Tuesday, January 26, 2010
I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to be Black in America. I didn’t even meet a Black person until I was in the sixth grade. That year, about fifteen miles away, the Army Corps of Engineers was working on the largest earth-filled dam in the world, the Garrison Dam on Lake Sakakawea. Most of the children went to school on the army base, but one young Black girl attended my school for a few months. At recess on her first day, we all gathered around her, to talk to her and to touch her!
I was curious about this Black girl. To me and my classmates she was new and exotic. What would have been my response, and the response of my all-white, town in the middle of the Dakotas, if we had been asked to accommodate forty or fifty Black children? And how did she feel as the subject of our curiosity? I will never know the answers to these questions.
As with many artists, I think of the creation of my work as an act of meditation. Weaving is a tedious task, and its repetitive nature causes my mind to wonder. As I wove, I remembered that little Back girl. I remembered the Black women I worked with in the corporate world and particular conversations I’d had with them. One Black friend described the challenges of managing Black hair and how these difficulties, and the Black traditional clothes contributed to the use of kerchiefs that became part of the Aunt Jemima icon.
My woven piece Aunt Jemima references the African people who immigrated, voluntarily or not, to the United States. This headpiece is woven in the red and yellow plaid pattern of the kerchief typical of old advertisements for Aunt Jemima pancake syrup.
In Aunt Jemima, I combine my wonder at this “exotic” young girl with some of the emotional history of ethnic relationships in America. The shape of the headdress itself represents this curiosity because it references the head kerchief Black women traditionally used to hide the color and texture of their hair. The weaving incorporates golden colored copper wire into the traditional yellow and red pattern, using the ancient attraction of shiny things to represent the wonder I felt as I met my first Black girl.
On the original pancake syrup bottle, Aunt Jemima wears large round golden earrings, but in my piece her earrings are small nooses, a reference to lynching parties in the South. The shiny material is meant to attract the eye, but the viewer who looks closely will see the noose earrings and remember the darker side of the Black experiences in America.
In my work I represent our misunderstanding of other races by removing the human head in my displays. In this piece, the absent head also mirrors the invisibility and lack of a voice experienced by Black people and other minorities in this country. Despite what I know of history, I can only represent my misunderstanding of the culture of the “other.” I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to be Black in America
Posted by S E at 9:41 PM