Kara Walker-- The Negress and the Writer

Kara Walker-- The Negress and the Writer

By Michele Wallace (December 19, 2010)

    Since Europeans in every region were enslaved in Roman and early medieval times (to say nothing of Asia and Africa, and since Barbary corsairs continued to enslave white Europeans and Americans well into the nineteenth century) it seems highly probable that if we could go back far enough in time, we would discover that all of us reading these words are the descendants of both slaves and masters in some part of the world.  It was not until the seventeenth century that even New World slavery began to be overwhelmingly associated with people of black African descent—as opposed to Native Americans.”

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World Oxford UP 2006, p. 54

    Sometimes the tools one uses to consider a topic are making it seem more depressing and hopeless than it actually is. Something like this may be going on with Kara Walker’s highly imaginative yet morose and obsessively negative (some would say “dark”) meditations and variations on the history of slavery, racism and racial stereotypes. 
     I offer in evidence for such a suggestion the extraordinary accumulation of research and data on the progression of the African slave trade in the New World in general and on the history of the Peculiar Institution in the New World and in the North American colonies in particular.  Such research and speculation has largely surfaced not coincidentally in the three or four decades since the political and legal breakthroughs of the Civil Rights Movement.
   I offer in evidence as well the accumulated knowledge of folklorist and collector of Negrophilia Zora Neale Hurston.  Her beat as a writer, performer and playwright was largely composed of intersections of stereotype and otherwise “authentic” soundings and viewings of African American folk life in the Southern U.S. Jamaica, the Virgin Islands and Haiti back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, at the veritable height of the hegemony of Jim Crow politics and segregation in the South. Like Walker, Hurston could not resist pumping those pesky little “stereotypes” for their residual richness and vigor.
    In the case of the scholarship on colonial North American slavery and the slave trade, there are new areas of knowledge that might benefit Walker in her undertakings although I suspect her readings may be both vast and deep.  Yet any mere inventory of the revelations and discoveries of this field would not necessarily be sufficient to render apparent its possible relevance to the re-mobilization of antiquated cultural forms and artifacts. Rather I propose a particular reading, a particular synthesis of the scholarship largely culled from the pages of the brilliant and masterful recent book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by the Yale Professor Emeritus and U.S. Historian David Brion Davis. Those readers who may have similar interests could do worse than to sit down and read this entire book.
     On the evolution of racial stereotypes and their symbiotic relationship with slavery, Davis has written,
Recent scholarship has immensely enriched our knowledge of medieval European stereotypes of the supposedly black-skinned serfs and peasants (who were darkened by dirt and by labor in the sun); of early Arab stereotypes of black African slaves (millions of whom were transported from East Africa to the Near East); and of the story of the biblical Noah, whose curse subjected all the descendants of Canaan, the son of Noah’s own misbehaving son Ham, to the lowliest form of eternal bondage.

     Owing to the mixed messages and the religious culpability at every step of the development of the African Diasporic slave trade, this absurd business about Noah, Ham and the descendants of Canaan as mentioned in the Bible actually continued to be regarded as conclusive for centuries in the Christian world.
  Or as Davis further writes,

