All posts by Courtney Young

Courtney prefers chai over coffee and hardly ever eats vegetables, more's the pity. A good book can make her heart sing while writing a paper sends her snacking in no time. At Duke she studies the impact of trauma on systemic oppression and is ever so hopeful that this will translate into a contribution towards progressive social change. You can see her writing on Representation of Bois Caïman here: and here:

The Omnipresence of the Past: Leyla McCalla, Langston Hughes, and Revolution

By Courtney Young

Leyla McCalla writes an album that’s a tribute to Langston Hughes, it’s true.  But what she also does is ties the listener through Hughes to the Harlem Renaissance, to his prolific writing about race relations in the US and, ultimately, to Haiti and its slave revolt, the only successful slave revolt in history.

Leyla McCalla
artist and musician Leyla McCalla

It’s a deft slight of hand, but McCalla passes the listener through time effortlessly, carried on her swinging, warm voice and the strings of her cello plucked more like those of a guitar or mandolin.  In this way she connects the dots between contemporary New Orleans (the place she calls home), Harlem in the 1920’s, and Haiti (or Saint Domingue) in the 1790’s and early 1800’s. It’s no small feat. But in this feat she distills to the surface not only the traumatic experiences of slavery and racism in the US and around the world, but connects the listener to its omnipresence – to the reality that while slavery in its colonial form in the US and the Caribbean colonies might be over, it is still very much present.  In other words, the Haitian revolution took place over 200 years ago, but it’s consequences and traces echoe through history in Langston Hughes, his poetry, and his writing, and reach us today through Leyla McCalla’s vibrant music.  With McCalla’s beautiful album, she connects the past to the present noting that even if something is technically past, it’s still very much present, and something that must be addressed.

The album, ‘Vari-Colored Songs’ takes the title itself from one of Hughes’ poems and most of the songs take their lyrics from his poetry with a handful of traditional Haitian folktunes interspersed.

Vari-Colored Songs Leyla McCalla

The songs deriving their lyrics from Hughes poems make the connection for the listener to the Harlem Renaissance and his entire body of work while the folktunes connect the listener more directly with Haiti, its culture, history, and story.  The opening song, ‘Heart of Gold’, with its lyrics pulled from the poem ‘Vari-Colored Songs’ itself, frame the whole album and tip the listener off to where it is that she’s going with the entire work.  McCalla says, “The words have always felt to me like a view into the mind of Langston Hughes — a glimpse of the life experiences, colors, and themes that run throughout his immense body of work.” (“American Songwriter”). The poem (and lyrics) follow (click image below to see video):

If I had a heart of gold,
As have some folks I know,
I’d up and sell my heart of gold
And head north with the  dough.

But I don’t have a heart of gold.
My heart’s not even lead.
It’s made of plain old Georgia clay.
That’s why my heart is red.

I wonder why red clay’s so red
And Georgia sky’s so blue.
I wonder why its’ yes to me,
But yes sir, sir, to you.

I wonder why the sky so blue
And why the clay’s so red.
Why down south is always down,
And never up instead.

Leyla McCalla video YouTube

Through Hughes’ poetry and her own music, McCalla speaks to themes (as she says herself) that run through not only America’s past but also it’s present. The lyrics (poem) themselves are mournful, yearning to “sail my heart of gold and head north” away from the virulent racism, trauma and violence plaguing the American South (though certainly not exclusive to it). There’s a significant sense of wonder (it’s repeated three times) and questioning about the world and why it is the way that it is.  Wondering why the clay is red and the sky is blue mirrors the senselessness (yet stark reality) of why for some (white) people a ‘sir’ is required in greeting but for others (black) it’s not.  Hughes toys with the meaning of ‘down’ and ‘up’ alluding to its obvious geographical context (the South being literally down) but also to its emotional state being ‘down’ or otherwise sad, depressed, or low, reflecting Hughes’ experience of the South. An experience undoubtedly resonant with others during his lifetime as well as before him and still after him. That’s a powerful entry into an album. Before we even make it to song two, the listener has been connected to the powerful themes of the Harlem Renaissance and the stark reality of racism in the United States. But in truth even more has happened if we care to dig a little deeper.

Langston Hughes is an interesting choice for McCalla not only because she provides a platform through her music for his poetry and the messages but also because of the strong connections he himself had to Haiti, the land of McCalla’s own ancestry.  He traveled to Haiti in 1931 along with friend and artist Zell Ingram (Black American Literature Forum, vol. 15 #3).  They drove through Florida and then made the remaining trip by boat via Cuba.  For two months they relaxed in anonymity and only on the last day did Hughes put on a coat and tie and visit Jacques Roumain, leading writer and thinker born to an affluent, mixed-race family and raised in Haiti (ibid).

