The Diverse Divide

It was during the fall of 2008.  I took a diversity class at Memphis College of Art thinking that being an opinionated, “tell it like it T. I. IS”, forward-thinking black woman, I had a needed and unique perspective to offer a class consisting of mostly white students, the majority of who were under the age of forty.

As a kick starter for a discussion on intolerance, the instructor, Jennifer Gonzales, asked me to present a power-point version of some of the artwork from the Fabled Truths Collection. I welcomed the chance to shake things up. For example, my explication of a painting like “cat chow”, withits stylized depiction of an Asian woman and the repeated side bar images of a rice crispy treat on fine red china and white cats: “Pussy on a plate, pussy on a plate, pussy on a plate” was a definite recipe for discomfort.

I was well aware that these paintings evoked an unease in others, but I had less of an understanding of my purpose and motives for creating the artwork. The poetic essays which would later accompany the paintings were drawn from tangible experiences both personal and observational, but those 43 self-portraits . . . with their illustrious slurs againsthumanity were another issue.

They were images that dissolved the boundaries between right and wrong assumptions about groupings of people.  And to be honest, during the process of creating the work and upon my solitary reflection following the production of it, I would often find myself vaguely repulsed and intangibly ashamed of committing both blatant, and somewhat ethereal taboos of judgments, for having betrayed a sacred something, someone sacred and off limits. . .  The work was uncompromising. These slurs were my slurs. My creation of it unsettled me. But I could not shake the desire to continue the process.

I was well into 20 of the self-portraits when I was became aware of Cindy Sherman’s prolific collection of photographs, but after reading critiques and reading her statements about her work, I sensed that I was not doing what she was doing. In other words, I knew what I wasn’t doing.  For starters, I knew that I wasn’tjust documenting experiences, or just celebrating situations or just exploring facets of something specific.  I wasn’t just doing one of those things, I was doing all of those things.  Figuratively the depictions were of women, but not with a singular foundational theme of the feminist or the feminine.  I was merging my mirror image with both specific iconography and mainstream generalizations based on separatist ideology. And with the former came the awareness that what I was creating could be an endless endeavor, a delivery which could go well beyond my 43 self-portraits and into the triple digits in imagery if I chose that route.

The driving question shifted from: “Why was I doing this?” to “Why had I gone there?’ with the summation being: “How in the hell can I promote this project without getting critically reamed for doing so?”

Remember that diversity class I thought I was called on to enlighten; the class I thought I didn’t really need.  Two weeks into it, a handful of white students were complaining about what they viewed as the “one-sided” racist perspective forged by the textbook. Direct snippets like:  “Racism in the United States references attitudes and behaviors that denote the superiority of the dominant, White racial group.” did not sit well with most of the students. This out of context statement was targeted by some of my classmates with intense scrutiny.

Their responses always started with “I’m White”, and ended with: “but I am not a racist.”  This statement enraged me.  I had heard it many times before and always drowned in the rage it evoked in me. I wanted to respond with something clever, something that would shake their collective souls to their cores, but I knew that if I had said anything at that moment, it would have contained sputtering, sprinkled with four-letter words, none of which would have swayed their opinions.

I left the class that night examining my rage.  It was not like my classmates had said “There is, and never has been, any racism in the United States.” It was not like they had said: “Well, duh Man! Everybody knows that the white race is superior.”

I actually knew and liked the white young man who had declared the loudest that he was not a racist. Now, I didn’t know what his opinion would have been after five beers at the pool hall, but I had never experienced him as a racist, quite the opposite.  I had never sensed any self-consciousness coming from him during our discourse in the past. During our conversations, I would never have placed his internal dialogue as being:  “I am talking to a black person now, so I will have to be very careful about what I say.”  So,in knowing all of this, why did I still want to go postal on him?

At the risk of aligning myself with some hardcore bigots, I will explain. At least, a true racist has looked upon the facts of racism, has engaged the historical fact of racism, has questioned it and has unfortunately, deemed it wanting in terms of reality.  He has addressed and attacked the fact of it, has countered it with his own generalization, has colored it with his own version of the rightness/wrongness of it, the existence/nonexistence of it, and the rationality/irrationality of racism in American.

