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USA: Representation Is More Than Skin Color

Tuesday 18 September 2018, by siawi3

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/27/opinion/representation-black-panther.html

Opinion
Representation Is More Than Skin Color

Is it enough to look like the artist if you do not recognize yourself in the art?

By Bianca Vivion Brooks

Aug. 27, 2018

I remember the first time I fell in love with poetry.

I was in 10th grade, and my world literature teacher, Ms. Joe, had assigned us the poem “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. I read the poem and at once found myself engrossed in my own memory. I, too, recalled the coldness of my childhood home and the “austere and lonely offices” of my father’s love.

In his verses, Hayden made me feel seen. The poem provided a kind of relief, to know that my childhood was not a complete anomaly, and that others had grown up in similar spaces where love was convoluted by anger and loneliness. That day Robert Hayden became my favorite poet. I held on to this particular poem for years, memorizing it not only for the comfort it provided, but also as a reminder of what good art could do.

Image: The poet Robert Hayden.CreditPach Brothers/Corbis, via Getty Images

Five years later, I discovered Robert Hayden was black. It was the first day of my African-American Literature seminar at Columbia, and I was skimming the syllabus while deciding whether or not to enroll in the course. There in italics, just beneath James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” read Words in the Mourning Time (1970) by Robert Hayden. I Googled a picture of my favorite poet and laughed aloud. “So he’s black,” I thought to myself.

Though admittedly it was a funny coincidence that we were both black, this hardly mattered at all. Hayden’s work had always felt like an apt representation of myself, but for reasons far beyond our shared complexion.

Over the past few years, the word “representation” has stormed popular discourse. It began in 2015 with April Reign’s hashtag campaign #OscarsSoWhite, which indicted the Academy Awards for a lack of nominations for actors of color. Since then, creative figures across industries — film producers, gallery curators, print advertisers — have been called upon to ramp up inclusivity in their respective fields in hopes of advancing popular culture away from white, male dominance toward gender and racial equality.

And who could argue with such a worthy goal? The need for representation of marginalized identities in art is evident, especially when considering a larger fight against racist patriarchal social and political institutions.

I, too, have relished this cultural progress. Just this week I rushed to the newsstand to grab a copy of Vogue’s historic September issue featuring Beyoncé on its cover and shot, for the first time ever, by a black photographer: Tyler Mitchell. Upon arriving, I was excited to see an unprecedented number of black women also gracing the covers of notable fashion magazines.

Image: Vogue’s September cover features a photograph of Beyoncé by an African-American photographer, Tyler Mitchell.CreditCondé Nast

However, when considering our current fixation on representation, I have to wonder if we have overlooked other meaningful ways of being represented, those that can be pinpointed only in life experiences and emotional phenomena beyond the visible self.

When I think of all the “black art” being ushered in by this new era, I feel conflicted. As a black person, I enjoy seeing artists whose careers are finally being given due praise and whose voices are at last being amplified. However, a question arises of what it means to be truly represented. Is it enough to look like the artist if you do not recognize yourself in the art?

When the film “Black Panther” was released in theaters, it was regarded as a historic moment for black representation in the comic book world. During the premiere weekend and for months after, my social media feeds were flooded with family members, colleagues and strangers affirming the importance of the film. “I saw myself in this film,” many of them claimed.

When I finally saw the film, I did not recognize much of myself in it. Sure, I saw my old neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. I saw black people who looked like me, dressed like me and spoke like me. However, the film did not reflect my experience as a black American, my relationship to slavery or my interactions with other members of the African diaspora. I walked away feeling wholly unrepresented.

My father argued that I was “ungrateful,” and that the film was “historic” for black people, as it demanded Hollywood finally recognize the value of black talent. He asserted that this was a watershed moment in how “our” stories would be told, ones in which black people were allotted dignity and dimensionality. I shrugged in acquiescence, but in reality I knew the film was not my story. In fact, it was no one’s story. The film is wholly fiction. There is no Wakanda, no place on the African continent where slavery, colonialism or occupation did not occur, and no diasporic war between continental Africans and black people abroad. It was simply a story, told using black actors and black historical references.

Image: Lupita Nyong’o, left, and Letitia Wright in “Black Panther.”CreditMatt Kennedy/Marvel Studios, via Disney, via Associated Press

And yet there is nothing simple about it. Representation is such a complicated issue because on the surface it presents itself as a politically correct, objective good for all of society. For those being represented, it plays to a collective sense of pride and personal vanity. It feels good to see ourselves and know that people in our communities are being paid to craft their own narratives. Representation also presents the opportunity for other communities, which might have otherwise stereotyped or discriminated against us, to see our humanity and acknowledge our worth in the art we produce.

However, while representation may be a praiseworthy standard for creative industries, it cannot be the benchmark against which we measure good art. Good art must do more than reflect our own images back at us. It must move us to a place beyond our obsession with identity, sense of tribalism and fear of others.

When I imagine the happy medium between representation and good art, I am reminded of my favorite author, James Baldwin, who once put it this way:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

I think of these words and am at once transported back into my high school literature class. I read Hayden’s verse, and at once I recognize myself — not in the poet but in the poem. Beyond my blackness, he sees me clearly for who I am. In this moment I am connected to him and all those ever engrossed in the “austere and lonely offices of love.”

Bianca Vivion-Brooks is a writer based in Harlem.