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Kara Walker and the Black Imagination

by Erica Cardwell
December 13th, 2017

 

We’ve been trying very hard… in America to pretend that this greatest conflict didn’t even have at its base the only thing it had at its base… Person after person will write a book today and insist that slavery was not the issue.
Lorraine Hansberry

When I was a little girl, my family often visited antique shops. My father and mother practically had the shelves in these shops memorized. We were among a handful of middle class black families in a small farming town of cornfields and cow pastures, so I would like to think that favoring antiquity became a mode of operation for my family, a habit that followed me into my Luddite twenties. But now in my thirties, even sepia filters make me uncomfortable, perhaps because the ease with which we can age things has become both artificial and oversimplified: an affectation as superficial as cooking stains on glassware. The past, for many, has become an activity, belying implication of the complex act of remembering. Many Big City dwellers would need to be cornered to admit being raised with small town lore. Girded with Cabernet and board games, we gather ourselves in urban caravans to get out of the city for a refreshing weekend dose of relic and pine trees. It seems that the present becomes more livable once it has been enabled with the tangibility of the past: antique shops, Main Street, typewriters—dusty spirits we consider accessories. Sarah Schulman calls this an “active forgetfulness.”

My mother died in 2003, just three years after I moved to the Big City, but my father never stopped going to antique shops. The last time I went with him, a young white man behind the counter, tinkering with a clock, began to talk as soon as he saw us; it was clear that my father had given him an education.

“I haven’t found any recently,” the man behind the counter said.

My father collects Black Americana. These images were fixtures of his childhood, difficult remnants of inferiority. Black Americana are the watermelon prints, dark skinned babies with agape mouths full of dangling teeth, blackface images with bloated jowls and wide, exaggerated eyes. These violent images are intent on weaponizing African features, the evidence that the dehumanization of black people is not only an institution, but a component of our country’s imagination. Black Americana trained the minds of Jim Crow era whites that black men are drunk and overtly sexual; black women are Mammy, servant, and lascivious vessels; and our children are foolish and disposable. When I ask my father why he feels the need to keep these images he replies, “They’re our history.”

In a blogpost for PBS titled, “Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia?” Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to these images as, “Sambo art,” a gouging label, breathing as much privilege as it does truth. Gates discloses his own penchant for collecting with an intellectual bashfulness; he is unsure where his fascination comes from. Even the title of the post strikes a counter-intuitive chord, as if it answers its own question by stating the obvious. Why would black people collect anything racist? Other than collector’s archives and catalogs, Black Americana research is hard to find—with frozen urls and closed archives dedicated to black western art and elaborate picture books for collectors—mainly because this is the type of stuff that black people don’t even reserve for “kitchen talk.”

Purchasing these items, however, is not difficult. An online search produces thousands of hits on eBay, Amazon, and Etsy. A cast iron figurine of Mammy advertising laxatives starts at 75 dollars, and a large box of Cream of Wheat goes for $250. At many antique shops, pieces of Black Americana are sold for under five dollars. And at these shops, you’ll definitely find something; these items were mass produced. All the more staggering is the uncomfortable mixture of family heirloom photographs and Black art lumped in with lawn jockeys and Black Santas. It’s a nauseating conflation of our creativity and our inferiority. Bids start at six or seven dollars. From where you eat, to where you shit, our collective subconscious was thoroughly inundated with the black body as denigrated and disgusting.

White collectors often insist on Black Americana being a part of our history, by perceiving a sense of pride and duty on the preservation of this “insensitive material.” Black people offer a more divergent predicament. Some of us do not want to forget, and find these collections to be our “right,” snatching up objects when they are casually encountered at antique shops. Others are too mired in the discomfort of these images and would never consider collecting them, because this is not how they see themselves. Some find Black Americana to be a teaching tool for younger, 21st century blacks. And, perhaps most importantly, are those who would never consider themselves collectors, with Mammy salt and pepper shakers and refrigerator magnets they’ve accepted as gifts.

