To put it simply, this triptych is a response to the white-washing of black culture: specifically through music and Christianity.
If you want a little more, it is a response to reading Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem, Citizen, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, the poetry of Amiri Bakara, conversations with my friend Stephanie Bryant, and the June 17, 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and resulting Confederate Flag removal from the South Carolina State Capitol, reinvigorating the controversy behind that symbol of hate; it is in response to 2014 and 2015: terrible years for unarmed black men and women; it is a view through the lens of my own history of living in Africa, my Christianity, and my reflections on a culture that does not belong to me, but that I love passionately.
But of course, each catalyst behind this painting deserves more than a list. It deserves a conversation, and deep introspection throughout an American society that is as deeply African as it is European – the former being brushed to the side in favor of dominant white history. This is what I mean when I say this triptych is about white-washing, which works to erase black culture through appropriation and ignorance. I will endeavor to give a more thorough explanation.
When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, the media and much of the public heralded America’s status as a “post-racial” society. We see “colorblind”, and recognize equal treatment for all in a nation where “black” is only skin tone. And yet, this world is a lie. An illusion. As Te-Nehisi Coates puts it, this ignorance “is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (Coates, 33). In reality, the post-racial lie is merely another example of white-washing; a way for white Americans to feel better about themselves because they helped put a black man in the most powerful leadership role in the world. The Dream was always built on unsteady ground, but the true nature of American racism was brought to the forefront when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman: an event repeatedly addressed in Rankine’s Citizen, illustrating a pain the entire black community felt in the face of gross injustice. I say felt, but in reality this pain transcends the past. On February 15, 2016, rap artist Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the Grammy Awards – a stage that, like the Oscars, does not adequately celebrate black artists – and demonstrated the pain of seeing yet another black son lost:
On February 26th I lost my life too
It's like I'm here in a dark dream
Nightmare, hear screams recorded
Say that it sounds distorted but they know who it was
That was me yelling for help when he drowned in his blood
Why didn't he defend himself? Why couldn't he throw a punch
And for our community do you know what it does?
Add to a trail of hatred
2012 was taped for the world to see
Set us back another 400 years
This is modern day slavery //
Justice ain't free
Therefore justice ain't me
That reminds me. Music is a powerful link between the narrative of black history and why I must paint this triptych.
I love music, as most people do. I grew up with parents that were both music majors, and our house was filled with it, from classical to funk to pop standards. But my appreciation of music really came alive when my family moved to Africa as missionaries, and I realized that there was a culture built upon music, and while I did not make the connection at the time, I now realize that every music style that invigorates American youth culture, dance clubs, road trips, and coffee shops – that creates a playlist for nearly every mood – is directly descended from the African culture where I came of age. The rapper Nas puts it concisely in his 2004 release Bridging the Gap, recorded with his father, renowned blues and jazz artist Olu Dara:
Bridging The Gap from the blues, to jazz, to rap
The history of music on this track //
The blues came from gospel, gospel from blues
Slaves harmonizin' them ah's and ooh's
And from gospel and blues comes the entire popular music cannon: jazz, rock n’ roll, soul, funk, alternative, punk, hip-hop, rap, pop… the list goes on. And yet, Dara states "It's only obvious… to readers in Europe, Japan -- other countries. In America, you gotta explain everything. This is a young country. Barely knows who they are, barely knows their history" (Dara, 2004). And this history is white-washed. Chuck Berry couldn’t be popular in the 50’s due to his dark skin, though he pioneered rock n’ roll. The record labels instead invented the bluesy, edgy Elvis Presley, who could personify the evolution of black music and deliver it in a white package.
This is African culture, and the white-washed African undercurrent to American culture in Amiri Bakara’s words:
Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone's
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.
We are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms
tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
- Amiri Bakara, Ka’Ba
These historical narratives – musical culture and human rights – that I am attempting to demonstrate through carefully selected newspaper clippings depicting black entertainment, social news, and history that form the back drop and underlying current to the paintings.
