Creating for Us by Us?
Writer Tracy Jones explores his personal journey to become a creative and how, simultaneously, he had to recon with the white gaze. Do you journey through? Around? Beyond? Or pay it no mind whatsoever… Beloved artists Sheena Rose, Kiese Laymon, and Titus Kaphar also weigh in.
Art credit: “Analagous Colors” by Titus Kaphar, 2020, which appeared on the cover of the June 15 2020 issue of Time.
standing on my knees grinding against the carpet
i shuffle further away from Reeva,
the other only black kid in my kindergarden class.
i am seven years old.
“God hates you cause you’re black,” a white kid tells me.
my skin is dirty cause i don’t take baths. and when i do, i don’t scrub hard enough to get the black off.
God must hate the shit outta Reeva, she’s darker than me. she distracts the white bullies.
if i sit near her, i’m her boyfriend. i love her. i’ll marry her. “yuck,” a white kid says, shaking his whole body at the thought of it. him looking at me and Reeva was like coercing us into a cage.
“does anyone know what today is?” ask miss green sitting in a chair. She
first of many
she had pink powdered cheeks, green eyes, floured skin.
her black hair hooked around the smooth edges of her swollen chin.
“christopher columbus day,” a kid says, not raising his hand.
“don’t listen to them cracker teachers. that cracker was tryina go to china or india, or some damn where. people were already here. crackers killed’em all,” my pops said, after moms asked me about school.
Early on, in elementary school, I became aware of the Eye. It was around then, when I heard my folks talk about my grandmother getting raped by five white men, that the Eye’s unwavering glare intensified. Though exalted as the all-knowing arbitrator of righteousness, the Eye is evil; a shape-shifting, ever-present, not-to-be-denied wannabe God. Asking my Aunt to take me to go see The Care Bears Movie (1985) was like a six-year-old asking to be taken to a titty bar. “You don’t want to be caught in a movie theater when Jesus comes do you?” asked Aunt Cassandra. I’d be inviting the Eye to take me away. I envisioned it descending from the sky. While devouring my popcorn in the dark, watching orphaned children meet the Care Bear Cousins in the Forest of Feelings, a giant hand would pull the roof off of the theater, bringing my sins to the glare of reckoning light. His holy whiteness, standing on a cloud, would point his great white finger of judgment at me, banishing me to a level of hell where I’d become Care Bear Exotic, forced to pole dance on a stage made of hungry tigers for eternity. It’s just a movie! I wanted to say to my Seventh Day Adventist Aunt, but then white Jesus would hear me. Maybe it’s using her to talk to me. Can it hear my thoughts too? “He is always watching,” my Aunt would say.
I wanted to be an astronaut and leave the earth, rocketing away from the Eye’s exaggerated plantation. At my Central Florida elementary school, my teacher always took our class outside to watch the space shuttle launches. It seemed like whitey was always going to the moon. You ever heard the sonic boom of a rocket ship re-entering Earth’s atmosphere? I used to think, if Jesus came, it would probably sound something like that.
Bopping around my middle school hallways and flashing my prized purple parachute Karl Kani shorts, Hip Hop galvanized my Black pride like a flaring comet fertilizes a planet with life. 2Pac, Public Enemy, Ras Kass, and A Tribe Called Quest landed a lethal stab to the Eye that had haunted my psyche since birth. They were the ones that taught me who was really behind the Eye, watching.
“that’s good for target practice,” deputy zaeh said to me.
he was the school police officer.
i was in the sixth grade.
making his white hand a gun, he aimed at the Public Enemy logo and pulled the trigger, shooting the man in the crosshairs on my back.
i turned to deputy zaeh’s white finger pointing at me.
if I told my mother what happened,
my favorite shirt would disappear.
I was learning, but it wasn’t until I read Richard Wright’s Native Son that I was introduced to the Black eye looking at White people. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, a young Black man trying to help his White boss’s drunk daughter up to bed, succumbs to temptation and with pent-up resentments he begins kissing her. Interrupted by the girl’s blind mother, Bigger puts a pillow over the daughter’s face to hide behind silence. The girl suffocates to death. That scene made me realize that though the Eye can see me, I am imperceptible to it.
Native Son had me wondering, Could I be a writer? But I’m not smart enough. I remember years before when a doctor told my mother that I was hyperactive; he recommended medicating me. My folks said no, but my challenges with inattention and not knowing my ABC’s resulted in my flunking kindergarten. My head confuses numbers. I am left-handed and write upside-down. I was told that I had SLD (Slow Learning Disability). “See,” my White special education teacher said, pointing to a picture. “Whoopi Goldberg has SLD. It’s not something to be ashamed of,” she said.
