Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reading 1968: The Great American Whitewash

Excerpt from Invisibility Blues, "Reading 1968: The Great American Whitewash":

Like everything else human, there are many countercultures, not just one. For instance, today, black youth resist total white hegemonic control over everyday life, often by means considered counter to culture, by drug use and the life of the streets, by their unwillingness to go to school and their inclination to have babies outside wedlock. While such developments are largely the result of an economic and educational stagnation imposed upon then from above, black teenagers respond to this situation partly in the form of an interpretation (from drug use to pregnancy to rap) that is connected by influence and osmosis, to countercultural developments, white, black and brown, in the 50s and the 60s.

As for those decades, I am certain of a deliberate and self-conscious black counterculture because my parents-- my father, who was a jazz musician, my mother, who was an artist, and my stepfather, who was their close friend--were part of it in the 50s. In the 1960s, my father, divorced from my mother and an unsuccessful jazz musician, would die of a heroine overdose. In 1965, my mother, my sister and I took classes at Amiri Baraka's (then Leroi Jones) newly inaugurated School of Black Arts in Harlem. A public high school teacher who was moonlighting as an artist, my mother Faith became a 1960s radical, taking an active role in the black struggle against the United Federation of Teachers over 'decentralization' of the public schools.

In those years, the hardest thing to figure out was culture, how our everyday lives would bear the mark of our political commitment, for it was immediately clear to everyone, once the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills had been settled, that US capitalist hegemony undermined you most at the level of the everyday. In 1963, Faith began to produce a series of paintings called American People, in which she tried to capture the drama and the underlying structure of the racism that the Civil Rights Movement confronted, as we then viewed it on our television screens, as it affected race relations in the North, as it was written about by James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time (1963), and Amiri Baraka in Dutchman (1964). In 1970, when I became a student at the City College of New York, I was already struck by how many politically active black students were getting involved in heavy drug use, dying at a hospital across the street.

1968 Revisited

'Where is tomorrow's avant-garde in art and entertainment to take on the racial bias of the snowblind, the sexual politics of the frigid, and the class anxieties of the perennially upper crust?' When I asked this question a few months ago, I was trying to make light of something that is not light at all. As ridiculous as it may seem, a white cultural avant-garde, here and abroad, has always believed it possible to make an oppositional art without fundamentally challenging hegemonic notions of race, sexuality and even class.

Of course, when I was a kid, we didn't call it 'white cultural hegemony'. We called it the 'Great American Whitewash'. I had the great good fortune to be raised in a family of artists (my stepfather was not an artist but worked at General Motors to finance our creativity) in which resistance to the old truism, 'If you're white, you're all right; if you're brown stick around; and if you're black, stay back', was viewed not only as a paramount to making art, but basic to one's psychological survival. I still find it astonishing when white people consistently conceptualize resistance in ways that minimize the importance of race, or the vital contribution black artists and intellectuals have made to the discussion of that issue.

But I was first struck by the true dimensions of that problem in 1970, when Faith and I attened a guerilla art action protest against Art Strike, which was itself a protest against 'racism, war and repression'. A group of famous white male artists led by Robert Morris decided to withdraw their work from the Venice Biennale, a prestigious international exhibition, in order to protest US bombing of Cambodia and the murder of college students at Kent, Jackson and and Augusta. Although the protest was supposed to be against 'Racism, War, and Repression' (sexism was not yet on their agenda), Art Strike then expected to mount a counter-Biennale in New York without altering the all-white male composition of the show. This seems to be the key to understanding the intrinsic limits of Western cultural avant-gardism: while it can no longer deny its own white male supremacist presuppositions it canot be rid of them either.

In the first years of our feminism, working through an organization that we founded called Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL), Faith and others succeeded in opening this exhibition to women and people of color. WSABAL was also influential in the subsequent development of Ad Hoc Women Artists, led by Lucy Lippard. This group repeated WSABAL's 50 per cent women demand in their protest against the Whitney Biennial, which was in the habit of including white male artists almost exclusively. Specifically because of Faith's research and support of Ad Hoc, black women artists Barbara Chase Riboud and Bettye Saar were included in the next Whitney Biennial.

Of course, Faith's activism against the museums had not begun in 1970. It really began in 1968 the year of Martin Luther King's assassination, when every black artist and cultural worker in the country was galvanized into action. Only sixteen years old at the time, I accompanied Faith to the first demonstration of black artists against the Whitney Museum and then to a free-for-all (Art Workers' Coalition) demonstrations against the Museum of Modern art. The museums wee reluctant to call in the police at that point. yet, since the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the riots, it was no longer tolerable simply to 'picket' in an orderly fashion. These demonstrations were increasingly unpredictable, full of street theatre and creative mayhem, very countercultural in the Wallerstein/Dionsyiac sense.

