After witnessing Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray, the 2016 election, and the rise of far-right extremism in America, I feel post-blackness has lost its legitimacy as a possible “...platform to discuss race and racism in an individualized format, murmuring hopes for freedom from our constructed fetishizations and traumas,” as I argued in my 2013 paper, “Substance in Silhouettes.” Confining oneself to a singular ideological answer to race issues in the United States aligns with Hegelian evolutionism and therefore gives extremism room to grow and antithesize. America’s current socio-political landscape feels like the dystopic wake of our conversations on post-race, and hope for a post-black theoretical approach retrospectively looks like denial. However, this thought mirrors the very linear form that it attempts to criticize. The insidiousness of a singular chronologic approach lies in the fact that the significance of past events are too often forged by the importance of current ones. Édouard Glissant and his concepts of Relation guide my current endeavors to resist essentialization as proctored consciously or unconsciously by myself and others. Relation functions through radical inclusion and offers an ideological approach defined by movement, not form. I am poised in the academic question to guide my thoughts entering 2018: How can I produce art historical scholarship about Africa and the African Diaspora in terms of Relation, and in doing so, undermine the Hegelian form that gives space for the conservative zeal which endeavors to push diversity to the periphery of the historical telos? -Margaret Anne Hines, December 6, 2017
Substance in Silhouettes
Margaret Anne Hines Art History and Its Methods Ian Bourland December 4, 2013
Within her work, Kara Walker illustrates historical, racial, and sexual caricatures that exaggerate elements of reality to reveal a deep understanding of the human experience. The power driven narratives depict an extension of Hegel’s master-slave dialectics, presenting not only the action described by Hegel, but also the result, better described in Lacanian psychoanalytical terms.1 Walker’s silhouettes and stream of consciousness writings map out the trauma that followed the Antebellum slave era and reveal the fetishization of race.2 Walker’s work illustrates the racial egos residing in their Antebellum trauma. She consciously utilizes the Colonized American tradition of applying racelessness paradoxically to emphasize race.3 The bygone costumes of Walker’s silhouettes refer specifically to early America, emphasizing the literal displacement of Africans to American slaves and of Europeans to American slave masters. The Atlantic Ocean articulating the alienating space between subject and ego. Each unable to return to the original independent state, blacks and whites look to one another to see themselves, the other’s “lack of” determining their own personal identity. One’s race becomes described purely in what one is not. The assertion of freedom degrades to myth as substance slips into the rhetorical. Violently forced into slavery, the black slave developed the racial ego, an
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and J. B. Baillie, The phenomenology of mind. 2d ed. (New
York: Humanities Press, 1964); Dylan Evans, An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis, (London: Routledge, 1996). 2 Kara Elizabeth Walker, Bureau of refugees, (Milano: Charta, 2008). 3 Toni Morrison, Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1992).
understanding of the way one should act, through the expectations of the white slave owners, the Lacanian mirror. Similarly, the black slaves adhered to the social expectations dictated by the slave state, the Big Other.4 The white slave owners also harbored trauma from slavery because of the slave owner’s reliance on the slaves for economic and social prosperity cornered the slave master into dependence. Fearful of losing his gain, of becoming lesser, the slave owner simultaneously relies and separates himself from the people he represses. Walker’s white characters assert a violent psychosexual persona, they devour blacks like objects or food, preserving and destroying them concurrently. The black man becomes the white man’s mirror, forcing a development of the white racial ego as the master assumes the tyrannical role in pure opposition to the slave’s role, economic and social pressures asserting as the Big Other. Blacks and whites symbiotically become the ego self and the mirror, each looking to the other to see what they are not. They construct themselves in the negative space left by their alternate while simultaneously informing the fetishized ego of their opposite. The incestuous back and forth between racial identities, the contradictory state of being both instructor and receiver all at once, produces an accelerated trajectory away from origin, exasperating trauma. Just as a person cannot emotionally revert back to his or her origin, neither can memory, and here rests the problem with history. Walker’s Colonial costumes and her dated Southern intonations work to both falsely legitimize her work in historical context
rantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York City: Grove Press, F 1967). 4
and critique our perception of history as we understand it.5 The historical ensemble alludes to historical documents we are taught and perceive to be truthful. Just as the falsely authentic stage revises our perception of the past, the colonial setting, mixed with Walker’s outrageously fantastical vignettes emphasize the ease of alteration and the slipperiness of what we perceive as truth.6 Our greasy hands, filthy from everything we touch, pollute the image we hold as history. We cannot escape our progressive perception even while revisiting the past. Walker’s almost comical presentation of current issues dressed in past garb shows the dialogue between past and present as experienced by the human psyche. History and contemporary converge, summating to a complex gestalt truth of our earthly phenomenon.7 Walker unapologetically displays the colonial practice of defining what is by what is not, emphasizing our movement in her work’s stillness, our substance in her silhouettes. Kara Walker’s text work presents the inner dialogues of her imagined black and white characters. The piece Untitled [fig 1] unearths a slave master’s personal speech to his slave(s). The confessional tone alludes to a private context, suggesting the dialogue remains unspoken; a silence supported by the ending phrases, “I make the language-/ but without never sayin it.” Here the Master claims power over his slave(s), embodying the Lacanian mirror; the white man acts as the speechless informer of the black racial ego.8 However, in the paralleled internal structure of the master-slave relationship, the Kara Walker, "Kara Walker: Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!." Chicago Humanities Festival, YouTube, YouTube, March 4, 2013. 