The confusing biblical passage became for many centuries a major justification for black slavery.”
 Thus a succession of popes in the mid-14th century, confronted by the threatening expansion of Islam, saw enslavement as an instrument for Christian conversion and gave religious approval to the Portuguese ventures along the Western coast of Africa, including the shipment of African slaves back to Europe.
    There is to consider as well the still inexplicable survival of African American slaves from generation to generation while practically all the rest of the slaves throughout the Diaspora perished in less than a generation, even as they were being constantly replaced by an endless flood of bodies transported from various portions of the African continent.  Even though colonial North America “received only 5 to 6 percent of the African slaves shipped across the Atlantic,” nonetheless it was these persons who “developed an almost unique natural and rapid rate of population growth, freeing the later US from a need for further African imports.” On the other hand, vast numbers of African slaves “were imported and disappeared without a trace in some lands such as Mexico and Peru because of the harsh exploitation of largely male slaves.”
    As we reconsider this vast terrain of human despair and misery spanning centuries, it still seems all the more remarkable that concepts of freedom, emancipation and the liberation of the slave from bondage would make their appearance precisely in the late 18th century, early 19th century world of the North American and Caribbean colonies in which slavery was so crucial a form of labor and production. This collective and politicized longing for freedom and liberty, which simultaneously inflicted both slave masters and slaves did not just spring up whenever and wherever there were slaves, but rather first on the occasion of the American Revolution, and then in the connections between the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution. 
  As central a figure as President John Quincy Adams apparently provided secret help to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s rebellion against Napolean because he saw this revolt of former slaves as he had also seen the abrogated rights of the kidnapped persons on the Amistad when he found it necessary to appeal their case in the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis writes,
“I emphasize the truly revolutionary meaning of the Civil War, reinforced by the fact that the Union confiscated without compensation a hitherto legally accepted form of property that was worth an estimated 3.5 billion in 1860 dollars (about 68.4 billion in 2003 dollars).  Most other emancipations in the Western Hemisphere provided slaveholders with compensation, often in the form of unpaid labor from the free-born children or slaves who were required to work until age 18 or a good bit older . . .”

   Or as historian of the South David Blight points out in Race and Reunion, “the revolutionary meaning of the Civil War was repressed and transformed from the 1880s to the late 1950s.” In other words,
this was a ‘memory’ in which race and slavery were never mentioned. Fortunately the tradition of denial never wiped out an “emancipationist” tradition, kept alive by such black writers as Du Bois, which helped inspire the civil rights movement in the 1960s and which transformed at least our academic understanding of the rise and fall of racial slavery.”

     In the universe that Walker creates, it sometimes feels as though none of this was ever so.  Her stories, which are all about race and anger, tend toward the cryptic, elliptical, evasive and inscrutable. They would seem to force into existence a narrative obsessively postmodern in its lack of diachronic development or cues concerning the genealogy of black stereotypes. Only the most perverse unloving, un-gentle kinds of ostentatiously pornographic sexual contact between masters, mistresses and slaves are imagined or allowed.
    In this picture Walker constructs, there really is no sign of a polemic either yeah or nay.  No emancipation or Niagara Movement or Civil Rights Movement or NAACP Legal Defense Fund or Brown versus the Board of Education. It is not exactly a Ku Klux Klan pep rally either but there is, nonetheless, a disturbing lack of guidance and enlightenment offered on the subject.

    This is not to say we as a nation have begun to take sufficient stock of the damage that racism has done, or the ways in which we are still culpable in its various ongoing successes.  Yet it is to say emphatically that a truly impressive amount of argumentation and empirical evidence has accumulated, which would tend to indicate the following three things:
1) the racism, oppressions and genocide we African Americans suffered was not an isolated or unique event in human history;
2) there was nothing remotely sexy or freaky about slavery for the most part, and to find in it unnecessary entertainment, to suggest that it was so would seem to be the psychological refuge largely of audiences who wish to deny both the collective guilt of the history of slavery, as well as the triumph of democratic thought and the enfranchisement of the descendants of the former slaves.
3) Maybe we black folk don’t collectively behave for the most part much like a free people but there is a qualitative difference between choosing to regard the politic process with apathy, and not having any choice at all. 

