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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics II

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
               -Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till” (from the Bootleg Series, Vol 9 [1962-64]

 

It was the summer of 1955, in Mississippi. The temperatures can rise to the high 90s, but this state had been burning for another reason.  The previous year, three young civil rights activists, who had been championing racial integration and attempting to register black voters, had disappeared.  Their bodies would be recovered from an earthen dam more than six weeks later.  The head of one of the Ku Klux Klan chapters in the state of Mississippi, who doubled as a preacher, was acquitted by an all-white jury that declared itself unable to convict ‘a man of God’.  Two of the three men were white, and the good old folks of Mississippi doubtless thought of them as race traitors; as for the one black men among them, James Chaney, the only good “Nigger” was a dead one—few white men doubted that.

Fourteen-year old Emmett Till, visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi from Chicago in the summer of 1955 would have been unaware of much of this.  On August 25th, he reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, a local beauty queen who ran a little provisions store.  Three days later, at 2 AM, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s home.  They bludgeoned young Emmett’s body until his face was unrecognizable and then shot him dead; his mutilated body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later.

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The Mutilated Body of Emmett Till, with his mother, Mamie Till. Photograph by David Jackson. Copyright: Time Magazine.

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Emmett Till in 1955.

Once again, an all-white and all-male jury acted to preserve the interests of the white race.  Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the charge of murder; the grant jury that convened to discuss kidnapping charges against the two men refused to indict them.  In the town of Sumner, where the trial was held, visitors were greeted with the slogan, “A good place to raise a boy.”

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Mamie Till at the Funeral of Her son, Emmett Till.  Copyright:  New York Times.

Months after the trial, Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing; their story appeared in the January 1956 issue of Look. But they could not be tried again, having been acquitted of that charge.  For their story, they received the tidy if not princely sum of $4000:  murder pays, literally.  Till might well have been forgotten, destined to become another statistic in the log book of white atrocities against black people, but for the fact that his mother, Mamie Till, took the bold step of having her son’s body displayed in an open coffin on September 3. Mourners recoiled at seeing Emmett’s horribly mutilated body; indeed, his body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that he could only be identified by his initials on a ring on one of his fingers. Photographs of Emmett’s body were reproduced widely and appeared in hundreds of publications.  Mrs. Till, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, did not live long enough to see her son receive justice, but his killing is nevertheless said to have spurred on the civil rights movement.  Most histories of the Civil Rights Movement commence with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but Ms. Parks herself would go on record to say, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”  The most influential documentary ever filmed on the Civil Rights Movement, the epic Eyes on the Prize, would open with the story of Emmett Till.

The casket in which Emmett’s body was placed is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American history.  There have been many other developments in the story of Emmett Till:  early this year, Carolyn Bryant, whose whiteness and lies—an ugly pairing that has destroyed many lives, indeed been the undoing of entire cultures—sent Emmett to his ghastly death, confessed that Emmett had made no physical or verbal advances on her.  “That part’s not true”, she told the author of a new book on the Emmett Till case.  But even more recently, Emmett Till is back in the public consciousness, this time with a controversial painting by Dana Schutz entitled “Open Casket” that was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial last month.  Schutz has based her painting on photographs of Till’s body that were published in Jet, the Chicago Defender, and a number of other magazines at that time.  It is not her painting which is controversial as such; rather, according to a number of African American artists, the subject is not Schutz’s to claim.  She is white.

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Diana Schutz, “Open Casket”, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, March 2017.

The artist Parker Bright positioned himself, over successive days, in front of the painting, sometimes with friends and fellow artists, to block the view.  The words, “Black Death Spectacle”, were splashed across the back of the T-shirt that he was sporting.  A black British artist, in a letter written to the two Asian American curators of the show, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, called for the destruction of the painting, arguing that the rights to freedom of speech and expression are “not natural rights” and that Diana Schutz, whose works command considerable sums of money in the art market, stands to profit from Emmett Till’s death.  Schutz has declared that she never intended to sell the painting; in her defense, she admits that she cannot know what it is like to be “black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.  Their pain is your pain.  My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

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Protest before Diana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket”. Photograph: New York Times.

