On the Confederacy, History, and Racism

I do not know how to start this.  I've tried many times since last Saturday, August 12, 2017, as I, along with the rest of the country, watched events unfolding 45 minutes away from my home in Richmond.  The scenes could have been in a grainy black and white documentary of an ugly past that, thankfully, our society has defeated.  Images of men with torches, shouting calls for segregation and, if need be, war upon non-whites.  But these images were not in grainy black and white.  They were full color, and very current.  Because you see, racism is not dead.  Racism is very real.  

The organized march of the "alt-right" and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville showed the face of white supremacy in the United States, and sparked a national focus on the Confederate monuments found in many Southern cities and towns.  

I have been back and forth at best on the state of these monuments.  Being from the South, I grew up under the myth of the "Lost Cause" of the South.  The Civil War was fought by majority poor Southern whites who did not own slaves, but were under the impression that they were fighting for their states' rights to govern themselves.  Of course, one cause removed from this popular view is that the states' rights being fought for was the right to own "stock", as human beings were referred to in Richmond, VA.  

I, of course, realized this.  But I did not want to admit it.  If history is written by the victors, what does it mean to be on the losing side?  The authors of Southern manifestos post-Reconstruction offered a solution by developing the myth of the "Lost Cause", and hailed the heroes who defended the rights of the Southern States.  Thus, a "New South" rose from the ashes of Confederate defeat.  It was one built upon the romantic narratives of the humble beginnings of Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and the reality of legal segregation.  It appropriated the moonlight and magnolias, the plantations, and the tradition of simple, hardworking southern farmers who wanted to operate without government oversight and taxes.  It uplifted the poor white who was on a social caste not much higher than a slave.  Most importantly - and menacingly - it white-washed the slaves themselves.  In the words of Robert E. Lee, "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy" (The Slaves' War, Andrew Ward).  Thus, the "happy, loyal slave" fought the North because he knew he would be worse off without his benevolent master there to see to his needs and protection.  It is interesting to note that this New South rose in opposition to a growing movement of poor whites and blacks who worked together under the Readjuster Party  "to break the power of wealth and established privilege" of the planter elite.  The best way to maintain power is to divert the attention of those fighting the established power, and in post-Reconstructionist Virginia, that diversion was to get the poor blacks and poor whites to fight one another, just as the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 made poor whites slightly more socially acceptable than blacks, giving them a false sense of social security.  These narratives were not developed until the 1890's, a generation after the Civil War ended.  It was then when the monuments were erected, literally casting the ideals of the New South in bronze, and placing them upon marble pedestals.

The monuments not only reinforced the New Southern narrative, but also staked out a claim on certain areas of the city.  This was the case in Charlottesville (See this wonderful article by UVA PhD candidates), and certainly it was the case in Richmond, as our beloved Monument Ave. has been a traditionally white neighborhood surrounding the grand boulevard of monuments since the Civil War, far removed from the sinister slave markets of Shockoe Bottom: the "Wall Street of the South", where the second largest slave market in the country, and the entry point of slaves into the South stoked a massive economic machine.  

With the knowledge of this history, and in the face of it I admit, I value the monuments as artistic achievements, and as agents of conversation, keeping race and civil rights in the forefront of our minds.  I have been an advocate for creative engagement with the monuments, and have talked openly about my desire to see a Richmond biennial, where artists nationwide could submit proposals for engagement with the monuments themselves, thereby maintaining active conversation and new ways of seeing.  

But this is not my viewpoint anymore.  As I said, distraction is the number one weapon used against beneficial change.  The monuments focus the conversation of race on America's past policy of chattel slavery and the wounds of the Civil War.  While it is important to acknowledge this as part of the national history, and a seed of current racial tribalism, it should not be the primary topic of conversation in a country plagued by unequal housing opportunity, disproportionate sentencing of black convicts for the same crime as white convicts, police brutality, and crime in the nation's low income neighborhoods which limits the freedom to rise above the grasp of poverty and violence.

So take them down.  Move them to a museum dedicated to the study of the "Lost Cause" myth and the reverberating effects of slavery and the Civil War where they can be engaged by academics and those who are willing to view them in this context, and let the wider society move forward to address current issues that effect our communities.  In their place, let us remind ourselves of true heroes, like Elizabeth van Lew, who faked insanity to spy for the Union right under the nose of Jefferson Davis in Richmond.  

