July 19, 2015
If only White America were as invested in Black life as it is in Black death, then surely we would be further along in our march toward justice. But White America remains as addicted as ever to dehumanizing Black people and seeing dead Black bodies—it feeds their sense of control and supremacy, and protects their status and privilege.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown, a White visual artist, Ti-Rock Moore, of New Orleans, has achieved instant fame and notoriety by flaunting the power and profitability of White privilege and the ubiquity of Black death.
Entitled Angelitos Negros, this piece shows the dead body of Brown laying on the ground surrounded by police tape. A looping video of Eartha Kitt singing “Little Black Angels” plays in the background. (It is only through a White woman curating his death that Brown, who was incessantly demonized in the press and blamed for his own death, becomes an angel.)
“The installation overtly reflects on Michael Brown’s brutal murder, an acknowledgment of the event that ignited the modern-day civil rights movement in the United States,” Moore noted. “It includes a silicone likeness of the slain teen’s body and is the result of my desire to mark the tragedy as one of great historical significance, commemorate this young man, and call attention to the racial injustices that remain so devastatingly relevant today.”
This piece is part of a larger exhibit called “Confronting Truths WAKE UP!,” at Gallery Guichard in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, which Rahm Emanuel has described as “The New Harlem.” If by “New Harlem” Emanuel means as gentrified as today’s Harlem, his dream appears to becoming a reality inside and outside of this gallery.
The exhibit includes 48 other pieces, including one called Cracka Please and Flyover. This work, according to Moore, follows in the footsteps of other change agents: “Art has always been a platform for addressing difficult truths. Sometimes it is only through abject imagery that truths are revealed. You can only change something if you meet it head on,” Moore said.
Whose truths? Who is sleeping, Ms. Moore?
“There are many artists coming out of this movement and we’re activists and we’re just expressing and we happen to be expressing through visual art,” Moore said to the Huffington Post. “But we know that the arts are very healing and so I think it’s self-help for many people.”
[Insert side eye here.] Ummmm, I have questions.
Healing for whom?
Self-help for whom?
For you, boo?
Are you admitting that you have a racial blind spot, Ms. Moore? Or are you using “art” as a ruse to absolve your own guilt and shame? Are you trying to obfuscate your own perverse pleasure for Black death to sure up your own White identity and safe status? Or, are you trying to build a name for yourself and advance your career on the backs of Black people by co-opting the language of “self-help” and “activism?”
This exhibit has me wondering why White America loves the spectacle of Black death? What pleasure is derived from the sight of lifeless Black bodies? Why does an artist like Moore think that the lessons of White privilege are best learned by consuming Black pain and trauma?
Aren’t the real dead bodies piling up from coast to coast powerful enough to remind us of the crimes committed in service to White privilege? The fact that it takes a White woman artist to symbolically re-murder a Black teenager for White liberals to get the message about racist state violence speaks volumes about segregation, denial, and racial narcissism.
Why must Black agony be appropriated and sold to the highest bidder? Is the oppression and degradation of Black people always going to be on the auction block? One piece of the exhibit, a Confederate flag with the names of the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting, has sold for some $4,500. Moore and the gallery owners claim that a small percentage of the money will go to a worthy cause.
One has to wonder if by worthy they mean Black social justice organizations such as Black Life Matters, the Dream Defenders, Black Youth 100, #SayHerName, or even anti-racist White organizations with boots on the ground. Or, if by worthy they mean more White liberalism that does little to dismantle the structures of White supremacy.
Reflecting the very real dangers and shortcomings of White allyship, Moore fails some of the very basic prerequisites of a shared struggle. The grief journeys of Brown’s family, friends, and community should be a priority, not treated as “exhibits” so that White America can get lesson number 10,000,000 on the depth of White supremacy. Why must our pain and our dead bodies lay the foundation for those teachable moments for White America?
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden attended the opening reception of the exhibit on July 10. The Guardian reports that she thought her son’s corpse would be seen in a photo, and requested that the life-size mannequin, with sagging pants and flip-flops, be covered up during her visit.
The gallery’s co-owner Andre Guichard told the Huffington Post that he had tried to reach out to Michael Brown Sr. But the father said that he had not been invited to see the exhibit and told CBS News that he found it “disturbing, disgusting,” and wants the gallery owners to take it away.
Activists have been speaking out about the exhibit, and Guichard has received hate mail about the travesty that Kirsten West Savali, cultural critic and senior writer at The Root, aptly called “a crude plagiarism of Darren Wilson’s brutality.”
Jenn M. Jackson, the editorial assistant for the Black Youth Project, identified the exhibit as more of the same, embodying: “White people’s desire to insert themselves in this movement is not a sign of solidarity. Instead, it is another privileged act of racial aggression and oppression, which devalues the lived experiences of Black Americans while valorizing White guilt.”
The artist Moore told the Guardian: “We're living in a society of very complicated systems that create advantages for white people, and disadvantages for others. That's what my work is about."
Indeed, but does her work document anti-Black racism or simply cash in on it; does it challenge the dehumanization of Black life or perpetuate a culture that sees no use for Black America except in death; does the work even challenge White privilege or is its mere existence a reminder of the depth of these privileges? Couldn’t Moore think of other ways to explore and exhibit White privilege without pimping Black tragedy and trauma?