If the Eye caught me watching Doogie Howser, M.D., it wouldn’t mind. Young Doog was healing people. At the end of every episode he’d type on his computer about his day and the things he learned as a 15-year-old doctor boy-genius. The summer my folks bought my middle brother a word processor to take with him to college, I looked at it and thought of Doogie typing diary entries on his computer. “I can do that,” I said to myself. Maybe becoming a writer was more practical than an astronaut. At least I’d be rich.
Every day, just like the boy-genius, I’d sit at my brother’s word processor, typing about my day. After recording the date, I described the tree houses I built, the lizards I captured, and the hours spent playing on the banks of a creek that snaked alongside my mostly White neighborhood. I wrote about the kids I played with. Transcribing their behavior into words taught me how they saw themselves, including the time when my White neighbor Rog jumped out of a tree on top of me. Pinned to the ground, I could do nothing as he pummeled his fists into my face. “Rog, what are you doing!?” his mother yelled from their front yard, her voice having the immediate effect of breaking the Eye’s trance. Rog, as if called inside for dinner, got up and walked off.
His mother stood unmoving, her eyes contemplating the Black boy whose mother she had driven to the hospital to give birth to this same child years before. I stood up swaying, aware that the Eye was watching me from the houses that lined our street. By the time I stumbled home, I was relieved to have regained some semblance of composure before having to face my family. “What happened to your nose?” my older brother asked. “What?” “Your nose is bleeding.” Rog, in the following years, would chase me around our street with a skateboard, a hammer or a blunt object, holding it like a bat. His mother would call the police on me, and forbid her son and me to play together again. When I graduated high school, Rog was living in the closet of an abandoned house, smoking crack. I didn’t know it at the time, but the act of writing had extracted the Eye from my inner mind. Though as the shape-shifting skin-walker, it looked at the camera while killing George Floyd as if to say, “You know I can still get you, right?”
When the Eye threatened my four-year-old daughter, I almost stopped confronting it, fearing that extracting the Eye from my mind was endangering my child. Fighting the power was like putting PE’s logo on my daughter’s back, but hiding behind silence was modeling a form of surrender. “Whiteness is a monstrosity of an illness. It’s a monster,” Kiese Laymon said, author of Heavy: An American Memoir (2018) and the Ottie Schilling Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. “Some of the most courageous Black people that I know have had to bargain with that monster to make it to tomorrow, to take care of children, grandchildren, and that bargaining can sometimes create, I would argue, incredible Black art.” The Jackson, Mississippian writer thinks that the White supremacist patriarchy can sometimes have more sway over our imagination than actual people.
“I don’t think about the White gaze when I’m writing,” he said. But when revising his work, he critiques and disarms the monster. “You gotta play games with it,” he said. It’s analogous to the stories of Brer Rabbit or the trickster, a small and cunning rabbit that outsmarts and beats his towering foes. The stories were African folklore. Among enslaved Black Americans, they were committed to memory, passed down through oral tradition. Brer Rabbit, similar to Native American folk tales, personified a small tribe of people defeating a colossal and powerful enemy. These popular narratives inspired and further motivated the enslaved to survive, runaway, get free. To make Black radical revolutionary work that’s independent of White influence, Black artists have to trick the monster, blind it, subvert it, defuse it, go through it, around, under, or over it. Painter and multi-disciplinary Bajan artist Sheena Rose, had to create multiple personalities.
On a Fulbright Fellowship, Rose was studying to get her MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “I cried many nights,” she said. To get her master’s degree, Rose had to get passed a difficult teacher that was close to derailing her academic career. “People kept telling me, ‘Sheena, you’re too outside the box.’ And I’m like, ‘what is in this box?’” she said. Rose, determined to get her master’s, told herself, “get in the box.” Once inside, referring to herself as Black “felt weird” because in Barbados, people differentiate by skin tone. Then she adapted to the box’s dimension and embraced it, thriving on its limitations. “I’m a Black woman from Barbados. I am not American,” she said. Similar to Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem, We Wear the Mask, Rose developed a character to fit in the box.
She used it to outwit her difficult teacher. She birthed other personalities to hypnotize audiences at her art instillations and performances. “I became a man, a snob, an art critic, a commercial, English lover, a soap opera. I really dug into another personality with its own history. It’s like dissociative identity disorder,” she said. Naming her thesis Finally, I Love Myself, was repudiating self-hate. Rose would become the leading contemporary artist in Barbados, a feat that people of her tone and complexion are not supposed to accomplish. “Some people see me now [in the summer] and say, ‘You got real dark’ and, at first, I would feel uncomfortable, like ‘Oh shit, I’m not achieving’ so I tried to get lighter, but that don’t bother me anymore.” Reflecting on getting her master’s, she said, “I had to find trickery. I had to be a little bit manipulative.”
