In and out of the frame: an American artist in Berlin
DuBois Lecture Series
Humboldt University, Berlin
Tuesday, 29 May 2012
First, I want to thank the organizers of the DuBois Lecture series for inviting me to be a part of it; Martin Klepper for his lovely introduction, and a special thanks to Markus Heide, who has been talking about my participation in this series for at least a year, as if it was a foregone conclusion. And I’d like to dedicate this evening to my father, Washington Dubois Ross, whose parents, my grandparents, blessed him with the middle name of one of the world’s most prominent cultural thinkers. It is a privilege to be speaking, at least in part, from within that frame.
1. Not in Kansas
It was on my way to see an exhibition at Haus am Waldensee that I first encountered Uncle Tom in Berlin. I hadn’t been living here for very long and was still learning to navigate my way around the different segments of the public transportation system. So since I was unfamiliar with the stops after Dahlem Dorf on the u3, and I was anxious not to miss where I needed to get off, Krumme Lanke, I was paying close attention. I was also curious about the architecture of the different stations, and would come, as veteran uBahn riders did, to be able to recognize a stop from only a brief glimpse of the tile work, the colour of the walls, or other design elements. At that time, however, I was still a novice. And in fact, I should have realized that since Krumme Lanke was the last station on the line in the direction in which I was traveling, I couldn’t make a mistake. But I get anxious when I’m traveling in unfamiliar territory, and with anxiety, logic wasn’t the operative word here. In any case, the train arrived at and left its appointed stops—Wittenbergplatz, Augsburger Strasse, Spichernstrasse… Hohenzollernplatz, Fehrbelliner, Heidelberger, and Ruedesheimer Platz….Dahlem Dorf, Thiel Platz, and Oskar-Hell-ena-Heim. I was almost there. And then, we pulled into the station just before Krumme Lanke, and as I looked out the window, with great astonishment I read on the station sign [slide of station sign] the words “Onkel Toms Huette.”
This struck me as impossibly weird. Was this some kind of German joke? What on earth would possess the transportation system to name a station after a character in an American text that carried so much baggage?
In any event, as the train pulled out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin station, I had the feeling that, like Dorothy, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly was both a literary and a social phenomenon. [slide of mss page; slide of original publication] First published in book form in 1852 (it was serialized in the Washington, D.C. newspaper, the National Era, beginning on June 5, 1851, with almost weekly installments, until April 1, 1852), Uncle Tom’s Cabin was described by John P. Jewett, the original publisher of the novel in book form, as “The Greatest Book of Its Kind.” [winship] and since its initial publication, like the bible, has never been out of print.
As a visual artist, I find Stowe’s own description of her own text, as well as the intentions she ascribed to it, quite interesting:
“My vocation is simply that of painter, and my object will be to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery [upper case “s”], its reverses, changes, and the negro [lower case “n”] character, which I have had ample opportunities for studying. There is no arguing with pictures, and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not.” [winship article]
The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be assessed from numerous perspectives. The quantitative would tell us things like the number of copies printed and sold during different periods of time, in and outside the U.S. The qualitative would look at things like audience reception and the role the novel played in the abolitionist movement as well as the resistance to it. With new editions came new artwork, both cover illustrations as well as images depicting various scenes from the narrative. These of topsy and little eva are absolutely priceless. . [slide of topsyEva by Neill; slide TopsiesEvas] [mention website www.cracked.com?]
In terms of genre, the text served as the source for theatre pieces, popular culture objects, and once we enter the twentieth century, film, both in the U.S. as well as here in Germany. The first cinematic version of Stowe’s iconic text was a silent film released in 1903, leading off a parade of at least eight more silent adaptations made in the United States between its release and 1927. According to the University of Virginia’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture Multi-Media website, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin [was] the most-filmed story of the silent era.”