Schutz’s defense does not appear to be implausible, and we should in any case be prepared to believe her both when she says that she never intended to sell her painting and that, as a mother, she can empathize with Emmett Till’s mother.  History is, of course, a profligate narrative of people profiting from the suffering of others, and many others are guilty of much more onerous acts of commission; it isn’t absolutely clear, as well, why, had she intended to sell her painting, Schutz would have been guilty of anything more than bad taste and poor ethical judgment. We may ask why Schutz must be subjected to some imaginary litmus test. It is perhaps also a tad bit unfortunate she chose to summon the “holy” institution of motherhood in her defense: if one intends to elicit some support, the figure of the mother can always be called forth.  But, beyond all this, lie some questions that in their elemental simplicity take us to the heart of the debates surrounding the politics of representation.  Who speaks for whom? With what right? With what notion of entitlement? With what responsibilities? Does one have to earn one’s stripes in order to speak for another—provided that is what Schutz was seeking to do—and just exactly how does one earn these stripes?  Over the span of centuries, many of those whom we accept as voices of conscience have urged upon us the notion that if there is injustice anywhere in the world, it is always a threat to justice; if someone else is without freedom, I cannot be entirely free myself.  Freedom is indivisible—at least some part of us must hold on to this idea.  If there are others who are suffering, wherein is my ‘happiness’? If at all I feel this way, do I not partake of that suffering?

In every great social and anti-colonial movement of the last several decades, one common principle has persisted among various differences.  In the women’s movement, the most astute feminists welcomed the participation of men, but on the condition that women would furnish the lead.  The major anti-colonial movements of the 20th century did not disavow the support of sympathetic white liberals; but there was always the awareness that white men, even the best intentioned, often have a tendency to dominate if not hijack a movement.  Mohandas Gandhi never lacked English friends and sympathizers, in India and England alike; but they accepted the idea that they would support the freedom struggle from the side.  This seems to be an unimpeachable idea of social justice, one calculated to lead to a heightened appreciation of the dignity of the struggle itself; and these considerations, too, are not so far apart from the questions that have been raised by the black protest against Diana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s “open casket”.  Nevertheless, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the supposition that, as a white artist, the suffering of Emmett Till is not  hers to claim—at least not for purposes of representation.  If there are no “natural laws” that confer an automatic right to freedoms of speech and creative expression, surely there are no “natural rights” which would lead us to believe that blacks know blacks best, or that only women may speak for women?  It would be trivializing the issue if we took the examples of Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas to suggest the difficulties in supposing that racial solidarity trumps every other bond of fellow feeling.  But how long must we persist in the notion, which one would imagine has had its day (though of course one knows otherwise), that politics derives in the first instance from identity? Is the protest over Schutz’s painting anything really much more than this rather procrustean idea?

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Ronald Harrison – courtesy: Damian Samuels

In Memoriam:  Ronald Harrison, 18 March 1940 Cape Town – 28 June 2011 Cape Town

 

Ronald Harrison, a Cape Town-based artist whose painting ‘The Black Christ’ provoked the apartheid regime of South Africa to fury, has passed away.  ‘Uncle Ron’, as he was affectionately termed by his younger friends, had been suffering from cancer over the last two years, and he died of a heart attack just as he had finished the last of a series of five new paintings.  Those who had the great fortune to know him also know how deeply his loss will be felt among his friends, fellow artists, and soul-mates in South Africa’s journey from apartheid to freedom.  I still recall our first meeting in Cape Town, in the fall of 2006:  Ronald, a man of intense energy, softness, elegance, and compassion, not to mention fortitude, left an extraordinary impression on me as he must have on everyone else.

