Last week, my wife and I visited the Chicago Art Institute. We both love art museums, and the Art Institute is one of the best in the world. While we were in a section of the museum that displays African art, we had a very strange encounter. We noticed a middle-aged white woman walking and talking with the gallery attendant for that section of the museum, a middle-aged black woman. When the two approached a particular display, my wife and I heard the white woman express her amazement at the “strong little kids wrestling that alligator.” Her comment surprised us, “is something like that in here?” We thought, “really?” As the women were leaving that display, my wife and I approached it to see what she was talking about. What we found was
something worth discussing, here. The white woman with the gallery attendant was commenting on the ceremonial head dress (above) that the museum suspects is from a tribe in either Benin, or Nigeria, west Africa. It depicts two warriors in a precarious position with their prey, a scaled anteater. The depiction is a proverb about life. The warriors are linked at the ankles, having caught their prey, but their prey leaps forward, leaving them in a predicament. They are off-balance, it is a struggle. Will the struggle end in failure, or will they recover? And in that way, the proverb is a lesson of the communal nature of life’s uncertainty; we overcome our struggles together, or will we fail, together. Whatever the outcome, our destinies are inextricably linked. The woman with the gallery attendant missed the proverb, terribly. She did not see what was before her eyes, what she saw was behind her eyes. Perhaps unknowingly, she replaced the African proverb illustrated before her by invoking the theme of the picaninny (here’s what she thought she was looking at). How did she do that? The picaninny is a historically racist caricature of black children. It is a loaded caricature, like aunt jemima, and uncle tom. Those racist caricatures reach deep into the history of America where the foundation for our interpretation of one another is set in the logics of race. Race logic continues to permeate the very fibers of society at every level, interpreting human value by reference to skin color. We cannot escape it, and we cannot avoid it. We’d like to think that jemima, uncle tom, and the picaninny are dead, but, they are alive and well, as the woman at the museum so aptly demonstrated. When she observed the African depiction of life and community, the history of interpretation that shaped her understanding of humanity spoke without her conscious awareness. The content that shapes our racialized understanding of one another is in the air all around us. Like all of us, she was saturated in it.
Here’s a troubling “for instance.” When I was a child, I used to chase the ice cream truck with my friends on my street (this might seem random, but stick with me). We all knew the song of the ice cream truck. Here’s the song I knew as a kid: But like so many things in society today, that very song is deeply rooted in our racist American history (here’s a recording of the original, very disturbing, song). It is a troubling narrative that continues to inform what we know (or think we know) about one another as white and black people. We can’t escape racism by ignoring the conversation, or by intentionally trying to be nice people. We have to be intentional with this history, facing it head on.
The white woman in the museum missed the beautiful proverb that was right in front of her, replacing wisdom from the ancestors with a grotesque caricature of racism. That was unfortunate, but unfortunate becomes tragic when we invoke that terrible history in the encounter with human beings. It happens without effort, just like breathing, because we are saturated with racism, and our worldview is shaped by it. That worldview won’t just go away, we have to be intentionally anti-racist.