In 1965, a German-language film of the Beecher Stowe novel appeared, [slide germanMovie poster; slide kitzmiller] directed by Hungarian Géza von Radványi, who had also directed the 1958 remake of Mädchen in Uniform from 1931. This mid-1960s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Onkle Toms Hütte) starred John Kitzmiller, an African American actor born in Battle Creek, MI in 1913, as Uncle Tom. Kitzmiller had received the best actor award at the Cannes film festival in 1957 for his role in the 1956 Yugoslavian (now Slovenian) film Dolina Miru (valley of peace), directed by France Stiglic, and appeared in a number of European-made films during his relatively short life (he died at the age of fifty-one). As far as I can tell, the last cinematic retelling of the story, at least in the U.S., was a made-for-televison movie in 1987, directed by Stan Lathan and starring Avery Brooks as Uncle Tom and Samuel L. Jackson as George. (Okay, for you Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Pulp Fiction fans, this casting has got to make your head spin, right?) Hollywood attempted to fill the interval of no new Uncle Tom’s Cabin movies, which started in 1927 with Universal’s $2 million production, with an MGM remake in 1946, but the NAACP was actually successful in quashing the project.
The first staged performance of the literary wunderkind took place in January, 1852, two months before the release of the novel in March of the same year. This theatrical version was produced at the Baltimore Museum under the title Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it is; or, the Southern Uncle Tom, and another rendition was put on by C. W. Taylor at Purdy’s National Theatre in New York that August..
A phenomenon known as Tom Songs was another indication of the extent to which Stowe’s novel had captivated the American public, and practically overnight, or what passed for very quickly back then. Stephen A. Hirsch, in his article “Uncle Tomitudes: The Popular Reaction to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in the 1978 issue of Studies in the American Renaissance, recounts the beginning of this musical strand of the work:
“Readers of Dwight’s Journal of Music, a prestigious Boston music newspaper with a devotion to Beethoven and a general contempt for popular song, must have been faintly surprised when the 10 July 1852 edition came out in praise of Manuel Emilio’s setting of Whittier’s [John Greenleaf Whittier, 19th-century Quaker poet] ‘Little Eva; Uncle Tom’s Guardian Angel.”
Hirsch goes on to describe the Whittier-Emilio effort as “a weepy lyric with a saccharine accompaniment” and which “seems to have been the first of the Tom-songs offered to an acutely song-conscious American public.”
[slide 8 rosettaVivian]
Here we have an image that combines both music and theatre. These are the Duncan sisters, Rosetta and Vivian, on the cover of some sheet music from their 1923 vaudeville production ‘Topsy & Eva’:
“a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with music and peppy ballet, chorus, dancers stepping the Charleston to the crack of Simon Legree’s whip all very modern and with a happy ending.”
Rosetta plays Topsy and Vivian plays Eva.
There are countless commonalities between the U.S. and German responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But since we’ve opened up the music box, let’s continue in that vein. Heike Paul, in her 2002 essay “‘Schwarze Sklaven, Weiße Sklaven’: the German Reception of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in Amerikanische Populärkultur in Deutschland: Case Studies in Cultural Transfer Past and Present, observes that:
“After the initial German-language publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, journals and newspapers for more than a year regularly ran ads, reviews and notices on the book… and even published musical sheets accompanying the book with songs ‘from’ the novel.” p. 22
And Stowe’s 1853 visit to Germany was of enough interest to be reported on in the press. Paul continues by remarking that the German reactions to Stowe’s work echoed many of those of Stowe’s fellow citizens. And she refers to Eric J. Sundquist’s introduction to his 1986 edited volume, New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which he says that “a flood of imitative drama, poetry, and songs can be found—in short, an Onkle Tom-industry developed.” [slide9 1910 german cover]
And the phenomenon seems to have lost none of its momentum, neither in the U.S. nor here in Germany. This, for example, is a review of a 2006 theatrical production in Graben-Neudorf in Baden-Württemberg [slide10 press clippingMusical]. What is it that makes this story so popular? If one only considers it from the American perspective, the answer is pretty straightforward. After all, Uncle Tom’s Cabin plunged the citizens of the republic full deep into a subject, which by the time of its initial appearance in 1852, was already rending the fabric of nation to the ripping point. The industrial North and the agrarian South were already poised to assert their version of what America was and should be, long before the first soldiers on either side fell in the civil war. And Beecher Stowe’s choice of form—the sentimental novel—was totally congruent with the literary fashions of the time.
