The Subtleties of Mammy Honoring Ceremonies

 

The Subtlety Front

Kara Walker’s The Subtlety has attracted widespread acclaim but has serious conflicts that need to be discussed. 

Artist Kara Walker’s first large-scale public project is officially titled, “At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: The Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby 
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

Having read interviews featuring Walker’s explanation of the piece, it appears to possess elements of both success and missed opportunities. The Subtlety is recognized by many as a sphinx built in the image of a “Mammy” like caricature. The sphinx is jarring. It makes people want to pay attention or at least ask questions. Her explanations are continuing a conversation about the horrors of the sugar industry’s past.

In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Walker provided further prospective about the massive “sugar baby” :

She is basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination.

Walker was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered as well:

She’s doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you’ve admired something disturbing. In this case, that’s the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.

“Basically, it was blood sugar,” Walker says. “Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands.”

She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.

“I’ve been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar,” Walker says. “Like, how we’re all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.”

The problem with Walker’s sphinx is that the acts of oppression during the slave trade were disturbing but the enslaved Africans were not themselves disturbing. So why continue the distortion of their image? She ends up reinforcing what she seeks to dismantle. How do we honor people who lost “hands, arms and limbs and lives” with further misrepresentations of their identities?

When critically looking at this work of art, we recognize Walker as an artistic genius. Yet even in this framework, when discussing the legacy and horrors of the sugar industry she chose to magnify the mythical overly used “Mammy” imagery. We keep coming back to something that was never truly us.

However, this issue is deeper than Kara Walker’s work. It’s been done before…this mammy honoring ceremony.  This issue speaks to the internalized limitations of imagination among artists and writers when it comes to the African descended lived experience. Lingering onto falsehoods, attempting to manipulate structures in its honor is counterproductive and often representative of an internalized glass ceiling of thought.

We can be something different because we are something different.

I’m not suggesting an attempt at ignoring the history of the “Mammy” caricature but instead I’m interested in what it would look like if Walker went beyond the restraints of this mythical being when it comes to examining the lives of enslaved African artisans.

Subtlety Back

To a certain degree, I understand the appeal of the exaggerated features of the half woman, half beast sphinx. The history of the extravagant sugar sculptures called subtleties, that were bolstered through slave labor is very important. Furthermore, featuring the genitalia of the sphinx can be viewed as taking a jab at the presumed asexuality of the “Mammy” caricature, while also perhaps conjuring images of both sexual abuse and desire. It’s crude and perhaps it’s meant to be.

Yet, the symbolism of this piece is stifled by it’s misplaced distortion and a missed opportunity to unearth what’s often hidden. In this case it would be the Black woman undistorted and unexaggerated. A jewel in her own right, without the need of leaning on identity stripping myths for significance or shock value. We can be both beautiful in our nakedness and whole in our humanity while also critiquing disturbing histories.

Showing Black women as full human beings in a holistic framework is more revolutionary than torturing old caricatures like “Mammy” ever could be…and far more valuable. When we unearth and magnify our ancestors’ true identities, outside of modes of mass societal miseducation, it will be a powerful day.

 

Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

 

The Subtlety display is available for public viewing until July 6th. Full details available here

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How the death of my friend changed how I see this world

Victory Over Violence: How the death of my friend changed how I see this world

BlackWomanOutside

I still find it hard to wrap my mind around the fact that one of my friends isn’t alive anymore. I don’t like to say he was killed the way cancer or disease or car accidents kill the body. He didn’t just die like people do when they get older or have a heart attack or stroke. My friend was murdered. His life was taken from him by another life. My life-long friend Victor was shot and killed in a parking lot in Newport News, Virginia. He was only 23 years old and would’ve turned 24 just weeks after the shooting. He was a father and a friend. Now he is another nameless face on the list of victims of gun violence in my city and in this country.

VictorThere will be no marches in the street for Victor. His mother won’t be invited to the White House. The President isn’t going to cry on national television over his death. The world will never know the young man who always kept people laughing, who was always trying to have fun, and who had unconditional love for his young son. And the people who did know him will never know the man he could’ve grown to be. And its a shame, really. It’s a shame that violence like this is too common to make a big deal of it each time a person gets shot in the street.

When someone gets killed in this country, I think we get sad for a few minutes then eventually get on with our lives. I don’t want that to happen in Victor’s case. It’s so easy for us to turn a blind eye to all of the violence going on around us all of the time. The violence against young people in our communities, especially young people of color, is like a modern-day lynching. Just as crowds gathered around the bodies hanging from trees, today’s Americans stand idly by as our young people are slain in parking lots in Virginia, while walking home in Florida, in public parks in Chicago, and in elementary schools in Connecticut.

