When the Mammy Sphinx Gawks Back at You!

Last December, the artist Kara Walker delivered a lecture at Harvard on the subject of her latest piece: a 40-foot “sugar sphinx” with an exposed, puckering vulva and a face redolent of Aunt Jemima’s most minstrel days. Attendance was so high that even the overflow hall was packed to the brim. A month earlier, Hilton Als and Jamaica Kincaid had appeared in conversation at the Brattle Street Book Store to considerably less fanfare. The event in November was co-sponsored by The Harvard Book Store and the Advocate and focused on Als’ latest book, White Girls, which had just been released in paperback. All things considered, the talk was fairly well attended, with empty seats sprinkled only intermittently between audience members in parkas and pea coats, clutching ballpoints and Moleskines. Despite the availability of seats closer to the stage, I slid into a fuzzy velvet chair in the furthest corner of the last row—ringside for audience-watching.

Als read a brief excerpt from White Girls, and he and Kincaid perched on opposite ends of a small coffee table, quickly bowing into a discussion that touched on both of their writings, Als’ anxieties about his name forerunning his work, and the Solange-Jay Z elevator incident (at the time, Als messaged Kincaid, “this is what liquor and a tight wig will do to you”). Their conversation was jovial and relaxed—entirely uncorrupted by theatricality or literary pretense. I craned my neck in the back, regretting my choice of seat. Immediately before the question-and-answer segment, Kincaid squinted into the audience before her, knit her brow, and said, “You know, there are no black people here.”

A few perfunctory chuckles and thoughtful grunts followed, but there was mostly silence. Maybe three dark-skinned hands punctuated the otherwise still, white surface of the audience, waving to make their presence known. I couldn’t help but feel unsettled. Why had she gone and done that? What did it matter that we were an audience of almost uninterrupted white, scrutinizing the inner workings of two black artists in Obama’s America? Why the need to redefine our redefinition, meaning: why wasn’t Jamaica Kincaid content to just let us be a bunch of “uncolored” folks with a predilection for “colored” art?
In one of the essays contained within White Girls, Als calls upon us to wonder “what interests white editors (who constitute what we call Publishing) have in hiring a colored person to describe a [black person’s] life.” I won’t hazard a guess, but I doubt those interests include satisfying the desires of a market comprised mostly of other black people (in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a book talk boasting both Jamaica Kincaid and Hilton Als drew maybe four people of that demographic). As Colorlines noted back in May, the “overwhelming whiteness of black art” isn’t limited to literature. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, 80 percent of museum visitors are white. In reviewing the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, The American Alliance of Museums concluded that “between 1992 and 2008, the gap between the percentage of white and non-white Americans who visit art museums grew steadily.” This is decidedly symptomatic— in twenty-first century America, the art gallery, the museum, and perhaps even the bookstore are all becoming increasingly white spaces.

My initial reaction to Kincaid’s question was indicative, I think, of the culture in which I live—one where the very contemplation of blackness is often misconstrued as an unprovoked affront to whiteness. Of course Kincaid did not mean to suggest something inherently amiss in white audiences partaking in the consumption of “black art” (all that essentializing bullshit aside). The more salient question, however, is if we can really hope that such a climate doesn’t do something to art, its production, and its reception. Do we, as a culture, gaze at this dark-skinned artistry with a whiteness, demanding that it palletize and yield up to us all those essential parts of the “black American experience”? Or is that art just handed over, delivered to the same culture whose earliest act was to widen the nose and inflate the lips and plump up the ass of the Negro, just to fully establish how Other s/he was? Most importantly, how does a society still susceptible to the malady of white supremacy even allow for the creation of black art that isn’t built to be seized by white audiences, even though, in many ways, it is?

Looking at “A Subtlety,” Walker’s sugar sphinx, you couldn’t help but wonder what master, if any, she served. With her mammy features and enormous bare ass, she should have been one of those explicits in cultural history: like Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, or like Saartije Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman infamously rechristened “Hottentot Venus” by nineteenth century slave traders and then propped up on makeshift stages across Europe so that white men could ogle her abnormally protruding buttocks and extended labia minora. But when Walker came to Harvard in December 2014 to deliver a lecture entitled “Sweet Talk,” a record-breaking 1,000 people RSVP’d, in part due to the highly public extent to which many in the mammy sphinx’s audience misunderstood—or just disregarded—her explicitness.

