At the start of the summer I turned down an invitation from a friend to see a play in Manhattan called 3/Fifths. Written and produced by James Scruggs, a black man, featuring a mostly black cast, 3/Fifths is a work of interactive theater that immerses its audience in a dystopian theme park called SupremacyLand. The actors mill about the stage wearing mammy costumes or blackface. They tie ropes into nooses and stand behind prison bars while encouraging the audience to join in on race-themed carnival games. The goal is, to me, straightforward satire, and 3/Fifths seems earnest enough. Theater-goers can experience what it feels like to walk around in a heightened, racially-charged world with the hope they can connect the dots between past and present horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
I didn’t really feel like spending an evening like that. Living as a black woman in the aftermath of the presidential election, unable to block out the news cycle of police shootings, acquittals, and assaults, my nervous system is frayed enough by new and old wounds. I’m in my thirties with a job, student debt, dreams still on the horizon, aging parents, family spread out all over the country, and a niece about to go to college. I don’t need a simulacrum of my experiences to understand what’s at stake.
The use of satire and comedy to have difficult conversations about race has a long history and isn’t problematic in and of itself. Kara Walker does it in silhouette and sculpture; playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins did it in his play An Octoroon; Ishmael Reed has done it in his novels; Dave Chappelle became a household name doing it. It’s just that on the day of the invitation I was feeling exhausted, more in need of fun and laughter than anything else. When I declined, I said something to my friend like, “Take me to the show the playwright makes about black joy.”
Just a couple of months before, I learned of the visual artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, then on display at the Whitney Biennial, from the writer and artist Hannah Black’s widely-circulated open letter to the curators, which was co-signed by 47 artists, curators, and critics. I knew of Black’s work from an essay she wrote in the White Review that touched on Brandy’s 2002 album Full Moon. Brandy is probably one of the most important American pop vocalists of the past thirty years, and is underappreciated in the mainstream. Black’s piece treated Brandy’s work with the care I felt she deserved, so I felt a sense of trust in Black’s approach to black aesthetics. In her letter, Black demands the removal of Schutz’s painting, an abstraction of a 1955 photograph of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till in his coffin at his funeral. His bludgeoned, disfigured face is rendered in impressionistic brush strokes.
Schutz — a white woman born in 1976 in a suburb of Detroit, and educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Columbia University — does not own the subject matter, Black argues.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Black goes on to explain the reverence that black Americans have for Till.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning.
It was, after all, Till’s grieving mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted her son’s remains be returned to Chicago after his lynching in Money, Mississippi and drowning in the Tallahatchie River. It was his mother who demanded his remains be displayed in an open casket during a funeral that was widely photographed. She wanted the world to “see what she had seen,” to bear witness to the horror, to grieve for her boy. Only the black publications Jet and the Chicago Defender published the photos. The image enraged and emboldened black folks, and it is considered among a long list of catalysts for the Civil Rights activism of the mid-twentieth century.
In “Getting In and Out,” Zadie Smith writes about the consumption of black pain for Harper’s by looking at Schutz’s painting and Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. Smith doesn’t mention Emmett Till much, and she doesn’t mention his mother, without whom we would have nothing to discuss. Smith never writes the words “Tallahatchie River,” nor does the word “Mississippi” appear. She says that Schutz’s painting didn’t provoke any profound feeling in her when she went to see it at the Biennial, and that doesn’t surprise me; it’s a mediocre painting, technically fine but emotionally removed. What surprises me about Smith’s essay is that she questions the “logic” and sentiment of Black’s letter, and writes it off as absurd. I found Black’s letter heartfelt. Its request that the “painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum” felt less important to me than her care for Emmett Till’s story, and the ongoing, present-day brutality against black bodies.
I think the conversation about race in America is a shared one, with multiple points of entry. In my mind pretty much anyone can talk about it, or make art about it, because everyone is somehow a part of it — impacted, implicated, or some combination therein. Race doesn’t really matter here in a straightforward sense. It’s too arbitrary a construction, as Smith painstakingly points out, and complicated by too many factors.
