Friday, August 18, 2017

The Art and Science of American Racism

We stumbled into the Lawrence Arts Center at the tail end of an exhausting weekend. The events in Charlottesville had hypnotized the country for days, and Sarah and I desperately needed something quiet, something aesthetic, not carrying the stench emanating from the upper echelons of American power. We thought surely an art gallery would ease the tensions. We had no idea Iola Jenkins’ textile art would greet us inside.

Jenkins, a self-taught African-American outsider artist, uses a mixture of quilting and embroidery to create dynamic, multicolored images based on her beliefs and experiences. Her textile art includes portraits of Whoopi Goldberg’s character from The Color Purple and activist professor (and sometime fugitive) Angela Davis. She also has pictures of African market days and folk scenes. The depth Jenkins extracts from what look like discarded scraps makes mere paint look one-dimensional and wan.

Sarah and I paused before twinned portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. Rendered in exceptionally bright colors, the images had a certain quality of a 1990s comic book, but that didn’t undermine their depth. They looked like photographs taken under tinted stage lights, or possibly run through an oversaturated Instagram filter. They captured the energy and potency African-Americans like Jenkins must’ve felt seeing a couple who resembled themselves in Washington.

We stood there, dumbstruck, for several minutes. Both quilts were dated 2015, when President Obama was riding his highest crest of popular support, before the primary election campaign heated up. Jenkins must’ve made these textiles when Donald Trump still looked like a longshot protest candidate, a spoiler meant to agitate a wounded but angry Republican base. She might’ve made them before Trump declared his candidacy. I don’t know.

I threw my hat on the floor.

Many protesters in Charlottesville were unambiguous: they felt emboldened to express their vile opinions because Donald Trump became President. Though it’s overgeneralizing to say Trump caused the Charlottesville violence, his discourse—calling Mexicans rapists, spouting decades-old stereotypes about “the inner city”—emboldened whites who already had racist tendencies to express them. Trump’s failure to condemn people toting swastikas as Nazis hasn’t helped.

Unlike many American prairie communities, Lawrence, Kansas, didn’t spring up spontaneously. Activists from the New England Emigrant Aid Company deliberately founded Lawrence as an abolitionist colony during the Bleeding Kansas fighting, to provide anti-slavery forces an added edge in determining the future state’s future. The city’s main downtown corridor, Massachusetts Street, reflects the city’s abolitionist heritage. As often happens, contemporary attitudes mainly reflect historical foundations.

Historian Ibrahim X. Kendi writes that beliefs tend to follow policy. By this he means that public opinion, on multiple issues but especially race, tends to reflect the ideas floating from the top of politics, economics, and culture. Racism, as we experience it in America, didn’t really exist in pre-colonial Europe. People we’d now consider “white” hated one another and fought violently: French versus English, Spanish versus Portuguese, Germans versus Germans.

After plague and warfare decimated the Native American population, rendering North America fit for colonization, Europe started dumping its undesirable denizens on distant shores. According to Nancy Isenberg, America’s first English settlers weren’t called heroic pioneers at home. The English used colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts to unload what they called “the offscourings of the land.” The word “offscourings” refers to shit that clings to your ass and needs wiped off with paper.

England bound this goulash of beggars, debtors, thieves, and other outcasts together, by telling them: well, at least they weren’t Black. Parliament created policies forcibly separating white settlers from slaves in work, residence, and even food. England initially regarded Indians as whites with extreme tans, until Native pushback against English adventurism turned violent; then policies changed to separate Black, white, and Red. White beliefs accommodated these policies.

So racism became a response to public policy. After the Revolution, when Northern states couldn’t reconcile their rhetoric of freedom with slaveholding, they changed policies to emancipate their Black slaves and white indentured servants. But once the policy of race took hold, nobody could undo it. Northerners still saw themselves as Black, white, and Red. Even abolitionists progressive enough to colonize Lawrence, Kansas, carried the idea of race into their new homes.

Iola Jenkins made her art during a time when it appeared the legacies of colonial policy might finally disintegrate. But electing a Black President, a political moderate with big-tent views and even bigger smile, couldn’t reverse the trend. As Charlottesville proved, the vile colonizers simply moved underground, awaiting their chance. The persistence of abolition in Lawrence, and of racism in the Trump administration, proves boldly: problems don’t go away because head operators change.

They simply take new form. And the fight, physical and policy alike, must adjust appropriately.

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