing, and commercially it's a weird thing. It's selling the album, it's selling this person.
HA: And also, she's using rage to help her husband's business.
JS: There's a feedback loop of title, and then their marriage as content and so forth. It's not doing the work that Julie Dash was seeking to do, which I think is a more profound kind of political and aesthetic work, which had to do with completely reimagining that you could picture blackness on screen, and black women on screen in particular – blackness through black women on screen.
So I'm sure there will be some frustration on Julie's part that even after all this it doesn't mean she gets a new movie deal, that her sensibility was mined in a way that raises lots of important questions, but then doesn't give her the material conditions to do the work that she is –
HA: Yeah, she gets to be a footnote to stardom.
JS: So I think that there are ways this could be a lesson for, you know, the students that we interact with to think about citation and to think about what their own possibilities of success can and should mean for the traditions that they're drawing from.
HA: That's fascinating, because this goes back to the issue of originality. And how do we teach children to not crib, but to use their source material themselves to make original work to have – wouldn't it be amazing if there was too much work for us to look at, if there were too many great artists.
How do we encourage the children to overdo it? I think one way, certainly, is to, through our reading and what we know of the world, to encourage them to find a language for all aspects of themselves that they can access at this time, right. Whether it's painful or joyous or magical or realistic, there has to be a way for us to help access the kind of magic, really, of being artists.
I think Kerry Marshall is one of those people who actually – there was everything against him as a person. He came to Los Angeles, the second great migration, he just was an artist. And so how do we make people not construct artistry or intellectual life, but to live it? I don't know how we do that except by example. Do you think it's by example?
MW: Well, I think there's a great paradox here, because on one level we're lamenting Julie Dash's message being corrupted and not getting out. So we have that notion of the black artist being harnessed to a particular black-specific message, and I'm sympathetic to it.
And then at the same time we're wondering, "Well, how do we get more black children to produce art?" And the first thing I was thinking of was, "Well, they probably have to be unharnessed from the notion of, 'Okay, go create some black art. Like that's not black enough, that has no residency.'"
HA: No, I want them to create you are, you know, the art of you.
MW: And then how many of them get shown in galleries, right, if it's not black enough or doesn't –
HA: Well, here's the thing; there's always economic considerations. But if there's volume, people can't ignore you. If there's volume, they can't ignore you because there's volume.
MW: You mean volume of voices?
HA: Volume of voices, volume of work, volume of people. This is what I was discussing with Jackie about how black culture has rarely if ever in this country been viewed as a currency; whereas coming out of the European tradition or Mediterranean tradition, Jewish culture has always viewed it as a currency because it was a way of speaking, of speaking underground, of surviving and speaking underground in trading, right. So why is it that black American culture has never put itself forward as a currency, of having value? Does this mean that we are so debased that we don't believe in our own currency, or is it because of the power structure?
MW: I want to say a couple things to that, and then I know we have to open it up to questions. You know, part of that may actually get back to the definition of blackness, and one of the differences we've seen between people whom we could argue are quite literally African American. Their parents were born and raised in Africa and they came to the US, and then those African Americans that identify as Middle Passage black, because, like Jewish culture, those who are literally African American can understand themselves as productive. They have a culture that they belong to, they have a particular history, and so they automatically understand and see the value of it. It's more complicated with Middle Passage blackness, because blackness was an identity that was invented by racists to justify all these things. So in so many different venues blackness is simply a reaction to something. And, as you said, it's a record of humiliations, abjectness, et cetera. So I can see that as part of the problem.
HA: Definitely part of the problem, and I think also this goes back to the children – we have to show up for the children. There was, at one point – I hope you find this amusing – I was going to write a story about a kid who is the first – he plays polo, and I had seen like a little film clip about him, and I went – he was playing a polo match in – he's from Philadelphia. I think all five siblings at one point were in jail except for him. His mother was a single mother. He told me this; we were just emailing and chatting on the telephone, and he was very like this with me.
He was playing on Long Island with his mentor who plays for Ralph Lauren actually, and I had never been to a polo match in my life; and a friend drove me out there, and it was about a three-hour drive. And when I got out of the car, the look on this kid's face; I had shown up. And so he was able to play, but also to encourage.