      I am not, myself, an artist, but someone who has been very carefully raised by artists to be the ultimate consumer, audience of and participant in the arts, and therefore to always have in the back of my mind the boundary between artist and audience that the Western version of the concept of the artist presupposes.  This is not just a useless exercise of art for art’s sake but rather an invitation to think deeply enough about the sheer breathe of work and situations the category of the arts was crafted to encapsulate.
   Who can forget for more than a moment the outstanding cases of art rejected in its own times, which could have been easily destroyed or doomed to the trash bin of history for a range of reasons too diverse to enumerate?  Our sincerest hope must always be that this stuff finds its way to safety until somebody can figure out what there is in there that was once invisible to the naked eye but which will subsequently become so blindingly obvious that the entire world will celebrate.
    Everyone has their own favorite examples but I think of William Blake, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka in literature; Vincent Van Gogh, Maurice Utrillo and his mother Suzanne Valadon, William Johnson, Thorton Dial, Aminah Robinson and Mary Lee Bendolph in the visual arts. Or in music, how about the ineffable gospel greatness of Blind Willie Johnson or James Cleveland or Marian Williams?  They were all artists who had a vision to reveal that was not always meant to comfort or please us or delight us with its beauty or elegance, but one that we would come to rely upon once we had found the key to unlock the magic because in the end all of these artists wished to bless us with their vision. I cannot say whether Walker will be one of them or not because frankly I am not at all sure that Walker gives a damn about what happens to us.
   Some people, maybe most people, think that black stereotypes were invented by white people in order to hurt black people and keep them back. My observation is that African American stereotypes have been substantially contributed to and revised by African American culture to the point where the line between racist intent and self-criticism or self-reflexivity is often imperceptible, or perhaps even insignificant.  One can find precedents for these kinds of observations in the writings of Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Ishmael Reed and Zora Neale Hurston. 
     African American culture is often based upon a radical re-mobilization of racial stereotypes, particularly in performance forms, whereas when we think of stereotypes generally, we often fall back on the most conventional visual stereotypes, particularly originating in advertising and mass reproduction. But black stereotypes almost always refer to performances of a real black body in space.
     Aunt Jemima, one of the more famous ones, was a tribute to all the women who played her in the early history of the brand name beginning at the 1898 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Uncle Ben probably had similar real-life models.  Self-ridicule is a crucial attribute of the survival and dissemination of African American culture throughout the world. Often this is material dismissed as mindless buffoonery and humor, especially by black people themselves.
  In this country, the white folks haven’t ever owned black stereotypes if, indeed, they ever did.  This is part of the reason why these stereotypes are irrefutable and virtually impossible to destroy.  Some portion of African American culture is, itself, in tribute to the longevity and power of these stereotypes as archetypes, which encode vital cultural information.  I don’t know whether this is good or bad.  I know it is and it is confusing, particularly when African American artists attempt to handle black stereotypes as though they were weapons designed by strangers to destroy us. Separating stereotypes from “authentic black folk culture” has been impossible at least since the first slaves sung their own songs on a slave ship.  That these were times in which there was no recorded sound, and precious little satisfactory documentation of the process of creo-lization other than word of mouth only made the process that much more inexorable.  By the time recorded sound entered the picture in the early 20th century, the deed was well done.
   For this reason I think, inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s ventures into this area in Mules and Men, to invoke a “black stereotype” without providing some of the context of its origins within black culture is to render us all a disservice.  How can you do work relating to black stereotypes without acknowledging its basis within black culture without misrepresenting the race?  I don’t think you can.
     A few years back at the time of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum, Walker turned to films. One of these in particular seems to offer several important clues regarding her intentions and insights on stereotypes.  It is called 8 Possible Beginnings, Or The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture but Kara E. Walker, obviously inspired by conventions of silent film.  Although Walker mentions Oscar Micheaux’s work as a possible model in an interview, there is much here more directly linked to practices of D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation than in the somewhat later work of Oscar Micheaux.   Walker’s film is divided into 8 parts meant to correspond to the 8 “possible beginnings,” I would imagine, of the creation of African America. The parts are as follows:
  • “Along a Watery Road, “
  •  “Motherland!” 
  • “The New World,” an Interlude which seems to be a parenthetical reference to the artist, herself, “New Labors,” 
  • “A Darkey Hymn: All I Want,” 
  • “Planting Time,” 
  • “The Story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and How Briar Patch County Come to Be Called That.”

Walker runs through a series of her classic scenarios and characteristic stereotypical personnel.
  • She also tells curious tales about them. Entirely in black and white and made of black paper cut outs either manipulated by sticks or by the hand of a black woman, her face in shadows. 

