Addressing slavery's fallout without tearful catharsis or egocentric bloviation: Kara Walker's
Addressing slavery's fallout without tearful catharsis or egocentric bloviation: Kara Walker's "A Work on Progress."
Photo by Dave Sweeney -- Whitney Museum via Bloomberg News
On Culture

Symbols of Hatred in the Shadows

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kara Walker, the celebrated African American conceptual artist, addresses issues related to race and racism in the ugliest of terms. In a world where the presence of a hangman's noose swaying from the limb of a Louisiana tree can incite violence, lopsided prosecutorial zeal and tear-choked demands for justice, Walker creates images so disturbing that they can shock a viewer dumb.

Walker, whose work is the subject of a retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, doesn't approach racism with the detachment of a historian. But she is not the type to indulge in tearful catharsis or the egocentric bloviation that tends to flow out of the ubiquitous town hall meeting: Pass the mike and let me tell you how my suffering is worse than yours.

Walker concedes that point right away. Everyone -- black and white -- has suffered because of slavery's legacy. Everyone has baggage -- huge steamer trunks filled with issues of self-esteem, entitlement and disenfranchisement. But while making allowances for that, she also argues that the fallout from slavery is a tangled web of grotesquerie, violence and absurdity. And everyone -- white and black -- has some culpability.

One of the first things a visitor sees after entering Walker's exhibition is the shadow of a black man seemingly lifted aloft by his own genitals, which have been inflated like a hot air balloon. The image is vulgar and unnerving -- part stereotype, mockery and, even, one suspects, a reference to black male self-aggrandizement. But it is illustrated in polite, parlor silhouettes -- a technique as genteel as a cameo brooch. That is Walker's trick; that's how she lures viewers. When she addresses the subject of birth, for instance, instead of the sweet silhouette of a baby, she delivers the sight of a slave woman expelling infants in the monstrous manner of someone defecating. In addition to the familiar scenes of the antebellum South -- hoop skirts, cotton fields, masters and slaves -- there are images of homosexuality, pornography and black violence.

It is impossible to feel good looking at Walker's work. It comes at you like a relentless nightmare. Walker drags everyone who dares to view her work down into the muck.

The show's title, "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," points to the complexity of the black-white relationship. Her work has been criticized by other artists, intellectuals and collectors as exploiting stereotypes. Of mocking or aggravating the victim's suffering. And maybe she does. Is that unfair? Or tough love?

Walker's work is fueled by the enduring power of symbols: the pickaninny, the golliwog, the hangman's noose. The noose has been flexing its power lately. The ones hanging from a tree in a schoolyard in Jena, La., sparked fistfights, arrests, protests and soul-searching. One attached to the office door of a black professor at Columbia University led to protests and more soul-searching by students and faculty.

On Sept. 7, representatives from a student newspaper at the University of Maryland reported seeing a noose hanging from a tree outside a building housing several minority student organizations. The noose had apparently been dangling from the tree since late August. Once it was reported, there were dialogues about how offensive it was, "speak-outs" so students could work through their emotions and a show of unity through buttons and such.

This soul-searching has become a cliche, exhausting and seemingly ineffective. People know the history of the noose and its connection to lynching. The question is not why people use it. The answer is simple enough: to instill fear, to churn up hate, to dehumanize, to feel powerful.

People should always be on guard against the rise of dangerous behavior and violent, racist messages. Punish the perpetrator. But skip the soul-searching. Don't we already know what's lurking in there by now?

Walker addresses a host of uncomfortable questions about the enduring bond between the oppressor and the victim. Sometimes her questions are fundamental ones about self-definition. At their most basic, they are similar to issues raised by Bill Cosby, who has been talking about the failures among black Americans in parenting, self-reliance and personal responsibility. As he and co-author Alvin Poussaint go from "Meet the Press" to "Oprah" promoting their new book, "Come On People: On the Path From Victims to Victors," Cosby doesn't deny the impact of institutional racism, but he heaps blame for the failures of many poor blacks at their own feet. Fight real obstacles, Cosby says. Don't be paralyzed or distracted by victimhood.

Symbols of oppression seem to gain their power from their victims: by their degree of outrage, hurt and fear.

What if the noose in College Park had simply been left to rot until it crumbled to the ground? Could that have been a more potent retort than the predictable mad dash to denounce it and the history that it symbolizes?

What would have happened if those students in Jena had ignored the nooses? Would the situation have escalated to violence regardless? Would there have been some ruinous psychological repercussions? Will it ever be possible to remember the horrible history of lynching while neutering a loop of rope of its ability to incite?

Walker's artwork questions how much power is robbed from victims and how much power they give up. In that spirit, the next time a loop of rope is hung from a tree -- and surely, sadly, there will be another -- instead of asking "When is the vigil?," one might also ask: "Should this cowardly declaration of power be validated by so much righteous outrage?"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company