Kehinde Wiley & Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

February 2016 Recap

It’s our shortest month, but this year is Leap Year so we get an extra day, and I can’t help thinking about all the events that are jammed into this month.

Besides Black History Month, events included the beginning of the Year of the Fire Monkey or Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day, President’s Day, the Super Bowl (without the Seahawks, who cares?), Mardi Gras, and the Academy Awards.

It’s Black History Month and, ironically, the 88th Academy Awards were presented last night. Here’s the controversy: Few nominees in all categories were people of color and none in the acting categories. Thank goodness for Chris Rock, who dished it out with finely-sharpened jabs at Hollywood. The audience and presenters included a scattering of non-whites, but it was definitely an OscarsSoWhite show.

It’s the 21st Century, and we’re still talking about the need for diversity in America! We have an African American President of the United States, but we need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter.

I love movies, but television is doing a far better job in offering acting opportunities for non-whites: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Luther,” “Scandal,” “Scorpion,” “The Good Wife,” “Empire,” and “How To Get Away with Murder,” to name just a few.

I want to see movies that reflect the people in my world, the real America where Asians aren’t always criminals or prostitutes. But I’m not talking only about racial diversity, but gender diversity; I want to see more stories about women of all ages on the big screen. Academy Award winner Julianne Moore said that she does not go to movies featuring only men because such a world is unrealistic; this does not reflect her everyday world.

Think about this: What characters in a film could really be female instead of male? What characters could be non-white instead of white? Yes, perhaps some rewriting would be necessary, but think of the creative possibilities. Or take a page out of Shakespeare whose characters often pretended to be someone else of the opposite gender.

Hollywood is a microcosm of the larger world and here are the facts: People of color and women need more career opportunities everywhere, but white men still hold most of the wealth and power in this country. Change is inevitable, but how soon is the question.

 

 

February is Black History Month

In the space of one week, I attended an art exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum here in Seattle “The Fabric of Our lives: Tales of Dirty Laundry, White Sheets & Bodies–In Parts,” saw the movie Selma, and read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped.

I had not intentionally planned to immerse myself into African American history during this last week of January, but the confluence of images and stories was a great reminder of the ongoing struggles of African Americans that unfortunately we are still witnessing.

I am interested in this history as an American because we Americans need to be aware of all our history, especially those pieces we are not proud of, because they impact our present. I also have a vested interest in this history as a woman of color; this history of racism and prejudice is similar to my Chinese ancestors’ history in America, and therefore, the strength and courage of African Americans to survive and fight for their rights have paved the way for me and other Americans, who have been and are disadvantaged, different, and non-white.

Artist Anastacia Tolbert has created artwork influenced by her slave ancestry. The exhibit runs through March 22. It is provocative and uncomfortable. If you get a chance to see it, and I highly recommend it, take a break between viewings. Although it’s not a big exhibit, there’s a lot to take in and process. The paintings and other elements in the exhibit may appear benign at first glance, but the violence of white people against their slaves is the real story here and inescapable.

Selma. This is a great movie with fine actors. If you don’t know the history of the struggle for Civil Rights, then you should see this movie. If you don’t remember this history, then you need to be reminded. Again, this will be uncomfortable to watch, but necessarily so. The violence and injustice against Black Americans has continued into the twentieth century from the time of slavery.

Men We Reaped puts faces on the tragedy of racism. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and we Americans are still struggling with this issue. Ward’s casual tone belies the urgency and fatalism of the characters. Despite the darkness of despair that she reveals in her poor Black community in Mississippi, her writing shines a light of love and compassion on her family, community, and the lives of the young men lost.

Ward writes:

Racism, poverty, and violence are the primary factors that encourage depression in Black men, and I’d guess that this is true for Black women as well. Seven percent of African American men develop depression during their lifetime, and according to experts, this is probably an underestimate due to lack of screening and treatment services. They will not get care for their mental disorders….Not treating these mental disorders costs Black men and women dearly, because when mental disorders aren’t treated, Black men are more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide, and suicide, and all of these, of course, affect not just the Black men who suffer from them but their families and the glue that holds the community together as well.

I gained a deeper appreciation for Black parents who justifiably fear for the safety and well-being of their children. This fear is profound. This goes back centuries to broken families, whether from abductions in Africa or the selling of slave children away from their parents or random killings of Black people. Black parents carry generations of grief, fear, and Injustice. And it’s a heavy weight.

Kudos to these artists for their courage in sharing and reminding us about their pain, which truly affects all of us. Until someone writes the whole history of how greed and oppression built our country, we would do well to review and understand African American history, the legacies of our slave culture, and also the many, many contributions of the Black men and women in our communities throughout America.