  • “Along a Watery Road” presents the scene of the middle passage on the slave ship with naked black male bodies being thrown overboard and floating across the water. One body labeled a “wannabee” actually walks across the water.

  • Part II is the “Motherland!” a little bumpy island with a cut out of a palm tree, which turns out to be the head of a large black woman with a gaping mouth who proceeds to swallow and chew up all the floating black bodies. The bodies float through the intestines of the woman’s body. She shits them out in a pile, which clumps and forms into the shape of a muscular black man named King Cotton.

  • In the “New World, “ King Cotton dances about and has lots of sex with the white slave master figure to a song with a very striking lyric. It is rendered in a jazzy belting style—clearly a fairly early recording, maybe the 20s, of a jazzy woman singer.

  • “Hey, He Hi Ho pickin cotton all day,” the words go and it appears to have a happy go-lucky tone, but in fact the words offer a protest against being forced to pick cotton all day as a freedman with most of the profits going to the white man. The final lines are:
  • “Sing my song like I’m happy and gay, all day. Just tell the world for me, not those don’t set me free, that’s the song I’ll sing till they put me under the clay.”

  • At the end of the sex act between King Cotton and the slavemaster, the white man inserts the boll of cotton into the butt of King Cotton and King Cotton’s stomach grows large with a pregnancy.
    The interlude goes from cut outs and drawn backgrounds to an image of a black woman cutting a likeness of a white male.  The intertitle says: “We Find Bess, a Comely Negress, Taking her Master’s Likeness.”  “Good Job Bess!” the white man says.
   “New Labors” returning to cut outs presents a scene in which a black female midwife comes to deliver a baby shaped like a black cotton boll from between King Cotton’s legs, which she then throws over her shoulder, as if to signify the idea of a Topsy-jus grew origins.
In “A Darkey Hymn: All I Want,” to an accompaniment of a Fisk Jubilee singer type rendition of an old spiritual, we get an image of a little black girl pulling a plow and a white male figure hovering menacingly over her.  We can here, at the same time, the voices of a little girl and a woman saying much the same thing in a manner which blocks the first and last word of each statement.  The effect is to invoke extreme exploitation and brutalization of this black female child—to the point of a spliting subject such as we get in Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye in which Pecola retreats into a fantasy of having blue eyes in order to protect her mind from the ordeal of having been raped by her father.

In “Planting Time, “ King Cotton waters his black cotton boll, which grows larger.
 In the last section, we are treated to an exchange between Uncle Remus and his little white male listener who threatens to have him beaten if he doesn’t tell him another story.  The story Remus tells concerns how Briar Patch use to be known as “Dead Nigger Gulch.”  Accompanied by a famous early recording of Laughing Sam, we see a rabbit and a fox pulling hanging black male bodies by ropes on the limbs of a horridly enlarged black cotton boll. 
       “Just cause these here tales is about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, dat don’t mean they ain’t the same like that happen to folks.  Them what can’t learn from a tale about critters just ain’t got their ears tuned for listening.” 

In this portion of the film, Walker seems to acknowledge the multiple origins of the Joel Chandler Harris stories of Uncle Remus.  The relationship between the boy and Uncle Remus becomes a threatening, nonconsensual one. 
     As the bodies hang from the large black cotton boll tree, The rabbit and the fox walk away.  Then Timmy is shown skipping jovially across the scene of the lynching a number of times.

