Earlier this summer, I did the library equivalent of impulse buying. There at the counter, being checked in as I was checking out, was Colored Pictures. One look at the images and how could I resist? The book has made a suitable companion to Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, particularly the chapter on Dunbar’s use of high and low dialect and Young’s refusal to use a hierarchy. High and low belong together as one voice.
Harris’ broad concern is the manner in which the representation of race comes to shape our political/social discourse; as he notes, it is dialectic, both arising from existing understandings and then reinforcing the same. In the second part of the book he explores how some black artists have worked directly or indirectly to establish their own claim on race. The weakness in this second discussion arises from keeping the focus so tightly on specific artists that we do not see the broader cultural contexts. Even as the artist explores the African American experience, they also do so in the context of other movements and moments in in art and culture.
As Harris said, it’s a dialectic. Some points would certainly be stronger for this broader discussion.
What is left under-discussed in this broader framework would be the impact of the 20th Century on the theme. Three areas suggest themselves (this is going to get long).
First, there’s the question of image, itself. Image making has moved beyond the confines of art and publishing. The combination of commercial culture and of media (movies, radio, then television) have come to play at least as important a role in the aesthetic shaping of the vision of African Americans and their place in society as the high art traditions. From DW Griffiths to the Aunt Jemima figurines Harris discusses, the very nature of such imagery seems to privilege “unblackness” (that delightful word from, Ta-Nehisi Coates). We are only beginning to emerge into an era where this privileged visual narrative is being unwound.
Meanwhile back at the ranch as the white boy might say, the question of race and its representation has been opened up by artists such as Harris describes, and perhaps even more so with the turn to performing arts — the race records, jazz, for that matter Scott Joplin — all ways to subvert or push back against this dominant narrative, a theme found also in Young’s book. The visual arts are then best seen as part of a larger African American effort to speak with its own voice.
A second change in the 20th Century left unexplored would be the geographic dispersion of the African diaspora. South to North and West, rural to urban. As Isabel Wilkerson chronicles in The Warmth of Other Suns, the immigration was a rejection of caste and of caste-narratives (granting that other race narratives emerge in the North). The question for further exploration would be how the differing narratives and experiences of these locales change the narrative. For instance, Alison Saar’s work such as her early Sweet Thang, the later Afro Di(e)ty’s monumentalism both appear to reflect a west coast sensibility. Kara Walker brings high art gallery approach that seems cooly eastern in flavor. Her silhouettes were part of the 30 African American Artists show last year at the North Carolina Museum of Art; their provocative sexual and even scatological narratives play with and comment earlier cultural narratives in a frame that seems to speak more to the patron set, a sort of artistic minstrelsy.
The third 20th Century change has been the growing economic diversity in the African American community itself. While in the northern urban areas it is still possible to find the the older narrative of black = poor, that no longer describes the experience of all African Americans, not even in the northern cities. Harris perhaps bumps into this most directly in Saar’s Sweet Thang whose figure sports a contemporary belted dress, a modern (at least 80s modern) hair style. In dress and hair, it as an upper-middle in visual sensibility, but as the hair, the color, the shards of glass beneath the red shoes and red toenails — there is a tension. Saar in part, is not only discussing race (see the hair without the kinks), but the tension of being young, female, and African American, while also enjoying a socio-ec0nomic status. As noted, this brings a a very West Coast vibe.
A second area where class also intrudes is in Harris’ consideration of Aunt Jemima collectibles. For him, they were a misguided attempt to change the narrative, a denial of the power of the image themselves. The representation could not be overturned. Still, were one to read them through the lens of the late 90s cultural grid with its emphasis on ironies it may look different. Could there be a sort of broader cultural cross-contamination going on? After all this is the period of the hey day of Garrison Keilor mining his Minnesota heritage: the very act of picking it up testifies to how far you’ve come. The collectible is thus a sign of distance, and perhaps of alienation. One can only pick it up by saying I am no longer the person implicated by that caste narrative. Has the power of the image gone? The collector says yes, Harris doubts it.
This is an intriguing, sometimes eye-opening book. The color plates present a wealth of African American art that opens our eyes to what is said, shown, and yes, how we’ve changed.