Huey Copeland’s Bound to Appear

October 31, 2013
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Partial excerpt: “Introduction: The Blackness of Things,”

 from Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America

by Huey Copeland

***

In Bound to Appear, I explore the significance of transatlantic slavery within critical aesthetic practice at the close of the twentieth century, when, for the first time in history, an appreciable number of artists of non-European ancestry figured prominently in the mainstream United States art world. What emerges from this study is a detailed picture of a how a generation of African American practitioners in the late 1980s and early ’90s negotiated both racialized discourses and art-historical antecedents in framing their work, recasting the appearance of blackness, and making common cause with marked subjects the world over.

While few scholars have tried their hands at charting this terrain, the aesthetic and political contradictions that black artists and their audiences confronted did not go unnoticed at the time; indeed, they were heralded and discussed at length in the pages of Time magazine:

So often, the news from black America seems to be all bad: crime, broken families, failing schools, abject hopelessness. Yet amid the bleak circumstances that envelop so much of the African-American community, a singularly heartening piece of good news has been overlooked. Black artists are now embarked on one of the most astonishing outbursts of creativity in the nation’s history.

These few sentences, which introduce Time‘s October 10, 1944, article, “The Beauty of Black Art,” are quite deliberately plotted. As the cover declaims, the new “black renaissance” is at issue; how better to demonstrate its remarkable emergence than by evoking—and promptly dismissing—the circumstances within which so many black Americans live? The essay’s author, Jack E. White, goes on to name a wide range of African American practitioners, from poet Rita Dove to artist Martin Puryear, all of whom have “escaped from the aesthetic ghetto to which they were once confined, where the patronizing assumption was that they would find inspiration only in their own milieu. As they move from the periphery to the mainstream, they are free at last to follow their various muses.”

In these lines, the clichés come thick and fast, but their rhetorical implications warrant our attention, because they emblematize the broadly spectacularizing terms in which African American cultural production was all too often cast in the age of multiculturalism. The black artist, we learn, has moved out of the hood and into the mainstream, where, “free at last” from racial constraints and loyalties, individual talent can thrive. The quoted phrase—forever associated with Marin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963—is again carefully chosen. White informs us that the explosion of black artistry in the late 1980s and early ’90s was made possible by the civil rights movement’s success in securing greater personal liberties for African Americans, and that it was fiscally driven by the increased spending power of a new black petit bourgeoisie. In making this argument, he implies that artistic autonomy in postintegration America is a matter of class: culture can be had for a price, and consequently, “free at last” sounds more mechanistic than messianic. King’s use of the phrase, by contrast, aimed to point us in a more righteous direction, summoning up a tradition that developed within the material impoverishment of slavery and that was predicated on the possibility of its earthly transcendence.

Not much of this enormous legacy figures overtly in “The Beauty of Black Art.” Although White claims that the proverbial shackles have been broken, the artists to whom he gives pride of place clearly do still have some use for the shards of bondage. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the article is that the rhetoric of slavery actively provided the creative raw material for many of the practices that it characterized as “racially and culturally universal.” Among the numerous works of this sort singled out for attention were novelist Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) and filmmaker Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993). A slightly more expansive treatment was afforded Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990), a dance choreographed by Bill T. Jones that was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling 1852 abolitionist melodrama. Jones was the de facto star of the article—it was a photograph of his smiling visage that graces the magazine’s cover—and his work was held out as exemplary of the latest “black upsurge.” So was composer Anthony Davis’s, though in accounting for his music, White stumbled on a disjunction between theory and practice. “I can apply the African American sensibility to any subject,” Davis declared, but as White pointed out, “his next opera, Amistad, nevertheless brings [him] back to a black theme,” the real-life revolt of Africans taken captive by the crew of the eponymous slave ship.

The contradiction at work in this exchange and throughout the article might be put like this: African Americans were freshly asserting their “freedom”—in the aftermath of yet another belated emancipation—by turning, paradoxically, to the history of black bondage. In doing so, they surely aimed to qualify socioeconomic evidence of racial progress in light of past hardships. Yet in conjuring the most abject episode in United States history, artists were also able to enact a kind of collective exorcism so that the business of art making could go on unfettered, now placed in the universal frame that White saw black cultural practitioners as embracing. Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose article served as the pendant to White’s, confirmed this accounting. By his lights, unlike the unfulfilled Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or the ideologically constrained black arts movement of the 1960s, advanced African American art since, say, 1987, has benefitted from deeper pockets, institutional endorsement, and radical “openness.” The inaugural date he settles on is not arbitrary: that was the year writer Toni Morrison published her tour de force, Beloved. In an earlier essay that likely served as the template for his Time piece, Gates identified that book’s “transcendence of the ultimate horror of the black past—slavery,” as one of the coordinates of a new movement in literature.

Beloved was not, of course, the first novel to recast this history, but is inimitable conjunctions—of collective memory and historical fact, modernist lyricism and subjective fragmentation, gothic horror and cool structural analysis—have made it a central touchstone for subsequent revisitations of slavery. In crafting her ghost story, Morrison fabulated a character named Sethe based on the historical figure of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who infamously murdered her youngest daughter during an attempted escape from bondage in 1856 rather than see her child suffer through the horrors visited on female captives. In the writer’s hands, that child returns to disrupt Sethe and her family’s new life, much as their former masters continue to pursue them. The novel’s protagonists, then, are doubly haunted: by the threat of reenslavement and torture within the belly of capital and by the infant Beloved herself, whose presence indexes those disturbing “haints” that exist both because and in excess of Western reason, which, in ordering the world, necessarily suppresses and deforms it.

In describing her hopes for the novel after it was published, Morrison cast herself as equally troubled, not so much by the ghosts of slavery as by the lack of their visual recognition within institutional and spatial frames. This is how she put it in 1989:

There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or, better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.

Here, Beloved is framed as a spur to and a placeholder for a set of materializations capable of figuring the enslaved. Yet Morrison’s yearning for memorial markers—and the deeply imagistic tendencies of her writing in general—also beg the question: just what did slavery look like in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when it could be represented at all?

More to the point, how did visual artists figure the “peculiar institution” as a cultural and political fact? In so doing, upon what materials—whether historical, textual, vernacular, or artistic—did they draw, and why? To what extent did their works rhyme with prior modes of representing the enslaved both within dominant archives and counterhegemonic formations? How did visual practitioners reckon with the slave’s position as a form of sexed and gendered property located at the nexus of Western civilization’s material, aesthetic, and phantasmatic economies? Was art about slavery meant to point up or offer an escape from the continuing effects of white supremacy for black subjects on the ground, in representation, and within aesthetic discourse? Ultimately, what visions of the modern era come into focus when refracted through the lens of artistic meditations of slavery, especially given the institution’s profound repercussions for our understanding not only of how blackness looks and functions but also of how human life is lived and felt?

To read more about Bound to Appear, click here.

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