6 Amy Tang, "Postmodern Repetitions: Parody, Trauma, And The Case Of KaraWalker," differences 21, no. 2 (2010), 142. 7 Richard King, "From Haiti to Mississippi: Faulkner and the making of the Southern master-class," International Journal of Francophone Studies 14 (2011), 93-106. 8 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 5
slave also dictates the racial ego of the slave master. In the master’s momentary recognition of wrongdoing, his white ego self flinches towards origin. The second card reads, “Because worse than you bein’ my nemesis, my/ servant or a turncoat/ Is the possibility of yer bein’ a innocent.” The narrator identifies his possibly false idea of the slave. The slave master immediately corrects his momentary gesture towards origin, resulting in his justification, and ultimately, his fetishized concept of the black slave. He continues, “Au spends mah days thinin you maught be/ immature, in need of Christian Law, even wild/ and capable of the worst savagery…” In facing his constructed idea of the slave, the slave master asserts his ego self in violence. Saying, “Mixing Blood and Semen, may be the/ worst sin, but ‘tis the one I’m obliged to/ commit.” Ending the statement with an acknowledgment for the Big Other, “…by dint of history,” which in this case, resides in his surrender to history’s compulsive repetition. Starting the last card by supporting his former point of the past justifying the present with, “Ah, history which dictates Free trade in human skin.” Even with the narrator’s rationalization, he repeatedly reiterates his need for the other, the mirror, the black slave, to define himself. In the third and fourth cards the narrator finds “…that I Need you/… I needs you to not know the potency I imbue you/ with, but I needs you to perform just the/ same. / I needs you to be clear on that I’m the Master.” The narration of the slave master acutely follows the Lacanian mirror phase diagram, resulting in trauma articulated in the opening card, “I is haunted by demons of my own devising/ This leaves me vulnerable to the simple/ threats of children and inferiors,
who/ tease the cracks in my walled fortress-like/ reserve.”9 The narration begins with the end, the psychological result of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Walker’s story grants responsibility where it belongs, justly painting the slave master as a violent force, in a casual voice of banal evil, but Walker allows space for sensitivity. The stream of consciousness chronicle urges a perverse sympathy from the viewers as they witness a self-destruction in the psychological foundation bearing the economic and social prosperity of the Antebellum slave-owning South.10 The running dialogue in Untitled remains one sided, owned by the slave master, despite the blatant address to the slave. Walker uses opposition to show truth, the lack of the slave’s voice not only emphasizes the dominance of the white man, but also accentuates the intensity of the black man’s presence in the white man’s psychology. The private unspoken thoughts of the slave master may not include the slave’s voice, but it revolves around the slave’s presence. The white man cannot understand himself without the other, even in his most private moments.11 In the work Bureau of Refugees: Bob Foreman cut at Union Spring [fig 2], Walker presents a similarly solitary character who also personifies the ego self. Occupying an isolated space, the fetishized character bears the scars of his Lacanian mirror, the slave master. The plain white paper displaying the green cutout of a black man prompts flatness, confining the figure in its vast white plain. Cut from the same green paper, the figure and ground meld into one another. The ambiguity of the beginnings and ends of the objects depicted functions to further restrict
Evans, An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Walker, Bureau of refugees. 11 Morrison, Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination. 9
and objectify the silhouette. Despite the amazing musculature of his profile, the figure remains immobile, highlighted by his lack of feet. A phallus erupts from the ground in the shape of a corn stalk and overlaps with the figure to operate twofold as the figure’s genitalia. The phallus works to abet the engrossment of the figure into his surroundings and represent a castration and dehumanization of the black man’s racial ego. Walker’s title, Bureau of Refugees: Bob Foreman cut at Union Spring, immediately coins the subject of the work as a victim, a receiver. Confronted with his mirror, the black ego moves away from his origin and into his destined fetish state.12 Four red and yellow slashes cut the figure, reiterating the figure as victim, and emoting solicitousness for the amputee caricature of a black man. Walker displays the racial fetishization of the black man in slavery. Bureau of Refugees: Bob Foreman cut at Union Spring manifests the shadow of origin, the ego self. Dark eyes cast towards the white other, ordained in a violent tradition, the mirror dictates the ego’s objectified existence. The black ego becomes the ground he works, castrated and absorbed by his context, cut and propped erect by contrasting whiteness. Traumatized into alienation, the figure assumes the fetishized state of neither man nor plant nor background, but of “the other.” Despite the victimization of the black man and formulation of his racial ego, the black ego in Bureau of Refugees: Bob Foreman cut at Union Spring still informs the presence of the white. Unmentioned in title, unarticulated in corporeal aesthetics, the white ego remains ever present in the negative space of the black.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.