In one case, I can remember museum adminstrators and security guards standing helplessly by as Faith led a walking tour through MoMA's first floor galleries during which she lectured on the influence of African art and the art of the African Diaspora on the so-called modern art displayed there. The manner in which academic and critical expertise and the museum's curatorial staff conspired to render the importance of that influence either invisible, trivial, or merely instrumental shaped her remarks. When we finally came to a room in which the works of a black artist were displayed-- perhaps two or three gouaches from Jacob Lawrence's 1930s 'Black Migration Series' -- Faith designated it the location for the Martin Luther King Wing, which was then the principal demand of the Art Workers' Coalition demonstrations at MoMA. This wing was supposed to serve as an exhibition space that would revolve around a cultural education center would lead to the canonization of some black artists and the hiring of a few nonwhite curators, but its main intention was to promote an increase in the number of young people of color who would be drawn to careers in art and art education, to foster a more meaningful relationship to museums and 'high culture' for the throngs of nonwhite public school children who were obliged to visit the museums every year.

For many, the Civil Rights Movement was their first exposure to the power of Rainbow Coalitions. My first experience came during those years of involvement with the Art Workers' Coalition. But the lessons were hard one. Ultimately, there would be no Martin Luther King Wing, no cultural center, only retrospective exhibitions for black artists Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt, which made them (no doubt because they were men) even more famous than Barbara Chase Riboud and Bettye Saar.

The resulting tokenism of a few museums shows for a few black artists did not really change the embedded elitism of the art world. Visual art is still perceived by many as the exclusive entertainment of the rich, as though the rest of us didn't need something to look at. At the same time, the important thing seemed to be that my mother was an activist whose work as an artist was consistent with her politics, although I pointedly failed to mention any such thing in my own recollection of the 1960s in Black Macho. This was perhaps my greatest and most unfortunate oversight, since her politics were my politics in the 1960s and for much of the 1970s. If you are lucky enough to have a mother who has a forcefully autonomous political vision, it will be a while before you can be expected to come up with any idea of your own. Of course, I didn't realize this when I wrote Black Macho at the age of twenty-six. Moreover, it is not the style in commercial publishing to give credit where credit is due. Particularly when the credit is due to your mother who is just as black as you are!

Now, however, as recollections of the 190s mount up-- among others, Todd Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, James Miller's Democracy in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, David Caute's The Years of the Barricades: A Journey Through 1968, Sara Evans' Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, George Katsiaficas' The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 and Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 by Alice Echols-- we are again facing the Great American Whitewash. Not only has the breadth of the Afro-American cultural presence and contribution almost ceased to exist, but also black, Latino, Asian, feminist and gay 'minorities' have become 'minor' again, as though the revisions of the 60s and the 70s in the way we conceptualize 'history' had never happened.

This is so despite institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem, which mounted a 1960s show in 1985 called Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade, 1963-1973' that included endless examples of politically engaged art by women and blacks in the 1960s. Besides Faith, the show included black artists who have long done political work like Bettye Saar, Charles White, Louis Mailou Jones, Benny Andrews, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Viviane Brown, Camille Billops, Dana Chandler, and David Hammons, together with white political artists like May Stevens, Leon Golub, and Nancy Spiro. There were also black artists whose work tends to be less political in explicit content, but whose use of abstract form, design and medium chalenges the conventions of Western art, the elitism of its hook-up with US capitalism, forging a link with African and other non-European visual traditions: such artists were Joe Overstreet (whose more political 'New Aunt Jemima' was included), Daniel LaRue Johnson, Vincent Smith, Barbara Chase Riboud, Howardina Pindell, Malcolm Bailey and Mel Edwards.

The catalogue, a landmark publication still on sale at the Studio Museum in Harlem, includes essays by Vincent Smith, Lucy Lippard and Mary Schmidt-Campbell. Schmidt-Campbell remarks upon the repeated use of images of the US flag and of Aunt Jemima in the art of Afro-American artists of the 1960s. By that time, Faith had used images of the flag in 'God Bless America' and the large mural, 'The Flag is Bleeding' which were part of 'The American People' series. She had used the flag again in her 'America Black' series in a painting called 'Die Nigger Flag for the Moon', which was a parody of the flag that US astronauts planted on the moon in 1969.

In 1971, at the Judson Memorial Church in New York, we helped to organize, along with John Hendricks and Jon Tosh of Guerilla Art Action, a flag exhibition to protest the Federal law against 'desecrating the flag'. Faith was arrested as one of the Judson Three for violating the law. Minimal artist Carl Andre taped a strip of flag stamps across the floor for people to walk on. Yvonne Rainier's troupe tied flags around their necks and danced naked without music. There were these and other wonderful gestures of white avant-garde humor, but what do you suppose would have happened if a black artist had taped a strip of flag had stripped their clothes off and danced nude with the American flag draped around their necks? Would they have been as readily recorded and applauded? No more than the many artists of color who participated in this exhibition were recorded and applauded. I think the reason for this is racism, knee-jerk, know-nothing, nativist racism among the avant-garde left, the counterculture, and among those who have hitherto written about them (1988).

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About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.