We are a nation in denial about what is happening in our front yards, right before our eyes. We legitimize this violence in the name of our Constitutional rights. But the issue of “gun control” is not a political issue, it is a moral one. No person who values life can value the usage of guns and weapons. A gun’s only function is to take life away. Despite what advocates for weapons may say, protecting someone’s right to bear arms is not more important that protecting the people’s right to life. But even with all of the horrific and bloody murders that take place in the country, we still can’t seem to put a face to the lost lives and protect those who are still living. But Victor’s face will always be in my mind.

At his wake, I held Victor’s mother and we cried while looking down at his face for the last time. But I keep thinking that he wasn’t the only life that was lost that night. While one mother has to bury her son, another mother will have her son put in jail for a senseless murder. That’s the life cycle of murder in our communities: One body goes in the ground, another body goes in a jail cell. Who wins in this scenario? We are living in a culture in which young men have a need to prove themselves to a society that tells them that “you aren’t a man” if you let yourself get punked. When someone steps on your shoe, looks at your girlfriend or boyfriend, posts on your Facebook page or what have you, we feel we have no choice but to react. There’s a hopelessness to this lifestyle. We get into arguments and allow our anger to escalate to the point when the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. So many self images are warped by false ideals of what it takes to be a “real man”.

Victor was a man. He was a loyal friend. He was a selfless father. He was one of the funniest, hyperactive, brutally honest people I’ve ever known. He was an athlete, a college graduate, and natural comedian. He tried to make a joke out of every stressful situation. He didn’t need to use violence or anger to get what he wanted out of life. I know there are others who aren’t able to see another way to live their lives without arguments, fighting, and guns. Funerals, drive-bys, and constant crime is the reality for too many of our young people. We’re exposed to violence which makes it easier for us to transcend into violent lifestyles ourselves. I’m sure in some cases, a gun seems like the only thing in life that you can use to escape the frustrating restrictions of life in our communities. We have unemployment, lack of interest in school, and such a comical ease in getting weapons, our young people turn to violence as a outlet for brief control in a society that automatically writes them off.

Victor was very young when he succumbed to his fate. He would have celebrated his 24th birthday just 5 weeks after the shooting that took his life. Although I’d like to think he’s still turning up at a birthday party somewhere in the universe, he is not here to celebrate with his friends and family who continue to mourn his loss. One bullet took away that birthday. Unfortunately, this is the fate that seems to awaits many young black men. Violence is not definitely not just a black issue, but it cannot be denied that violent crimes plague areas with high black populations like an incurable disease. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the leading cause of death for Black men ages 15-19. Is that shocking to anyone besides me?

Apparently not. Shortly after the news broke of another fatal shooting in Hampton Roads, my fellow citizens took to the Internet ready to criticize the victims in the shooting that took Victor’s life. Comments like: “not shocked by another murder on the Peninsula” … “I do wonder, how have you lived your life?” … “keep wanting to live like a gangsta you’re gonna die like one” made me want to cry. We blame others for having to live life in a violent depression instead of trying to find a solution. We don’t help the ex-offenders in our communities resimilate into society. We don’t press upon our children the doors that education can open for them. We shame our single mothers away from getting government assistance so their families turn to crime to provide for their basic needs. We suffer from an endless stream of disappointments that cause us to react violently in desperation.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on guns, life in “the ‘hood”, the Constitution, or even what really happened the night Victor lost his life. But I know we’ll never make progress if we keep allowing the lack of opportunities in our neighborhoods to make us to feel hopeless and worthless. That’s how we break this cycle and claim victory over violence: We reclaim the value of life. We show our young people all of the doors an education can open for them. We press upon others how much more courage it takes to be “weak” and to not react. We help others who need help, instead of making them feel ashamed. Jimmy Greene, father of 6 year old Ana Grace who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting said it best: “we’re so consumed by the political fight…what about the fight for our children”. We are indeed in a fight for our lives. At the end of the day, our political standpoints won’t protect us. Our young people need to have a shot at a life filled with success, not a shot through the body with a bullet.

I see all of my friends and family posting to social media “Live4Vick”, “RIPVick”, “Gone but not forgotten” and the other typical mantras used to commemorate a lost life. But I sincerely hope we never forget Victor or the others wounded and killed by unnecessary violence in this country. I hope we do live our lives for these fallen souls and stop taking lives away. The best way I can honor Victors memory is to never forget what happened to him. We all can use our gifts to uplift the hopeless young man who sees a gun as the only way to control what goes on around him. We can control our emotions when we begin to get angry about little things. We can try to love instead.