Langston Hughes in Haiti

 It seems these two legendary individuals struck up an immediate friendship that would last until Roumain’s early death at 37 (ibid). This connection to Haiti would last through Hughes’ own lifetime and, over the course of it, would include a body of work that included not only poetry but also memoirs of his journey including I Wonder as I Wander in which he comes to understand, in his own words, that, “It was in Haiti that I first realized how class lines may cut across color lines within a race, and how dark people of the same nationality may scorn those below them.” (ibid) His interest in Haiti compelled him, additionally, to pen a play (that would become the opera, Troubled Island) about the Haitian Revolution (wikipedia).  Following this path through Hughes’ writing, life, and interests, it becomes clear that artist and musician Leyla McCalla has invited her listeners not only to hear an album of incredible music, but also to walk through (and think through) international issues of race and racism, classism, the African Diaspora, and how moments of the past (like the Haitian Revolution) resonate throughout history and are omnipresent.  We see the past as omnipresent clearly below as Langston Hughes grieves in the poem (an excerpt) written in response to his friend, Jacques Roumain’s, death.

You’ve gone
But you are still here.
From the point of my pen in New York
To the toes of the blackest peasant
In the morne [hill]

You will be
Finding out about
The ever bigger world
Before him.
Always you will be

Hand that links
Erzulie to the Pope
Damballa to Lenin,
Haiti to the universe
Bread and fish
To the fisherman
To man
To me….

(Black American Literature Forum)

Like Jacques, and now like Hughes himself, the Haitian Revolution is technically gone, but in fact it’s very much still here.  It lives in the lyricism and message of the poems of Langston Hughes, and vibrates today through the music of Leyla McCalla whose own history resides in Haiti even as she plucks the strings of her cello in the present. The past is, as Hughes repeats, not actually past.  It’s “still here”.  It’s always. As McCalla says herself, “The racism that we experience today is not as plain to see as it was before but it still exists. A lot of what I’m trying to figure out through my work is trying to understand why it still exists and how to deal with it” (rfi english).  That’s a lot to accomplish in a debut album, but McCall handles it effortlessly, and leaves the listener not only thinking, but humming along.

You can listen to McCalla’s compelling and vibrant album on her website (watch out, it may leave you wanting to kick up your heels in the streets of New Orleans) or click here to purchase it.


The Slave Trade, in Silhouette

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart
Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart

The Atlantic Slave Trade, in Silhouette

Antebellum plantation life is something that all-too-often white America rehashes in a myriad of ways from subdivisions bulldozed into the hillsides of southern states with names like ‘Saint James Plantation’ to naming Gone with the Wind on lists of ‘best novels’ without a hint of irony, analysis, or even an (unacceptable) apologetic cringe.  This rehashing reiterates the racism used to justify slavery in America and brings it very much into the present with, often, a complete lack of awareness.  Artist Kara Walker faces head-on these issues, and more, when she addresses the representation of race, racism, and slavery with her unflinching paper-cut silhouettes displaying the violence of the Atlantic slave trade and the harrowing reality of sexual violence, commodification of human lives, and racial stereotypes.  She says herself, “Most pieces have to do with exchanges of power, attempts to steal power away from others.” Her work is powerful and welcome in a world that too often tries to sugar coat, dismiss, or otherwise contend that we should all ‘move on’.

Kara Walker and her Art

Kara Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, California and moved to Georgia at 13.  She studied art at Atlanta College of Art and Rhode Island School of Design receiving her BA and BFA, respectively, in 1991 and 1994. Her work has shown internationally at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum voor Modern Kunst (The Netherlands); and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Among many, many others that you can see on her exhibition page. She’s well-known for her work in silhouette, but keep in mind that she also works in painting and media.

But for this post, though, I’ll be looking specifically at her work in silhouette.  Which is killer powerful.  Using the medium of the paper cut silhouette Walker alludes to the 18th century bourgeois elite that popularized the art form and, in doing so, creates a collision of juxtaposed ideas: rather than the paper-cut silhouette telling the story of privilege it tells the story of what the elite, or the oppressor, did throughout slavery. The pastoral placidity of silhouettes exist in stark contrast to the images that regale the viewer with vicious, disruptive images of slavery, violence, and racist stereotypes. It’s a reflection of the dynamic that exists in America on the topic of slavery: the placid pretending of an issue that has past with the trauma of the truth – both past and present. You can listen to her discuss paper-cut silhouette and the meaning it has for her.


