“Righteous Rage” We brought you into this world. The land you stole, the economy you propped up on the backs of our ancestors, the wars we fought for your freedom when we weren't free brought you into this world. We are tired. We are tired of police brutality. We are tired of fighting every breathing minute for a quality education. We are tired of fighting for the acknowledgment of and rectification for unequal pay, voter suppression, loan discrimination and redlining. We are tired of having the cops called on us for simply existing. Somewhere between prayer and burning it all down is the America we worked to build. During the creation of this photograph, a black pickup truck lingered ominously. Shortly after finishing, two Halifax County sheriffs pulled up as we were leaving. We were the only ones there. (Cornell Watson)
North Carolina photographer Cornell Watson’s photo series “Behind the Mask” is not only a powerful collection of images and words, it is extraordinarily timely and relevant. It is a reminder, to me, that sometimes I just need to shut up and listen to voices that have long been undervalued and underrepresented.
The events of this year have brought to the forefront the pain that has been inflicted on far too many of our fellow citizens. And we need to be honest: That pain has been festering for generations and generations, not just the past few months and not just when they generate headlines and take over the airwaves.
Sometimes, more times than not, a lot of us just need to shut up and listen. Watson’s photo series gives us ample opportunity to do just that. In it, Watson lifts up the stories of men and women marked by having to push through the circumstances thrust upon them by centuries of racism. Like the grandfather who, as a young boy, often would walk to school barefoot because he had no shoes. Or the women and children who, despite the odds, are steadfastly moving forward with their lives.
Watson’s words about “Behind the Mask” are far more profound than anything I can say. Here’s an excerpt from his artist statement:
“This photo series is in honor of my ancestors who smiled when they were not happy, laughed when nothing was funny, and cried when they were not sad so that I could be here today. … This is for the time we cut or straighten our hair to be ‘professional.’ For the times we pretend to be happy around our managers after seeing photos of them in Blackface. For the days we show up to work and smile after watching our brothers and sisters lynched on live stream. For the times we change our voices and profile pics to make hotel and dinner reservations. For the times we pretend to be strong when we are dying from the weight of racism.”
“Boot Straps” I walked to school sometimes with no shoes because I didn’t have any. In front of the remnants of the segregated school he attended his daughter and his granddaughter laughed when I asked him to remove his shoes. But his feet had already known that ground. We survive our education system with no boots. We fight wars and return home with no boots. We unselfishly put America's needs before ours with no boots. We survive in America with no boots. There are no boot straps for us to pull ourselves up by, because there are no boots. (Cornell Watson) “The Kitchen Table Incident.” Inspired by John Wilson’s “The Incident” and Carrie Mae Weems’s “The Kitchen Table Series.” (Cornell Watson) “35” This is a story that I only bore witness to, but this is not my story. How many happy stories, sad stories, angry stories, excited stories, do we not know because our sisters are stolen from us? How many of our sisters live a subdued version of their story because there is something or someone looming, ready to snuff out their light? A mask, on a mask, on a mask. (Cornell Watson) “Allostatic Load” Family, both blood and chosen, are the foundation of our survival. Black women are the roots, the trunk, the branch and the leaves. Black women create the oxygen we breathe. This is an Ode to Black women. Thank you. (Cornell Watson) “Egg Shells” Growing up in rural America is an experience with plenty of obvious reminders that we have not made much racial progress. Racism is rampant in every corner of life. The air we breathe, the water we drink, schools we attend, the policing of our communities, the laws we live under, the prison population that sits on land we were enslaved on, the streets named after our oppressors, and the statues that hover over us like scarecrows. It's in our face everywhere we go. If you’re a Black woman, then there is additional oppression from patriarchy. If you’re a Black queer woman, there is homophobia. And yet, there is happiness, love and strength. Being Black queer women while raising a Black daughter means constantly having to walk on egg shells. We knew we only had a few minutes to create this photograph because trouble is never far away when Black people are existing in public spaces. We were approached by two White men in a pickup truck just as we were wrapping up. They were saying something to us, but I could not make out what it was. And maybe that was for the best. (Cornell Watson) “Weldon” You deserve to have access to the same education they have four miles away. You deserve to not have Confederate tourist signs and monuments in your neighborhood. You deserve to have resources and not resource officers. You deserve the benefit of the doubt. You deserve to know your history more than one month a year. You deserve a childhood without racial profiling and “the talk.” You deserve to be seen as kids and not criminals. You deserve to know that your Blackness is beautiful. You deserve better. (Cornell Watson) “Survivors' Guilt” They stood in east Durham, N.C., where she grew up, while she donned her cap and gown. Staring at the effects of modern-day racism, her children were visibly uncomfortable. Her son said, “Honestly, how did you live through that?” These conditions were not meant for us to live through. Sometimes I feel guilty for making it out and my friends and family are still there. It’s sad because I know the lack of resources and opportunities are what contributes to people staying in poverty. (Cornell Watson) “The Drowning” My best friend is the father of three Black boys and it was his birthday. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were front of mind, and this birthday celebration was supposed to be a brief break from reality. We were pouring drinks in the kitchen when I asked him how it felt turning another year older. What he said, I was not expecting. The essence of his response was that his birthday was a reminder that he is one more year closer to having to explain to his boys why playing outside with toy guns was dangerous. One more year closer to explaining why unarmed Black man died at the hands of those paid to protect him. One more year closer to having that dreadful talk about being Black boys in America. We created this photo on another birthday, the Fourth of July. In the process of creating the photograph, someone approached and asked, “What is this supposed to represent?” Shortly after, a White woman paddled by in her boat. She yelled to her husband, “Look, honey! Look at the flag, that’s just not right!” She could only see the flag submerged in the water and not us drowning in it. (Cornell Watson)
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