I titled this piece “Victory over Violence” in memory of my friend Victor and also in the hope that one day this nation and people of color will rise above our tendencies to hurt one another. I know nothing we do will bring back the loved ones we’ve lost. But we should not allow ourselves or others to forget what happened to the ones we’ve lost. We have to really live for those who’ve died. We may never have a true victory over violence, but everyday we can make progress towards a more peaceful existence.

 

Jolie A. Doggett is a 22-year-old blogger from Hampton, VA currently living in the DC Metro Area. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2012. Since them, Jolie’s worked with Sirius XM Radio, National Public Radio, Patch.com, The National Congress of Black Women, and more.

Her musings on race, gender, and the 21st century have been featured on numerous blogs and websites, including her personal site, JolieDoggett.com. Her goal is to continue writing and to expand her social commentary into documentary film making. Her passions include Harry Potter, Chipotle, afro puffs, and volunteering in elementary schools.

 

 

 

The Unreal History Of American Horror Story

Many are calling Season 3 of the hit FX series American Horror Story the best season ever. Though I enjoyed watching this season, we need to clear some things up concerning the show’s intertwining of historical events and figures associated with Black history.

Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie. Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/FX WeLoveSoaps.net

Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie. Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/FX
WeLoveSoaps.net

Queenie’s character, played by Gabourey Sidibe, is descended from a real person named Tituba. During the Salem Witch Trials, Tituba was accused of being a witch and beaten until she confessed. However, she was never put on trial and did not face execution. There is a historical debate waging about her ethnicity. However, most historians believe she was most likely Indian or mixed-raced with African ancestry. According to historian Benjamin C. Ray, two enslaved Black women, Mary Black and Candy, were also accused of witch craft during the Salem Witch Trials. Eventually charges against Mary Black were dropped and she returned home. Candy was also found not guilty.

MarieLaveau_(Frank_Schneider)

Marie Laveau

Marie Laveau, played by Angela Bassett, is a historical figure, turned into a fictional character on AHS. Marie Laveau was born in 1794 and was known for her powerful practice of Vodou . Though depicted in the show as childless (except for the one child she gave to Papa Legba), she was in fact married twice and the mother of 15 children. She even had a “junior” daughter called Marie Laveau II. According to historical accounts, Marie was loved and feared by many for her gift of foresight. She knew many secrets and was often called upon to testify in trials. She mostly kept quite, but if the defendants were mean people, she would tell all of their dirty laundry and shame their families. Though she was commonly known as the “Voudou Queen”, she was also an avid church goer who brought many people into the church fold.

The New York Times published an obituary of Marie Laveau in 1881 stating, “Marie Laveau, one of the most wonderful women who ever lived, passed peaceably away.”

It goes on to say, “Marie had a large, warm heart and tender nature, and never refused a summons from the suffering, no matter how deadly the disease. Where ever she went, she labored faithfully and earned lifelong friends. During yellow fever and cholera epidemics, she proved herself a noble, disinterested woman, going from patient to patient, administering the wants of each and saving many from death.” – NY Times  1881 Archives

Photo Credit: WeGotThisCovered.com

Photo Credit: WeGotThisCovered.com

Photo Credit: Afrik.com

An illustration of Papa Legba. Photo Credit: Afrik.com

Unfortunately, for many viewers their first introduction to Papa Legba was as some sort of boogeyman figure that takes innocent babies and snorts cocaine. It has drawn much warranted criticism, because demonizing African  religions appears to be a re-occurring theme in Hollywood.

Papa Legba, played by  Lance Reddick, is an important spirit or Lwa in Vodou. According to historian Leslie G. Desmangles, “Legba is the patron of the universe, the link between the Godhead and the universe, the umbilical cord that connects the universe to its origin.” Desmangles also states,  “In his function as the guardian of universal and individual destiny, Legba is of Yoruba origin…'” Vodou spirits are derived from West Africa and are often associated with Catholic Saints. Thus to some, Papa Legba is also known as Saint Peter. However at times, Legba assumes a trickster persona called, Kafou. Still Kafou is viewed as an “inversion of Legba.” Devotees sacrifice roosters and chickens to Legba.