In reality, the exhibit is a show of privilege, as evidenced by the fact of who is empowered to do such “artistry,” and who is not. Can you imagine an exhibit by a Muslim artist of 9/11 victims? A Nazi Holocaust exhibit by a German artist? Or a Black-Caribbean artist’s rendering of Colin Ferguson’s mass slaughter of commuters on the Long Island Railroad?
Here’s a better idea, Ms. Moore: How about you curate an exhibit documenting Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, George Zimmerman, and countless others walking free, hugging their families, and living their lives. Now that kind of art would more effectively achieve your mission of bringing to life the privileges of whiteness instead of turning Brown and Black death into abject lessons.
Moore didn’t know Brown. Instead, a mannequin of his dead body serves as all she knows about him. Touching the replica of his corpse is her only access to what she imagines of his experience, enables her to create her own interpretation of the historic significance of Brown’s murder—to create an imagined connection with his suffering and all that it symbolizes: more dead Black bodies sacrificed on the altar of racist White supremacy and privilege.
In doing so, she is not only exploiting and profiting from racism and Black pain, but couching her work as activism designed to fight the injustice behind the crime that took Brown’s young life, and obscuring her very perverse necrophilic relationship with blackness. For Moore to say that she had to re-stage Brown’s death for people to get her message about White privilege and racist state violence says to me that she and others started from the place of not imagining Black people as human to begin with. Because if Moore and the rest of White America really believe in the humanity of blackness, then there’d be no need to re-stage our deaths to make a point about the wrongness of killing us over and over again. Our humanity should be obvious. The fact that White people need such “art” speaks to a void in their sense of civility.
I don’t need to see a slaughtered White child in the street to be horrified by the realities of violence. Nobody turned Columbine, Newtown, Aurora or—more recently—to the shooting rampage in Chattanooga into art exhibits in order to argue that these killings were travesties. Nobody viewed those dead White bodies as fodder for artistic expression.
The message is clear: Only in staged death can many White people begin to see Black humanity. This tells us that Black life is invisible until a White person deems it worth recognizing. Black voices, writings, art and experiences are insufficient to elucidate Black humanity and White supremacy.
This is reminiscent of lynchings where White people collected the body parts of victims—clumps of hair, teeth, fingers, toes, charred flesh, bones, and genitals—as souvenirs, keepsakes, and objects of fetish. The spectators viewed lynchings as celebrations to reaffirm their privilege and status in society, the symbolic power to contain a Black “threat.” Moore’s exhibit is akin to lynching photography where Whites took pictures posing next to the lynched bodies, circulating the images through graphic postcards that were considered “art.”
Moore’s so-called effort to memorialize Brown’s murder suggests that the ongoing epidemic of state-sanctioned Black murder is something in the past rather than the present. In so doing, she erases the history, the pain, trauma and overall context of the police killing of a teenager. To look to the past to “teach” us about this racist violence erases Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, and others whose deaths are in our faces right now! But the fact is, White supremacy requires Black death. Black death begets White life. This is the racial math of America. The exhibit does little to change this equation.
Perhaps Moore really did create this exhibit to reflect the desire of some Whites to do something about these atrocities. One can only hope that the action is not limited to a visit to a gallery or purchasing her work but rather actively engaging in social justice advocacy, supporting organizations, and otherwise putting oneself on the line in the name of challenging White supremacy and White privilege.
Yet, the history of similar types of “art” points to its limitation. Moore presumes that the sight of Black death will compel White outrage and elicit sympathy to produce action. But we know all too well that knowledge of, exposure to, and confrontations with racism has not inspired action or led to transformation.
In “doing something” without recognizing the very real, present and oppressive pain and trauma experienced by Black families and communities, without reflecting on the extent of anti-Black racism and the complicity of White liberalism, Moore’s work does little to move us forward.
To act without care and concern for history and creating this exhibit without working with the family and organizations that have been and are directly impacted, does not qualify as action or activism, nor is it empowering. To be an accomplice requires breaking down the walls of segregation and standing with those enduring the brutality of violence. Standing apart, even as one tries, does little to advance the struggle.
While Moore might be trying to use her privilege to change hearts and minds, she can’t help replicating the dynamics of Black lynchings. She might be attempting to challenge the status quo, but in the end she centers White needs. At the end of the day, her work is yet another moment for the conspicuous consumption of Black death. Turning Brown’s life, and the struggle for justice into public spectacle, this exhibit embodies rather than challenges White privilege. It is yet another moment where dead Black bodies become the fuel for career advancement, communal penance, and the redemption of Whiteness.
While there may be controversy, there is no progress here. We keep going in circles, each playing the same roles, all while the stories of lost lives and shattered dreams mount. And at the core of it all is the simple fact that Black death produces White life, reinforces Whites’ sense of their humanity, and legitimizes White power. White life does not have the same value without Black death. Sadly, this is the ultimate message of Moore’s exhibit.
As the anniversary of young Michael Brown’s murder rolls around, perhaps we can all meditate on and consider these facts, as we grapple with the never-ending march of sorrow we’re facing as more Black bodies are felled by police brutality, more names become hashtags, more cries for justice bracket our tears and recycle our rage.
For Blacks and other people of color, our bloody reality is about the art of surviving the unthinkable. This is a truth that Moore’s privileged white hands can never accurately curate.