On Kara Walker’s “Narratives of a Negress” | Rachel Richardson
My sister had been living in New York that fall, trying out dance school, renting a room in an illegal apartment with plywood walls, across the street from the train station in Queens. We wandered Manhattan by day, unsure of what to do with a city this dense and wide with possibility. It was 2002; I was studying poetry and living in little, idyllic Ann Arbor—in other words, my daily geographical radius was only a couple of miles.
She wanted to take me to the Guggenheim, and I resisted, thinking it was just another hallowed building, like the university: a shrine to the mind. Why not stay out here among the stench of human sweat, spices, and pretzels, the honks and shouting, bikes weaving the lanes, the exhilarating buzz of urban life? But she insisted, and soon we stood in a long line flanking the cylindrical white colossus, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “temple of the spirit.” My mood improved—just the scale of such endeavor was refreshing after my months spent curled on a bed looking at a single page.
Inside, we ascended the spiral stairs. I recall the encompassing whiteness, the sense of air and light. On a high floor, we wandered into a panorama of gorgeous, lively silhouettes; they were black on the white wall, mysterious in their lack of physicality. More a narrative than a physical art, they seemed to me. Yet more powerful than shadow. Shifting shadows loomed behind them, gray limbs of weeping willows and grand windows of mansions seemingly lit from within. I approached, mesmerized by the glory and simplicity of the contrast, wanting to understand the materials.
The figures were smaller than life-sized, a standing woman maybe four feet high. They were cut from black paper, painstakingly detailed into expressive human figures. One by one, the details emerged: the exaggerated lips and flouncy locks of the African-American woman carrying the basket; the lascivious look of the white slave owner, perfectly clear even in the simplicity of profile. Babies tumbled out from the bottom of a slave woman’s dress, cartoonishly, their hair already bound in springy braids. There were horses and dogs, too, in various states of alarm and disregard. One was being violated by a man. From under a woman’s huge hoop skirt, two large bare feet protruded next to her own booted and buttoned pair. There were whips and jewels and genitalia, and baskets, and crops. Many of the details now escape me; the grotesque fecundity remains. Tufts of grass sprang up here and there; a wagon rolled calmly along toward market.
These absurdly stereotyped and comical details resolved only as you approached. So too did this disturbing fact: the panorama was created in its stark relief by floor lighting, around which the Guggenheim’s stationed guards carefully steered viewers. And as you walked beyond the lights, your own body was backlit, and your shadow—a lighter gray shade, elongated—projected into the scene. There I was next to the rotund grinning planter, with his gold watch chain swinging heavily between his vest and pocket, as he cradled the perky behind of a house slave in his meaty hand. The antebellum grotesque, in stark relief—literally—against my body. My mouth hung slack as I took in the horrific story around my own shape, and the way the lights darkened me, filled in my part, the closer I stepped. Moving along the storyline, I occupied different spaces, my body aligning itself with different parts of the narrative. There was no neutral part. There was no way to view the full story without seeing your own body become part of it.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” says William Faulkner. In that moment the fact of New York City in 2002 was a layer on top of the simultaneous fact of 1852 antebellum brutality. Or perhaps there were other layers within those two historical moments, as well—say, 1872 in the war-destroyed landscapes of Southern cities, or 1952 entrenched segregation, or 1972 race riots. Because the story of the Kara Walker installation was not the story of American slavery, exactly, not the story of the South as it was. It was the story of our stubbornly insistent romance of the South, the ways we retell it: the grotesquely exaggerated fecundity of the fields and the enslaved woman’s body; the wealth and entitlement of the landholders; the bony sadness and arch resentment of the frail white wife; the exertion of brutal custom upon the exuberant, chubby bodies of unsuspecting children.
It’s the myth and not the thing itself, to invert Adrienne Rich’s phrase. And does this mean it’s not real? Does this mean it’s just a story—you can walk away? Your shadow leaves with you, it’s true; you can remove yourself from that wall of images. And what she drew there didn’t happen, not quite. The proportions are wrong; it’s cartoonishly blunt. But for me, it’s a decade later, and I’m still there. In the image in my head, I’m the blurred shadow between a woman and a man with a dog. I’m horrified to be found there, participating in such cruelty, witnessing in silence. I bring my hand up to my face, I gasp, and then I have to see my limb suspended there, that charade. I’m claiming my innocence, my shock, as if I hadn’t known I was part of this story all along.
Rachel Richardson is the author of two poetry collections, Copperhead (2011) and Hundred-Year Wave (2016), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her prose and poetry have appeared recently in Guernica, Kenyon Review Online, Literary Imagination, and on the Poetry Foundation website. A former Stegner and NEA Fellow, she currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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