I could say, "Let's have lunch next time." He came to New York for lunch. We have to show up. Not to say that in black families they don't show up – black fathers or black mothers don't show up – but the point is that the outside world of authority, which is what we all have to some degree, has to give them that imprint of value.
JS: I totally agree, and I think that this is also an important dimension of thinking about the history of being commodities, and so value being ascribed to blackness or black labor by a white power structure. And I think one of the many legacies that we see in terms of cultural value is that – this is like such a truism – that black audiences will value a black artist once the white world values the black artist. And you certainly see that in like art collecting, right, not across the board totally.
But there's a certain kind of cache that a black artist can gain, and then that's when people—their own people, the people who need to be showing up from the beginning—begin to show up. And that's also when it becomes –
HA: There's a real need. I mean that speaks to a real need. I remember as a kid going – I have four older sisters, and one way that they could get rid of me was to take me to the movies. And I remember one sister in particular would say, "Oh, is it a Susan Hayward movie? She's my girl." And I'd watch the movie, or they'd say, "Oh, you've got to see Jane Fonda in Clue.”
And I watched the movie, and what I remember and retain from those situations was, they were looking for something that spoke to them a reality – not the fantasy of making, but the reality of being. And so one of the great things about Kerry is that we're dealing with these really high standards of aesthetics. But I think from my experience, what black audiences are looking for is something that shows up for them, that connects to them and the idea of black reality, not black pessimism. I want to go to that school and beat some butt. But anyway . . .
MW: And I think we're going to open it up for questions.
AM: Hi. We've got a couple of microphones, so if you wouldn't mind raising your hand we'll bring them around. All right, that's you right here.
Questioner #1: Hello. So I am really interested in the idea of like the black –
HA: Sorry, you just have to articulate a little bit clearer; I can't hear you.
Questioner #1: All right. Can you hear?
HA: Yes, now it's good.
Questioner #1: Awesome. So I'm really interested in this idea about the black pessimism and everything that you've brought up a couple times, because as a student in a predominately white institution as well like, you know, I understand that a bit. Like seeing – you know, like there's not a lot of opportunities to view things; and when you're surrounded by things like that it kind of makes sense in a way. Now I'm not saying that everybody should just roll up in bed and like never come out of the universe again, but there kind of has to be a balance where we recognize the trauma and stuff that happens from being constantly combatted against in a way. So how would you suggest recognizing that there are factors that we need to recognize in a way while still pushing forward and creating art, and recognizing the value of black art?
MW: I'll jump into that real quick. One of the things I go for that I often tell students or when I'm giving talks is I say, you know, "I didn't get into black studies because I find black people the most fascinating people in the world," even though they are. But it's because it's one of the best ways to come to understand the world.
We do not have a wall around us where our experiences have nothing to do with the rest of the world. So when it comes to questions about trauma, violence, et cetera, I believe in things, for example, when we talk about Middle Passage slavery, we also need to open up the discussion to the fact that slavery was one of the most common forms of labor in the world, and horrifically, it still is. We have slaves in the United States. We have mostly sex slaves, but there are also domestic slaves. There are people who are enslaved on plantations picking fruit, picking lettuce, picking tomatoes; and when you go to Burger King, when you go to McDonald's, that's slave labor. When you have a bar of chocolate, that's slave labor.
So one of the things I actually want to get at is, we need to talk about the ways in which people are traumatized; and in talking about black trauma, we can open that up so easily to how the world exercises trauma on a variety of bodies. So we are significant not just because people should only care about black bodies, but because quite often the most vulnerable people in society are the ones that get hit first and hardest with radical change in society, the move towards violence. So that's what I would actually want to bring up is not build a wall around it and say, "Let's focus on our trauma," but, "This is how our trauma is significant in so many different ways."
HA: And also I think to your point about speaking, I think finding for yourself, as an artist and a thinker, the words that articulate your particular voice and experience and emotional life within that trauma or that sadness that you're articulating. I don't mean to minimize the feeling that people have of feeling defeated, but isn't art supposed to be an act of defiance? Isn't speaking supposed to be an act of defiance? I don't know how to do it in any other way – I'm not supposed to do it, so that's why I do it.
