Blog Archives

Imagining the Black Suburbs: Homogeneity and African American Suburbia

levey family

The Levey family posed in front of a Levittown home in New York in 1949.

The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car.  Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

In 1946 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places.  Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance).  His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936.  The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township by June, 1946 that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans.  There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape.  Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience. Read the rest of this entry

Race and Global Subcultures: Materiality, Style, and Metal Fans in Botswana

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

Some observers suggest that mass culture has homogenized once-clear lines of difference, with the marketplace reducing difference to a rich range of pre-manufactured “resistant” styles.  Yet South African photographer Frank Marshall’s work on metal subcultures in Botswana provides an exceptionally compelling statement on the aesthetics of race, empire, and mass culture.  Marshall’s images of African metal fans illuminate the question of precisely what constitutes difference in a 21st-century consumer culture:  a stock of universal commodities and popular symbols circulate through a global marketplace, somewhat counter-intuitively producing social formations like the utterly multicultural and international metal subculture that includes Botswana’s metal fans. Read the rest of this entry

Ruins and Race in a World War II Ghost Town

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

Perhaps the most distinctive ruins of the Cold War lie east of Richmond, Virginia.  In 1943 a decoy airfield was constructed by the 1896th Engineer Aviation Battalion to confuse potential aerial attacks on the US Army Air Corps based at nearby Byrd Field in Henrico County.  The battalion constructed a series of artificial structures and a fake runway arranged much like that at Byrd Field.  Yet a compelling if somewhat more complicated story is provided by the tract’s post-war history and its interpretation in the subsequent half-century.

In February, 1947 the state bid to purchase the decoy airport tract in Elko from the War Assets Administration with the intention to build an African-American mental hospital.  A streetscape, drainage, fire hydrants, and a water tower were erected, yet by June 1954 the Richmond paper had reported that “$500,000 of utilities are rusting at Elko.”  In October 1955 the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star reported that the state was beginning training of “the grounds and buildings department of the proposed Negro training school and hospital at Elko near Richmond,” but in February, 1957 the Governor approved a switch of the hospital’s site from Elko to Petersburg.  The unfinished ghost landscape left behind remains an overgrown empty grid today attesting to measures of arrogance, racism, and distorted historical memory that distinguish Cold War America. Read the rest of this entry

Riding the Color Line: A Century of Race and Cycling

Major Taylor in France in 1908 (image wikipedia via  Bibliotheque Nationale de France).

Major Taylor in France in 1908 (image wikipedia via Bibliotheque Nationale de France).

Last week The Grio examined the impact of the color line on contemporary cycling, a discussion that reaches back to cycling’s primal 19th-century moments.  On the one hand, there is an enormous amount of evidence confirming that American cyclists have always included people of color, and a 2013 study on cycling and diversity confirms that cycling’s demographics reach well beyond the caricature of lycra-clad White bourgeois.  The Grio’s article covered familiar ground, and it could well describe nearly any collective of riders attracted to cycling for its health effects, competition, and sociality.

On the other hand, though, myriad cycling clubs, national advocacy groups, and the elite levels of American cycling underscore the way the color line persistently shapes the mundane realities of bike riding.  The discussion of race and cycling reveals deep-seated anxieties about diversity in cycling circles, and it reaches from the elite levels of the sport to grassroots recreational riders.  The discourse on color and cycling is not at all unique; instead, it is symptomatic of everyday racial divides reaching from sport to houses of worship that Americans have historically ignored or avoided. Read the rest of this entry

Hoodies, Color Lines, and Black Visibility

A March, 2012 Hoodie protest in New York (images Pamela Drew).

A March, 2012 Hoodie protest in New York (images Pamela Drew).

For more than a year Americans have aspired to rationally explain what moved George Zimmerman to kill his teenaged neighbor Trayvon Martin.  Americans are constantly inundated with murder narratives that we blithely tolerate as the fabric of contemporary life, but Martin’s death evokes a deep anxiety over how we view others across the color line.   Much of our collective anxiety reflects our apprehension that Zimmerman’s irrationality was fueled by the mere sight of an anonymous Black teen, perceiving a caricature of Blackness rather than a teenager out for Skittles.

Observers concerned with Zimmerman’s gaze have persistently fixed on Martin’s mundane hoodie.  This week the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen painted a chillingly sympathetic portrait of Zimmerman:  Cohen sympathizes with Zimmerman’s anxiety over an anonymous Black teen marked by a hoodie, and he rationalizes Zimmerman’s apprehensions with the reasoning that “the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime.”  The Post contributor concludes that he “can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.”

The link between hoodies and Black criminality has been echoed by the likes of Pat Robertson and Geraldo Rivera.  In March 2012 Rivera concluded that “the hoodie is as responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman.”  Rivera eventually apologized for arguing that “Trayvon Martin, you know God bless him, he was an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”  In contrast to Rivera’s atonement, this week Pat Robertson weighed in defending Zimmerman’s apprehension of a stranger in a hoodie, saying that “There had been some crime in the area, and the criminals were wearing these hoods, and so, it’s one of those things.” Read the rest of this entry

“Flies in the Milk”: Visibility and the African-American Material World

The freedman extends his broken chains in this closeup from the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument (photograph by the author).

The freedman extends his broken chains in this closeup from the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument (photograph by the author).

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?

A 2009 image of Monument Circle (image courtesy Justin Harter).

A 2009 image of Monument Circle (image courtesy Justin Harter).

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.

Close-up of the Peace face of the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument (photograph by author).

Close-up of the Peace face of the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument (photograph by author).

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.

A 2008 image of the Peace face of the Monument (image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14).

A 2008 image of the Peace face of the Monument (image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14).

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.

References

Beautiful Trouble

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.

Anna Chisholm

2009  Fred Wilson’s Un-Natural Histories: Trauma and the Visual Production of Knowledge.  Unpublished paper. University of Minnesota Art History.

Cooks, Bridget R.

2011 Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum.  University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.

Flyover

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 IdentityResearch 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.

Robinson, Leroy

2010 Letter to the Editor: Sculpture is AppallingIndianapolis Recorder 16 September.

Savage, Kirk

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.

Images

2008 Monument image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14

Monument Circle image courtesy Justin Harter

Monument Peace face close-up images by author