 

To understand the contours of Ronald Harrison’s life, one must begin with Albert Luthuli.  A majestic figure, a hereditary Chief of the Zulus, Luthuli was clearly the most inspirational figure of his generation in South Africa, and his untimely death at the age of 69 in circumstances that can only be described as suspicious robbed South Africa of its most creative exponent of nonviolent resistance to apartheid.  Luthuli had joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1945, and he rose to become president of the provincial Natal branch of the ANC in 1951; the following year, Luthuli was among those who organized resistance to the notorious pass laws.  His part in the Defiance Campaign earned him the opprobrium of the government, and he was offered the choice of renouncing his membership in the ANC or being stripped of his Chieftainship.  Luthuli, characteristically, was never in doubt about his decision – but even as the South African government sought to demote him in the eyes of his people, he was elevated to the Presidency of the ANC.  Many honors were to come Luthuli’s way, including the Nobel Prize, the first ever awarded to an African, for Peace:  but the most lasting testimony of this gentle colossus’s fortitude and valor is the fact that the apartheid regime ‘banned’ him for much of the last fifteen years of his life, restricting his movements and preventing any mention of his name in public.  Luthuli nonetheless remained President of the ANC until his death, allegedly an accident on a train track close to his home, on 21 July 1967.  Few people doubt that Luthuli’s death was engineered by the apartheid state.

 

It is under Luthuli that Mandela, who was his deputy and president of the ANC branch in Transvaal, attained political maturity.   Though robbed of his Chieftainship, Luthuli clearly remained Chief to all his people – not only black South Africans, but all the oppressed of his nation.  Among those who viewed Luthuli as their political and spiritual mentor was Ronald Harrison, who was born in 1940 and grew into adolescence as Luthuli was coming into his own as one of the principal architects of the anti-apartheid movement.  Harrison was nearly fifteen years old when apartheid’s enforcers arrived at Sophiatown, near Johannesburg, and dismantled the entire black township within a few hours.  Later that summer, in 1955, the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter, whose Preamble stated that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based upon the will of the people”.   Twenty thousand women – African, colored, Indian, white – marched the following year to demand an end to injustices against African women.  The government’s response to the rising tide of resistance appears to have been to unleash more oppression:  at Sharpeville, nearly 60 peaceful demonstrators were killed in a police firing.

 

Harrison, meanwhile, had been gravitating towards art, and he has described himself as having the feelings of an angry young man as oppressive political events unfolded around him.  His “role model”, Chief Luthuli, had been exiled from the political world, and the ascendancy of Hendrik Verwoerd, described in Luthuli’s autobiography as “the author of our destruction”, to the Prime Ministership of South Africa in 1958 signaled to apartheid’s opponents that the regime would step up its repression.   In his inaugural speech, Verwoerd declared himself as “absolutely convinced that integration in a country like South Africa cannot possibly succeed”.  Where the US Supreme Court, in its famous 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, had signified that it was prepared to overturn the century-old dogma of ‘separate but equal’, in South Africa Verwoerd was reaffirming precisely that discredited view:   “The policy of separate development is designed for the happiness, security and stability provided by their home language and administration for the Bantu as well as the whites.”   Verwoerd appointed as his Minister of Justice and Police B. J. Vorster, who lost little time in introducing the notorious Detention Without Trial Act:  though it conferred on the state the right to hold detainees without any right to legal representation for a period of 90 days, in actuality it was designed to permit detention for indefinite periods of time.

 

Faced by apartheid’s onslaught on humanity, Harrison pondered whether he, as an artist, could somehow contribute to the liberation movement.  As a Christian, Harrison felt immensely troubled that the apartheid regime claimed the mantle of Christianity; however, Luthuli, himself a man of intense if quiet religious conviction, represented the other, more ennobling and emancipatory, face of their faith.  Late in 1961, Harrison was to write in his book The Black Christ:  A Journey to Freedom (Claremont, South Africa:  David Philip Publishers, 2006), he was struck by something of an epiphany:  what if he were to signify the suffering of South Africa’s black people by equating it with the crucifixion of Christ, rendering Luthuli as a modern-day Christ and apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd and Vorster, as Roman centurions, “the tormentors of Christ” (p. 26)?  An Asian St. John and a coloured Madonna, Harrison surmised, would complete the picture.  So came about the birth of “The Black Christ”, the painting around which revolves Harrison’s multi-layered narrative of the struggle against apartheid, the terror tactics of the South African state, the relation of art to politics, his own troubled life until the dismantling of apartheid, and the fate of “The Black Christ” itself.  Though Harrison does not reflect on the history of representations of Christ, we might say that with “The Black Christ” he was also returning Christianity to its true origins in black Egypt, in defiance of Europe’s attempts to escape the Afro-Asiatic roots of Western civilization.

