‘30 Americans’ Say It Loud

"One Day and Back Then (Standing)," 2007
Xaviera Simmons
"One Day and Back Then (Standing)," 2007

Walking up the grand staircase of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and into the rotunda, a noose tied at the end of a twenty-foot rope hangs from the middle of the domed ceiling. It floats heavily about ten feet off the ground. Circling the noose are nine wooden chairs on which Klan masks sit upright, their hollow eyes facing the rope as if in worship. The next things you see in the gallery, taking up the enormous wall at the entrance to the “30 Americans” exhibit, are the words “SAY IT LOUD.” You can feel James Brown belting into the microphone and you finish the lyrics quietly to yourself:

I’m black and I’m proud.

Brown recorded that song in 1968. There were still documented lynchings in the U.S. in 1968.

Like this juxtaposition, “30 Americans” offers an unrestrained and uncompromising dialogue on what it means to be black and American, exposing the racial, societal and cultural demons in us all, and forcing us to confront those things we spend our lives trying to ignore.

I am not a cultural historian, and I cannot pretend to understand the society or struggles of black America across the last century on any more than a literary level. So in order to discuss this show with any honesty or integrity, I have to strip away my third-party neutrality, my anonymous journalistic voice, and face it as a human being. I am a young white male. The baggage I carry into this show is that of ambiguous, quiet guilt, self-imposed ignorance and displaced confusion. I cannot help feeling a little self-congratulatory—and subsequently low—to be partaking in this act of cross-cultural dialogue, this academic diplomacy in exploring the art and sensibilities of another culture that is actually sort of my own culture. Was it going to isolate my whiteness? Are the stereotypes my own social filtering, or am I seeing them because the artist intended to show them outright? Coming into this exhibition, however, I felt connected with so much of this work.

The affectations and fetishized materials used by artists throughout the exhibition—shea butter, wax, cotton, soap, plastic rhinestones—the symbols and references to slavery, sharecropping and lynch mobs, the societal pigeonholes of basketball and hip-hop, were all things I fundamentally recognized. The often excessive glitz and grime of the work found me experiencing a world of which I have always lived just outside. I found unusual comfort in my kinship with the material, in understanding the ironies, injustices and tribulations of black America better than I realized. That was a short-lived and rather diluted epiphany.

Zora Neale Hurston, the seminal African American folklorist and anthropologist, wrote on the subject of understanding African American culture:

[African American culture is] particularly evasive. You see we are a polite people and we do not say to our questioners, “Get out of here!” We smile and tell him or her something that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing…

A self-portrait by Xaviera Simmons shows the artist with her brown skin colored coal black and sitting naked before her camera in an overgrown wheat field with a righteous afro. In the opposing image, Simmons stands in the field, wrapped in a trench coat as black as her darkened skin. The images are a surge of carnal and spiritual defiance, pointing to the stigma of African heritage and its increasingly dramatic, often misguided interpretations. We may see her and we may judge her on the surface, but that doesn’t mean we understand anything about her. We have not been let in.

Hank Willis Thomas exposes the trappings of African American youth culture with pop-poster-like images you might see tacked onto the wall of a college dorm room, but with a dark and troubled conscience. ‘Basketball and Chain’ depicts the lower half of two young black men in basketball jerseys jumping high into the air, a basketball chained to their leg. In another image, a Nike brand-shaped scar is etched into the shaved head of a young black man. It is not difficult to intellectualize the paralyzing societal delusions of urban teenagers striving for athletic fortune without other foreseeable options, but the struggle is not in seeing it. The struggle is in living with it or being able to change it.

Men stand poised between self-righteousness and preemptive submission in the paintings of Barkley L. Hendricks. A freestanding wall made of raw cotton and wax reaches almost to the ceiling. The cryptic symbology of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the divine, tragic beauty of Kehinde Wiley’s monumental 25-foot portrait, ‘Sleep,’ both have the power to unhinge your jaw in wonder and contemplation: what does it feel like to be black and American?

The difficulty in dealing with such deeply rooted, socially inflammatory subject matter is that it can tend toward the overwrought, and vehemence often gets in the way of true significance, running the risk of beating its audience over the head with its message. But “30 Americans” handles itself with grace and perspective, facilitating an open, honest conversation with its audience.

But the depths of what I may never understand linger in the back of my throat. I get the references to blaxploitation films. I am left sad and weak by the images of malnourished slaves and lynch victims. I empathize with the innumerable injustices the African American people have faced, and I admire “30 Americans” for providing a lens into the contemporary manifestations of these displaced feelings and issues. But the subtexts might forever elude me: what does it mean to be black and American today?

For some, this show is the embodiment of ambiguous race and class confusions neglected in our daily lives. For African Americans of my generation, I imagine “30 Americans” is a conversation across generations of families who have been dismantled and disassembled, and who put themselves back together through their stories, their art and the resilience of their spirit. “30 Americans” begins to explore what it would take to really exist in a post-racial society. It would seem that the answer is to understand—not shy away from—our distinctions.

“30 Americans,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is on display through Feb. 12, 2012. For more information visit Corcoran.org.

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