The Tate Modern is one of my favorite museums, and no trip to London would be complete without a visit. Two of the paintings that have stuck with me were by Marlene Dumas, a South African by birth.
Catching my attention were Cupid and Reinhardt’s Daughter. Both paintings were based on a single photograph that Dumas took of her sleeping daughter. The companion paintings differed only in that the figure in one painting was black; the same figure in the second painting was white.
In 1995, Dumas wrote: When Black and White are colours / and not races, people will still fall in / love and discriminate between / partners and feel sad and bad / and need art that breaks your heart / and takes you to those places / where pain becomes beauty.
I was/am intrigued. Dumas bases all of her paintings on a photo, but her paintings are blurred rather than focused. Working mostly in black India ink, the running ink underscores that ambiguity. Seeing these two paintings side-by-side, the black and white renderings shout out for thought.
You would have to be living in an isolated ice hut north of the Arctic Circle to miss the current news swirling around Civil Rights in America.
On Wednesday, March 3rd, the United States’ Justice Department admitted that the police force in Ferguson, Missouri was discriminatory and targeted blacks who constitute 70 percent of the town’s population. Quoting the Associated Press, “The predominately white police force disproportionately targeted blacks.”
The study was prompted by a white officer killing Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, black boy, August 2014. Granted, the boy’s size (at six-foot three inches and 300 pounds) must have been intimidating, and the boy was resisting arrest; nonetheless, the officer certainly used excessive force in shooting the youth four times.
The ongoing investigation and analysis of this shooting, resonates for me in that I recently saw THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS on stage in London. (Before you read farther, you might want to watch a short teaser video of the musical at http://www.scottsboromusicallondon.com.)
The musical was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman – if you’ve watched CHICAGO or CABARET, you know the quality of her work. The music, the dancing, and the acting were all five-star. But…
When the cast came forward for the curtain call, I was torn. Going back to the word “focus,” I was totally unfocused and disoriented. Should I sit on my hands and hang my head in shame, or should I clap for a razzle dazzle performance that was superior by every measure?
I am still trying to reconcile the disconnect that I felt between the seriousness of the subject and its being presented as a musical… not just any musical… a musical in the style of a minstrel show. Is it possible to simultaneously enjoy singing and dancing while thinking about the miscarriage of justice by an all-white, Jim Crow jury trying nine, innocent, black boys in 1913?
The boys, aged 12 to 19 years, were riding a boxcar through Alabama on their way to Chattanooga where they hoped to find work. On the way, they were harassed by some whites. When the train reached Scottsboro, the conductor threw the boys off the train, arrested by the local sheriff, and accused of raping two white passengers. (For more background, watch a two-part series on the Scottsboro boys. See PBS American Experience.)
Despite medical evidence proving that the boys had not committed a crime, all but the 12year-old boy received the death sentence – a common verdict in that time and place for a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Between the judgments and the appeals and new trials, the boys spent a minimum of six years in jail. All boys were broken by the time of their acquittals.
With the exception of a white interlocutor who parodied an Old South plantation owner, the cast was entirely black. The cast played the accused boys and as the play progressed, black actors played the white sheriff, the white prison guards, the white lawyer, the white judge, and the two white women.
At one point, urged on by the plantation owner, the black men applied black-face and farcically enacted a cakewalk. At the end of which, the actors wiped off the black face. The play was ending, there was no need to pretend to be black; rather, they were just men… men of any and no color.
I have spent weeks trying to reconcile the historical background, the script, and the presentation. Finally, I think I’ve got it. The trial (after an appeal after a trial after an appeal… ) was a circus and presenting the play in a minstrel setting underscored the absurdity of Jim Crow justice.
Reading the Ferguson Grand Jury statement, sent me searching for an earlier Grand Jury finding – that of Aug. 10, 1966. The finding was in response to The Hough (Cleveland, Ohio) Riots that July. After six nights of rioting, four African-Americans were killed; 30 were critically injured, and 240 fires were set.
The Grand Jury wrote that those rioting “were aided and abetted, willingly or otherwise, by misguided people of all ages and colors, many of whom are avowed believers in violence and extremism, and some of whom are either members or officers of the Communist Party.” What about poverty, unemployment, a decayed neighborhood, failing schools, and a neglected infrastructure?
This quote really caught my attention, not that I’m a fan of the Communist Party, but as an aside… the Scottsboro Boys were finally released because the American Communist Party refused to let the miscarriage of justice rest.
On a more personal level, I came to Civil Rights late in life. Growing up in a insular, up-state, New York village, I neither knew or saw any people of color. Even in college my exposure was limited, and I was totally ignorant of Civil Rights issues. (My God! Where was my head!! Adding another nail to my owner-built coffin, I admit to dropping out of journalism because of low grades brought on by consistently failing current events pop quizzes.)
If I were color-blind, it was not an informed response. I offer exhibit A: In the fall of ’66, I was one of three, white teachers teaching in an all-black, school in Hough. Driving my sporty, 1954 MG-TD into the school parking lot, stepping out of the car in my fashionably short mini-skirt, being escorted into the building by the National Guard, I was naïve in the extreme.
Color… what color? When a couple of parents complained that they would have preferred that their children have a black teacher… I didn’t get it. I thought they were critical of my teaching. (And how right that assessment was!)
Speaking in Selma yesterday on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Obama said that wanted to give his daughters a history lesson. I should have been so lucky. He also said, “We need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history casts a long shadow upon us.”
Racism? Going Up? Going Down? Time and education will tell the tale.