I posted this link on facebook today, pointing out that Shepard Fairey has made his career from exploiting work by people of color, that he’s been allowed status as a gallery-worthy artist for doing what is considered vandalism when done by youth of color (and let’s face it, with considerably less talent), and that I’m disappointed that Ebony missed the opportunity to commission a piece by a Black artist. A white dude responded that he understands it’s problematic, but maybe it’s a good thing to make a piece that “transcends racial lines”. I have been on edge with race shit lately, enough that I haven’t been able to write anything. I’ve seriously been race-depressed and feeling like people of color are fucking doomed—my students are proof that we aren’t, but they’re also stressed out with end of the year catching up or giving up, and realizing all that they should be taught but aren’t.
So my roommate made me a cup of coffee and I spit all this out finally in response to the dude on facebook:
I can see where you’re coming from and appreciate the sentiment, but I think it still misses the point. Heads up though, because I am having an even more race-anxious couple weeks than usual, so this hits a raw nerve for me.
First off, it definitely isn’t the only piece of art I’ve seen about Trayvon; that’s part of why it’s disappointing. Black artists respond to our conditions all the time and are often passed up on commissioned work and other opportunities. Most other magazines (read: white-centered media) doing this wouldn’t faze me, but I would expect better from a magazine like Ebony. There’s actually a portrait of Trayvon in the hallway at the school where I work that a Black girl made for an art assignment, and it’s infinitely more moving than something sterile and disconnected like this. And that isn’t the only piece I’ve seen some of my students make about this, but when they do it they are making art about their own experiences and their communities’ experiences and how disempowered they usually feel in a city like this. Once I get my silk screen stuff set up better, I promised to help some students make “DON’T SHOOT ME” hoodies they designed—that’s what we’ve come to. At the very least I want to affirm their idea that they don’t deserve to be profiled, followed, shot, and then posthumously vilified—something I don’t have to put energy into affirming in my white students, and something that no one had to affirm in Shepard Fairey.
But about making it more palatable for white audiences (who are specifically NOT the audience of Ebony, and it’s rare to pull off media that isn’t implicitly geared toward white audiences), I think that’s really dangerous and disrespectful. Black people need space to mourn and defend ourselves and take care of each other. I spend way too much time fretting over my brother and my students and my neighborhood and all the ways they are targeted for this kind of violence. Trying to make race less a part of the telling of Trayvon’s story is dishonest. It doesn’t even make sense. It isn’t a story that transcends race, because it isn’t a story that would happen to just any youth regardless of race. Racial profiling isn’t a universal experience, and neither is the picture the media tried to paint of him being a “thug.” None of that would have happened to a white kid, and pretending it does is an insult to what youth of color deal with.
If white people need to be eased into respecting, understanding, and listening to Black people’s lived experiences, then go ahead and do the work of easing them into it, but don’t expect us to tell our stories dishonestly to make them easier to swallow—we don’t have the luxury of toning shit down when we’re living it. It honestly scares me that we’ve internalized white people’s desire for us to whitewash and tone down our stories so much that we’re now doing it in our storytelling to each other in our own media.
I’m kind of unsure about the thing about Fairey’s Obama posters being iconic. Of course they are, but Obama means lots of complicated things for Black people that he doesn’t for white people. Again, not feelings and experiences that are going to transcend racial lines. You might have said more than you realized by choosing the word “iconic”—these are more than icons to Black people. (ETA: I’m pretty grumpy about Obama personally, but again, it’s way more complicated than an icon can be and I can understand Black people who support him for equally complicated reasons.)
And it’s specifically because of Fairey’s race politics (or lack thereof) that I don’t respect him as an artist. You can read a whole lot more on Fairey’s exploitation of people of color’s art and histories here: http://www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm
Federal agents and DEA just came through my neighborhood and arrested over 100 people, almost all black men, including some I know. Yale and its real estate interests are literally demolishing Black kids’ playgrounds and Black families’ houses to make condos. My students are at the point in the school year where they’re realizing just how much they’ve been denied by the school system and learning how to point out the whitewashing of their textbooks (well, if we had the money for textbooks). This is the shit I’m losing sleep over. I can’t guarantee my students that they will be safe from racial violence, since many of them have experienced it already, or that our school will value their lived experiences as young people of color, but I’m at least not going to be dishonest with them and pretend we’re not talking about race when we are, that we’re not talking about violence when we are, or that we need to put anything on hold for white people’s idea of what’s polite and palatable and slowed down enough. Our shit is way too urgent for that.