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Davis on Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South

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Having approached Dr. Libby (Art History) for ideas regarding the depiction of blacks in art (particularly painting and photography) she generously furnished me with several sources, the standout thus far being an article by John Davis entitled “Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C.” published in the Art Bulletin in 1998.   The painting by Johnson “was in the nineteenth century, and remains today, probably the best-known painted image of American slaves”.  And yet it is situated in a place not often considered to have strong ties to the business of slavery -Washington D.C., specifically the corner of F Street and 13th Street.

The painting clearly demonstrates the presence of urban slavery in the capital (importantly for my purposes, the place where policy was constructed) in the mid nineteenth century.  While there are strong arguments that the piece was created for, enjoyed, and co-opted by both sides of the abolitionist movement, it is clear that it offers a clear representation of the time.  While I may be considering if, and how, art impacts policy or vice versa, it seems that a third option is available.  The article includes a short quote from a periodical contemporary to the painting that seeks a  conciliatory outcome through art, “As the Crayon put it that year, it was time for “the cunning hand of the artist” to confront the “strife of races” and “strip [it] of all [its] bitterness”.”

Does art have the ability to change society?  Or does society change art?  Is art representative of society? Can this representation be altered through a change in the narrative?  For example, Negro Life at the South’s location was contextually changed from D.C. to Kentucky, as can be seen through the paintings more popular moniker, “Old Kentucky Home”.  This contextual repositioning entirely changes the meaning of the work.  Rather than a potential comment on the difficult urban life of slaves and the proximity and relationships these individuals would have had with policy makers, it is recast as a rural, bucolic, somewhat romanticized version of slavery.  A change in the narrative could render a pointed weapon completely harmless.

It is worthwhile to note that the painting was completed and sent for public display (rather than for private sale –another interesting element) in 1859, two years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.  While not claiming that the work was a catalyst for war, and the subsequent introduction of the 13th Amendment, the question I am seeking an answer to is: What role, if any, did it play on policy?

Davies argues “that the draining of its site-specific content, the nostalgic blunting of the image into a generalized “Old Kentucky Home,” is closely tied toJohnson’s unusual engagement with the volatile issue of slavery in the nation’s capital”.  Could this unusual engagement by an artist be indicative of a change in society which is reflected in his work, and later policy?

Mixed Blood in Psychology Today

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A simple article in Psychology Today which was assigned in a separate class (Sociology) begins by debunking the notion that race is in any way biological, and then examines how race is assigned in different cultures using specifically the United States and Brazil (which has it’s own difficulties with race).

Dr. Fish starts by asking what is race, and then delineates this into two further sub questions: 1) How can we understand the variation in physical appearance among human beings? 2) How can we understand the kinds of racial classifications applied to differences in physical appearance among human beings?  Fish demonstrates that physical variation in appearance is a likely function of geography and environment and that the notion of race is purely cultural.  He points to the fact that “categories for racial discrimination of people arbitrarily include certain dimensions (skin color) and exclude others (round, as opposed to elongated bodies)”.  These cultural-specific classifications may be understood and defined as ‘folk-taxonomies’.

In the U.S. hypo-descent is used to classify and assign race.  That is the ‘blood’ of your parents defines which race you are considered to belong to (shades of Harry Potter mud-bloods here).  Further, the racial categories are arranged in a hierarchy along a single dimension with white at the top, asian as an intermediate, and black at the bottom.  This may be held in direct comparison with Brazilian folk taxonomy which arranged by more of an aesthetic understanding of an individual.  Tipos (types) of ‘race’ are assigned according to a variety of aesthetic qualities.  There is still a societal hierarchy attached to the assignation, but there is a far more nuanced understanding of race, albeit defined through a folk taxonomy.

Fish ends by positing that “Thinking in terms of physical appearance and folk taxonomies helps to clarify the emotionally charged but confused topic of race.  Understanding that different cultures have different folk taxonomies suggests that we respond to the question “What race is that person?” not by Black or White, but by “Where?” and “When?”.”

Given that it is difficult to understand how each and every folk taxonomy developed, but very easy to see that the darker an individuals skin is the more likely they will appear at the bottom of it, there is a suggestion that there is a coherent narrative which has become cultural policy that the lighter an individuals skin is, the more significant, important, or worthy they are.  This is then reinforced through policies and legislation drafted and enacted by those in a position of significance, import, or worth (as defined by the narratively driven cultural policy).  What started as a narrative developed into a coherent and consistent cultural policy which was then authenticated by legal policy.  If it is written down on vellum, it must be true.

