Debates about the “The War on Black Bodies,” situated in contrasting cultural spaces in New York and London

“How can we transform the ways in which identity is conceived so that identities do not emerge and function only through the oppression and subordination of other social identities?”
– Elizabeth Grosz (2011). Source: Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (Grosz, 2011: 89)

“The War on Black Bodies” (Part 1) – the debate in New York

Schomburg-Debate-War-On-Black-Bodies
Schomburg debate – American Policing: The War on Black Bodies. Left to right: Khalil Muhammad, Claudia De La Cruz, Joel Diaz, Darnell Moore and Jelani Cobb. Source: http://new.livestream.com/schomburgcenter/events/3357875.

On the 9th September 2014 I went online to view the live stream of a panel discussion and Q&A about racialized policing in the USA – titled, “The War on Black Bodies,” held at the Schomburg (Center for Research in Black Culture) in Harlem, New York (see: American Policing: The War on Black Bodies)* The ‘Town-Hall-style’ forum was moderated by the Schomburg’s Education Associate, Joel Diaz, and featured contributions from Khalil Muhammad (Schomburg Center Director), historian and journalist Jelani Cobb, rights activist Claudia De La Cruz (Founder of Da Urban Butterflies) and activist Darnell Moore (organiser of the Black Lives Matter campaign).

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man
Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man. Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images. Source: http://www.vox.com/2014/8/13/5998591/hands-up-dont-shoot-photos-ferguson-michael-brown.

Although the initial focus was ostensibly about recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, the conversation quickly broadened out to contextualise and evidence the normalised daily occurrence of “compromised citizenship” felt individually and collectively by substantial numbers of African-Americans in the USA. The panelists spoke with clarity and insight about how this compromised citizenship for black Americans was embedded structurally as a core outcome of histories of enslavement, and was observable in present-day racialized inequalities and exclusions (as regards education, employment opportunities, access to health services, and fairness within the criminal justice system, etc.) for many ‘people of colour’ in the States.

I was very pleased that Claudia De La Cruz raised the issue of intersectionalities of ‘race’, gender and class quite early on in the discussion…and that this was also endorsed and taken further by Darnell Moore’s calls for much greater vigilance around challenging injustices meted out to people who identify as LGBT, both within and beyond African-American and Hispanic/Latino communities in the States – a highly complex issue of extreme marginalisation that seldom receives any mainstream media attention. This section of the discussion also triggered pertinent questions and comments about why public discourses on ‘race’ and racism(s) in the USA are so often characterised as being solely concerned with the policing, criminalisation and incarceration of young black and brown male bodies.

Recent cases such as the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner’s murder by asphyxiation, and countless other un-/under-reported, un-named deaths at the hands of police officers (the un-named ones deemed insignificant by the national broadcast media, precisely because the victims were black girls and women) exemplify that there continues to be a fundamental lack of respect for what Khalil Muhammad aptly referred to as “a sense of our shared humanity”. So, until fundamental issues like that are faced head on, the (so called) law enforcement institutions will inevitably continue to sanction increasingly militarised policing, systematic use of racialized profiling, greater use of “stop-and-frisk” tactics, and the stereotyped stigmatization of residential areas/localities populated by African-American and Hispanic/Latino residents as “dysfunctional ghettos”.

That struggles against racism and racialized injustices needed to continue with urgency was never left in any doubt during this debate – and several of the expressed thoughts on activism (from the panel and the audience alike) were emotively and poignantly described as “…fighting a war for the survival of the black family”. In particular, Jelani Cobb’s closing comments also made it clear that minoritized communities in the USA would inevitably encounter many, many more traumas and fatalities before equality of opportunity and the realisation of one’s full potential became a normative experience and an achievable expectation for successive generations of young ‘people of colour’.

From a UK perspective, the content of this entire Schomburg-based debate evoked resonances of parallel problems faced here by black Britons of African, Asian and Caribbean (diasporic) descent. All that was required was a shift in terminology from hearing the panel and audience members’ references to “stop-and-frisk” and transposing their words into the UK’s equivalent context of “stop-and-search.” More painfully still, the replacement of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s photographic portraits in my mind with the tragic newspaper headlines and images that memorialize the lives of Joy Gardner, Colin Roach, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Cherry Groce, and many others in Britain, made feelings about being under siege and under surveillance a very real “fact of blackness” in the West, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thankfully, any attempt at engaging with the mythical notion of a “post-racial America” in the era of Barack Obama’s presidency was swiftly dismissed in favour of real world dialogues about the continuing need to fight for equalities and justice… based on the combined strategies of increased political lobbying, economic and political empowerment, the return to activism tactics akin to the pre-civil rights period, and the reiteration of calls for an informed debate on reparations.

“The War on Black Bodies” (Part 2) – The Debate in London

Group-Demonstration-13-Sept-2014
Rally and march held on 13th September 2014, calling for a boycott of the Barbican and Brett Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B-Human Zoo’ project in London. Route: Moorgate to the Barbican: Source: http://boycotthumanzoouk.com/.