JS: That's right. I would just add to that that this turn I think could be really interesting if it had sarcasm or irony, or if it was used as – to articulate a positionality to then engage in something like institutional critique of the university, let's say. Like what if we all just stop thinking; you let us in, you gave us the minority scholarship, and then we just sit here. There are ways in which this could be a kind of 2.0 version of the origins of African American studies, where if the first was about like demanding a certain kind of inclusion – you know, physical inclusion, curricular inclusion – then we could talk about how there's a certain purchase that one could have with an afro-pessimism that then makes the institution question why they claim to prize something like diversity.
HA: But can't we be pessimistic towards the institution rather than ourselves?
JS: Sure, yes.
HA: Doesn't that make more sense? I mean afro-pessimism shouldn't really be – I think it feel self-directed to some degree that I don't like. But let's be pessimistic about the institution, which I always am.
JS: That definitely needs to happen. And as someone who's been on the Diversity Counsel at the University of Chicago, year three now –
HA: I just talked myself out of tenure, but whatever.
JS: But I guess it just strikes me that this could be the kind of thing that art does. This could be a kind of performative moment that's different from the ways that protest normally looks.
HA: Which go in circles often instead of going forward.
JS: Exactly, and doesn't create change.
Questioner #2: Good afternoon. So much going on in my head about your conversation.
HA: Slow down.
Questioner #2: Just to make it quick, how does jazz music demonstrate blackness? I mean it seems like you guys are trying to talk about how we negotiate blackness, how we're trying to be black. But jazz is the original American art form, and Miles is Miles, Train is Train; they're not trying to negotiate or perform blackness, they're just – it's their freedom. So how does jazz – and I'm a jazz musician myself, and when I'm on stage, you just get in a moment. I mean we could talk about the black church, and this and that. But how does jazz fit within this context of expressing blackness?
HA: I don't think jazz – first of all, it is a powerful American art form, but it doesn't exist outside of its time. There's this footage that you should look up; it's Dizzy and Parker, and they're on a television show, and the announcer comes out and says, "Okay, so what are you boys going to play today?" and the look on Charlie Parker's face – and Dizzy steps in and says the title, because that was his role in their relationship was, "Please don't fuck this up." And so the look on Charlie Parker's face is something that each one of us can understand and has experience.
So I don't think that it's just about being in the zone of music, I think it's actually bringing in the atmosphere that is shaping that pain that we see on his face, or the humor. There's this great – I think it's called Billie Holiday – it's outtakes and things, and she's talking about singing a little bit, and she says that it doesn't make sense to her not to bring in the day that she had when she was singing. She says that, "If it was a bad day or whatever, that was the mood that was part of the music." And so in my experience, the great, great artists of jazz – jazz artists are almost like reporters in a way about the room, about the people that they're playing with, and about themselves.
Great Cecil Taylor, I was trying for – you'll love this story as a musician – I tried for two years to write a profile of Cecil for The New Yorker, and it was profound because he made no sense at all in two years of interviews. And then I recall, I really sort of thought about it and I was like, "Why should he? Why should he be in the audience for this magazine, he's an audience to himself. He was shunned by the jazz world, and he has his own language.”
But one of the things that he would always do was laugh, because there was always something humorous in the world to laugh at, to counteract that incredible pain of being a black gay artist in the equivalent of hip-hop, you know, there was nobody else living like that. So I agree with you that jazz has been so fundamentally important to me, but I don't think that it means shutting the world out at all.
MW: Oh, I'll add a couple things to that too and go out on a limb. As I said before, one of the things I do is I theorize blackness, and one of the things that has upset people is I've argued, "Look, if blackness is not biological, if blackness is not a thing, then that means it's not something that's fixed on the body, it's not a passive presence. Blackness is something that has to be made actively present.” So if you are playing jazz and, say, your family is gathered and listening to you, they may or may not be bringing blackness actively into that room. They may instead be like, “Oh, I can hear that beer he had this morning and it doesn't sound quite as good,” or, “Oh, he stayed up all night helping the kids with their homework, we can tell.” Or they may be bringing it in. I think about this with – one of my favorite jazz musicians is actually Anita O'Day, white woman from Chicago; and one of my favorite performances is when she sings “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
MW: And so here is a white woman singing a jazz song about a gorgeous black woman – in certain ways – and so you suddenly have blackness show up, even though visually blackness isn't even there.