I was born in Memphis in the 1980s, so I am both a black American and southern. I remember the story of Till told to me as a child by adults who still used hushed voices. I went to integrated public schools, and then university on the east coast, and have a middle class life. I have always moved among blacks and whites, Latinx and Asians, and everybody else freely. My mother was also born in Memphis, but she remembers colored water fountains, trips to the zoo only on feeding days when there were no animals to see, swimming pools that were drained instead of integrated. Her sense of racial terror is at once more at the surface and deeper than mine—there are things she fears that I never will. She remembers Till’s lynching. My grandmother was born in the Mississippi Delta, picked cotton, and had a male cousin who was lynched. So the story of racial suffering is my grandmother’s even more than my mother’s or mine. We could go on like this, parsing out generational differences and class dynamics forever.
About Zadie Smith: I love her. I have considered her one of my favorite contemporary writers for at least a decade. In her third novel, On Beauty, she talks about American blackness in a way that doesn’t feel offensive or removed as if she thought us boorish. Her 2009 essay “Speaking in Tongues,” where she lets herself gush over Obama’s ability to code switch, and “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” are two of my favorite pieces of writing of all time. Writing about her first encounter with Zora Neale Hurston’s book, I love how Smith is able to be her critical, writerly self, and still engage with her blackness, bringing all parts to the page to create this beautiful cohesive whole.
Fact is, I am a black woman, and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason. And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, “Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,” it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem “extraliterary.” Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient buildup of culture reside that is (for convience’s sake) called “Blackness” are the parts that my own “Blackness,” as far as it foes, cannot help but respond to personally. At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of the speech…She is my sister and I love her.
But in the Harper’s essay, except in the places where she talks about the genius of Jordan Peele and the black artists at the Biennial whose work was overshadowed by the Schutz controversy, it doesn’t really feel like Smith is engaging in the subject matter with much care or heart. It disappointed me. I do not think it is because she is British-born and I am African American. She said in the piece that she assumed a transnational black identity when questioning herself about whether she was black enough to commemorate Till in a piece of art. I agree with parts of this. Blackness has long been a transnational project, a conversation that transverses and troubles national boundaries.
It is just that the question is wrong. All human beings have rights, in my mind, to the vast array of human experiences. But why does it seem like everyone wants to mine black pain? When I think about work like Open Casket and 3/Fifths, what I wonder is whether there any rules, or any sense of decorum around our experiences. Does anyone pause before making this type of work, or have reverence for it? Do they consider who may be hurt or exhausted by it if it is rendered incompletely? What are the goals of the work? The work that the 1955 photographs of Emmet Till did in Jet is clearly different from the work Open Casket could do at the Whitney. I wonder, what is the point? I also wonder, what is sacred?
I don’t know why Smith seems so removed in her Harper’s piece. When she talks about the paranoia of blacks, an “indulgence” that Get Out exploits, or says that white people revile black bodies less in 2017 than they did a half century ago, I honestly don’t know what to think. I do not know what white folks in America think of me now — some times it feels like nothing and sometimes it feels like utter disdain. When I hear of a young black woman from my university waking up to bananas strung up on her campus with nooses, when I hear Diamond Reynolds crying “You just killed my boyfriend,” despite all of my attempts to avoid that footage, I know it isn’t as simple as love and happiness and friendship and being the “same people.” So when Hannah Black got together with a bunch of other art world folks to stage their intervention, I listened because it felt like care.
Zadie Smith is entitled to her experiences; her writerly exploration of race can be rendered how she feels it must and I will still think of her as my sister. But I wished she had engaged this subject matter with her heart. I needed her to think of the logic of Black’s letter from a place of shared pain, shared experiences, and shared anger. I needed her to really listen to it, before dismantling it.