While the majority of the collectors are elders, black or white, the young man that ran the shop that my father and I rummaged through was very close to my thirty-five years. It seems that hoarding these “collectibles” can perpetuate a sinister and fundamental ownership, which leaves me to wonder: how much of this maintenance of “history” has affected the way we see ourselves, our black imagination? To avoid actively grieving, we outfit our lives with colorful elements of disassociation, as well as elements of pretend. Deep in the eyes of a Black Americana figure, I can’t help but recognize the muted caricature of an isolation formed by absence. And from this absence, one must consider that the consequence is abandonment, perpetuating our very old souls.

Growing up, I didn’t have many close black friends in our rural town, and neither did my parents. I can remember my mother’s long distance phone calls with her best friends in Dayton and Las Vegas that would last an entire weekend afternoon. On many occasions, I walked into my mother’s bedroom, to find her sitting with hands clasped, tearfully waiting for the phone to ring. When we finally found another black middle class family, my father, sister, and I shared a relieved thrill and made plans with them for just about every weekend. This family gave off a worldly scent of sophistication with their larger house and fancy spread of food and wine. They had a daughter around my age; our mothers immediately threw us in a room together in an aggressive make friends gesture of solidarity.

The family held an impressive collection of Black Americana. When they hosted parties, groups of mostly white people would sip cordials and snicker affectionately with one another surrounded by watermelon figurines and prints of dumbfounded-looking black babies with sagging diapers. The images made my mother uncomfortable and she refused to have them in our home. But the closer that my mother became with the matriarch of this household, some of the objects began to arrive in our home as gifts. She gave my mother six of the dolls as collector’s items. My mother kept them in the den, an area not often frequented by guests. A collection of six dolls is considered a family; they come in various sizes. According to a 1987 article from The New York Times, a family of six dolls could be sold for 1,750 dollars. The dolls all wear either blue or brown dresses, some checkered or with small flowers. Each of the dolls has a “shoe black” face with a red thread or a small piece of red fabric for lips, and blue black yarn for hair, cut short and fraying. They all wear white aprons.

After my mother died, my father drove the dolls up to join me in my exile in the Big City. The doll’s arms and legs flapped on top of her blue ceramic crock pot in the back of the sedan. When they arrived, I didn’t know what to do with them. For many years, they lived in a crate in my closet. Once they were finally displayed, I caught myself staring at the dolls frequently, unsure about whether I wanted others to see them. At one point, I even considered giving the dolls individual names. Eventually they folded into the scenery of my apartment—a quotidian namelessness that accomplished the purpose of decoration.

A year later, I had a small party. We had dinner of broiled fish and pasta. When we reached the part of the dinner where folks move slowly around to let their food digest, a black female friend stood in front of the bookshelf and stared at the dolls. From across the room she called out, “Hey, you’re not supposed to have these! You’re racist!”


For nearly a decade the artist, Kara Walker has placed herself directly in the center of the precarious discourse surrounding Black Americana. The nuance to Walker’s own preoccupation with the “act of remembering,” and histrionic blackness is a comment on French and American colonialist art, a renegotiation of objectification found in Black Americana. Walker’s memory relies on the information of the past, her famous images—shadows, cutouts, silhouettes depicting explicit sexual and physical Black slave trauma—are positioned to problematize the way we see as Black people, and how we are seen.

While many black artists such as Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, and, Kehinde Wiley attempt to interrupt history by unseating whiteness from classical landscape and portraiture, Walker chooses to participate in the current narrative by focusing on what hasn’t ceased to infiltrate our minds. In a profile of the artist, featured in New York Magazine, Doreen St. Félix states that Walker is fascinated with “how to guide the problem of how people look.” The article summons a line from Walker’s early days as an art star, nearly twenty years ago.

“I think really the whole problem with racism and its continuing legacy in this country is that we simply love it. Who would we be without the ‘struggle’?”

