white artist, black body

There’s some discussion about a white artist’s depiction of Emmett Till’s body (listen here). I get why the artist would want to depict the body: these racist actions affect the white psyche as well as the black. White people need to process this history too.

But that doesn’t mean it should be put on display.

Because while I understand the artist’s desire, I have to side with the critique: this is an extension of white power over black bodies. And there’s a place for shutting up and listening.

I remember a guy in my last writing group depicting a woman masturbating. And while I agree that he had the best of intentions in his writing, as woman reading it, and I can’t help but think, dude, let it go. No matter how much he may, as a man, want/need to enter into his female character’s space and wrestle with her sexuality, I can’t, as woman appreciate it. There’s just too much baggage.

So too then with a story I wrote that’s been haunting me: because the group I used to belong to focused on questions of race and identity, I felt I could write a story about race. There’s much I’ve been trying to pen for years about being white and about becoming aware of whiteness: I wrote an essay “Bleach” long before I learned the term white privilege.

But this was my first foray into fiction. And although I intended the story as a white woman getting woke, and intended the story as a critique of a world I know very well (ahem, white american superiority), everything went shittily wrong. The leader of the group thought I should add more black characters and, worse, give them a voice.

Yeah. One of those times to walk away from writing group advice.

Because in review, the people that loved the story were white people over 50. My black and biracial beta readers hated it. Hated it with an underground turbulence that was not concretized in their critique but written in their faces.

I took writing two additional characters as a challenge. A challenge to my comfort level, because I felt I was digging into territory which could get me into trouble.  Because if you have to preface your story with a personal biography on why race matters to you, a white woman, you’ve already lost the battle.

But I thought it would be good for me to push my own boundaries and I felt, after all, that I was supported.

But the guy who’d made the suggestion never came to the other meetings where the story was critiqued (it was long. too long. and as such, there were several meetings). So I was left knowing I had offended other members of the group, but not receiving feedback as to what was actually wrong.

Other than everything.

My husband has argued, in regards to the white artist that created the Emmett Till painting, that Till is part of her history as well. Till’s body and that photograph belong to American history, to our unique and scarred psyche, and it is as much her responsibility as a white person in the US to use her tools to cope with that history.

My husband, though, is German: there was and still is in postwar Germany, a need and an effort to understand the country’s history as perpetrators. Also, he’s not trying to write stories and essays that communicate with other people, so he doesn’t have to face the fear/frustration with having your work misunderstood.

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