HA: But isn't that incredible. It's sort of like the erotics of her voice in that – it's like she is sleeping with Sweet Georgia Brown. And I had the pleasure once of meeting her, and believe me, it was not out of the question that she would have slept with Sweet Georgia Brown. But the thing was that she was also – she was 80-something when I met her, still performing, but she was alive to everything in the room, and she could barely do it anymore. But her body was there and it was like watching the great Rosemary Clooney onstage who had been one of Duke Ellington's great vocalists and had incredibly rich, almost sort of saxophone sound. She could barely do it anymore, but she could give you the energy in the room and give it back to you like nobody's beeswax. And it's just that, being open no matter how much pain there is, being open to that experience to give it back to us.
MW: That's the complexity of blackness, because I have been at talks where a white professor has stood up and actually said, "Jazz is not black, it's American." And then suddenly it's like blackness looms large in that room the moment he says it. Like the attempt to banish it brings it in. But, yeah, to take to your point, it's a case of, on, blackness is something that has to become an active presence, it's not passively there.
HA: No, it's not passive. This is such a great thing. There's this wonderful Gordon Parks essay on jazz and it merely about Duke Ellington, and, speaking of not passive presence, is about race. They were about – they were in San Francisco about to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, which had just been done, and they said, "Duke, wake up, we're going to cross the Golden Gate Bridge." And he looked up, got up, wiped his eyes and looked up and he said, "White people are amazing," and went back to sleep.
So that's the kind of activity that I like.
Questioner #3: Earlier in the discussion you guys were talking about the importance of black –
HA: Could you raise your hand, I can't see.
Questioner #3: Right over here.
Questioner #3: Right over here, all right. Earlier in the discussion you guys were talking about the importance of black art being displayed, and people creating this art, and I was wondering: How would you suggest that somebody inspires people to create art? How does somebody persuade somebody to create something that is so vague as our like, making movies, creating paintings, taking photographs? Like how does one persuade somebody to do something as vague as that? And, in addition, what does that do? What does that do for the black community if there is more black art? How does that help them? How does help their case in general?
HA: Well, there is such a thing as talent, right. You begin with that talented person. That's – their currency is that they have something that maybe they don't even see but you know is talent, is a voice, is a struggle to speak in some way. And I think once you have that raw stuff, you can guide them to what they need.
There's a great story in this Kerry book of him not registering for a particular art class, because he knew they were going downhill, and he was just a kid, and so he finds another means to study. But he had a million dollars in his pocket without having any money at all, which was his gift. And you just know that talented kid when you walk into the room; they can be the most retiring, recessive person. But once they give you that piece of paper or they show you that photograph or that thing that they've been working on, you know who they are.
JS: And then, I think there are a number of ways in which we as individuals, as groups, need to think about how to create structures for the development of talented people who might be inclined to create art – so, you know the deplorable conditions of our public schools in the city. We know it happens everywhere that arts programs get cut—two were cut from my daughter's school this year. But then there are also lots of very local ways in which we can materially support artists. And so if we do believe that art is an important dimension of community development, individual expression, then I think we just have to kind of like put our money and our time where our mouth is.
Questioner #4: Hello. I'm really struck by a conversation I'm hearing about –
HA: Is that Huey?
Questioner #4: I'm sorry?
HA: Is your name Huey?
Questioner #4: No, my name is Derek McPhatter.
HA: Oh. Hi, Derek. Okay.
Questioner #4: And the question I was going to ask was – so we've talked a lot about the individual black artists and also about black history and like a collective experience of black art, and I would love to hear more, maybe jumping off from the Julie Dash/Lemonade moment, or some other moment, about what does like a responsible multigenerational black art continuum look like – if you could talk about that. And I'm sure you could talk about it in the film or some other medium, but I would love to hear like how would a younger artist appropriately use citation, for example, in their work? And I also want to throw into that, hip-hop already samples; it's not always interpreted in the way that it works. But if you could just talk about that too I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.