Jane Tompkins, in “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” a chapter in her 1985 book, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, lavishes extravagant praise on Beecher-Stowe and her wildly popular novel. It is, says Tompkins, “the summa theologica of nineteenth-century America’s religion of domesticity, a brilliant redaction of the culture’s favorite story about itself—the story of salvation through motherly love. Out of the ideological materials at their disposal, the sentimental novelists elaborated a myth that gave women the central position of power and authority in the culture; and of these efforts Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most dazzling exemplar.”
The combination of social and political critiques speaking to a particularly American situation, and clothed in the attire of Christianity, was pretty unbeatable. But for me, none of this explains the fascination the novel clearly held for nineteenth-century Germans. Paul, in the article I mentioned earlier on the German reception to Stowe’s novel, poses some interesting arguments about why this was the case. First, the issues of slavery, emancipation, and humanity debated and presented in Uncle Tom’s Cabin tapped into the “specifically German Zeitgeist of the 1850s.” [p. 22]
Keep in mind that Marx and Engels had published the Communist Manifesto just four years prior to that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appearance in book form, and revolutions were rampant throughout Europe, as well occurring in other parts of the world, two examples being Brazil and Sri Lanka.
Second, Paul places the German reception “in a larger context … negotiating a German identity—social and cultural—as ‘white slaves’ in a German … social and economic order.” [p. 23] This negotiation, interestingly enough, pushed the black slaves, about whom the novel was purported to be most concerned, to the margins of the German discussion, says Paul, creating what Sander Gilman termed a situation of “blackness without blacks.”
Revisiting my experience on the u3: Why did the sight of Beecher Stowe’s book title as the name of an u-bahn stop in Berlin arouse such a mass of complex reactions in me? Responses from all three entities—the American nation, nineteenth-century Germans, and the individual American artist—can be encompassed, I would argue, by the concept of “stickiness.” I initially encountered this term in Nicole R. Fleetwood’s Troubling Vision. Performance, visuality, and blackness (2011). Assistant professor of American studies at Rutgers, as well as an art consultant, Fleetwood’s book offers a sophisticated, wide-ranging, and intellectually challenging foray through landscapes of the notions of black and blackness, of issues of black representation, and black iconicity. “Stickiness,” which Fleetwood borrows from Sara Ahmed, Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is a deeply resonant term for what I think occurs around objects of otherness and othering, in this case, the black presence (or absence, for that matter) and the affective atmosphere that surrounds it.
“Stickiness” is the lynchpin in Ahmed’s notion of affective economies, a mobile constellation in which emotions, rather than being the private experiences of individuals, “circulate between bodies and signs.” [p. 117, Social Text, 79 (Volume 22, Number 2), Summer 2004, pp. 117-139]. They are, Ahmed maintains, a kind of capital: “…affect does not reside positively in the sign or commodity, but it is produced only as an effect of its circulation. […] emotions circulate and are distributed across a social as well as psychic field.” [p. 120]
Neither in terms of time nor expertise, will attempt to further explicate Ahmed’s theory and its clearly Freudian and Marxist underpinnings. But I hope I have conveyed some sense of how I see my personal reaction to Uncle Tom in the train station, along with the U.S. and German greeting of his fictional world, as sharing at least one commonality, that of the operation of “stickiness.” I think that the images invoked by media like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, along with the industries its publication launched, lodge or stick in the minds, memories, and psyches of everyone who encounters them. In turn, certain characteristics, assumptions concerning, and attitudes towards those represented by these images, also stick. It is as if the lens through which the Other is seen is mediated by what has attached itself to what has come to represent who and what those Others are, how they should be treated, and what position they occupy in relation to those who define Otherness. If one thinks of these characteristics, assumptions, and attitudes as mud flung, the target becomes coated, obscuring its actual lines and profiles, constructing a figure whose sticky surface attracts and retains all manner of projections. Our Sticky Figure thus moves through the world encumbered by elements of stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotries. Enormous amounts of psychic energy are exerted in hauling this carapace around, energy that is deducted from the store allocated to the Sticky Figure’s intellectual interests, self-defined identity or identities, interior desires, and emotional needs. In a scopic regime, those who are visually marked and labeled as “different,” as “other” can rarely escape the confines of what they represent to those who define who is and who is not different or other. So I look at an u-bahn sign and recall not only Uncle Tom, but the cover of die Tageszeitung published upon the election of Barack Obama in 2008: a picture of the White House headlined with the phrase “Onkle Baracks Hütte.” [slide1/2 whiteHouse] I read this particular image and text as the editors of the paper trying to be politically incorrect, but in a cool way, of course. Of being politically clever, nonchalant about the election of a black man to the U.S. presidency, but still demonstrating their knowledge of American history and literature, in a cool way, of course. I read this particular image and text as a variation on Franz Fanon’s by now almost clichéd, Look! A negro! So I’m afraid this journalistic filip from the leftist Tageszeitung strikes me as being just a bit too self-conscious in its cleverness. It is, I maintain, an excellent example of what “sticks,” never mind that we are in the twenty-first century.