I mentioned briefly my history as a missionary kid in Africa. Living overseas has given me an objective perspective of America, and I have observed the past ten years with the curious eyes of an outsider. But at the same time, I am aware of my own position within American patriarchal racist culture: the societal “ideal” combination of being male, middle-class, and white. Seeing both sides, I know that I am in the strange position of critiquing America while I also represent the very race responsible for the atrocities committed against black bodies and black culture. That is why I white-wash the newspaper articles, creating a representation of my own responsibility for culturally crafting an aesthetically pleasing composition. White is so beautiful and cleansing, isn’t it?
Amiri Bakara continues and concludes Ka’Ba with these lines:
We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new
Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy,and create. What will be
the sacred word?
- Amiri Bakara, Ka’Ba
That “word”, for many, is Christianity. Seventy-Eight percent of African-Americans identify as Protestant Christians, though many refer to Christianity as the “white-man’s religion”. And today, it is. Society has white-washed a Jesus that was originally brown skinned, and claimed to be a part of the Jewish people, who are far from white. During the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, Christianity was established as a double-edged sword for black slaves. Originally not allowed baptism (because of laws that mandated freedom for all baptized peoples), by 1706, six colonial legislatures had passed laws denying that baptism altered the condition of slavery: Virginia’s saying that masters "freed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity." (CT, 2014). Thus, numerous verses were used to subjugate slaves, and encourage their submission. This arc, of blacks worshipping a white-washed God given to them by white slave masters, is dominant. But there is also a history of rebellion behind Christianity. A study of the Bible informed abolitionists, demonstrating that all human beings are valued in the sight of God: an idea that has inspired acts of revolution and civil disobedience throughout history.
I am exploring this arc in conjunction with the arc of musical history in hopes that the popular narrative will be questioned and reclaimed, demonstrating that people – my white people – shan’t be afraid of black power, for we have been celebrating black power throughout history, only believing it white because of colonialist, patriarchal, capitalist lies we’ve been taught to believe.
This is the arc:
This panel represents the African homeland, the roots of culture, or, spiritually, the Father, dominated violently by colonialism and capitalism and white-washed, forcing human beings to renounce their culture and surrender their bodies. Africa is known to whites as the “dark continent”, creating a visual that alludes to a lack of culture. This is a lie. African culture is represented here by faint patterns of Kente cloth, a traditional African cloth representing honor and royalty. Is is white-washed not only on a newpaper background, representing history, but also in the white-wash itself, creating movement in the path of slave-trade routes to the Americas.
This panel represents slavery itself connecting the story of the savior of all, Jesus Christ, who is worshipped for his torture and death to hundreds of thousands of men and women who were tortured and killed due to the American slave trade alone. These slaves were also roots to American culture as it is today, though they, also, are white-washed in a narrative of history that follows white people, mentioning slavery as an unfortunate blip in pursuit of the Dream. The painting utilizes African skin tones, layered with streaks of vivid Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Red, representing the whipping of slaves. White-wash is then applied, creating an almost fire-like sense of movement, creeping up the piece.
This panel represents modern times from the 20’s to present. The verse-title is related to the Holy Spirit. It is time to recognize the extraordinary spirit of human beings, and their contribution to American culture regardless of skin tone. And yet, few are. Those that are have been white-washed by the media, claimed by a mainstream white culture that is confused whenever these artists bring a world that does not belong to whites into view.
A glaring example is Beyoncé, whose skin is regularly lightened in magazine photos, and who unashamedly speaks to her history – black history – to the confusion of her white fans that cannot understand every aspect of her existence: something not common to white celebrities.
Blue and Purple hues are both splattered intermittently, and subtly echoing the Kente cloth pattern of the first panel among darker African skin tones, evoking the feeling of Blue Note Record label (a label started by German/Jewish immigrants, and dedicated to the celebration of swing, jazz, blues, and the influence on the arts and American culture) and African royalty. It is majorly white-washed in comparison to the other two panels, creating a sense of chaos and frustration, obscuring the barely-seen newspaper article hidden beneath.
This triptych is an exploration: my own contribution to a conversation that has been taking place for centuries.