On Monday 22nd September 2014 a diverse network of anti-racist activists, arts practitioners and community representatives from all areas of multicultural Britain will participate in another discussion about the “War on Black Bodies.” However, on this occasion, the debate will not be related to police brutality on the streets of Ferguson, New York or any other urban area in the States, but instead consider issues related to the proposed physical and psychological dehumanization of black bodies as part of a 21st century ‘Human Zoo’ live performance installation – curated by a white South African artist, endorsed by the Barbican Centre, and scheduled for display at The Vaults in central London during 23rd – 27th September 2014 (see my earlier blog post, titled ‘Exhibit B’ : A poignant performance art piece, or just the latest incarnation of a racist ‘human zoo’?).

The convenors of this meeting are representatives of NITRO – the black-led arts organisation that has publicly endorsed the London installation of Bret Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B’ project, and which also circulated the “call for actors” when he was seeking to recruit UK participants (specifically only black actors of African and African diasporic descent) to appear in his “live performance tableaux”.

Black Cultural Archives - Brixton, London . Source: http://www.bcaheritage.org.uk/.
Black Cultural Archives – Brixton, London . Source: http://www.bcaheritage.org.uk/.

One might have assumed that Monday’s debate – titled “Exhibit B – The Discussion, Lessons & Legacy” – would be taking place in an equivalent cultural institution to the Schomburg;  perhaps the UK’s recently opened Black Cultural Archives in Brixton? However, the chosen venue – described by the convenors as a “neutral” meeting space – is the Theatre Royal Stratford East, close to the site of the Olympic Park in east London.

Theatre Royal Stratford East - Stratford, London. Website: http://www.stratfordeast.com/.
Theatre Royal Stratford East – Stratford, London. Website: http://www.stratfordeast.com/.

In selecting this theatre arts space the convenors have already set and enframed the parameters for debating ‘Exhibit B’ within the context of performance art, and the symbolic representation (or, to use their words, “theatrical installation”) of scenes from the disturbing history of 19th century ‘Human Zoos’. They have actively played down the fact that ‘Exhibit B’ – as a live art installation for which audiences buy tickets to see the spectacle of black actors enchained in cages – should be subject to the same research and consultation practices that curators working in museums and galleries would undertake as a matter of course (i.e. Effective anti-racist exhibiting practices encourage researchers, artist-curators and gallery educators to consult widely, sensitively and respectfully with the people most acutely affected by the very racism(s) their arts or heritage exhibitions seek to confront and challenge). The curating of difficult knowledge and traumatic colonial histories on ‘race’ and racism must feature plural and diverse perspectives and narratives from those who have an experiential as well as a researched understandings of what it means to be negatively ‘raced,’ and how it feels to experience the legacies of discrimination that arise from past injustices.

As an arts practitioner and educationalist who is currently researching the presence of racism in different aspects of exhibiting practice in the West, I plan to attend this meeting. Despite the inappropriate and constricted focus on performance, I hope there will be a free-flowing discussion that airs many important issues about racism and anti-racism in the arts – both specific to Brett Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B’ project, but also (more importantly) explorative of systemic and cyclical failures regarding equalities and diversity within the UK culture sector more generally.

I will update the Museum Geographies blog again as to whether any positive outcomes actually arise from this ensuing debate.

Written by Carol Dixon – 20th September 2014

*Note: The American English use of “Center”, rather than “Centre,” has been retained for all references to the Schomburg.

REFERENCES AND WEBSITE LINKS:

Grosz, E. (2011) ‘Difference disturbing identity: Deleuze and feminism’. Chapter 6 in: Becoming undone: Darwinian reflections on life, politics, and art. Durham NC: Duke University Press. pp. 88-98.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, USA – Website: http://schomburgcenter.org

Link to the recording of the Schomburg debate, American Policing: The War on Black Bodies – http://new.livestream.com/schomburgcenter/events/3357875

NITRO website information about the debate “EXHIBIT B – THE DISCUSSION, LESSONS & LEGACY” – http://www.nitro.co.uk/projects/now/exhibit-b-the-discussion-lessons-legacy/

Boycott ‘Exhibit B- the Human Zoo’ Campaign website – http://boycotthumanzoouk.com/

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Carol Dixon

Carol Dixon is a teacher, education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her recently completed PhD dissertation is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, August 2016).

4 thoughts on “Debates about the “The War on Black Bodies,” situated in contrasting cultural spaces in New York and London”

  1. It is a very -old and- difficult question to which there’s no simple answer. I once read that more black police officers were shot by “friendly fire” than white police officers! The “ways in which identity is conceived” are based on so many factors: colour? religion? education? environment (and the interaction with)? It also in the end is a personal choice. And the environment is veeery important. As a white man born in India and raised in Africa I understand what “standing out” means! 🙂 (Tjhe other way round!) Over there, my position was -and still is- “Yeah, I’m white. So what? Can we get to more important things? Like: what beer will you have?” 🙂
    No easy answer, but thanks for the “food for thought” (and the visit). A great question!
    Take care
    Brian

    Like

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