I look at an u-bahn sign and recall the nineteenth-century African American artist Robert Duncanson, [slide 2/2 DuncansonPortrait] whose only known painting employing African American content, Uncle Tom and Little Eva (1853), [slide 3/2 DuncansonUncleEva] drew on a scene from Beecher-Stowe’s book in which Eva is teaching Uncle Tom to read. [slide4/2 teachingTom]
Robert S. Duncanson was born in Fayette, NY in 1821 into a free black family. He spent his youth learning the family trades, one of which was housepainting. Somewhere along the way he developed aspirations to become a fine artist, and began pursuing this dream around 1840 by moving from upstate New York to Cincinnati. At the time, Cincinnati was not only the home of one of the largest populations of free people of color, it was also an important center of the abolitionist movement.
In his detailed, 1993 examination of Duncanson’s life and work, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson 1821-1872, Joseph D. Ketner describes the painter as “the first African-American artist to appropriate the landscape as part of his cultural heritage […] [L]ike other nineteenth-century African-American artists [he] worked primarily within the broader American cultural aesthetic.” [ketner, p. 1] But while Duncanson was solidly located within the art historical moment in which American artists were moving out of a period of fashioning portraits of prominent public figures as a means of expressing and celebrating the nation’s identity into one of embracing the landscape as the vehicle for such representations, Duncanson integrated the aesthetics of landscape with those of an African American perspective, though this is not immediately evident when looking at his work. [ketner, p. 4] I can certainly attest to this since when I discovered that the painting I referred to earlier, Uncle Tom and Little Eva (1853) [slide5/2 duncansonUncleEva] was an exception in his ouvre, his sole nod to the issue of slavery, at least in his professional life, I admit that I copped an attitude. But clearly, on further investigation, there was more at play here.
Uncle Tom and Little Eva was commissioned by Episcopalian rector and abolitionist Rev. James Francis Conover, who might have seen Duncanson’s work at exhibitions in February, 1852 and 1853 at the Fireman’s Hall in Detroit, MI, the first art shows to be held in that state. [February, future Black History Month! And in my future Heimatstadt!].
About this work, Ketner states: “By painting this subject Duncanson publicly announced his abolitionist sentiments and his hope for a religious basis for resolving the slavery question.” [p. 47, last paragraph] At the time, such a public declaration by an artist, much less a black one, was no small gesture.” Ketner continues: “Curiously, few paintings of this popular subject seem to have been painted. Contemporaries considered it a controversial subject that could result in severe reprisals from proslavery advocates who found the novel inflammatory. […] an artist could be subjected to mob violence and evicted from town if found to be advocating antislavery principles.” [p. 48, paragraph 1, right column]. The atmosphere Ketner describes is a very different one, coexisting at the same time and in the same social and political space as that in which a plethora of stage productions, songs, poems, and eventually films flourished as part of the Uncle Tom franchise. A tribute to the power of images?