In the summer of 2014, Walker was commissioned by Creative Time to create a public artwork in order to commemorate the leveling of the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, a hulking, nightmare-capitalism fuck-you of a building that over its century-and-a-half of operation housed innumerable scores of black and brown “workers.” In addition to the mammy sphinx herself, this slave labor was called forth by Walker in the form of smaller, molasses-coated boys carrying oversized baskets. The piece was titled, in full, “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.”

The lecture in December was full of white people. I sat in front of two middle-aged female writers, one of whom was recreating the experience of beholding the sphinx to the other: “The whole place just smells of sugar and it’s almost like you were there at the time. And her back side was very…suggestive.”

“Of what?” her friend laughed.

To Walker’s credit, I have no doubt that this woman walked out of the lecture hall knowing exactly what the mammy sphinx’s multi-story backside meant to suggest. “Sweet Talk,” as the lecture was titled, took no prisoners. In detailing her arrival at the image of the sphinx, the sugar, and, of course, that blinding white vulva, Walker sped through a series of slides mostly depicting grotesque representations of blackness in American history. One especially potent image was a crude collage of a crouching, dark-skinned woman in full video-vixen form: fishnet tights, revealing lingerie, her ass tooted up seductively. Only, she was just half a woman. Most of her upper body had been carefully ripped away, the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza mounted in its place.

Walker initially turned down Creative Time’s proposal, but reconsidered after she became fascinated by the process of sugar refining, which she described as “dismantling darkness to create whiteness.” The procedure involves the application of high temperatures, immense pressure, and a variety of caustic compounds like phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide. After the appropriate drying time, it yields not only purified white sugar, but also its darker, stickier counterpart—molasses. In many ways, that process mirrors one in early American culture described by Toni Morrison in her only work of literary criticism, entitled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. In it, Morrison embarks on a revisionist trek through American cultural history, using figures such as Poe and Melville to illustrate how white authors annexed susceptible black bodies for the purpose of their own self-exploration. By infusing into the black populace all that whiteness was not, Morrison holds that these New Worlders fashioned for themselves an identity surrogate—not unlike a photographic negative—that allowed them to probe the less savory cavities of their beings from a safe distance: “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to be born again, but to be born again in new clothes.”

The master’s new clothes obscured his lust, his fear of freedom, his yearning for civilization on civilization’s edge, but in order to give him cover, the slaves were stripped bare. In the creation of white American identity, their dark bodies were disfigured, drenched in sticky linguistic trickery, and wrung until they oozed dark gold. Morrison dubbed the result—this byproduct of whiteness, this distinctly American construction—the “Africanist presence.”

It is the specter of this presence that artists like Walker wrestle with to this day. Like the best of ghosts, it hides in plain sight, such as in the stock stereotypes of black females that it has produced and manically reiterated since this country’s inception (including the Jezebel, the mammy, the mad black woman, and many others). Throughout American history, the abuses of the specter and the stereotypes it engenders have sent a byproduct-people scrambling for dignity and reification, perhaps through countercultural outgrowths, perhaps through rosy, pre-colonial recollection, perhaps through coerced identity reconstruction. Ask the exalted phantom to paint for you a portrait of the “black American woman” and it will in no time yield something quite similar to that aforementioned collage—and, more dangerously, it will do so with a straight face.

Now re-encounter the Marvelous Sugar Baby. What can we say about her, this 40-foot daughter of the Africanist presence? Do we call her hideous? I hope so. Do we call her beautiful? We would be lying if we said she wasn’t. Is she dignified? Subjugated? I imagine that one would assume a position similar to her sphinxly one—low to the ground, ass up, neck craned—if a giant’s thumb were pressing down on one’s back from above. Still, who can deny the whispers of grandiosity and humanity that her iconic form breathed into the space?

But now behold the twentysomethings smiling for selfies in front of her backside. Behold what Nicholas Powers, a SUNY professor who wrote an op-ed entitled “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,” claimed that he saw: “a balding white father, posing with his son next to one of the boy statues, his arms folded across his chest ‘gangsta’ style as the mother took a photo.” It hurts—the giant naked stereotype presiding over the room, the smaller, attendant stereotypes peppered throughout, the heavily-white audience members posing for pictures in front of it all. It hurts, and in viewing it, you must wonder, just as Walker admitted during “Sweet Time” that she often does, “Whether I am enabling or critiquing.”