The word Vodou means spirit. Vodou is derived from West African Vodun practiced in Ghana, Nigeria, Benin and among various ethnic groups across the western coast of Africa. American cinema has done a wonderful job of mainstreaming the fear of Black-ness and African derived religions. Due to this fear-mongering, many people, including African descendants have become afraid of or disconnected from traditional or indigenous religions. Traditional or African derived religions have been practiced for thousands of years. During slavery and colonization, Africans and African descendants were punished for practicing their own religions, which at times led to a disconnect in understanding these religions among future generations. Vodun, like other religious practices has its benefits and disadvantages. But it is not inherently spooky or evil, these types of depictions are concoctions of the Eurocentric dehumanization of Black culture.

While many African descendants may lack historical knowledge of traditional religions, many of their religious practices in Abrahamic religions are still derived from traditional practices. This includes but is not limited to: call and response, the use of drums, repetitive lyrics, songs like “steal away” that include alternative meanings, ring shouting, and “speaking” things into existence. These are all African traditions that deserve a more nuanced understanding.

kathy-bates-american-horror-story

Photo Credit: Renegade Cinema

Delphine Lalaurie

Delphine Lalaurie

Marie Delphine LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates was a real life serial killer in New Orleans. For years, she brutally tortured, maimed, and killed slaves. Her sick actions were discovered in 1834 during a house fire. Contrary to what AHS depicts, LaLaurie was born and raised in New Orleans and her family is of Irish descent. She was famous for hosting parties and entertaining guests. Delphine LaLaurie may have known Marie Laveau, who lived in her neighborhood. When LaLaurie’s evil acts were discovered, she and her daughters were chased out of New Orleans by an angry mob. Some believe they changed their names and fled to France.

The New Orleans Bee covered the story in 1834:

Upon entering one of the apartments, the most appalling spectacle met their eyes. Seven slaves more or less horribly mutilated were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other. Language is powerless and inadequate to give a proper conception of the horror which a scene like this must have inspired. We shall not attempt it, but leave it rather to the reader’s imagination to picture what it was.

These slaves were the property of the demon, in the shape of a woman whom we mentioned in the beginning of this article. They had been confined by her for several months in the situation from which they had thus providentially been rescued and had been merely kept in existence to prolong their suffering and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict.

I’m glad that American Horror Story writers included these historical events and figures in their story line. Though their depiction is wrought with Hollywood spin and the same “old fear of Blackness” approach, more people are asking questions about these figures and opening up discussions about what is fact or fiction.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

Why Black Children Can’t Trust The Police

KaliefBrowder

This is Kalief Browder. Thanks to the NYPD, three years of his life are gone forever.

[Article updated on August 12, 2014]

It’s something I wish I didn’t have to say. One of the first things we teach children is to respect authority. Listen to your elders. Go ask a grown up. When there’s trouble, dial 911. But, what do you say when the people they are trained to look up to as protectors, too often end up being aggressors. I realize that millions of police officers across the country put their lives on the line every day. Their jobs are hard. It’s not easy. Yet, no one can deny the heartbreaking reoccurring reality of innocent Black youth being killed, neglected or abused by police officers and other people in positions of authority.

I often wonder how to truthfully explain police interaction to children. I image it would go like this:

1) If you’re ever in a car accident, don’t run towards the police for help. They might shoot you. RIP Jonathan Ferrell

2) If you are ever being unlawfully arrested or detained, forget your rights. Don’t speak up for yourself. Even with your hands behind your head, they might shoot you. RIP Oscar Grant

3) Try not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, like at home when police raid it. Try to disappear into thin air. But, whatever you do, don’t be seen. By standing in the hallway, you might get shot. RIP Aiyana Jones

4) If you’re ever with an adult that is in trouble with the law, you may not be recognized as the child that you are. In fact, you may have to carry a sign with you specifically for traffic stops. They can read, “I’m a child, please don’t bash in the window next to my head,” or  “Please don’t shoot at the van that I’m in.” Ask Oriana Ferrell’s children.

5)  If you’re ever walking home and you’re stalked by a (non uniformed) neighborhood watchman, don’t try to defend yourself. Or else they’ll feel threatened and have the legally upheld right to shoot you. RIP Trayvon Martin

6) Never. Never. Never Walk home at night (or day). They will think you’re a criminal and accuse you of any crime they see fit . You might go to jail for 3 years, only to be released without any explanation. Ask Kalief Browder.

7) If you ever get lost or missing. Don’t expect them to come looking for you immediately unless you’re blonde haired and blue eyed. Just find your own way home. Ask Amir Jennings, Phylicia Barnes and countless others. RIP Latisha Frazier.