Sexual Violence and the Slave Trade

Sexual violence is a recurring theme in Walker’s work.  In the image below, we see a white slave owner seated, literally, on the shoulders of a young enslaved boy, which positions the owner to receive oral sex from a young enslaved woman kneeling in front of him.  The young boy calls to mind the condemned Atlas, destined forever to carry the weight of (depending on which version you prefer) the sky, Earth, or Uranus. The young woman, hesitant in her body language, is forced into her prone position by the guiding hand of the man who owns her (or might, given the widespread sexual violation of enslaved women by the men who enslaved them).  His hand hovers delicately above her head, as if he were penning a letter to his sister, or about to pick up a cup of tea. But this wolf cloaked in sheep’s clothing, as-it-were, is exactly the point.  The silhouette of the white owner brings to mind images of founding fathers with their neatly powdered wigs, ruffled shirts, and high collars.  This comparison, given that so many of the founding fathers owned slaves (including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson), asks the viewers to consider who slave owners actually were that were capable of such loathsome behavior.  It could be easy to dismiss a slave owner who raped his slave as a violent monster and the exception.  But what if he were a well-respected community leader?  Or the President of the United States?   Viewers must reconsider the inhumanity of slavery, and who the perpetrators were, and whether this vicious sexual violence and oppression was actually the norm as opposed to the exception.  With deft snips of her scissors, Walker captures the exploitation of enslaved people who were commodified in order to support an economic system that lived and breathed cotton. As Kara Walker says herself, “My works are erotically explicit, shameless. I would be happy if visitors would stand in front of my work and feel a bit ashamed—ashamed because they have…simply believed in the project of modernism.”

Kara Walker The Emancipation Approximation
detail from Kara Walker’s The Emancipation Approximation


Likewise, we see sexual violence again in the below image, this time between a white boy and enslaved black girl.  The innocent image of two children playing in a field on a sunny day turns on its head as the girl, crouched on her knees, performs oral sex on the boy who seems entirely absorbed in his playful day and unaware of the trauma his role in race and racism creates. It’s disturbing at the very least and, again, that’s the point. When white America romanticizes antebellum plantations they might think of Scarlett O’Hara, sweet Southern accents, and buoyant gowns. But they might do better to also be thinking of this:

detail, kara walker



Truth about the Slave Trade: Then and Now

Walker’s work asks viewers to consider what’s really happening in a piece.  Is it real? What is the line between imagination and fantasy?  And have fantasies allowed for the exploitation of human lives throughout slavery and to the present day? Are the feelings happening inside the viewer occurring because of Walker’s work or because of a complicated interplay between her work and the individual viewer’s unique perceptions of race, racism, and the history of slavery in America? Walker invites the viewer to consider the true story of slavery as opposed to the story that is told in American classrooms – glossed over and put aside. Her work is provocative, upsetting, disturbing, and powerful.

Walker successfully takes the viewer on a journey into the truths of slavery and racism and how the viewer has been complicit.  She doesn’t instruct the viewer but instead allows us to sit with our own discomfort.  She says herself:

“I don’t know how much I believe in redemptive stories, even though people want them and strive for them. They’re satisfied with stories of triumph over evil, but then triumph is a dead end. Triumph never sits still. Life goes on. People forget and make mistakes. Heroes are not completely pure, and villains aren’t purely evil. I’m interested in the continuity of conflict, the creation of racist narratives, or nationalist narratives, or whatever narratives people use to construct a group identity and to keep themselves whole—such activity has a darker side to it, since it allows people to lash out at whoever’s not in the group. That’s a contact thread that flummoxes me.”

Walker does not shy away from the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade, the realities of slavery, or the pervasive racist stereotype. She forces the viewer to confront these painful realities and racism (even if internalized) and to consider what role we have played in ignoring, romanticizing, supporting, or silencing by allowing us to sit with our own discomfort without assurances or exit. It’s not a comfortable experience, looking at her work.  But somehow it’s a relief (in the way that honesty can be an uncomfortable relief) to see the train wreck of truth and lies that pervade this country splashed, literally, across a wall. Her work is a welcome antithesis of cheery book-list recommendations suggesting Gone with the Wind as one of the 50 best novels and the pandemic of newly-bulldozed subdivisions bearing the word, somewhere in their name, ‘Plantation’.

And you can see her work soon, too. Check out her upcoming exhibit in Brooklyn this May. It’s showing in a Domino Sugar warehouse, no less. Like I said, she doesn’t mince words. Or silhouettes.

images via Ozarts etc