Section2: slide 6/2 comicalTom
Slide 7/2 pancakeJemima
Slide 8/2 topsyDancing
Slide 9/2 waterMelonMouth
What we have just seen doesn’t even begin to touch the sheer quantity of these kinds of images that continue to circulate. And that quantity, with the power that repetition creates, is converted into an accumulation, which in turn produces a certain kind of weight, of veracity. If there are so many images out there of bling-clad, sexually excessive, loud, unintellectual, not to say ignorant black women, then there must be something to it, right? In the interest of gender equality, let’s look at one aspect of how black men come into this, specifically, in this case, the murder of Trayvon Martin earlier this year. Sara Ahmed speaks of “strangers” and “bodies out of place” in her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000). She goes on to describe the increasing use of Neighborhood Watch groups as citizens on the alert for such “strangers,” looking out for “suspicious others.” Citizenship, she says, has come to work “as a way to police the boundaries of neighborhoods.” This kind of individual, local surveillance, and what I call the hoodie effect (and I’m not referring to the gaming company BioWare and its Mass Effect Hoodie Project), collided on the body of Trayon Martin, to mention just one of the most recent examples.
Hypervisibility and excess: Can Janet Jackson be my mammy?
Artist and critic Lorraine O’Grady, in “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” an insightful and textually inventive example of feminist analysis and art history published in Afterimage 20 (Summer 1992), contends that both black women and black men serve as representational codes to: “cast the difference of white men and white women into sharper relief.” Or as Nicole Fleetwood put it: “Within classical visual narratives and historical discourse, whether rendered asexual in the figure of the mammy, ambivalent or sexually submerged, as in the trope of the passing woman, or bestial as in representations of the Jezebel, black women are produced through visual signs as in excess of idealized white femininity.” pp. 110-111.
Now, let me preface my next remarks by saying that in terms of being confronted with a sea of white and white-like images of what seems to be considered the nay plus ultra of what a desirable woman looks like, how she acts, and where she is located in the social and cultural hierarchy, there are plenty of American examples. But I am speaking as an American artist, more particularly, though certainly not exclusively (far from it, I would say), as an African American artist living and making work in Germany. And Germany, as does every culture, has it’s own history in regard to visual representations in terms of race and gender. Soon after moving to Berlin, I made an appointment with a dentist recommended by a friend, just a consultation, to check out whether it might be a match. While I was waiting in the examining room, I noticed several shelves holding small figures. I walked over to them and, yet again, astonishment. The figures were a classic collection of big-lipped, big-headed, deliriously happy, huge-white toothed, let’s just say it, darkies. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me (who takes one to the dentist?), so I’d have to go with plan b. When the dentist entered the room, he smiled warmly at me, put out his hand to shake mine, and sat down. He asked me if I had any questions about his philosophy of treatment, whether I was having any specific problems, or any other questions. Well, I told him, yes, there was one huge problem, but it wasn’t dental. He looked puzzled. I pointed to the darkies.
“Do you have any idea how offensive these are?”
The puzzled look remained fixed. After a second or two, he recovered enough to ask me, in all seriousness, “But why? I have a long-time patient, who is also a friend, and he brings me these little dolls back from all over the world. They’re just something cute to look at while patients are in the chair.” Now I had already decided that there was no way I was going to give this guy any business. But at his “But why?” Followed by the global pedigree of the so-called dolls, and really with the “cute” business,” I also decided that I was not going to spend time trying to do a quick and dirty cultural sensitivity lesson. Not today. So I just said, “I’m sorry, but I choose not to be around these kinds of things. Thank you for your time, but I won’t be back.”
Moving on to a less traumatic topic than darkies in the dental office, let’s go shopping. [pass out examples of fruit paper wrappers]
I became obsessed with collecting the numerous versions of black figures that decorate the tissue paper wrappers found on many fruits in the obst und gemuese laeden. It took me a while to realize that the first ones I encountered were not anomalies. Sometimes I would buy the fruit in order to get the paper wrappers, but often I simply removed them, leaving the fruit behind. Thin but pretty durable, when they are scrunched up, they are practically invisible in your hand, and I have easily acquired wrappers from italy, spain, france, Portugal, and Turkey. As you can see from the examples that are going around, some of the wrappers feature a reference either to fruit itself or a name, perhaps of the grower or importer. But on one is the depiction of a donkey, and on another of a black woman. Something that intrigues me is that some of the wrappers are decorated with faux gold, reminiscent of the pages illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages.