Walker’s stance has opened her to a lot of controversy. She’s been supported by Henry Louis Gates Jr. but women from the Black Arts Movement such as Betty Sayre and Howardena Pindell have publicly denounced Walker. Pindell went as far to anthologize a collection of essays deconstructing Walker, entitled Kara Walker No/Kara Walker Yes/Kara Walker ? Sikkema Jenkins gallery prioritizes African American contemporary art, and has represented Walker since 1995. While her work is being handled with sensitivity, it is also conceivable that it is being viewed by and sold to people who don’t know what they have. Throughout Walker’s career, I find myself confused about my own discomfort, because no matter how prescient, these images are primarily unintended for me.

The first time I heard Walker’s name was in a 1999 review of Suzan Lori Park’s latest play, The Funnyhouse of the Negro written by Walker’s cousin, James Hannaham. I was in New York for a summer acting program, and religiously snatched up a copy of the Village Voice every Wednesday. The entire issue lay spread across mangled flowery bedsheets in my small dorm on 23rd and Lexington Avenue. At that time, the Village Voice’s critical references were often above my head, laden in nuances of being a New Yorker, but I was attracted to the punchy and opinionated prose by black people writing about black art. Hannaham described Parks and Walker to be among an unofficial cohort he called the New Negroes, “who flip stereotypes into tragicomic jokes about oppression and/or slavery, ironically claiming and rewiring all those ridiculous yet pervasive myths about Black people.” It was a handful of years later before I saw her work in person. I dragged my twenty-year-old self across the sterility of Fifth and Park avenues to encounter Walker’s work at the Guggenheim Museum.

The exhibition, Insurrection! Our Tools Were Rudimentary Yet We Pressed On was featured in the spring of 2002. Walker’s shiny black silhouettes lay smooth and present against the stark white walls. Initially, each image could be approached with a familiar, almost interpersonal nature. I wanted to touch them; instead, my fingers were splayed and stretched inside of my pocket. Quite simultaneously, the viewer was accosted by an aggressive twist. White men raping black women and children; black children defending themselves against violence with swords, scythes, farming hoes. I couldn’t take my eyes off the women and children. My feet were locked in place. I was briefly convinced that I’d fabricated these horrors and shamefully looked from side to side, as if I were the culprit. No matter how plainly depicted, the difference in what I was supposed to see and what I had seen left me disoriented. Black folks around me began to shake their heads. Some backed away; others leaned in closer. It was confusing that the violence had been difficult to discern, at first. The truth was confined to the impression of the silhouettes. And it was hard to understand who was being represented. The experience undermined what I thought was an advanced relationship to art, and my body. Instead of considering myself an amateur in both regards, I committed, with fascination and contempt, to follow Walker’s work ever since.


Most black folk can recall an early moment where we were made to feel like an object. It is the whiplash of instinct, a feeling that calls forth our retaliatory senses—burning, shifting eyes and clenched shoulders. It is visceral, but it is certainly not the first moment that this feeling occurred. The black body will file this feeling away, and develop an armor of protection to surmount its persistent presence. I was five years old when I honed this skill. It happened in the bathroom of my elementary school. I was rinsing off paint after making get-well cards for an ill classmate. I shared the sink with a white friend. Those sinks, built to meet the shoulders of small children, would barely graze my shins today. There were giggles before she spoke.

“I told my father that we washed our hands together and he asked me, ‘Why? Were ya trying to see if it would wash off?’”

There was a pause. I didn’t know what she meant. What washed off? The soap? The paint? Greens and yellows combined into a foamy blue soup in the bottom of the sink. Guilt rose in her eyes, clarifying her punchline. She tossed her paper towel in the garbage and ran away from my scrunched up face. I began to giggle again, a sound that I pushed out and memorized. I ran up to her.

“That wasn’t nice.” I forced out.

“I didn’t mean to!” She yelled, before hurrying further away.

It was through my mother’s eyes that I first understood myself to be beautiful. I can recall her staring at my fluttering lashes and lanky arms on Sunday afternoons. Sundays were when the kitchen became her office.  After leaning over a pot of collard greens, she’d take a seat to face her house plants. Even though I knew that she was preparing her lesson plans, still I would slide in to inhale the smells and witness her at work. Her fingers were firmly wrapped around a No. 2 pencil, knuckles wrinkled. Next to her, a True Menthol cigarette burned, its smoke dipping and diving along the edge of her face, reaching above her head. I was all mouth and eyes by then, looming around in untied pointe shoes. I would pause and stare blankly into the smoky, salty air.