The bigot’s engagement with the issues may have been brief and limited in depth, but he has looked at the unpleasantness of the fat and has decided to briefly plop it in his mouth and spit it out.  He has engaged it.

Then there are others, with open minds, who look upon the greasy unpleasantness of the fat, and regardless of how disgusting the prospect or truth of consuming it may be, have decided to chew on it and swallow the issue. They have engaged the meal and accepted the reality of it. The bottom line of any historical issue of racism or prejudice is that you can chew the fat of it, swallow it or spit it out.

Or shut down on the issue, not even looking at the unpleasant fat is on the plate in front of you.And it sits there. Not engaged. Most will even pretend that they are not sitting there at the table in front of the mess.  Sitting back straight, smiling across the table at a Bert and Ernie Sesame Street world of rainbow beast and ideals.  Neither agreeing or disagreeing with the validity of the unsavory nature of the meal, not slicing into its oily juiciness with their intellect.  Without the least of engagement progress stagnates.

The issue of racism -vs- a disclaimershould at the very least come in with the ringing of the bell of acknowledgment. Acknowledgement that a group of people, who happened to resembles you, was responsible for the nasty meal. Whether you choose to partake or not, give compliments to who cooked up the atrocities. It is what it is even if it was once the main course in your diningroom. A close skin-headed buddy maybe? Your grandma who mutters wistfully about the good old cotton-pickin’ days when her granddaddy owned people? Whatever. It is what it is. Accept it. Historically or personally don’t only hear someone blaming you. Know who you are, what you didn’t do or did, what you heard or really think but don’tdishonor history to placate an automatic protective obsession of divorcing yourself from it.

I was glad I hadn’t spoken that night in diversity class.  I was glad, that instead, I chose to struggle with my own feelings, to struggle with my own responses to the documentation of history.  A history which sometimes has had to lend itself to generalizations, in order for that documentation, to serve the purpose of what history is:  the recording and chronicling of past facts and events.

I was more than willing to embrace the vortex of misunderstanding which comes from over-personalizing a fact.  And in the grip of that vortex, it was easy to dismiss,and group, all who disagreed as racist.

To step beyond my anger, I had to consciously separate historical truths, from my fabled truths,in addition to separating all the individual fabled truths of my peers. And although I can say that “they” were missing the point, wasn’t I equally missing the point by wanting to deny them their rights to protest?  Wasn’t I equally missing the point by minimizing their present-day, individual and truthful histories of not practicing racism?

The world is a nutcase. We ain’t right. It is all complicated and convoluted and as insaneas watching endless and useless circular arguments of white denials and black accusations on TV, in the media, and in public forums.  As insane as watching proclaimed black leaders, swooping in “to lend clarity” to “volatile acts” of discrimination and prejudiced while chunky white talk show host pad their pockets with advertisement money by screaming “post racial”. “You call me a sexist; you’re a sexist for acknowledging that I am a man.” “You calling me a racist; you’re a racist for even bringing up race.”  “I see color” is like the new “I see dead people” Everyone seems to needs someone to reduce and ridicule.

And that’s where the humor comes in. Behind every good funny is discomfort and tragedy, there is some “other” out there who doesn’t have it together, who gives us full permission to put our mirrors in our back pockets and laugh at them. Humor is our relief against the old oak tree because there is nowhere else to go with the unpleasantness in ourselves. It is something that everybody has, that deep-seated, ego-fed notion that “Hell, I gotta be better those people”  “Those” who are, not without a doubt, standing around relieving himself against another old oak tree saying the same damned things about you.

No matter what your racial make-up, or group or groups you align yourself with, whether the American flag flapping in your front yard is bigger than that monster one in the Perkins Restaurant parking lot, or you are secretly flicking your bic against the one that you keep in your damp basement, whether by your own, or somebody else’s estimation, you could lose a few pounds or are too skinny to be a model, chances great that you have seen yourself, or someone you think you know, or know of, through the paintings and the poems in Fabled Truths.

It is my greatest hope that you have listened and spoken to those you found familiar in Volume One of Fabled Truths. I hope you introduced and engaged yourself to the strangers therein and have allowed this first collection to re-introduce you to you.