When asked about working within the predominately White art world, Rose said that most of the art shows that she gets invited to exhibit in are Caribbean-related, but she wants to go beyond the Caribbean niche market. “I’m more than that. Can you see me as more? Can you accept me just as an individual?” she said.
Author and professor Laymon, navigating the White dominated literary world, has to have his books go through two White editors, an all-White editorial team, and two White publicists who have to contact White-owned bookstores to see if there’s an audience for his books. Though he writes for Black people, he said that there has to be some cognizance of the fact that White people own all the streams of revenue. “I try to create some Blackass art. I’m trying to write to the people that are where I’m from and the Black folks that I’ve met around the country,” he said. For Laymon, knowing that Black people are watching him supersedes his awareness to the Eye. “The thing about White money is that it often chases the Black art that was made for Black people and it tries to make that art popular, like super populace art. That’s why Hip-Hop is so crucial,” he said.
Laymon, talking about the difference between Black art and Black performances meant for White audiences, said “I hate giving speeches or talks to all White audiences, because its just so rare that I have been in an audience where a Black person was talking, and there was an all White audience and that speech was dope.” Black people know when they see Black people performing for White people “…And we understand it and most of us will be like, ‘Oh, that’s just part of the hustle,” he said. In Barbados there’s not many art galleries. Most of the local art that gets sold, according to Rose, are “pretty paintings.” Her intention is to show the layers and complexities of a “frightened island” that was the first site of colonial slavery. Her “Compendios” series are pen and ink illustrations of provocative and fragile deity-like figures. They are jubilant, beautiful, geometric, feminine, and afrocentric. Most of them stand in negative space, flaunting their dominance. It’s adverse to art buyers wanting nostalgic images of palm trees, ocean views, tropical flowers, and women on beaches. “I am tired of being stereotyped as the sassy, aggressive woman, but also the woman that accepts everything along the way too. The most ignorant thing is when they think you’re dumb. ‘Oh, you’re an islander, you don’t know much,’” she said.
Rose, unable to find a reliable gallery representative, founded her own company, Sheena Rose, Inc., out of necessity. Having broken out of the box, Rose is building her own platform to be a player on the art world’s global stage. Becoming a boss has lead her to doing numerous public art projects like her mural at Inter America Development Bank and designing vibrant bus stop shelters for the 6TH Avenue Corridor Bus Shelter Art Project. Soon as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, she will continue to work on what may be her biggest project to date.
Laymon’s third and latest effort, the award-winning Heavy (2018), received unanimous praise. It’s an intimate and striking story about his Jackson, Mississippi upbringing, his troubling relationship with his mother, Black trauma, gambling, eating disorders, and how the long shadows of the past project themselves through time. Laymon’s poignant essay “ How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America ” (the title essay of his first collection, published in 2013) is a violence to the Eye and a Black light on endangered melanin bodies that are not, nor ever were property. Painter and artist Titus Kaphar, unable to be interviewed, contributed the image “Analogous Colors” and this poem:
In her expression, I see the Black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless
in this fury against their babies.
As I listlessly wade through another cycle of violence against Black people,
I paint a Black mother…
holding the contour of her loss.
Is this what it means for us?
Are black and loss
analogous colors in America? If
Malcolm could not fix it,
if Martin could not fix it, if
Now George Floyd…
can be murdered
and nothing changes…
wouldnʼt it be foolish to remain hopeful?
Must I accept that this is what it means to be Black
I have given up trying to describe the feeling of knowing that I can not be safe in
the country of my birth…
How do I explain to my children that the very system set up to protect others could be
a threat to our existence?
How do I shield them from the psychological impact of knowing that for the rest of
our lives we will likely be seen as a threat,
and for that
We may die?
A MacArthur wonʼt protect you .
A Yale degree wonʼt protect you .
Your well-spoken plea will not change hundreds of years of institutionalized hate.
You will never be as eloquent as Baldwin,
you will never be as kind as King… So,
isnʼt it only reasonable to believe that there will be no change
And so those without hope…
This Black mother understands the fire. Black
I can change NOTHING in this world, but
I can realize her….
This brings me solace…
She walks me through the flames of rage. My
Black mother rescues me yet again.
I want to be sure that she is seen.
I want to be certain that her story is told. And
America must hear her voice.
America must believe her.
I will not let her go.