“You’re so pretty baby,” she said. “Those big doe eyes.”

No matter how hard I tried to pretend that it hadn’t happened, that she had not died—or lived for that matter—the past cast a gradual shadow. Age has made me softer, somewhat rounder. Grief has drawn my pink lips down along the edges. My bottom lip is stained now from a mixture of beauty marks and dark cigarette spots embedded after fourteen years. I have taken to dipping my head or looking around in order to make my conversant move away from looking at my mouth.

Since my mother was also a smoker, my face is where my mother lives—as inheritance and as habit. At the end of a school day, it was her routine to light a cigarette as she merged onto the highway exit on her way home. Her students or colleagues could never know she smoked. I prioritized a similar prideful boundary. Years ago, a student announced in a brusque, matter of fact tone, “Y’all didn’t know she smoked. Look at her lips!” My sense of humor is not lost; his comment begged for me to lighten up. The shame from the faded smoker’s stain nestled at the center of my bottom lip is grief’s self-consciousness.

There were many years that I tried to fix this. My nightstand was a crowded pharmacy of remedies: moisturizers, Vaseline, skier’s balm, shea butter, cocoa butter, tea tree oil, aloe, homemade salves. Cigarettes. There were several months where I foolishly smeared Aquaphor on my lips every night as a “treatment” to restore the smoothness that my mother once admired. By morning, my mouth would be swollen and gleaming, exaggerated and unlike me—an object, performing.

My father’s Black Americana collection is well timed with the aging paranoia about my face. It is small—it consists of a few figurines and one painting of a black man selling cigars. The image of the man is nailed right next to a portrait of a buffalo soldier, and a few wooden African statues placed throughout. Being in some parts of his house is like a horror movie of incompatible narratives of blackness, a setting that is familiar to a lot of black people. My understanding of my father’s collection is shrouded in mystery. His fixation on the history of these images appears to supercede the problematic messaging. In fact, I would venture to consider that he is almost mesmerized by the sepia, the perfunctory myth that this is a thing of the past, somehow unrelated to the racialization of the present and our everyday journeys. I know this is not true. Above all, his collection is evidence of his survival.


I met Kara Walker at the opening night for her students’ exhibition at the Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick. A handful of her more recent monographs were also on display. My lips were painted burgundy; sweat clung to my neck under my black cotton layers in the surprising April heat wave. I planted myself in front of one of Walker’s recent monographs. She was standing there too, her even skin brightened to copper under the gallery lighting. Swiftly, I analyzed her new haircut—a coiled flash of gray and black sitting atop her head, sides completely shaved—a day-night contrast to the thick halo of chestnut framing her face on the traffic-stopping cover of Walker on New York magazine that same week.

A small crowd had gathered—one white man, wearing a baseball cap, baggy jeans, and jacket discussed his long career working with silhouettes. He had his smartphone out and was scrolling through photographs of his own work. Kara stared at his phone with intent, then graciously slid back into her dimly lit post, near some of her recent monographs.

When Kara Walker clapped eyes on me, immediately her gaze seemed to dip down to my mouth. She looked right at my lips, the way people often do. There wasn’t a boldness or rudeness to it, but she prodded at her own bottom lip, and I felt subject to a fixation that often triggers a certain mania in me. Most of the time, my mouth feels like a laborious appendage, something that I tend to think about excessively, to the point of overt concern. Emotional conjecture wills it so, constructing a scenario unrelated to the actual experience. When people stare at my lips, the feeling is what I would imagine someone with large breasts is burdened with in casual interactions. Look into my eyes. This gaze is blatant and disruptive, an indication of whether someone is actually listening. It also indicates someone’s relationship to themselves, to their insecurity, the level at which they have been racialized. Look into my eyes. This dependable mania of admiration and objectification is the kind of thing that some black women experience with their hair or skin tone. Look into my eyes. This, undoubtedly, is where my black imagination wanes. This, is where black trauma lives, drenched in the mania that our imagination and our trauma drink from the same cup. Mania is the word—the skill, when nearly every social scenario feels deeply personal, like an attack. I wonder how many black women could relate to this level of defense. And I wonder too, if Kara can relate to this experience, and the psychology thereof, because, Kara did meet my eyes.

