Sunday, June 22, 2014
Thoughts on Kara Walker's "A Subtlety"
A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. Photo from: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/May/17/35-foot-tall-sugar-sculpture-honors-black-workers/
Kara Walker has explored the horrors and the raw experiences of racism for decades. She took two of my philosophy classes at the Atlanta College of Art and attended a party at my home that Dar and I planned with Bill Curtis, who continues to be friends with Kara.
Her work has raised questions about my own feelings concerning race. My life has been the result of White privilege, though unquestionably augmented by academic privilege from my days at Sewanee and Tulane onward.
When I attended Savannah High School, integration of the schools began. Teachers fled to private schools or colleges. The quality of public education fell because of the racist feelings of the teachers who left. Only a few were able to gain a better perspective and continue to teach black and white together.
From early on I found racism ugly and absurd. My grandmother told me I had a little of all races in me and not to be prejudiced. That has been my principle ever since, even as I gave my seat on a bus, next to my other grandmother, to a woman who was of mixed race. My other grandmother was not so liberal until her granddaughter married an African-American and gave her a mixed race great grandchild.
We all have some prejudices. Who would deny that? Being gay has exposed me to plenty of bigotry. What disturbs me personally is the thought that my life has been easier because of racism. The only time I did damaging, painful manual labor was a summer job in my teens loading and unloading bottling trucks for Canada Dry. It was exhausting labor; every day I cut myself on broken glass, and the pay was a joke (about a dollar an hour). I knew I would never work like that again, even before I went to college.
Earning a Ph.D. was my real ticket to an easier, fulfilled life. And along the way I tackled some racist taboos. I proudly took a job as the first white person ever to work at the Carnegie Library in Savannah (again the irony of getting a job in a predominantly black work space because I was white). I fought for the cause of preservation of the Carnegie's superb collection of black authors. I got library jobs because I had a master's degree. Every enjoyable job I got from then on was because of advanced degrees.
My point is that I never suffered the hardship or the oppression of those who were the victims of racism. For that matter, I don't think Kara Walker did either. She became almost instantly famous immediately after leaving college and grad school. She has enjoyed prestige and privilege ever since. More than one critic has pointed out the irony of success built on art showing the horrors of racism.
Ours is a planet filled with racism, religious intolerance, and capitalistic privilege at the expense of untold millions of people struggling to stay alive. Few of us have the dedication and empathy of a Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama. Too few of us are willing or able to offer humanity socialism, the only system which cares for humanity as a whole, that provides the basic needs of all rather than the greed of the wealthy. My own life is one of modest hedonism, intellectual luxury, travel, comfort, and friendship, and my goal has been akin to the garden Epicurus built. My struggle is with nothing more than mortality and the attempt to have love in my life. Other than voting liberal, teaching art and humanities, and dabbling in writing, I've done virtually nothing to help mankind or make the planet a happier place for all the beings who live on it. My rep in Congress, by contrast, is John Lewis, who has done more than most. He is a man I greatly admire.
In short, I am an equal opportunity opportunist. The world, in my estimate, could provide everyone the equivalent of what I have. I've never killed or intentionally hurt anyone. My lovers have been Caucasian, Asian, Negro, Polynesian, Native American, male, female, and Zapotec. Vive La Difference! Kara Walker's Sugar Baby is Sweet and Bitter at the same time, and as the article below explains, made in our own image.