Walker reveals the extent to which the mirror re-molds the ego in her solitary characters. The black and white racial depictions operate with and against the orbiting psychological presence of the other.13 However, Walker also creates vignettes showing the literal physical collisions of the masters and slaves. Bureau of Refugees: July 16 Black girl beaten [fig 3] shows two mutilated amputee figures, cut from a single piece of paper and adjoined in brokenness. The profiles reveal descriptions of racial identity. The white boy’s smooth, thin hair and sharp upward nose contrasts with the black girl’s nappy dreaded hair and turned away face. Walker’s title, Bureau of Refugees: July 16 Black girl beaten, helps to affirm the functions of the two characters’ racial egos. The black girl assumes the victim role, and in this case, literally metamorphosed into a different physical form by the white body. The juxtaposition and exploitation of the characters reveal the violent carnal reality of the Antebellum South alluded to, but not overtly demonstrated by, the works showing only one individual. In Bureau of Refugees: July 16 Black girl beaten the viewer witnesses “Mixing Blood and Semen…” referred to in Untitled. The white boy, frozen in the swill before the thrust, aims towards the space between the girl’s splayed legs, her genitalia violently articulated by three jagged cuts. The boy needs no arms to hold her, no ground to press her down against, cut from the same paper, the black girl and the white boy are bound by condition. In her fantastically monumental narrations, Walker refuses to glorify not only her own race, but also humanity as a whole.14 The girl in Bureau of Refugees: July 16 Black
Susan Buck-Morss, "Hegel And Haiti," in Critical Inquiry 26, no. 4 (2000): 821-865. Kara Elizabeth Walker and Olga Gambari, Kara Walker: a negress of noteworthy talent (Torino: Fondazione Merz, 2011).
girl beaten may be the obvious victim, yet Walker equally fetishizes the two characters, as exemplified in the black girl’s dismembered body, pronounced genitalia, ambiguous identity, and evident embodiment of race. None of the characters in Walker’s work escape the trauma of slavery, even if that trauma is a result of being “…haunted by demons of my own devising…” as declared by the slave master in Untitled.15 Walker’s conscious refusal to glorify victomhood and her inclusion of white trauma brings forth the complexity of race and draws relevance to contemporary race deliberations.16 The contemporary idea of post-blackness calls for a movement of individualism to transcend, but not divorce, the traumatic history of race. Kant serves as the patriarch for conceiving the ideology that independence can function as an intellectual method for the development of an elevated morality.17 Kant put forth that Enlightenment exists as a collective progression away from immaturity. Obedience propagates sophomoric tendencies and stunts growth for specific peoples as well as entire cultures.18 Pure disobedience also lacks the fertility of deep thought, acting as a prescribed set of rules defined by the binary. The Kantian idea of Enlightenment can only occur through the act of not obeying. Kant surmises the necessity of shedding the impulse of obedience, which can now be applied to the idea of looking beyond the fetishized masks created in our trauma to
Tang, "Postmodern Repetitions: Parody, Trauma, And The Case Of Kara Walker," 148. TourE and Michael Eric Dyson, Who's afraid of post-blackness?: what it means to be Black now, (New York: Free Press, 2011); Kara Walker, "The Artist's Voice Since 1981," BOMB (2007): accessed December 11, 2013. 17 Immaluel Kant, “The Critique of Judgement,” in The Art of Art History, ed. Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). 18 Michel Foucault and Paul Rabinow, The Foucault Reader, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984). 15 16
examine our own intentions within the context of our built reality.19 In the present-day privilege of retrospectivity, Kant’s conclusion for an enlightened existence prophetizes the much later rationalization of the human problem outlined by psychoanalysts, specifically Lacan. Similarly, Fanon prognostically deals with contemporary queries in his book Black Skin, White Masks, written in 1952. Fanon decisively approached his personal experience with 1950s racism through a psychoanalytic structure.20 A highly intelligent, well-educated, multi-cultural man, Fanon understood the tragedy of the black person’s obedience. He explicitly lays out the confining polar expectations that imprisoned the 1950s black identity. Either they assumed the black savage fetish or diminished their blackness with a white sensibility, lustfully partaking in Western civility. Recognizing the white and black man’s enslavement to his superiority or his inferiority, Fanon interpreted the development of the black ego as a trajectory away from independence.21 Despite the astute Kantian overtones of Fanon’s analysis, the overwhelming psychology of obedience still dominated his 1950s racial philosophy. In an era of widespread legalized racial segregation and racist value systems, the yearning for whiteness poisoned even the best intentions. Educated blacks were plagued with an exasperated inferiority complex and the overtones of violent master slave relationships crippled mixed race couples, even in the presence of the sparse progressive ideologies such as Fanon’s.22
