Thursday, June 22, 2017

Zadie Smith on biracial artists, black protest, and suffering

This past week, I heard various folks talking about Zadie Smith's review "Getting In and Out" about the film Get Out. The movie really moved people, and apparently Smith's review did as well.

What I heard less people mention about Smith's review, though, concerned her discussion of that painting Open Casket of Emmett Till by a white artist Dana Schutz that was protested by some "black" artists. The protest was led in part by the artist Hannah Black.

Smith does some soul-searching in her mention of the painting, wondering whether she (Smith), a biracial writer, would, if she were a painter, be allowed to freely depict "black suffering." Smith wonders whether her children, who have a white father, would be allowed to freely take on black suffering if they were artists. Smith also wonders what it means that Hannah Black, who's biracial and non-American, takes the lead on protesting white artists who appear to over-step presumable racial boundaries. Smith hesitates on giving conclusive answers.

At one point, Smith writes, "when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an 'octoroon' still count?"

By the way, Jordan Peele, director of Get Out, is also biracial.

Oh, Smith also wonders why the piece by Schutz was singled out since there was perhaps a more controversial image of black people by a white male artist at the museum. I tend to come across far more writings by black and biracial women critiquing white women for alleged appropriation than I do of such charges against white men. I wonder if that helps to explain why Schutz was singled out over that white male artist.

Whatever the case, the questions that Smith raised about the relationship of biracial artists to black protest, black suffering, and appropriation were fascinating.

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