A few years ago, I had the honor of sitting on a panel with the civil rights icon, Myrlie Evers. Evers is the widow of civil rights martyr Medger Evers and has worked tirelessly over the last forty years to advance the cause of civil rights in America. During the panel, Evers expressed an interest in the new generation of leaders. Evers was getting on in years and wanted to know that the work she and others had begun would be finished.
“Relax,” I assured her. “We applaud you for a job well-done. But you can now relax, assured that there are warriors sufficient to pick the ball up and carry it the last few yards over the goal line.” I may have spoken too soon.
Recent events have caused me to re-evaluate my confidence. Alas, I am no longer certain the bench is deep enough. Warriors like Evers have been replaced with squishy, weak Negroes – whiners, emotionally weak, noodle-spined crybabies who are ill-prepared to wage a battle for civil rights or anything else.
Case in point: controversy recently erupted on the campus of University of Buffalo when “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” signs appeared around the campus. Campus police were called and the signs were quickly removed. It was later revealed that the signs were hung by Ashley Powell, a black, graduate fine-arts student, as part of an art project.
At a meeting of the Black Student Union, Powell explained the reasoning behind her installation.
“My art practice is not an act of self-policing meant to hide my rage. Instead, it uses pain, narrative, and trauma as a medium of expression and as grounds for arguing a need for change in the first place. I understand that I forced people to feel pain that they otherwise would not have had to deal with in this magnitude. But I ask, should non-white people not express or confront their trauma? Should we be content with not having to confront that pain? We know it exists, and it often causes many of us immediate discomfort. Should we not be in a state of crushing discomfort?
These signs made you feel discomfort. They are tangible objects that forced you to revisit your past, to confront your present, and to recognize here and now the underlying social structures that are directly responsible for your pain and suffering. This project makes forceful what has been easy for you to ignore.”
I understand that the ambiguity of the “black only” and “white only” signs are problematic in light of recent events on other campuses where actual acts of hatred, misogyny, and racism occurred. However, my work is something else – an artistic intervention. This was not a social experiment. I do not need to experiment with non-white people’s trauma, nor pain, to know that is there. This was not a joke. I do not need to, and will never joke about my own reality, or anyone else’s, because our reality is grave, it is frightening, and it is one of constant endurance, resilience, and burden. This project, specifically, was a piece created to expose white privilege. Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people, and oppress another. Forty to fifty years ago, these structures were visibly apparent and physically graspable through the existence of signs that looked exactly like the signs I put up. Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does. Any white person who would walk past these signs without ripping them down, shows a disturbing compliance with this system. These signs do not allow a white person to give the age old excuse of “I didn’t create this system” or “I never asked for this white privilege.” They attempt to give those people the individual agency to rebut the very system that puts them in a place of supremacy. These signs illustrate that white people do not have to be active aggressors, like the KKK, to be responsible for this system of racism and white privilege that threatens, traumatizes, brutalizes, stunts, and literally kills non-white people every day in the United States.
Good grief! Given the amount of “pain” this woman seems to be in, one might imagine that she was born and raised in depression era Mississippi, as opposed to, say, the south side of Chicago in the late 20th and early 21st century. Indeed, 40 to 50 years ago, the racist structures she speaks of were visibly apparent. Today, those structures are not visible because they do not exist. That is to say, they do not exist until some pretentious art student recreates them and hangs them on the wall. Seemingly forgotten by this embittered and afflicted woman is the fact that she is attending the University of Buffalo (even Rachel Dolezal attended Howard!), that blacks are free to move and travel unencumbered, and there is a black man in the White House. That is not to say that racism doesn’t exist. It is to say that 2015 is NOT 1955!
Also, I am not an art critic. My sense, however, is that if – in 2015 – you are a black artist and your art practice consists of xeroxing “whites only” signs and placing them around campus to protest white privilege, you should seriously reconsider your career aspirations.
There exists, however, a much larger point. In her letter to the editor, Powell condemns white students who didn’t rip the signs down as being complicit in the system of privilege. But NOWHERE does Powell question the failure of black students to remove the signs. I have a suspicion that it never occurred to Powell to ask, “What about the black students failure to act?” Powell didn’t ask, so I will ask for her: What does it say about black students that they didn’t see those signs, take them down, and rip them to shreds? (Black power, baby!) No doubt, the point of this art practice and other similar wastes of energy is that black people have no power. Ridiculous! I would like to think that somewhere there exists a black consciousness – a Jean Pittman – that would have seen those signs and responded by saying, ‘Not here! Not today!”
But the new negro is too traumatized. Yes, traumatized! To read the news reports is to read reports filled with black students suffering psychological trauma. Campus police received calls from traumatized students. In her letter to the editor of the school newspaper, Powell apologizes for the pain and trauma she caused people. At the BSU meeting, when it was revealed that Powell, a black woman, had put up the signs, many students wept and left the room traumatized. Faculty and students gathered for a meeting in order to discuss the context and history of such signs and to work through their trauma. Students feared for their lives. Students feel that they will never get over this trauma. It goes on and on.
I am embarrassed for these students. Imagine, generations of black people struggled through centuries of the worst and most vicious race prejudice imaginable. Through it all, there emerged a vibrant culture of art, dance, music, theater, and eventually academic life. Yet, here are these new negroes – negroes of privilege – who are so soft, so tender and sensitive that they needed a group therapy session, replete with discussions of Post traumatic slave disorder. Indeed these new activist negroes are so squishy that the mere sight of xeroxed signs causes trauma for life.
I had better get Myrlie on the phone and tell her to strap up and get ready to ride.