 

Completed in June 1962, “The Black Christ” could be exhibited in public only briefly before the state pounced upon Harrison.  The Dutch Reformed Church, to which apartheid’s proponents belonged, asked Luthuli to repudiate publicly this representation of him as a crucified ‘Black Saviour’, little realizing that, as Luthuli was under banning and gagging orders, it was strictly illegal for any newspaper or other media to even mention his name, much less reproduce anything attributed to him (p. 31).  Summoned to appear at a police station to explain his conduct, Harrison issued a statement describing Luthuli as a man of peace, someone in whom the artist had found his “perfect image of Christ” in the here and now.  Urging everyone to recognize the “predominant spiritual atmosphere of the painting”, Harrison felt that the painting showed that “racial discrimination should not be practiced, for we are all united in one bond with Christ” (p. 35).  Harrison was not only let go, but shortly thereafter informed that he could hang the painting in any church of his choice – one of those gestures through which a totalitarian state lulls its subjects and even opponents into a false sense of security.  Apartheid’s “two main icons” had, however, been ridiculed, and Harrison never supposed that his offence would be overlooked.  Sure enough, only a week or two after it appeared that Harrison had been granted a reprieve, the Ministry of Interior issued orders prohibiting any further display of “The Black Christ” until the Board of Censors had certified that the painting was not calculated to offend the religious sentiments of a section of the public (p. 39).  Harrison himself was briefly taken into custody and roughed up:  this may have sufficed to persuade him to heed the advice of friends and activists, who were keen that the painting be smuggled into London where funds obtained from its public displays would be channeled to the political victims of apartheid (p. 41).

 

Even as “The Black Christ” found its way to Britain, Harrison’s own crucifixion commenced.  Over the following year, he would be hauled into torture chambers on several occasions.  His interrogators sought to know at whose instigation he had painted “The Black Christ”:  they wanted an account of a conspiracy to humiliate Verwoerd and South African whites when there was none.  Harrison describes the merciless beatings, the constant abuse, the nights in dark cold cells huddled up in the nude (pp. 47-60). There is a chilling account of a doctor brought to ‘heal’ Harrison’s wounds:  as two men held Harrison down, the doctor yanked out the nail of his right foot’s infected big toe with a huge pair of pliers (p. 57).   After several days of confinement, Harrison was released; but several months later, he was again hauled into custody and ruthlessly beaten up into a piece of pulp (pp. 71-85).  Enveloped by darkness, Harrison might well have become a statistic were it not for the unexpected kindness of two jailors, in particular an African woman whose gentle touch brought him back to life (pp. 79, 83-84).

 

In the second half of his autobiography, Harrison moves in considerable measure from the travails of his own life to the turmoil in the nation and the history of resistance to apartheid. The odious nature of apartheid, Harrison suggests, is most visible in such barbarisms as the Group Areas Act (1950), which entailed large-scale uprooting of coloreds, blacks, and Indians and decimated entire communities, among them the famous District Six in Cape Town.  As his narrative shifts to the early 1990s, to the period when Mandela and ANC leaders were released from jail, and Mandela was elected to the office of the President of South Africa, Harrison recalls the long-term effects of apartheid.  He notes with sadness how a majority of colored people in many Western Cape communities, who had doubtless imbibed some of the racist rhetoric about the unworthiness of black people, voted for their former oppressors rather than the ANC, declaring that they would not consent to be ruled by ‘kaffirs’ (p. 157).

 