Before I conclude, however, I would like to address policy and protest.  Just as the monuments are a distraction, let us remind ourselves of the potential of protest as a distraction.  In the wake of Charlottesville, there has been a chorus of denunciation of the alt-right, neo-nazis, and white supremacists.  I agree with this denunciation.  There is no place in a healthy society for people who consider themselves superior to others based on race and heritage.  I will state, however, that the chorus quickly grew into a shout of clichés and sound bytes ad nauseam.  If every person feels compelled to say the same thing, by all means do so: you have confirmed you are of the majority opinion.  This opinion has already affected major corporations.  The C.E.O. advisors to Donald Trump have already resigned/been fired for standing with the majority.  Now what?  Shall we keep yelling the same slogans in perpetuity?  Or can we begin to suggest policy to back up the slogans?  For example, a healthy society cannot tolerate intolerance.  I can see this.  Racism, however, is a condition of the heart and mind.  Shouting slogans or debating has been proven to merely reinforce one's already held beliefs.  So what is to be done about those who hold racism as a belief?  Begin suggesting policy, even if that policy takes time.  I doubt very seriously our current society would tolerate reeducation camps for white supremacists, or French Revolution style justice.  What about better education in public schools to addresses the myth of the "Lost Cause", and teach a deeper understanding of slavery and black history to all children, not just those to whom it applies?  Racism will not be destroyed tomorrow or next year, but a deeper appreciation for the diverse cultures that created this wonderful experiment in freedom we call the United States is certain to affect the hearts and minds of children into adulthood.  

What about the religious among us?  Are we making sure our clergy are in the right place?  Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."  What are we doing to keep one another accountable as fellow human beings?  What are we doing to grow one another and carry out the commands of Christ to "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" (Luke 10:27)?  

As a society, we need not speak alone, but act.  What will our actions say about us?  That we protested bigotry and racism?  Or that we proposed real change, and fought together for it?  

Superheroes

I just recently found out about the phenomenon of National Batman Day.  I have no idea where it originated (though if you are a true Batman fanatic, I love to learn!), but from reading I've done on the Internet, I've learned that it is somewhat a gimmick to make some money.  

With that in mind, I'd like to use the National Batman platform to bring to the forefront a major issue concerning our country, and to release a painting I've been sitting on for a while, waiting to release:

#BlackLivesMatter

I do not feel authorized to write this.  I am not black.  I am not an expert.  The thought of releasing this, and the potential of joining this conversation gives me as much anxiety as it does quiet anticipation.  But I have to.  

I could tell you my background, growing up in a rural, impoverished town in South Carolina attending an elementary school that was 98% black, living among the racism that still flourished strong in the early 1990's.  Maybe that would lend some experience to this conversation?  But that feels just as "gimmicky" as the thought of National Batman Day taking advantage of one of the greatest, most noble, and most complex superheroes ever created.

This conversation deserves more.  I want to tell you about my work.  I want to tell you what inspired it.  But I want to do so assuring you that I am ignorant, and full of a desire to learn about a very complex issue, and to do my part in contributing to a shout that is reverberating around this country.  

This piece started as a conversation between myself and a good friend shortly after the nation began to focus on what have become all to common "officer involved" killings.  I expressed to her my helplessness, and she challenged me to create something.  At first, I defended the police.  Surely police aren't all bad, right?  Surely these are the bad minority sampling of the greater good.  Then, a young boy was shot in a Cleveland park.  I learned of more and more killings: all completely unjustifiable; all without the benefit of the doubt.  I learned that the black community would rather call a friend in an emergency than a cop.  I learned about "the talk" mothers and fathers give their children about the way the world works.  I opened my eyes.  

The above video is what ignited the concept of the painting.  I couldn't help put myself in the shoes of the young men who thought of "hero" when they thought of "police".  The innocence that forms their worldview is so beautiful, and so precious, and it is destroyed by age and experience.  Why?  

Like many people in the world, I love a good hero, and no hero exemplifies the ideal of "policeman" like Batman.  What would he say about the state of policing today?  These hypotheticals sound so silly out loud, but maybe these are the questions we should be asking.  We've lost innocence.  

We've all had our eyes opened... unless we choose to keep them shut in ignorance, staring happily at the shadows and shades of illusion, when vibrant color, beauty, and culture lives and dies right outside our selected field of vision.

