In this Black History Month of 2017, I wonder if anyone has thought about inviting artist Kehinde Wiley and journalist/author Ta-Nehisi Coates to appear together on the same stage. I think this would be an exciting and provocative conversation between literature and art.
In Between the World and Me, Coates is writing to his son. He wants to prepare him for navigating through this world as a Black man. There are some practical things his son needs to know. What struck me as a reader was the corporeal reality of the African American experience that he describes.
He writes, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Again and again, he reminds us that Black bodies are being defiled, plundered, controlled, taken, broken, shattered. The violence is historic and continues today. He believes that “The larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies.” As a father, he understands that his son is his own individual, but he wants his son to understand the history and context of the ongoing devastation appearing in the news: Black lives being destroyed by our police forces, being incarcerated in high percentages, being demoralized, disempowered, and experiencing little justice.
Coates wants to educate his son about the reality of being Black. The dangers. The assumptions. The judgments. The “justifications” for violence. The anguish of this father should give pause to all thoughtful Americans.
Coates’s feelings and observations are valid. American history confirms his thoughts and feelings about the racism in our country. At the same time, Kehinde Wiley is changing the narrative of Black American lives with his paintings by bringing attention to the bodies of Black people, by reclaiming them in works of art, in elegance and beauty.
Wiley says, “The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.”
I saw his work for the first time in a stunning exhibit “A New Republic” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) about a year ago. Wiley is a Black American living and working in Brooklyn and Beijing. His use of large canvases displays the remarkable faces and bodies of African Americans—people whom the artist has often pulled off the streets of America. These people are not only immortalized in his paintings, they perhaps are given the chance to see themselves differently, important and larger than life. Empowered instead of disempowered.
When I saw these paintings, I recognized some of the postures and accoutrement as the same ones featured in other portraits of European nobility, warriors, other men of power living in earlier centuries. Many of his paintings are huge, impressive. The viewer cannot help being impressed by a painting that fills a wall; artists in earlier centuries and their subjects understood that sheer size does convey messages of wealth and power. However, instead of White Europeans, Wiley depicts contemporary Black men of varying ages and hues striking these poses of power often against a background of elegant wallpaper or vibrant flora.
Wiley is committing an act of revolution to subvert how people might see Black Americans and what they hear about crimes involving Black Americans. It’s an act of empowerment. Unexpected and unforgettable.
While culture and politics have appropriated Black bodies to the needs of the dominant White culture, Wiley has appropriated portraiture elements of Western art to make a statement about Black lives. He is reclaiming and reminding us of the beauty of the bodies and faces that some would judge and condemn.
Wiley’s art is a quiet revolution. It won’t change the hearts and minds of racists. It won’t stop the violence against Blacks. But it reminds people that Black people are diverse. They are strong. They have dignity and grace. The SAM brochure describes Wiley’s work: “Elevating people of color, giving them a sense of presence and visibility in countries or cultures where they were long absent from representations of power, is at the heart of this endeavor.”
Coates and Wiley are two Black American men expressing themselves eloquently. Their messages are similar, yet different. One uses the power of words, while the other, the power of visual art. We need both to completely understand the Black American experience.
Black History Month is really for all Americans. It is an opportunity to be informed and hopefully recognize that all of our histories are connected in One America.