8) If you’re ever abducted and forced into sex slavery, don’t expect to be rescued. If they happen to see you, you  will not be taken to the hospital. You will be arrested for prostitution… even if you’re 13 years old (the average entry age for sex trafficking victims).

9) If you’re ever acting up at school, don’t worry about what your mother will do when you get home. You might not even go home. Jail could be your next destination, even if you’re 6 years old. – Ask Salecia Johnson.

Updates

10) If you’re ever in a car accident, don’t knock on someone’s door for help. You might get shot and labeled a criminal. RIP Renisha McBride

11) If you’re walking down the street…Nevermind. Don’t walk down the street. Don’t breathe. Don’t do anything “normal” because—> you might get shot, even with your hands raised. RIP Mike Brown

12) If you’re ever in Walmart, don’t hold a toy gun. They won’t asking any questions, even though there shouldn’t be a need to. The police will just shoot you down and come up with an excuse later. RIP John Crawford III

The list could go on and on. Though it may seem outlandish, everyone of these circumstances are a part of the everyday realities Black youth face in America. The ever present fear of Blackness robs Black children of the opportunity to have their adolescence and innocence recognized. Even as children, they’re both feared and criminalized. Though the police should be protecting them, historically racist irrational beliefs presume that Black children aren’t in fact children. This breeds serious child endangering consequences like false imprisonment, abandonment and death. Too often police officers believe their job is to protect the public from Black children and not the other way around. It’s sad to say. But right now, Black children can’t trust the police. And why should they?

Racism Is So Utterly Ridiculous

Racism Is So Utterly Ridiculous By Jessica Ann Mitchell

In less than the span of a month citizens of the U.S.A. have endured multiple deadly public shootings. These horrific acts of violence took the lives of innocent people who were living their daily lives until they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the latest massacres occurred in Wisconsin where a gunman with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun walked into a Sikh Temple on their day of worship and went on a shooting spree, shooting at men, women and children in the congregation. Six people were killed.

 

The murderer, Wade Michael Page, was a white supremacist that often hung up swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia. Additionally, he spent is days singing about how much he hates non-whites. But low and behold, when the cameras started running and the tv analysts began to talk with “acquaintances” of Page about this brutal murder, what did they say?

“He was a nice guy.” CNN
“He always seemed happy and smiling.” CNN
“What could have made him snap?” CNN
“Police are still looking for a possible motive.”MSNBC
“Hate Rock groups lure in veterans.” MSNBC

I wanted to throw my shoe at the television screen. I was outraged, but not surprised. When an Arab person commits an atrocity like this, before any investigation takes place it is promoted as an act of terrorism. When a Black person is suspected of committing a crime, it is promoted as “Gang” or “Drug” affiliated before any investigation takes place. But when a white male goes on a shooting spree for the world to see, people somehow find a way to say something good about him. The newscasters stumble upon their words and can hardly bring themselves to say what is the glaring truth to the rest of us. He Was A Terrorist. This Is An Act of Terrorism.

They even went as far as trying to break down his mental state. MSNBC brought on a former hate group member that started saying he joined a hate group because of his sad childhood. That’s when I really had enough. So now they’re making excuses for a murderer. Not just any murderer, but a known white supremacist. He was so well known that civil rights organization, Southern Poverty Law Center had been tracking him for over ten years. But were the police tracking him? No. The B.S. that he might have been lured in because of his rough past is overwhelming.

If so called Muslim Terrorists and Black Criminals do not get this same “psycho” analysis, why are they doing it for this bottom barrel hideous murderer, Wade Michael Page? I’ll tell you why. It is because America still refuses to believe that white men are capable of acts of terrorism. They don’t want to believe it because it would force them to be held accountable. It would also force America to come to grips with the overwhelming truth. Criminal behavior is not racially based. The fact that people of color have been arrested for crimes means nothing because the police are not stalking and paying the same amount of attention to white communities. Thus, we have this current situation where Wade Michael Page can be a member of a hate group, openly sing hateful lyrics, express his deep disdain for anyone non-white to hate group scholars and is still free to roam free with no surveillance murdering 6 innocent people. And they are still “looking” for a motive.

Racism is so utterly ridiculous.

Jessica Ann Mitchell

Jessica Ann Mitchell has a M.S. in Public Relations and a M.A. in Pan-African Studies. Mitchell specializes in multicultural outreach and communications. She also writes on her personal blog at OurLegaci.com. To reach JAM email her at info@OurLegaci.com.

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