"Heroism and Harm", Ink, Acrylic, and Mixed Media (Newspaper) on Paper, 36" x 40", 2015

I have showed very few people this piece, and have asked the guidance of even fewer.  But to those who have put themselves into this emotionally just as much as I - or more - I cannot express enough gratitude.  This is so much bigger than me, or you, or Batman.  

If you are interested in a print of this piece, I do not have them yet, but I am exploring crowdfunding options to disseminate this painting the way I feel it deserves.  Please show your interest by commenting, or sending me an e-mail.  Should enough of you respond, I will begin raising money for the process, and a large percent of my profits will go to Art180 in Richmond, VA: a local non-profit organization that helps children in tough environments express themselves creatively.

I am giving the final words of this blog to one of my dearest friends.  She has put up with my ignorance, and my questions, and has tolerantly observed my heart: a practice we should all embrace.

"Art has always been scary to me, in any form, because it removed my ability to control emotions that I worked hard not to publicly demonstrate.  I know that most artists create from the voice that they want to express but I also knew that this artist had the delicate responsibility of emitting kindness without judgment, question without privilege and love while acknowledging what many have experienced through hate.  This is a recounting of the emotions that I experienced upon seeing this finished work.  
There is a cry that is emphasized by tears, broken faces, and overwhelming emotions; the cry that will cause you to turn away to protect your vain idea of how you should appear in the midst of emotion.  The cry that allows you to have thoughts that are cohesive and perhaps even calculated.  And then there is the cry that is uninhibited, unexpected, and silent.  The cry that comes from buried, unexplored pain.  The cry that comes from actualizing the burden that others have been feeling.  Perhaps even the cry of the empath.  Although I didn’t recognize it as such, this is the cry that I experienced when I had the opportunity to privately view what I will call the superhero piece. 
This work brought to the forefront of my consciousness the pain that I had been experiencing by proxy.   Newspaper articles, pleading voices of crying mothers, the anger of people consistently misunderstood and returned anger of people lacking the ability to understand, based on clouded judgment or my perception of such, flooded my mind and I cried.  This painting made me think of the young man with the five letter name that I won’t attach to the piece out of respect for both his family and the artist who may not have had him in mind during the creative process.  I wanted to feel empathy for the hero of the past, the boy in blue who patrolled my eighties Brooklyn neighborhood, the saviors based on my “Law and Order” addiction but I was swayed by the knowledge of today’s happenings, hashtag activism and pain that couldn’t be explained or justified.  I asked myself and I ask you, where are the Heroes?  Do they exist? Are we willing to see them and is there a compromise?  I know that the last question will be answered with, 'Yes!  Less unjustified, dead bodies.'
Ideas are generated and destroyed by emotion and this piece exemplifies that for me.  While I wait for the answers and think about “what I can do next”, I look at this work, inhale sorrow, and exhale the desire to see improvement.  I listen to BIack Star albums and write to the emphatic, confident, almost accusatory tones of Talib Kweli and Mos Def.  I exhale the belief that #notallcops will truly be demonstrated in a way that results in less battered bodies, less bloodshed, more understanding, and voices that represent the goodness of the masses.  The artist may or may not have been feeling any of the things that slammed into my chest when I saw this piece but I thank him for giving me the opportunity to cry unashamed and to realize that my responsibility has to extend beyond words delivered from my keyboard."   -  Stephanie Bryant

Newspaper

Palate Dysmorphia I, Acrylic and Mixed Media (Newspaper) on Canvas, 24" x 24", 2015

A lot of people have been asking about my use of newspaper in my work.  How do I select the articles I use, if I do indeed select them?  Do the articles serve a purpose in my work, or do they merely create an interesting background?  I welcome any questions, and encourage people to comment or e-mail me should they desire to know more about my work. 

The news is a fascinating thing in today's society.  The stream and volume of information that every individual has access to is astonishing.  We are bombarded daily by any form of news, whether local, national, international, celebrity, or informative.  Our Facebook walls are filled with lists of "life hacks", and "ways to lose weight", and "ways to blow his (or her, but let's face it... we have not yet won the battle for female equality) mind in bed".  Our grocery store checkout lanes tell us about the latest scandal in the lives of the rich and powerful; a life we may never know.  Our televisions are cluttered with bold and personality-filled talking heads that spew information 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a rate that leaves an individual little time to make an informed opinion, or worse, bully one into making an opinion that they deem worthy: who you vote for, how you view War, and what social change should or should not happen... are they really your decision?  Or are they the decision of the media outlet which digests your information? 