“Who is this?” I mustered.

We spoke in front of a portrait—a cutout profile of a black woman wearing a white mask over her eyes and mouth, with a bee in front of her nose. The visible breast of the figure was small and the bee was a speck-sized scribble; the bee’s agitation just subtle enough to connect to the viewer. The image relayed privacy, a sense of quiet. There was consciousness, there was also no esteem. We could see her; her eyes were covered.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied, smiling. “This is a figure that I’d been wanting to draw for a while.”

Walker wanted to be sure to scrutinize how it was received, and sent a camera crew to film the crowds as they preened, laughed, and selfied around her—producing a kind of surveillance footage. Then she screened the result at Sikkema Jenkins, the gallery that has represented her since 1995.
Doreen St. Félix


A black woman named Ruth stood next to me at the summer exhibition of A Subtlety, Walker’s gargantuan sugar sculpture of Mammy as sphinx at Domino Sugar Factory. The presence of white people taking selfies next to the sculpture’s upturned labia was zapping my energy. I needed to sit down. Ruth joined me on the bench, gazing at me with expectation.

“Hi there. Isn’t it amazing?”

Her natural hair was wrapped in a French twist, temples flanked in waves. She gave me a gentle smile, full lashes curled against her lids.

“That’s one way to put it.” In the face of Ruth’s pleasure, my logic demanded answers. This was a reaction that Walker had facilitated and not created, a reaction that once again, whirled me into conflict.

“Why is she doing this us?” I asked, spilling my vulnerability all over her.

Ruth smiled. It was the kind of smile that causes you to drop your shoulders. Briefly, you consider messengers, and other fondness from your past.

“But look at how big it is!” Ruth replied, awestruck and genuine.

She felt honored by the artist and the exposure the art was getting all over the world. The sculpture’s magnificent size was a defining moment for many black women like her and like me, she said. Her and her husband had ridden the subway from Fresh Meadows, Queens to see this piece. Ruth didn’t have an elaborate critique. Mainly, she was fascinated with the audience’s exposure to history, precisely the component I was colliding with.

It was easy to consider that something must be off about this woman to allow herself to be blinded by the size of the sphinx, reduced enough to find this work astounding. It was easy to consider that something must be off about me, not allowing myself to acknowledge the size of the sphinx and find this work astounding. I wanted to judge Ruth. But no matter how fraught our exchange, fractured slightly by the inability to relate to one another, we were in dialogue as black women, and as the outsiders that we were made to be. Such opportunities for dialogue—between sophisticated art goers, appreciative visitors, and offended subject may have offered more reflection for A Subtlety. But Walker managed to satisfy her audience, thrusting black women into high relief, a radical experiment with, in Walker’s words, “rudimentary tools.” Weeks later, black artists representing “We Are Here” staged an action to acknowledge the presence of slave ancestors in the space.

At whose expense is a black person, a black woman, truly able to critique blackness? When one feels permanently exiled?

 Courtesy of Lorna Simpson and Salon 94, New York Courtesy of Lorna Simpson and Salon 94, New York

Sometimes I think my depression is the most normal thing about me. We should all get free therapy. We could call it reparations. “How to Stay Sane While Black,”
Morgan Parker

Or is it, when a black woman can truly receive herself as beautiful? Could I be beautiful? With my broad, dark eyes, seeking to rest on the horizon? Is it the fullness of my round face, which gives me my youthful and concerned profile? Or is it my mouth—soft, pink, and speckled with memory? Could I be beautiful?