JS: So, yeah. How do you footnote your sources in a work of art? If I could spend five years writing footnotes to Kerry James Marshall's paintings, that would be a dream, because they're so rich with layers and layers of historical reference. And it seems like he is engaging in a kind of practice that encourages that kind of curiosity: "Where did this come from?" And I don't know that Lemonade is engaging that kind of curiosity. Instead, we're being struck by the power of discrete images.
HA: And the pyrotechnics of stardom.
JS: Yes. So there's a kind of thoughtfulness that doesn't really suit the mode in which she's working, but she has the kind of celebrity power where I think she could do the kind of work that would encourage that. So I think part of it has to do with finding ways for our younger artists to know where the sources that are circulating around, where they come from; we could do a better job of that. And then also thinking about how to create formal strategies, or just sort of suggest formal strategies, that give some value to honoring those past references. And I think it's a complicated project.
HA: When I was a kid I used to label photographs, like write the names of people on the back of pictures, because I was always so frightened by the idea that someone would be forgotten. And so I think – I actually don't have the patience to run an archive; but through writing and bringing in as many sources as I can to an essay or review makes me feel that no one is getting forgotten. And so when something gets cut, generally I would rather my own thought get cut rather than saying – I'm trying to think of something recent – oh, like Madlib, you know, writing about Madlib, and how his sampling is really a kind of writing. And it turns out that he's a huge reader. So, he's using his reading and his writing with turntables.
So just finding the ways in which – finding the people who use art the way that interests you; but also when you do that, I think it's very important to find out, “what are they using discretely or indiscriminately from the past?” The people that I'm attracted to have the same impulse that I had as a kid, which is that nobody should be forgotten.
Questioner #5: Hi, I'm Natalie over here, up at the top.
HA: Can you raise your hand? I'm sorry. Okay.
Questioner #5: I see this phrase online a lot: "I wish white people loved black people as much as they love black culture." So could you talk about the outrage of appropriation?
MW: You know, this gets interesting for me, because on one level the basic solution to appropriation, right, would be in incredible copyright laws, not unlike when I hear what the Maori have, which is whenever the government of New Zealand, or any group in New Zealand wants to use something that even resembles a Maori symbol, they have to pay the copyright. But then, of course, what you have is this difficulty of the fact that culture can't be harnessed, shackled down, bordered. When people like something, they borrow it, they use it.
I remember getting so angry in third grade when I wrote what I thought was a brilliant story, and then all the other little kids started riffing on my story, and the professor told me, the teacher told me, it's like, "Well, that's just the sincerest form of flattery." And that is not the sincerest form of flattery.
The sincerest form of flattery is to say, "I really liked your story and I'm inspired by it, and I'm going to give you credit for it." But we can also think about the ways I think as we just talked about where black folks borrow from other black folks and don't credit them. So I think it's that broader question. But I'll leave it to you guys.
HA: I just think it makes us better, because once somebody gets turned onto the trick, you want to turn a different trick. And so it's been – you know, I can be sitting in The New Yorker office and someone will say, "Oh, I really liked so-and-so thing," and I did that. They'll just tell you. And I'm like, "Oh, okay." And then in my heart and in my head, it's what my mother told me, "You just have to work harder now and do something even more outrageous."
That is what I was taught; and it's very tiring, and it can be very daunting. But it has given me a kind of resilience, and also made – forced me into the world of my imagination where no one else can go but me. And that's – you know, fuck it if they want to steal from that, they're still in my head and heart. So they're just borrowing.
It's like when I was little there was a mimeograph machine, and you could run things, and it would just get fainter and fainter as you ran things off. And that's really – what appropriation does is that it mimeographs the original thing, and it gets fainter and fainter as it goes on. And that's a kind of joke, because what we are doing in our imagination and hearts is getting deeper, and the color is getting deeper and deeper and deeper.
I think that that's one of the things that Kerry is doing in his paintings is making black figures the target and the star of history, these people who dress like no one else and whose bodies are like no one else. I just think that that's a profound thing to be is completely different from any other persons in the world. And so that's also a responsibility, but it's also an incredible honor. And if you can take the hideous pain that comes with it, or survive the hideous pain that comes with it, I should say, with humor, who cares about those people. They're just kind of like faint.