A corollary to the fruit wrappers is an experience I had numerous times when I first moved to Germany. I lived in Leipzig from 2000 to 2006. And what I am about to share with you only occurred during the first year or so of that period. It has yet to be repeated, and I’ve no idea why, though I’m not complaining. What would happen is this: I would be grocery shopping. Standing in the produce department, the fruit section. A German woman, it never happened with a guy, would come up to me holding a mango, and ask me if, since they grow “in your country—Ihre Heimat,” I could tell her whether it was ripe. Unfortunately, my German was not fluent enough at that point to respond as I would have liked: Tut mir wirklich leid, aber mangos wachsen nicht in Detroit.” I could only stand mute, thinking to myself, once again, that I was no longer in Kansas. If I was feeling a bit bitchy, I would make use of what I call the calculatedly indifferent German shrug, offer the equally all-purpose, “Keine Ahnung,” and walk away.
But perhaps I did these women a disservice. Perhaps I had been denying my innate ability to discern mango ripeness. So, I did a little research on mangos. As it happens, they are originally from Southeast Asia, and today most come from Mexico, Haiti, the Caribbean, and South America. Their preferred climate is classified as Tropical-Monsoonal. I can happily report that Southeastern Michigan, where I was born and grew up, has a Humid continental climate. And while both climates are Sticky, as it were, one is basically a mango-free zone, at least in terms of cultivation.
What this fruity story demonstrates to me is that a body considered out of place continues to be stuck with what is assumed to be knowledge acquired in the place where one is presumed to belong.
I began this part of my talk with the phrase hypervisibility and excess, the name Janet Jackson, the term mammy, and issues of black versus white femininity. So let me talk a bit more along those lines. The fruit paper wrappers and the mango story are more illustrative of still-operating stereotypes that one might classify as falling into the category of “cute.” The darkies at the dentist, occupy their own niche, and I will just leave them in peace.
“Cute” is the term some Germans have used (including the dentist) when I have questioned the use of such figures on fruit wrappers, and shaken my head over the assumption that because I am black I somehow am an expert on tropical fruit. But this next example I would defy anyone to term “cute,” not that I agree that pickanninies eating watermelon are harmlessly “cute” either. Sianne Ngai, author of Ugly Feelings (2005) and Our Aesthetic Categories (forthcoming) describes cuteness as “a way of aestheticizing powerlessness.” But that’s another discussion. [sianne ngai’s “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” (2005) and interview with her in the fall 2011 (issue 43) of Cabinet. And Professor Haselstein might want to comment on how the concept has been analyzed as part of the Languages of Emotions project at the FU.)
[1/3 bare butt]
Here we have, from 2009, an election campaign poster from the Green Party in Kaarst, a town in Nordrhein-Westfalen. According to Spiegel online, the slogan is a play on words: “‘Black’ in German party politics refers to the color colloquially used to describe Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union. Other major parties are described as red, yellow and, of course, green.” The local head of the this particular branch of the Greens, Christian Gaumitz, was quoted in the daily Rheinische Post, saying that the poster was intended to highlight the Greens’ support for same-sex partnerships.
I mean, where do I even begin with this one? At the very least, in terms of same-sex partnerships, this is a kind of be careful what you wish for kind of thing. I am in an interracial, same-sex relationship, one that is under the protection of the German state (when the official announced this fact at the conclusion of the official proceedings, I will confess that everything went “black” for a second or so, and I thought, Oh my god, what have we just done?). But at the same time, I give props to that same German state for giving us the choice. Our Eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaft provides some very tangible benefits for us as a bi-national couple. It is also still second-class status compared to heteros who can get married “for real.” But, nah, ja. Back to butts. The most obvious historical reference conjured in this image is the so-called Hottentot Venus, Saartje Baartman. Her life is arguably one of the most egregious examples of the use and abuse of the black female body, both while she was alive, and perhaps even more so after she died.
