“Flies in the Milk”: Visibility and the African-American Material World
In 1979, Ralph Ellison captured the complicated notion of color line visibility and took aim on the apparent contradiction of being both Black and American. Ellison suggested that African America was “penalized not because of their individual infractions of the rules which give order to American society, but because they, like flies in the milk, were just naturally more visible than white folk. . . . In this dark light `high visibility’ and `in-visibility’ were, in effect, one and the same. And, since black folk did not look at themselves out of the same eyes with which they were viewed by whites, their condition and fate rested within the eye of the beholder.”
This week the Art, Race, Space symposium examines the relationship between aesthetics, material culture, and urban space along and across the color line and the complicated notion of visibility, power, and race that Ellison contemplated. Defined narrowly, the conference focuses on a late-19th century sculpture of a freed captive that artist Fred Wilson proposed recasting in 2007, but Wilson’s design was eventually deemed to be an unacceptable representation of the African diaspora. The broader issues that matter beyond Indianapolis revolve around the complicated question of precisely what constitutes Black materiality: that is, how do we see Black materiality, and how should we socially and materially represent Black experience in the early 21st century? How should we fashion the aesthetics of contemporary Black subjectivity filtered through 19th-century racial aesthetics, the weight of 20th-century anti-Black racism, and dynamic 21st-century, post-segregation identity politics?
The story of Fred Wilson’s project E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) has been detailed in Modern Art Notes, Studio 360, Citizens Against the Slave Image, FredWilsonIndy, the Monument Circle Project, NUVO, Art:21, Kirk Savage’s blog, the Indianapolis Recorder, Art Avocado, Contempartnotes, and my own blog. My own sense is that much of the tension was over the concrete process by which this artwork was selected: that is, established Indianapolis sources of power rooted in class and racial privilege reaching back to the 19th century determined how to represent African American in a monumental piece of art meant to last indefinitely if not forever. In a city that has circumspectly embraced assertive grassroots politics, the monument plan and review process sparked profoundly strong feelings about public representations of African diasporan identity. Wilson hoped to redeem the freedman from the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument, where Whites placed him to transparently applaud their ability to secure freedom and forgive themselves for the racism that followed Emancipation. Yet by once again obscuring the process of determining how African Americans would be publicly represented (through no fault of Wilsons’), the review process risked repeating the racist patronage that produced the original statue a century ago.
The freedman was faced with an impossible mission to timelessly represent Black subjectivity, but he sounds a critical message about race in the late 19th century and the subsequent hundred years that revolves around the trope of visibility that Ralph Ellison placed at the heart of American experience. The visual metaphor captures the potential redemption promised by being seen authentically, as we are and can ideally be, and today many people do not consider 19th century racial conventions to be productive ways to make African diaspora publicly visible. Nothing could be more material than the African-American agency and anti-Black racism invested in every square inch of the American city, so the challenge is to recognize that heritage and the White privilege impressed in prosaic bus stops, abandoned lots, homogenous shopping malls, forgettable university campuses, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that betrays no consciousness of Blackness and the color line.
What might we make of the freedman in a moment that aspires to fragment the essential Black subject? Contemporary scholars routinely herald the demise of essentialized subjects that have been replaced by fluid identities. The potential death rites to a unified, recognizable Black subjectivity may be a reason for guarded optimism—a signal that anti-racist activism is rendering racialized subjects increasingly untenable and perhaps taking aim on long-disavowed White privilege—but it simultaneously provokes anxiety among White and Black people alike in the face of apparent racial ambiguity if not nothingness. A stable, clearly bounded African diasporan subjectivity is seductive to many of us—albeit for quite different reasons–but it ultimately is an inadequate representation of the dynamism of contemporary diasporan subjectivity.
Like the long-ignored freedman, the city’s broader landscape is an inelegantly evaded material testament to racial privilege: state office complexes, the IUPUI campus, the circuitous ribbon of interstates through the city’s heart, and mundane apartment complexes inhabit what were predominately African-American neighborhoods for more than a century. Nevertheless, these prosaic spaces pass without critical reflection and little or no acknowledgement that they are products of racist spatial engineering. In an early 21st-century post-segregation society, African-American heritage is perhaps more thoroughly masked than it was just a half-century ago. Crispus Attucks High School, Indiana Avenue, and a network of churches, stores, clubs, and homes in the near-Westside was a spatial refuge and the social heart of Black Indianapolis for a century. Consequently, as in most of early 21st-century urban America, much of historically African-American Indianapolis is today spatially displaced, literally erased, or ideologically effaced.
An understanding of the freedman and the discourse over his present-day re-casting needs to push beyond historically specific aesthetics and symbolism and connect him to the 20th and 21st century experience of space and the color line in urban America. The freedman can no longer aspire to being “authentic”: he is rooted in a persistent shared African consciousness and a half-millennium of capitalism and colonization, but African America looms uniquely within and outside the American experience. In a position shaped by African culture, a half-millennium of racist negotiation, the specter of 19th century racial stereotypes, and this post-segregation moment, perhaps the freedman’s burden is to provide us a sober, critical, and potentially redeeming mirror of American life. This what Richard Wright referred to when he pronounced that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and argued that African American experience was American history told in its most “vivid and bloody terms.”
The conference web page has more information on the symposium. These thoughts are simply my own and do not represent the Conference Committee or other speakers at the symposium. See the PACE Gallery Fred Wilson bibliography for background on Wilson’s work.
1993 Case Study: Mining the Museum. Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution blog.
Rena Bransten Gallery
2012 Fred Wilson Press. Rena Bransten Gallery Web Page.
Callahan, John (editor)
1995 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Random House, New York.
Cooks, Bridget R.
2011 Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.
2009 Fred Wilson. Flyover Blog.
Globus, Doro (editor)
2011 Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader. Ridinghouse, New York.
Kitson, Thomas J.
1999 Tempering Race and Nation: Recent Debates in Diaspora Identity. Research in African Literatures 30(2):88-95. (subscription access)
Murray, Freeman Henry Morris
1916 Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: An Interpretation. Published by the author, Washington, D.C.
2010 Letter to the Editor: Sculpture is Appalling. Indianapolis Recorder 16 September.
1997 Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Judith E. Stein
1993 Sins of Omission: Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum.” Judith E. Stein, Writer and Curator Blog.
2008 Monument image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14
Monument Circle image courtesy Justin Harter
Monument Peace face close-up images by author