After my third trip to the dermatologist, I was beginning to think that the problem with the skin on my lips involved me. I was in my late twenties by then, snagged by the hopelessness of Saturn’s Return. The doctor was a black woman, who I’d seen off and on for years—to treat summer bouts of eczema or a faint rash on the back of my neck. By now, the visits were inadvertent attempts to discuss the problem with my face, my mouth, with no real plan to quit smoking. Each time that we were alone, I was certain that, black woman to black woman, she would suggest a cure-all treatment that would eliminate the mark on my face and lift me into foolish normalcy. If anything, she would make me feel better. The first time, the doctor briskly suggested lipstick and left the room before I could finish my weepy sentence. The second time the doctor suggested that the marks were sunspots and that I should start using a lip balm with a stronger SPF. Every time, she grew more irritated with me. I had done my research; I knew that there were chemical peels and microdermabrasions she could have, but had not, suggested. The final time, I told her that I was planning to quit smoking, as if the damage hadn’t already been done. As if, this solution could reverse things somehow, and take the shame away. There was more work to be done. As she shuffled out, my energy switched to blame, the contradiction often faced when I see Walker’s work. I left, seeking a new dermatologist. How do black women move through blame as recourse?

There was a time when I wanted Kara Walker to make me feel better about myself. I didn’t want her to play it safe, but I also didn’t want her to make me more uncomfortable than I already am. Of all the things that I have gathered from following her work throughout the years, among them the isolation of genius and the labor in performing apathy, I have also found an undeniable sense of habit. It is the dusty spirit, the Aquaphor treatment, a struggle with the past, that is willful and maintained. While it’s clear that the averted eyes of a friend (white, black, or otherwise) is certainly an unsteady self-consciousness caused by guilt, it is also clear that white guilt betrays. And black self esteem is hysterically and perpetually ignored. Racism does not operate inside of a system of binary ignoring class, sexuality, gender. Beauty. The intricacies will always rely on a devastating intersection of inferiority and powerlessness. With obstinate repetition and relentless black imagination, Walker will just not let it go.


A woman named LaVerne Austin was also at opening night of Walker’s student’s exhibition, the night Walker and I met. She is a black Reverend at a gospel church in New Brunswick. We sat next to one another with matching plates of crudité and cubes of cheese. Without previously knowing about Walker’s work, LaVerne saw the exhibition advertised and felt it would be good research for her project on bereavement. That evening, we exchanged contact information in what became a summer chain of phone calls while eating dinner or washing dishes. LaVerne quite affectionately reminded me of my mother, but of the mother that would have aged along with me. She spent years as a family therapist, and uses her clinical tactics in her transition to becoming a reverend. The objective of her bereavement project is to guide members of the African American church to a place where grief is ongoing, not the dissociative journey of ignoring the pain of loss.

The most unsettling element LaVerne found in the student exhibition was in a replica of Sam Ashford monument at Stone Mountain. It is here that LaVerne identified the paradox, “do we live with memories of atrocities and do we keep these memories until they reach the sky?” I never shared with LaVerne my struggles with my face. Her impressions were the priority, once again tooling around for her perspective, rather than needling into the root. In one of our last phone calls, LaVerne suggested, “the main problem with grief is acceptance.” It is within this lack of acceptance where this mode of looking becomes a cycle, for the object and the objectified.

Octavia Brugel, Kara Walker’s daughter writes, “Being my mother’s daughter has proven to me that, even in the seemingly bottomless chasm of modern politics and current events, Black women’s history of perseverance is so deeply ingrained that we will continue to resist and rebuild to create equitable futures.”

My mother wore Fashion Faire lipstick. Her color was Champagne no. 9. She would roll the stick along her lips like ice cream, the tip formed a slick cone shape, a leaner silhouette than a Hershey kiss. My lipstick is an overpriced clay color called Tanganyka. I purchased it after asking the salesperson to show me colors that would even out the marks on my lips. I have three tubes of my mother’s lipstick, preserved in a make-up bag in the same crate that held the dolls. Recently, I’ve considered selling my doll collection. In 2017, a family of six Black Americana dolls could get me around 6,000 dollars.


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