The use of black women’s bodies—for labor, for entertainment, for the gauge against which the concept of white femininity can derive its credentials as the definitive real and the most desirable—has a long, a very long, and decidedly unbeautiful history. To cite just one source for the stereotyped images of black women that have been making the rounds for centuries, let’s take a look at Thomas Jefferson. Melissa V. Harris-Perry, in her Sister Citizen. Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America. For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough, published in 2011, asserts that Jefferson “subjected enslaved blacks to the same ‘scientific’ observation he used on the new nation’s vegetation, wildlife, and geography. His observations led him to conclude that white women were clearly superior to black ones…” pp. 55-56. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (the 1787 version published by John Stockdale in London), in “Query XIV” [p. 265 Library of America edition, ed. by Merrill D. Peterson], Jefferson offers up the proof, which is apparently, that black men preferred white women ‘as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species.’” This is just one among many gems hiding in plain sight in Query XIV, by the way. And if you follow the logic of that sentence about the Oranootan in light of the whole Sally Hemmings/Jefferson thing, what does that make him?
Half a century later, in 1843, Louis Agassiz, Swiss paleontologist, and former student of French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier, claimed [as quoted in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. E. Frances White. Doubleday, 2006; p. 46] that southern white men “find it easy to gratify themselves by the readiness with which they are met by colored house servants.”
Such beliefs and attitudes held by prominent public figures such as Jefferson and Agassiz were not, for all their being scientifically suspect, were also not simply harmless opinions. Depictions of black women as promiscuous, easy, and sexually aggressive were instrumental in forming the criteria of who and who was not allowed to assume full citizenship, with all of its privileges and responsibilities. For middle class black women in the first half of the twentieth century, a counteraggressiveness came into play in the form of the African American women’s club movement. It was through the social and political organizing of these groups that black women members fought against the stereotypes that were keystones in the founding of the American nation. Of the largest of these organizations, the National Association of Colored Women, established in 1896, in Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History, historian Darlene Clark Hine asserts that “At the core of essentially every activity of NACW’s members was a concern with creating positive images of black women’s sexuality.” Among the organization’s founders were Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, who became the organization’s first president. Desirous of full citizenship, the strategy adopted by these upstanding club women was a determined respectability; but although they were exercising power, it was a power in which they exerted a strict control over their own public behaviour, and spread the word that theirs were the standards to which all black women, regardless of class, should hold themselves and strive to meet. This position was enshrined in their motto, “Lifting as we climb.” There were many flaws in this approach, one of the most glaring being that the model, the cult of true womanhood, was based not on (white) women being full citizens of the nation, but on them being, to put it simply, the opposite of men, and I don’t need to rehearse that list of traits here. Besides, once you parted the lace curtains of those true women, you were witness to the endless labor they performed in all but the most wealthy households. And virtually all black women were already doing that.
In any event, these clubs exerted a kind of moral pressure, not just on their own members, but on women who were lower on the socioeconomic and class scale, whose deportment, or lack thereof, many club women thought gave the race a bad name. Support from these influential clubs was often premised on the requirement that recipients accept and emulate middle class values, aspirations, and assumptions. On the other hand, the colored women’s club movement provided opportunities for at least some black women to acquire leadership abilities, contribute to the economic survival of their communities, and develop and practice the skills of political organizing.
Carla Williams, an African American photographer, writer, and curator notes what many of us who grew up in black communities are intimately familiar with when it comes to the fact of our black and female bodies. It is a phenomenon that Fleetwood calls “the cultural imperative in black communities to cover—to hide one’s flesh and de-emphasize black female corporeality” [p. 121 fleetwood]. Some Black women artists and performers have looked into the eye of that history and not only stared back, but claimed the image they saw reflected there as the starting point for their own restructuring, reinventing, and just plain messing with what that image represents.