    The completion of the DNA genome and the discovery of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan have both provided a watershed of inspiration in historical thinking about African American slavery, in particular colonial and Northern slavery, that its impact and transformative effect on the trajectory of the new nation was much more massive and all encompassing.  Slavery saturated every expectation and promise of the European settlements on the continent of North America and the future of its 13th colonies. 
     At the same time, as well, more and more black artists have become interested in portraying slavery in their work, although in general I haven’t been particularly impressed with the results.  It seems rather like the artists aren’t paying enough attention to all the recent furor about slavery from the two slavery exhibitions beautifully executed by the New York Historical Society to all the slaveship databases being generated on the internet to the constant litigation in this and other nations concerning possible forms of reparations for slavery. 
     Kara Walker has joined this flow of artists cashing in on the interest in slavery but like many of them she has failed to do the homework on how the vision of slavery has changed in the past 30 years of scholarship, research, science and archeology.  In the past 15 years, Walker has been making a significant and controversial impact having to do with factual questions concerning the basis of her representations.
    Walker’s work is only incidentally fact based.  I am not really sure why that is except that she prefers to create life under the peculiar institution out of the whole clothe of her sexual and sado-masochistic fantasies. At the same time, there is increasing pressure galvanizing many sectors of the African American community in the drive for reparations to compensate in particular poor African American youth for the stolen labor of the slaves, or at the very least, to gain an official apology from the major financial institutions and the government which profited from this centuries-long theft.  Now that we have actually elected a President who is largely supportive of these questions, as a person of African descent himself, it becomes all the more peculiar to pretend that we are still in the age of “Gone With the Wind.”
   Economic historians are sometimes fond of portraying slavery as an ineffectual institution mired in pratfalls.  Unfortunately, Walker’s cornucopia of fucking, sucking and spitting slaves and masters, would tend to reinforce the notion that the games were titillating and fundamentally not that serious in their consequences when, in fact, the reality is quite the opposite.  The plantation scenario Walker portrays is almost delusional in its relationship to the conditions for slaves who worked in factories, who worked in cities North and South, in small homes and shops, North and South, and on an intimate basis with families of all types.  No one has yet tried to measure the degree of physical or sexual abuse between master and slave, much less the degree of consensual or at least non-violent relations, but it would appear nonetheless that the main things the slaves did was work. Moreover, despite Walker’s seeming focus on sadistic and sexual abuse under slavery, there is no indication whatsoever that that psycho-sexual abuse is a problem she is seriously concerned with.  In fact, I am struck by her seeming alienation from the plight of women in general.  There is not a morsel of empathy for them in her work.  For much of the period of the institution, slave women worked themselves to death.

    On some level, it is just wrong to speak of what you really think of an artist’s work within the hearing of the artist if it isn’t productive and encouraging.  My gut continues to tell me that, particularly if there is a shred of decency, sincerity and good intentions left in the heart of the artist (and how can one know for certain from the outside looking in?) And yet I am not quite sure that I have anything to say to Kara, or about Kara’s work that could be construed as encouraging.
   In my humble estimation, my conclusion is that Walker is essentially wrong about slavery; she is also wrong about both the genesis and the functionality of black stereotypes, or indeed any other kind of racial or ethnic stereotypes.
     As for her facility and competence in terms of craft and her mastery of her chosen materials, however they may be conceived, paper cutting, silhouettes, artist’s films, postmodern narrative and performance, the fact that I still can satisfactorily say what it is physically makes me uneasy, given the material conditions of the art world and the continuing limited access of African American artists to its wealth and decadent abundance.
    I don’t feel comfortable embracing or applauding her parsimonious spareness. I know she wants to invoke lesser forms and materials that slaves might have been allowed to use but this particular gesture cuts right down to things like insurance and art market values and the possibility of translating her successes into subsequent black artists who follow her lead.  Could it be that Walker is being co-opted by the art world?  And could it even be that her work has become, in fact, a commentary on that process of co-optation, an implied complicity through a kind of economic inevitability and helplessness. It is getting harder and harder to be impressed by anything that has no empirical basis or support within the enormous accumulation of recent evidence concerning the subject of slavery. 
    Given the obvious consequences of such absorption with violence and sadism, the love affair of the work with violence distresses me.  The appeal to the unconscious worries me, particularly since it seems fairly certain that the unconscious—if indeed it exists in any coherent form—isn’t the ever-vigilant entity we once thought it might be.  Slavery was violent, brutal, intrusive but perhaps in infinitely more subtle way then Walker’s somewhat perfunctory images of the institution would suggest. In the end the distinction is impossible to ignore.


No comments:

About Me

My photo
I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.