What I would like to consider throughout this research is: 1) How did this come to be the case? What stories were told to bolster the narrative (literature, art?) 2) Can this process be reversed through similar methods? If we were to tell enough stories, could society change? If it did it once in one direction, could it do it again in another?

Akala at the Oxford Union

Kingsley James Daley, better known as the hip hop artist and poet Akala, has given addresses regarding race and its relationship with culture and society throughout the UK.  He has guest lectured and offered workshops at universities and appeared on culturally relevant television programs such as Newsnight, Panorama, and Question Time to discuss the modern relationship Britain has to race.

In his address to the Oxford Union (a venerable institution, if ever there was one) he decries the biased nature of school, college, and university curriculums which proliferate a euro-centric picture of the history of almost every academic discipline.  Despite the interesting and edifying examples he uses regarding pan-African art alongside the little known wealthiest nation-state (to use a post-Westphalian notion) in history, I would like to focus on his examples regarding the trans-Atlantic trafficking of humans from Africa, slave uprisings, the relationship these uprisings had to policy changes and the subsequent narratives that have evolved from these policy changes.

Ask any western educated individual and they will likely tell you, as Akala demonstrates, that William Wilberforce was the individual primarily responsible for the abolition of slavery in the UK and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.  However, the fact that British policy regarding slavery changed in 1807 with the Slave Trade Act was caused, in large part, by the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804 is a part of the narrative that has been expunged.  Similarly, the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1834 is taught (as per the dominant narrative) as a piece of enlightened, benevolent legislation that the civilized British thought was necessary.  It is not taught as the realist (as defined by a foreign policy perspective) outcome of the largest slave uprising in Jamaica in 1832.   The narrative has explained away the peripataie of history.

Perhaps the largest piece of history that goes untaught is the reasoning behind the sale of French Louisiana by Napoleon to the United Staes in 1803.  Haiti (as it is now known) was the most effective, profit producing colony in the world at the time.  It produced more sugar than all of India at the time, and half of all coffee consumed in Europe at the time.  It was also owned by the French who dreamed of a new empire stretching across the New World.  Having lost control of the colony due to the uprising, Napoleon had no need to maintain the large chunk of (what is now) the midwestern United States and so chose to sell the land.  This led to a purchase which was of “enormous hemispheric importance, of enormous human importance” and yet we learn nothing about it -an  incredibly important moment of policy which shaped the history of the world, the reasons for it have been removed from the narrative.

If we do not know the truth behind the reasons of policy change, then it is impossible to understand the effect  that the policy will really have.

A fun side note is the decision of the black slaves to pronounce that the only ethnic identity on the island that would be valid would be black.  The Polish and German conscripts who had defected from the French to the Slaves were all pronounced as being ‘black’.  Which rather makes a mockery of anyone who tries to claim that race is anything other than a social/cultural construct.

Racial Fictions and the Cultural Work of Genre in The House Behind the Cedars

A few exegetical thought on “Racial Fictions and the Cultural Work of Genre in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars”

An initial direction I would like to explore is the relationship between art (however it may be defined: literature, music, painting, photography etc.) and public policy (as defined through legislation and litigation outcomes).  To this end, a brief examination of The House Behind the Cedars by Rauterkus is a good place to begin.  The two characters who open and close the book, Judge Straight (a white judge) and John Warwick (a “formerly black office boy turned white attorney” thanks to the differences between racial definition in North and South Carolina) talk of how “custom is stranger than law”, and that in many ways “custom is law”.  That is to say that the cultural fictions that we create ultimately organize our reality.  Rauterkus suggests that literary traditions -presumably through the impact they have on cultural norms- and their conventions can perform important cultural work.

Rauterkus points to Chesnutt’s use of genre, and how it can perform important social and metafictional work.  The use of race melodrama, or as it is defined, ‘the generic formula of the tragic mulatta narrative’ is employed in a realistic manner in order to call attention to the problem of racial injustice, as is the use of tragic irony.  This race melodrama (which bears similarities to RagTime in regard to the narrative surrounding Sarah and Coalhouse) is allied with the use of realism through description and narrative (once again, similar to RagTime).  The insistence of the narrator that characters rely on “ocular logic” clashes with defined cultural/legal definitions and typologies of race, “Because race is not always visible, the white-skinned if socially/legally black person has the uncanny ability to manipulate the cultural fictions of race to change the way that identity is perceived, pointing to the very constructedness of racial classifications”.