Newspapers are all the more interesting.  They are often deemed "out-of-date" in this digital age.  I, for one, love them.  I love that I can sit in quiet - a lost luxury in today's society - and slowly digest an article, all the while measuring it by my own knowledge and experience, coming to an informed and carefully thought out conclusion without the drama of two people shouting opinions, or flashy graphics that distract me from the story at hand. 

In addition, newspapers are each a work of art.  The layout is carefully constructed, and designed to draw your eye in certain directions, just like a work of fine art would.  Each is different: the New York Times (my favorite), the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Le Monde, Der Speigel...  the list is endless, and offers endless possibility

Palate Dysmorphia I (Detail) , Acrylic and Mixed Media (Newspaper) on Canvas, 24" x 24", 2015

When starting a piece, I begin by conceptualizing what I want to paint on the foreground.  I'll do a few sketches to get the layout the way I want it, and then I'll go to the pile of newspapers I have in my studio, and start rifling through them.  (This is the most time consuming part of my process.  I have over two years of newspapers stacked in my studio, and though I sometimes sort them by topic (war, politics, racial issues, life, "white noise", etc) in my spare time, most are sorted on the spot.)  I'll pick out articles and pictures (I try to make sure all of them are black and white) that are relevant to the subject I'm going to paint, whether directly, or as a playful juxtaposition.  My most recent painting, Nagasaki, has clips of the 70th Anniversary coverage, in addition to articles on the bombing of ISIS this year, and the bombing ISIS has done throughout Iraq. I also included some articles on the economic recovery in Afghanistan.  I consider this relevant.  How does a nation rebuild, and find it's feet after War?  There is so much history, and so much connection in each piece, and it is these connections that form the background and base of each of my paintings. 

I do not stand alone as an artist.  No successful artist does.  We are instead connected to a big world of artists that come before us, and history and culture that surrounds us.  Once we find our place within, the conversation becomes all the more interesting.

Nagasaki, August 9, 1945

70 years ago today, Bockscar, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress Bomber, dropped “Fat Man”, a 10,300lb, 10ft long atomic bomb with a plutonium core, on Nagasaki, Japan.  It fell for 43 seconds, detonating at 11:02 AM at an altitude of 1, 650ft, creating an explosion more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb used three days earlier, generating an estimated heat of 7,050 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds up to 624 mph, killing 70,000 – 80,000 people instantly, only 150 of which were military personnel. 

"Nagasaki", Acrylic and Mixed Media on Canvas, 36" x 36", 2015

To commemorate the anniversary of this atrocity, I painted a portrait of "Fat Boy".

Why do I paint bombs?  The paintings are not necessarily beautiful.  You wouldn’t want them hanging over your dining room table while eating breakfast, like you may envision a lovely landscape or an interesting portrait, and they may spark a much more heated conversation than you want if seen by guests in your living room. 

That is precisely why I paint them.  Bombs are interesting subject matter, because, graphically, they look neat, and hold power.  They are polarizing.  They are political.  They are in your face.  They remind me of the 250,000 killed instantly in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  They remind me of my sister, who, because Japanese people are so precious to her heart, must get an excuse to miss class when those two cities are discussed in American history class because of the “Patriotism” (read: xenophobic racism and hatred) of the youth and even teachers cheering and “they got what they deserved!”-ing. 

Then, bombs remind me of Vietnam.  Did you know 7 million tons of bombs were dropped by the US on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia?  260 million cluster bombs (now banned by the Geneva Convention) were dropped in Laos alone: the equivalent of one bomber emptying a payload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years

Bombs remind me of the over 100,000 civilian lives lost in Iraq after September 11, 2001.  They remind me of the Palestinian civilians killed by American ordinance used by Israel.  They remind me of weddings, funerals, and cups of coffee abruptly destroyed by drone attacks approved by our Presidents. 

Bombs remind me that living in the “Greatest Nation on Earth” means nothing if I have no empathy, compassion, and love for my neighbors on this Earth.

When I look at one of my finished painting, I long for a day when such imagery will be nothing more than a fact we learned in history class, and quickly forgot about because of its inhumanity.

A limited edition Hand Drawn Multiple of this image is now for sale here.  Get yours before they run out!