A 'Klan Room' Filled With Relics, but Empty of Import

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Faceless hooded figures. The iconic noose. Rifles stacked one atop the other, forming the shape of a pointed hood, from which peer out eyes wide with fear -- or is it defiance? Hooded dolls stabbed with sewing pins, voodoo-style.

I take in the images, register the rage behind the artist's work, his need as a white Southerner to expel the madness, to push it away and refuse to claim it. I just can't get riled up by men playing dress-up. I take it all in, and I am struck, not by the banality of evil, but by the silliness of it. To me, post-civil rights, pre-hip-hop, the Klan is so old school. Ineffectual, impotent, past tense.

Checking out William Christenberry's "Klan Room Tableau," showing now through May 11 at American University's Katzen Arts Center, triggers memories. You could say that the Klan and I go back, way back. It's hard not to be black in the South -- hell, to be black anywhere in America -- without being acquainted with the KKK on some visceral level, no matter how abstract.

My acquaintance with the KKK extends beyond the abstract.

When Klansmen marched through my grandparents' Atlanta neighborhood back in the '40s, my grandfather grabbed his shotgun and stood on his front lawn, staring them down in his best don't-even-try-it way. They didn't. In the '80s, my mother, then an NAACP lobbyist, helped to get anti-Klan legislation passed in the Georgia Senate. She can't remember if she got death threats at the time. I seem to remember her getting them, but memory can be a tricky thing. My take-away from my family: The Klan is to be fought, not feared.

I'm not likely to forget my own encounter with them. I was a cub reporter for the Chicago Tribune, assigned to cover a Klan rally at a park in Janesville, Wis., in 1992. The day before, I called to arrange a meeting with the rally's organizer, Kenneth Petersen, who identified himself as the "Exalted Cyclops" of the Klan's Knights sect. I have an Aryan last name, the legacy of my German slave-owning great-great-grandfather, and, I am told, I sound like a "white girl" -- whatever that means. Which is to say, I'm sure Petersen was expecting someone other than brown-skinned me. I've got to hand it to him, though. He kept his game face on (his hood had the face cut out) as he shook my proffered hand and answered my questions ("Are you guys still planning to burn a cross tonight?") in a pleasant-enough manner.

After all, publicity's publicity.

And Petersen and his crew clearly needed it: They were outnumbered by protesters and press by something like 20 to 1. When a riot broke out between the protesters and the police, the Klan put their rally on pause, waiting patiently for the cameras to turn back on them. Only then did they resume their rally, with their left-handed salutes and cries of "White power!" And no, they didn't burn a cross. It was against park rules.

Christenberry's Klan figures strike me as similarly irrelevant, relics of a bygone era. This is not to devalue the past terror. It's just that in these days of war and rampant panic about the economy, people of color have a lot of things to be scared about, hooded men being the least of those worries.

At 71, Christenberry, a photographer-painter-sculptor, is of a different generation. I came of age in the late '70s, early '80s -- at the same time as Barack Obama, our "post-racial" presidential candidate.

Christenberry came of age in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at a time when the impact of the Ku Klux Klan, this country's largest terrorist organization, was writ large. Out of curiosity, he attended a Klan rally, only to flee in terror after he was confronted by the terrifying visage of a masked and hooded man. His "Klan Room Tableau," a mixed-media collection of sketches, photos and dioramas, is an exorcism of that experience, a repudiation of hate. In it, he turns the violence back on the ones pulling the trigger, the ones rigging the noose.

Crude dolls with pointed hoods, constructed of burlap and stuffed with what looks like BBs, hang from the wall, splattered with drippings of melted red wax. They are faceless, and in their anonymity, they are denied their humanity, reduced to blobs. Klan dolls are shoved into miniature wooden coffins. A cluster of hooded G.I. Joes stand under a roof, backs to each other, looking as if they're poised to flee -- or to attack. A series of charcoal portraits marches across the expanse of a wall, frame after frame of masked, hooded men. Their eyes peer out: spooked, angry, wary. Over one masked man a skull is superimposed; in others the mouth is cut away to reveal bared teeth . . . or fangs. Again, their facelessness renders them inhuman. Looking at them, with their elongated heads, I'm reminded of aliens in sci-fi flicks.

Christenberry's use of dolls conjures images of voodoo. The hooded figures poked with sewing pins. A white satin cloth festooned with red sequins spelling out "KKK" looks a lot like a Haitian voudoun flag. Is Christenberry comparing the Klan to the religious tradition? Or is he using voodoo symbolism to excise their evil? If so, it's ironic that he uses the tools of a practice rooted in West African traditions to punish bad white folks.

Wandering through Christenberry's exhibit, I expected to feel some kind of rage. Instead, I felt indifference. Even with the "Slow Death Zone" sign in one drawing, it's hard not to feel like Christenberry's art is an exercise in abstraction. What's missing are the images of their victims: Civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. Not to mention all the other anonymous souls who met their end at the hands of the Klan, strange fruit swinging in the night. Without their presence, Christenberry's hooded dolls just feel like a twisted game of make-believe.

William Christenberry's "Site/Possession," featuring 50 rarely exhibited drawings and "Klan Room Tableau," continues through May 11 at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, located on Ward Circle at Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues NW. Call 202-885-1300 or visit

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