The text works to weaken the authority of the one drop rule and its meaningfulness for the construction of cultural and self-identity.  As Rauterkus points out, “That John and Rena can so easily pass for white calls into question the real significance of such a small trace of black blood. Thus the text asks the question: What is the importance of a single drop in the absence of any physiological features that we would recognize as black? Surely, it is only a racial fiction, and not some biological fact, that makes John and Rena black, when to the rest of the world they appear to be white. Perhaps more importantly, why should they not have the right to choose their own racial identities?”

Rauterkus moves toward previous (and some might say culturally seminal) works of literature, specifically Scott’s Ivanhoe demonstrating how the appropriation of the tournament by John speaks to how he views his identity.  The tournament, the Anglo-Saxon competition for perfection and the paragon of chivalrous behavior, is laid claim to the white well-heeled people, who are physically separated in the grand stand from the poorer white and black folks who are in the bleachers.  John, the recently defined white lawyer appropriates “a cultural narrative that is not his own, he interpolates himself into the historical timeline of whiteness—a European temporal frame that begins in ancient Greece and ends with modernity—and as a result, comes to view the newfangled technologies of the reenactment as improvements that index the degree to which “his race” has evolved. Pairing the discourses of aesthetic and biological evolution, then, John suggests that their revisions to the Ivanhoe legend constitute a cultural victory in the name of chivalry”.  So John, through a process of appropriation has aligned himself with the ascendant group, rather than championing (as perhaps a chivalrous participant in a tournament might) his own, less culturally powerful group.  The narrative perpetuated by the ascendant group (i.e. that ‘culture’, or ‘civilization’ began with the Ancient Greeks and can be traced through modernity) depicts one racial group, white, as the originators of all that is good and relevant within the world.  Science, art, literature, law, mathematics, philosophy and many others all have roots, according to the narrative, in the white race.  Similarly, chivalry has roots here also.  This element plays a particularly important role in the South at the time of Chesnutt’s writing, and continues, albeit to a lesser extent today.  Chivalry is something that is ‘owned’ by one subsection of society (the we;;-heeled whites) and something that may be observed by the remaining groups, but not participated in (this exclusion may be extended to women, also, as is evidenced in an intersectional moment between John and Mrs. Newberry).  As chivalry may be considered a behavioral bedrock of society, according to the narrative, it impacts who may participate and who may not; who may set the rules and who may not; who may be punished and who may not.  It is a device aimed at cultural separation.  It is simultaneously a public and private show of dominance.  Chivalry plays to the romantic elements of genre used by Chesnutt, but also references the harsh realities of contemporary social/racial positions.

In Darryl Hattenhauer’s words, the novel is a mixed-genre work in which the “sentimentalism and melodrama overlaying [the] text are underlaid by the thematic complexity of realism and tragedy”.

“The fullest and most compelling expression of this narrative strategy is the novel’s shift from its opening statement that “custom is law” to its closing corrective that “[c]ustom was tyranny. Love was the only law” (23, 194). In many respects, these two phrases encapsulate the two radically different views about race that are present in the novel. The first embodies the spirit of the one-drop rule, while the second clearly speaks to the power of sentiment. When Judge Straight asserts that “custom is law,” what he is truly saying is that racial fictions have real social and moral consequences. Put another way: “We make our customs lightly; once made, like our sins, they grip us in bands of steel; we become the creatures of our creations” (24). Yet by the end of the novel, Chesnutt reverses this perspective with the real take away of the novel, a truth that gains much of its potency from the tragedy that produces it: love is stronger than custom. In the final analysis, Chesnutt’s point is that love is the solution to the problem of racism.”  This block quote has much contemporary relevance.  It is both heartening and disappointing that a work of fiction from 1900 can pick out an issue whose answer continues to elude society today.  Cultural custom has developed across centuries and been enshrined in law, which upon close examination often only offers a veneer of respectability.  If love was the only law and is stronger than custom: Why did Rena die?  Why did Sarah have to die?  Why did Coalhouse have to die?  Why was Mother so unhappy?  Why was Father so unhappy?  Love may be the solution to the problem of racism, but having been aware of the answer for the last 116 years, why has very little altered?  Is the narrative too strong?  Is it true that custom is tyranny and law?  Are these the same things?

Finally, if Chesnutt’s use of genre (the underlying element of a familiar trope, such as melodrama, overlaid by uncomfortable  realism, which when combined offer a nuanced view of society) in literature can call attention to the problem of racial injustice.  How could/did this impact policy?

 

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