There's another Duke Ellington story. He was playing at the Rainbow Room in New York, and there was a group of white people who called him over, and they were saying, "Oh, you're so great, Duke." And he leans over and looks at all the people at the table and he says, "I was onstage wondering what that wonderful pastel quality was in the room." And so it's just a pastel quality: "Keep going; get the colors deeper."
MW: Although I will bring up a terrible example, because I'm taught to argue, I'm not taught to be helpful.
HA: And I love you for it.
MW: Thank you. But I'll sit over here a little bit.
MW: You're also making me think of a case like Elvis Presley, you know, who borrowed so much.
HA: Oh, don't even go there.
MW: And it's now at the point, where rock-n-roll is understood to be a white music form, and black people who perform it are kind of looked at as, "Oh," and it's like, "it used to be a black bar."
HA: I know. But it's also what you've brought in. But what you've brought in is also something that I love so much about the people who do acknowledge being the appropriators as the heroes, right. To me, when I was a kid, I'll never get over this moment. It was two moments, and both with Lily Tomlin, where she did a routine with Richard Pryor where she, not through anything but voice and a turban, portrayed a black woman talking to him, and she was the blackest woman I had seen on TV until that point. That was in 1971.
The second thing that she did was in a monologue at the beginning of these specials that they stopped showing; and they also did not want her to kiss him at the end of the show. And if you watch it, she kisses the fuck out of him at the end of the show, and he just falls out like that. But she says – she starts to dance a little bit and she's snapping her fingers and she says, "I was the best cheerleader in Detroit, Michigan,” pause, “the best white cheerleader in Detroit, Michigan." Those are the gifts that some of these people can give us to let us know that there's a context and not this continual kind of rip off.
JS: I also want to go back to something you said about the humor that's necessary and the strength that is necessary to be the one in these spaces for whom these cycles of appropriation are an everyday reality. So on the one hand, I love your mimeograph analogy. At the same time though, to be the original or to be the kind of black pioneer in the room – so I'm picturing you in The New Yorker offices, for example.
You're there, and that's hugely significant.
HA: It's gotten through, I have to say, the concerted efforts of David Remnick. It's gotten so much better than when I started there. When I first started there, I sat next to Joseph Mitchell who hadn't written anything in 20 years. So that was the hope for me. And he was so lovely in saying, "Oh, I used to know so-and-so," and it was, again, that one person, that one person outside of the nucleus of The New Yorker who was an outsider there who gave me the courage to keep going. But me there is – it's a very interesting experience; let's put it that way.
AM: We've got time for just one more question.
Questioner #6: Hi. There was a comment that you made earlier that got my mind rolling as everybody else's minds have been spinning.
HA: Which person are you talking to?
Questioner #6: The lady in the middle; but all of you really. It's one big question for everyone. So you were talking about the issue of slavery and that it's a contemporary present thing as well, and it made me start thinking about a quote from Toni Morrison where she was talking about how that with blackness there will always be people demanding that we explain ourselves, that we explain why this is bad, why this is wrong, why this is not okay, why we're angry about stuff, and that that's a distraction, because there will always be another thing to explain. And in context of what you were saying I was thinking that, you know, we don't demand that survivors of the holocaust explain that there have been other deaths in the world, that they were not the only loss. They can claim that as identity and hold America accountable and the world accountable for that. We've seen the emergence of people who survived the Japanese internment camps, again, claiming as identity and pointing that back at America and saying, you know, "You owe us for this." There were reparations for that. This is something we need to pay attention to.
But in that same context of distraction, it seems like whenever we talk about, you know, slavery, and particularly that Middle Passage blackness, there becomes the, "Well, but what about the Native Americans? They were treated far worse than you guys were. And what about the modern day slaves? There's still slavery, and what about that?" as opposed to focusing on that piece of our identity, and that that is, to your point, a big part of American identity, you know, because we didn't just happen to enslave ourselves and come here; that was part of what America was doing at the time. So I'm wondering how that fear of addressing it outside of the context of everyone else's pain and suffering, where that plays into art and creation and all of that.
