NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 99

Clyde Talyor Clyde’s Response In Portrait in Georgia, Toomer links the composition of the Southern belle to the tortured Black body that sustains her existence: Hair — braided chestnut coiled like a lyncher’s rope… And her slim body white as the ash of black flesh after flame. Walker understands this relation clearly — as proof, look at one of her silhouettes of a Black slave woman, arm upstretched to support an image of a White Southern belle of equal size. Fact is, there are glances of rebellion and resistance among her hellish scenes. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Skipping the issues of authenticity of a work — I argue that the supposed identity of an author is part of the meaning of the piece, a view that Diehl overworks big time — there is another question, whether the identity or ideology of the artist cannot be over-ridden within the work itself. Two examples: Ellison’s budding neo-con values could not prevent him from writing the raging Black militant Ras the Destroyer as the most compelling character in Invisible Man. The great classical instance is where Milton in Paradise Lost, as William Blake rightly points out, drew Satan as a dashing romantic rebel more captivating than God, who looks like a grumpy bourgeois landlord by comparison. Some critics call this dissociation of sensibility. Or, like, I just couldn’t help myself, despite my good or evil intentions. Which breaks down to say, Okay, so you hate Kara Walker, but how does that hatred automatically condemn this specific work? The second most pathetic point of attack is the weird list of associations linking Walker as a supporter of Domino sugar and its heritage, including its present owners who were not around when sugar was having its tragic impact on slavery. Diehl goes all over the art plantation scraping up false evidence. Is it ingenuous that she doesn’t mention Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History, which is like talking about evolution and not mentioning Darwin? From the notes of Walker and the essay by Edwidge Danticat, it is clear that Walker’s sphinx-goddess sits squarely in a tradition of critique anchored by Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Mintz carries this analysis deep into the functioning of one commodity, a pioneering work of this kind. Then came tea, cotton, opium, oil, and other narcotics. CLR James jumped onto the analysis of the sugar plantation as industry, and its slave workers as the first proletarians, either before or after Mintz, and DuBois made the same connections to the costly entrance of Blacks into modernity through cotton. To pretend that Walker did not research this narrative and was its ignorant dupe shows a massive lack of perception when looking at the work. A Subtlety w as far too subtle for Diehl. Does the image of a gigantic Black woman in Mammy guise, rendered in white to suggest sugar escape recognition of a powerful trope of the slave past? Jean Toomer’s Cane probably gives this concept its most awesome realization. As poet Michael Harper explained in a lecture, leading me to write an essay based on his idea, in the Georgia stories of Toomer’s book, the Black characters are metaphorically, like sugar cane, planted, nurtured, cut down, boiled, refined and in many cases bleached into white sugar to be consumed by their enslavers — a kind of evil trans-substantiation. 97 I almost feel sorry for Carol Diehl, throwing everything she’s got at Kara Walker, only to get stuck like Br’er Rabbit on Walker’s sugar goddess. Her desperation to make Walker pay for past sins and imagined transgressions leads her into bad arguments. I am close to Diehl on one score: had a White artist plunged so deeply into self-loathing of Whiteness as Walker has done with her Black inheritance, she would not have become such a darling of the culture industry. I don’t defend Walker’s earlier work, but I hope there are multiple ways of rejecting or condemning it. But Diehl hurls venom at A Subtlety as an art piece simply because Walker made it.