Immanuel Kant, "The Rational Will Overcomes Base Inclination," in The Many Faces of Evil: Historical Perspectives, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, (London: Routledge, 2001). 20 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 21 IBID 22 IBID 19
Post-black principles may have been looming in and around theories put forth by thinkers like Kant, Lacan and Fanon, but only now can it erupt, trickle into culture, and eventually seep into mass psychology. The reactive quality of modernism has collapsed into itself with an impulsive multiplicity. Incestuous and rapid, modernity eventually unhinged itself from its own progressively linear form. With no manifestations to retain it, art and culture assumed a Gestaltian form we call contemporary. Residing in a plainer field, a generation removed from legalized racism, the once dormant seeds of post-black ideology find light, and obtain the power of terminology. Post-blackness provides a platform to discuss race and racism in an individualized format, murmuring hopes for freedom from our constructed fetishizations and traumas.23 Functioning in the context of racial history, post-blackness refuses the impulse towards unattainable origin, dismissing the idealization of autonomy. Kara Walker’s work articulates an understanding the context of racial trauma. Displaying master-slave dialecticism, her silhouettes and short dialogues sardonically manipulate American mythology, announcing a personal viewpoint.24 Just as one must understand black history to grasp the contemporary racial overtones in Walker’s work, one must also unravel the roots of post-blackness to fully fathom it. Assessing a small number of Walker’s work in a Lacanian psychoanalytic fashion in no way undertakes the entirety of Post-blackness, but it recognizes the formation of post-blackness in terms of its ancestry. Walker’s explicit individualism demands a post-black interpretation, only
TourE and Michael Eric Dyson, Who's afraid of post-blackness?: what it means to be Black now, (New York: Free Press, 2011). IBID
possible with a deep understanding of post-blackness, a contemporary ideology that has hovered in the minds of intellectuals long before it rooted in the freshly fallowed contemporary field.
[fig.1] Untitled from the series American Primitives, 2001.
[fig.2] Bureau of Refugees: Bob Foreman cut at Union Spring, 2007.
[fig.3] Bureau of Refugees: July 16 Black girl beaten, 2007.
Bibliography Buck-Morss, Susan. "Hegel And Haiti." Critical Inquiry 26, no. 4 (2000): 821-865. Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996. Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York City: Grove Press, 1967. Foucault, Michel and Paul Rabinow. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Mind. Translated by J. B. Baillie. 2d ed. New York: Humanities Press, 1964. Kant, Immanuel. “A Critique of Judgement.” In The Art of Art History. Edited by Donald Preziosi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Kant, Immanuel. "The Rational Will Overcomes Base Inclination." In The Many Faces of Evil: Historical Perspectives. Edited by Amélie Rorty. London: Routledge, 2001: 179-187. King, Richard. "From Haiti to Mississippi: Faulkner and the making of the Southern master-class." International Journal of Francophone Studies 14 (2011): 93-106. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Walker, Kara Elizabeth. Kara Walker: After the Deluge. New York: Rizzoli, 2007. Walker, Kara Elizabeth. Bureau of Refugees. Milano: Charta, 2008. Walker, Kara. "The Artist's Voice Since 1981." BOMB (2007): accessed December 11, 2013. Walker, Kara. "Kara Walker: Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!." Chicago Humanities Festival. YouTube, YouTube, March 4, 2013. Walker, Kara Elizabeth and Olga Gambari. Kara Walker: a negress of noteworthy talent. Torino: Fondazione Merz, 2011. Tang, Amy. "Postmodern Repetitions: Parody, Trauma, And The Case Of KaraWalker." differences 21, no. 2 (2010): 142-172. TourE, and Michael Eric Dyson. Who's afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to be Black Now. New York: Free Press, 2011.
Academic paper about selected works by Kara Walker written in 2014 and revised in 2017.