HA: Oh, wow, that's a good question. That goes with what Jackie was just asking about The New Yorker. It's interesting. I didn't mean to make a joke, but I can't help myself. But I feel responsible to tell. I feel responsible in that job, because – Diane Arbus once said that she felt that she would photograph things that she didn't think other people saw. And I feel this goes back to the social responsibility, and then there's the aesthetic responsibility. I think that's what you're saying. It's like, how much do we have to be the beacon of something?
I feel that I have to do it to tell those stories, to get Madlib in, to say that Maggie Nelson has value, to say, "No, Beyoncé's not the greatest, but Octavia Butler might be the greatest," or to argue and refute these issues that we're talking about this afternoon. So I feel responsible in that way, and then I turn it off once I have the assignment, and that's when the writer happens.
MW: On one level we can never get into hierarchies of oppression. Trying to quantify oppression is a losing game. But I would disagree with you in terms of what you're saying about American Indians and the holocaust. I don't think they have more sympathetic audiences.
As you may know, at the end of World War II, Jews liberated from the death camps were kept in the death camps because they had nowhere else to put them. White Europeans, Gentiles, were given reparations, Jews were not, even though they had lost the majority of their family. And in 20 years of polls after World War II, when the Germans were asked, "Who do you blame for World War II?" the response was overwhelmingly, "The Jews. The Jews are to blame." And as you know, there are also holocaust deniers.
But it also plays out with American Indians as well. When we joke as African Americans about wanting our 40 acres and a mule it was promised to us at, you know, emancipation, where is it? American Indians say, "Whose 40 acres are you talking about?"
So one thing we also have to recognize is when we talk about slavery we also have to talk about that we came into a land where other people were decimated to make room. And that's not to say that one group has it worse or one group has it better. But it's to say that in order to get at the accuracy of history, we have to bring in other groups, and we can't built that wall; we have to talk about all these other things.
It's all relative, but I think African Americans have been rather stunningly successful in getting the story of Middle Passage slavery out. I think about the fact that it was only – it was less than two centuries ago where we came in in the worst way possible. We came in as objects, not even seen as human. And how far we have come, how all the changes we've seen, without claiming that now we are living the life of Riley; I wouldn't claim that at all. But at the same time we can think about the ways in which our story intersects with all of these other stories out there.
And we also, I would argue, in certain moments, not always, but in certain moments, we need to make room, because our Middle Passage story is not actually the biggest. There were 100 million black people in Brazil, 30 million black people in the US. It was one of the mainstays. But you have George Bush, you know, W, asking the President of Brazil at the time, "You have black people here?" you know. It's like, "Whoa."
HA: Exactly. It's like why don't you give him or anybody a novel by Machado de Assis and say, “This is a black dwarf, poor, who reinvented the novel.” So where are those stories? Those stories are essential, as you say, to our understanding of that wall being broken down, not just in terms of American blackness, but world blackness.
JS: I'm really captivated by the term you use of explaining, like the burden of explanation, which I think all of us have felt many times, feeling as though more is being asked of us to explain why we feel the way we do to legitimize certain kinds of – sure. But at the same time, explanation – and maybe because my job is a professor, like I explain things for a living – and I think that there is a way in which we can think about art making as a kind of response to the demand to explain. Like you can create works that are overt in the ways that they address certain kinds of historical, political questions, or you can suggest things and withhold certain information and require that your audience put pieces together.
So I don't know that I would entirely resist explanation as such, but instead see that kind of discursive role as something that's actually quite useful and that you can use in these really powerful pedagogical ways, whether you're teaching a class or you're dealing with your coworkers and feeling out what people know.
It's also – it's a therapeutic thing to do. We don't fully understand ourselves. We don't know all these dimensions of our history, and we certainly haven't processed all of it. So explanation can also be something that can be cathartic, can be something that we can use to our advantage in the ways that we come to understand ourselves, and then how we choose to interface with other people.
HA: And it's fun to know more than other people.
AM: On that note . . .
HA: Thank you.
AM: I want to say thank you to Jacqueline, Michelle, and Hilton on behalf of the MCA, and thank you all so much for joining us, and for such a rich and wonderful conversation. Have a good afternoon.