Issue 71, Fall 1998

by Miles Unger

As I write, a controversy is raging over a Boston Magazine headline for an article about Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates that read, “Head Negro in Charge.” The phrase, which according to magazine sources is sometimes used among blacks themselves, was deemed racist by many in the context of a magazine whose readers are primarily white. The controversy is but one of many instances in which language or an image used within a particular group to describe itself – perhaps with irony or even bitterness—is judged racist when used by others outside the group….

This debate follows closely on the heels of a controversial exhibition at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center of Kara Walker’s racially charged paper cutouts, Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May be Found, by Myself, Missus K.E.B. Walker, Colored, 1997. Walker, herself African American, includes gross racial stereotypes in her work; this work is then circulated among affluent collectors, most of whom are white. This uneasy alliance of white privilege and black self-examination provoked another African-American artist, Betye Saar, to initiate a letter-writing campaign condemning the work and the institutions that choose to show it. These tensions were finally aired at a symposium at Harvard addressing the sensitive issue of the recycling and reframing of racist images in contemporary culture.

The specifics of the debate, which divides opinion within the community most victimized by racial stereotypes, seem less pertinent than the fact of the debate itself. Objections to Walker’s works demonstrate a hostility to and willful misunderstanding of the nature of art, which must be permitted the irresponsibility of the interior life unedited by decorum or good taste. This is not “art with a message” in the usual sense. One would think that the bizarrely fantastical nature of Walker’s work would free it from the type of political vetting to which history textbooks are subject, but the work still manages to offend those literalists for whom the fictive dimension of art does not exist.

Those who object to her work on the grounds that it is degrading to black people seem to miss the point; Walker’s gothic tales of violence and perversity do not claim to mirror the realities of the black experience in America, though their freakish psychological mutations are those that flourish in the hothouse of racially divisive history. Her work, from subjects that feature acts of violation, dismemberment, and perversity of every variety to the medium of the paper silhouette that recalls gentle Victorian illustrations, declares itself to be pure fiction, a narrative that is as psychologically real as it is historically impossible. In these costume dramas we see the repressed libido of Tara, a furtive bubbling of violence and sexuality beneath lace frills.

One of the virtues of her work is to demonstrate the extent to which the very concept of race is a powerful fiction based on the construction of a mythical Other upon whom we project our irrational fears and compulsive desires. Stereotypes carried to such an extreme reveal their origin in the obsessions of the one who does the stereotyping, but Walker’s work also addresses how such caricatures are internalized to form the basis of a charged narrative of the self. Her archetypal characters, who lust after and maim each other with gleeful abandon, live at the intersection of history and the individual psyche where fear and desire are generated.

Attacks on Walker’s work conform to those launched by the radical right against art they consider offensive. Both camps refuse to distinguish between the social realm in which norms of civility must apply and the delinquency of the human heart that, as Freud pointed out, brooks no such constraints. Perhaps what her critics find so disturbing in her work is a certain joyfulness that revels in the bestial instead of delivering a stern moral message. But taking pleasure in the degraded is one of the realities of the human mind, and an enlightened humanism, while acknowledging the need for restraint within the social context, will permit, and in fact encourage, the expression of those urges for which no other outlet is available. Walker’s horrific and humorous vision touches a dimension of human experience that no traditional text can grasp….