Since my grandmother died, I have been vacillating between the depression and anger stages of grief. Today, I am VERY angry. Very. I mean I just woke up furious. In an attempt to improve my mood, I decided to listen to the latest episode of Still Processing, a podcast hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris of The New York Times that discusses race, politics, technology and popular culture.
It. Did. Not. Help. In fact, it only made me angrier. I had to get my feelings out somehow, so here we are. In this episode, entitled “We Discuss: Who Owns Stories About Blackness?,” the hosts discuss a painting by white woman artist Dana Schutz that depicts Emmett Till in his casket. The painting is entitled Open Casket and is meant to speak to Mamie Till’s, Emmett Till’s mother, decision to leave her son’s casket open so the world could see how horrifically racism and the brutality of white supremacy had mutilated him.
Schutz has said she wanted the painting to be about the pain Emmett Till’s mother felt as a result of his brutal murder.
Here’s my problem with this work: if Schutz wanted to depict the pain of Black mothers when their children are killed by the police or white racists, she could have painted these mothers. She could of painted any one of a number of things to depict the evils of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in this country.
So why did she choose to depict an image that is so sacred to the Black American experience and community?
Because she could. Because white privilege convinces white people everything is theirs for the taking. Nothing is off limits. Not even blackness itself, à la Rachel Dolezal.
Do I think Schutz had the right to paint this particular image? No.
Schutz knew that her painting Emmett Till in his casket would cause controversy, but she did it anyway. Why? Because she felt entitled to do so because of her privilege. Because, in her words, the photograph of Emmett in his casket is “an American image.”
In my opinion, this photograph is only an American image in that it’s a picture of an American who was murdered by Americans on American soil. That might sound like a good enough reason to call this an American image, but this image belongs to America’s history because racism is a part of America’s history, present and future. This image does not belong to all American people.
This image belongs to Black Americans, and possibly other people of color, because when we look at it, we know we could face the same fate: lying in a casket because we were unjustly murdered by white racists. We could be murdered anywhere at any time. We know the unique pain that comes from the knowledge that our ancestors built this country on their backs for free and we still, in 2017, can’t fully enjoy the fruits of their labor. Dana Schutz will never feel these pains.
After I finished the podcast, I started thinking about the documentary Step. It’s about a Black girls’ high school step team in Baltimore in which all of the participants will be the first ones in their families to attend college. During filming, Freddie Gray was killed and his death is also addressed in the film. The film is directed by white director Amanda Lipitz.
I haven’t seen the film yet, so I can’t currently comment on its content, but I would have loved for this film to be made by a Black woman. Being a Black girl coming of age in America is a particular experience that Lipitz can relate to on some level but not completely. Furthermore, Lipitz didn’t even know what stepping was until she saw two of the girls doing it. I’m sure Lipitz will do a fine job and she’s a well-meaning white person, but there are certain aspects of the Black experience that will be missing from this film because Lipitz won’t know to include them. I just think a Black woman could probably dive deeper into this subject matter than Lipitz will.
In case you’re wondering, I also have an issue with white people making films about other people of color. When I heard about Angelina Jolie’s film, First They Killed My Father, about the Cambodian genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime, my first thought was, “Netflix couldn’t find someone Cambodian to tell this story??” I understand that Jolie has a Cambodian child and has a home there so he can connect with his culture, but that doesn’t make her fit to tell this story. She’s still just observing another culture’s experience. Again, I don’t think Jolie will be able to tell this story with the same level of intimacy a Cambodian director could. How could she? It wasn’t her ancestors that were killed.
Ok, I’ve calmed down some now. After I watch Step, I’ll let you know if I still think a Black woman director could have done it better.