Over a period of 35 years, Harrison’s “The Black Christ” had found shelter in the basement of an English home, and Harrison movingly recounts the painting’s triumphant return home and its eventual acquisition by the South African National Gallery.  Though the original is now stored in the gallery’s basement, a replica is on display at the offices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.  Madiba is among many of Harrison’s admirers and friends, and Dr Albertina Luthuli, daughter of Albert Luthuli and author of the foreword to Harrison’s book, was present at the funeral ceremonies along with Cape Town’s mayor.  As one contemplates the course of Harrison’s life, however, what unfailingly strikes one is the manner in which, to the very end, he continued to display remarkable qualities of compassion and forgiveness.  Nowhere in his book, or (as is commonly said) in his book of life, is there the slightest touch of hatred against his former oppressors.  Even the assassination in September 1966 of apartheid’s chief architect, Hendrik Verwoerd, elicits from Harrison the remark that he could not share in the jubilation experienced by apartheid’s victims:  “Verwoerd had been a monster; he had been a tormentor.  But he had also been a loving husband, a caring father, someone’s friend, the beloved son of proud parents.”  As he cautions us, we must ever endeavor not to become like those whom we despise.  The author’s generosity is present throughout his book, in his celebration of somewhat lesser known heroes of the struggle such as Barney Desai, who was instrumental in having the UN declare apartheid a ‘crime against humanity’, and equally in his willingness to accept the most elevated thoughts, whether their source be the Quran, the teachings of Christ, or the life of Gandhi.  Ronald Harrison’s life is palpable proof of how fortitude, equanimity, and a simple faith in the goodness of people might yet prevail amidst crushing adversity.

 

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The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, 2009.

The Symphony of Stones, Yu Gardens, Shanghai. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2009.

I heard the eminent Chinese artists, Liu Dan and Liu Sola, talk about ‘stones’ today. Sola has written the music to the ‘Stones Project’, conceived by Liu Dan as something of a testimony to the critical importance of stones in Chinese landscape – and in representations of Chinese landscapes in painting, art and music. Yesterday, on a visit to Yu Gardens, the finest specimen of a classical Chinese garden in Shanghai, I was struck by the placement of stones in the garden landscape, their immense numbers, indeed their grandiosity. Water meanders in and around stones, breathes life into them, and gives shape to them; and yet the stones, standing forth as sentinels, as humans, half-humans, or animals, seemed to have enough of a life of their own. Stones have chiseled out the trajectories of rivers and streams, bending water to their will. Water and stones, together, create a swirling symphony in the classical Chinese garden.

When one writes music for stones, does one do so with the understanding that they are mute? Or perhaps with the awareness, as my friend Teshome Gabriel has written in his moving, lucid and characteristically suggestive meditation on stones [in The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century], that stones speak a language that we do not understand? What kind of continuum is there between stones and humans? The story of Ahalya, first encountered in Valmiki’s Ramayana, comes to mind, though Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas is more apposite as a parable about not remaining stone-faced while thinking of stones. Brahma created Ahalya as the most beautiful of women: so beautiful was she that even the gods lusted after her, not least of them Indra. Ahalya is tricked into bedding Indra for the night; in his rage, her husband, Gautama Maharishi, condemns Indra to the woefully embarrassing display of a 1,000 vulvas on his body. (Indra, who could not henceforth venture out into the open, lest he should become the laughing stock of the world, performs severe penances and wins the approbation of Shiva, who agrees to transform the vulvas into eyes. But this is another story, with all the usual variations found in Indian traditions.) As for Ahalya, with Gautama’s curse she is turned into stone. Many years later, it is said, Rama and Lakshmana, as they are wandering around the forest, come by Gautama’s hermitage and are apprised of Ahalya’s story. Rama touches the stone with his feet, Ahalya – now absolved of her sins — springs to life, and Rama blesses her.

Humans work on stones and so make epics. That, at least, is the received narrative, and the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, and the Taj Mahal stand forth as testimony to this view. Human labor is transformative and we have long been accustomed to thinking of stones as inert and inanimate, requiring the labor and love of human beings to tweak some meaning out of them. That stones can move humans is amply clear, and the Kaaba and the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem equally suggest the manner in which stones themselves move through history. Increasingly, then, it seems to me that stones do an epic make. One Palestinian youth throwing a stone would be merely a miscreant; a few hurling stones would be viewed as a social nuisance; a few dozen of them throwing stones are treated as criminal elements, a threat to the social order; and thousands of them flinging stones become a wave that cannot be stopped. Thus was the Intifada of 1987, stones hurling through space and time and creating a revolution. The first lines of W. Hone’s “Canticle of the Stone” (London, 1817), seemed to have been written for the Palestinian Uprising: “O All ye workers of Corruption, bless ye the Stone: praise it, and magnify it as a Bullet for ever.”

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