The Marvelous Sugar Baby exhibit became extremely divisive when the white gaze entered the space. What happened was it overtook the entire event. It immediately became clear to those who were paying attention that the piece was in desperate need of reclamation. I assume that’s what Powers was attempting to do when, after witnessing the aforementioned brazen shows of ignorance, he yelled, and then wrote an article about yelling, “You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique!” I know that’s what a group of black New York City artists and art lovers were doing when they donned all white and distributed educational materials to the attendees, collectively calling themselves, “The Kara Walker Experience: WE ARE HERE.” Even the artist herself cast her hat in on this act of repossession, deploying a camera crew to film the audience interacting with the piece on its last day of exhibition. Walker instructed them to focus on black and brown visitors—essentially giving the mammy sphinx eyes of her own, an oppositional gaze, a way of staring right back.

The problematics that played out on the exaggerated stage of the Domino Sugar Refinery present themselves in subtler ways in the creation and reception of black artwork all over this country. In the same article about yelling in the sugar sphinx exhibition, Nicholas Powers skewered Walker and Creative Time for not foreseeing the firestorm that they would set off, asking, “What do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space?” Powers’ frustration is rooted in his thwarted expectation of something that’s perhaps best described as a heightened version of Du Bois’ “double consciousness,” a state of mind capable of foresight in addition to double-vision. Not at all uncommon among critiques such as this, his disappointed incredulity illustrates the extraordinary intersection of pressures under which the black American artist must labor. As artists they must be creative and wide-thinking, as nonwhites they must be pacifying and non-confrontational, and as one of the few “outstanding negroes” invited to “the great cocktail party of the white man’s world” (as James Baldwin put it), they’d better not further fuck it up for the rest of us. Most of the critiques leveled at Kara Walker and other envelope-pushing black artists like her come from other black artists and critics who are wary of just how much can be fucked up at a cocktail party. In 1999, Betye Saar, legendary black artist and active opponent of Walker’s, said this: “I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.”

But perhaps we could assuage these pressures if we could carve out a space, separate from the cocktail party, separate from that intersection of self-censorship, where black artists could have room to just create. It’s a wish that transcends both space and time for marginalized communities, one that was perhaps most famously articulated by Virginia Woolf in 1929. However, 54 years later, the black writer (can we now see why no black writer would desire this title?) Alice Walker took issue with Woolf’s assertion that in order to write her best fiction, a woman must have “a room of her own.” “What then,” asked Walker, “are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself?” Walker held, controversially, that by necessitating the “room” as the place for female writers, Woolf erases the work, lived experiences, and gall of those who have no access to it.
In regards to black art in this nation, it seems that we need to dream like Virginia Woolf but think like Alice Walker. The room is what we must work toward, but waiting until its walls are raised in order to do the things that will make its construction possible amounts to quite a catch-22. How can we hope to carve out a safe space for the unmolested creativity of marginalized groups without first engaging in some painful exorcism—of the Africanist presence from the depths of literature, of racialized violence from our own history? And if art is not a tool afforded to us in the pursuit of bringing darkness to light (remember, the mammy sphinx was cast in blinding white, not molasses), then how do we even go about doing it?

And yet, massive stereotypes placed in gentrified Brooklyn have a potential for immense damage, especially when Woolf’s walls aren’t there to shield us from them (and them from us). The scores of black artists and critics who have censured Walker will understandably warn us about the dangers of trifling with racial typographies in order to deconstruct them. “Fire with fire,” they would say.

During the question-and-answer segment of “Sweet Talk,” a young woman asked, to much applause, if Walker thought that historically damaging images could be reclaimed, and if so, how she perceived her role in rearticulating them. Walker replied that in producing her work, she always envisioned that she was forming “a mercenary, counter-terrorism squad of you and me.”

As Kara Walker, WE ARE HERE, and even Nicholas Powers showed us, our best hope of repossessing black art is to give it eyes, a vision of its own to confront and challenge the privileged, assumption-riddled gazes of the culture in which it acts. Theirs is that “mercenary, counter-terrorism” work of education, conversation, and re-articulation—work that allows the piece to read the people. When the sugar sphinx gawked back, she was brilliant and senseless, inappropriate and thoroughly needed—and like the most deft of teachers, and artworks, she did not linger unnecessarily; in her final lesson, she descended back into nothingness, reminding us that though she could be seen, touched and even smelled, she was, by nature, unreal.