South African conceptual artist Tracey Rose’s Ciao Bella, Ms Cast, Venus Baartman, 2001 wrests the portrayal of black women as “bestial,” “close to nature,” and “on the prowl” from the centuries-old archive of the simultaneously visible and invisible black female body by creating a self-portrait that contains these very codes.
[Section3: slide3/3 venusHottentot]
This 1994 photograph, Venus Hottentot 2000 by artist Lyle Ashton Harris, in collaboration with artist Renée Cox, is a contemporary take on the Hottentot Venus; it exemplifies the notion of excess, of too much. These two works, that of Rose and Harris/Cox, also represent another excess, one with perhaps unexpected results. Jennifer C. Nash argues in her article “Strange Bedfellows
Black Feminism and Antipornography Feminism,“ published in Social Text in 2004, that “the constant invocation of Baartman’s story has allowed an anti-pornography formation to flourish within black feminism, masked as racial progressivism. Ultimately, this strain of anti-pornography politics has promoted a black feminist sexual conservatism which systematically ignores questions of black women’s pleasure, sexual agency, and desires, and has generated a normative – rather than analytical – engagement with racialized-sexualized imagery.”
As Fleetwood comments about Carla Williams’ work, “because of historical and discursive forces, self-portraiture for the black female artist is necessarily problematic.” While reams of paper, and more recently millions of 1s and 0s comprising online essays, blogs, and other forms of discussion have been devoted to either the condemning or the glorification of the historical and current location of black women’s representations, I see an enormous hole or gap, one that Nash identified in her “Strange bedfellows” essay. What can be lost in the vigilance with which one might critique the bad that been done us, are the rights that black women have to our own bodies, or flesh, as Fleetwood would have it. These are the rights to not only acquire but to maintain, control, not to mention derive pleasure from our own sexuality. So the Green Party’s election campaign poster can and should function not solely as an affront.
The problem of course is that the arena into which such images are thrown is, for the most part, lacking in both historical knowledge and equal access rights for the black bodies it deploys. There is no evidence in something like this election campaign poster that what Harvard Professor of the History of Science Evelynn Hammonds refers to as a “politics of articulation” is at play; the subaltern is not only silent, but butt naked as well.
A curator recently asked me if living in Berlin, living in Germany had changed my work, and if so, how. I didn’t really have a good answer for her, but I’ve since thought about her question. The historical and cultural, social and economic details of my personal biography accompany me wherever I go, they are items in my luggage that continue to define who I am as an artist. Sometimes they operate in the foreground of my consciousness, sometimes they are less apparent. But what I have come to realize is that as someone born and raised in the U.S., I am never more American than when I am not in America. Yes, I am part of that cosmopolitan population of artists, which seems to increase daily, who make their homes in locations other than home, but I bring to the streets, the people, the architectural landscapes and spaces of the places I inhabit, the eyes of where I come from as well as those of where I am at any particular moment. And sooner or later, probably when I least expect it, someone will remind me that where I am is not where they would expect to find me. But that is more their problem than mine because, to borrow the title of one of dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones’s pieces, I am, Still/Here. [slide4/3]
Now I think we’re going to engage in some Q & A? During that discussion, I’d love to show you some of the work that has come out of writing this paper, as well as pieces unrelated to it. But I’d like to frame the formal conclusion of my talk by returning to its beginning.
According to Juergen Meyer-Kronthaler and Klaus Kurpjuweit’s Berlins U-Bahnhöfe. be.bra Verlag (1996), in 1885 a man by the name of Thomas opened what was then known as a public house on the edge of the Grunewald. To provide his customers with shelter when it rained, he also built a number of small huts in the beer garden. These structures were known as “Tom’s Cabins.” As time went on, other fixtures in the area acquired variations on the name, including a nearby street—Onkel-Tom-Straße—as well as our by now familiar uBahn station.
So, to paraphrase Freud on pipes, sometimes Uncle Tom’s Cabin is just an u-bahn stop on the u3 between Nollendorf Platz and Krumme Lanke. And sometimes it’s something else, oder um es auf deutsch zu sagen, manchmal ist es etwas anderes. Thank you.