Category Archives: Racism

The New Face of the Black Atlantic

This blog is primarily dedicated to slavery as it existed from the 17th through 19th centuries⎯ and the idea that slavery was eradicated with the last country to abolish it during this phase, Brazil in 1888, is commonplace. But while this was one of the apexes of allowing human beings to be bought and sold like chattel, it was by no mean the end of it. Modern slavery is just as—or more⎯ pervasive, violent, and as deeply wrong on a fundamental level as it once was; but the pernicious part is that while Atlantic slavery dominated conversations religious, political, and ethical until it was abolished, modern slavery is barely part of the discussion.

Photographer Lisa Kristine had been photographing the whole gamut of subjects, all over the word, and for 28 years, when she met a supporter of the organization Free the Slaves. Over the course of their discussion, the supporter informed Kristine that there were (in 2009) 27 million slaves worldwide living in conditions just as execrable as any 19th century account (this is the same estimate as the one released by the US State Department in 2013 This discovery bowled her over, and made her determined to help these people in the best way she knew how; by giving them a face, and a voice. (

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 4.24.42 PM

The facts that led to Kristine’s professional change of course are truly staggering, both in comparison to slavery in the past, and intrinsically. In the 19th century, an agricultural slave cost about the average American farmer’s yearly wage, about $50,000. And yet today, an entire family can be enslaved to pay off a debt as low as $18. The scale of the problem is immense, both in numbers and ubiquity. NY Times Nick Kristoff estimates that at least tenfold as many girls are trafficked through brothels as Africans were brought into the New World during the peak of the slave trade. And the problem truly is ubiquitous– while the worst countries in the world for modern slavery are Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan and Zimbawe, ( the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are at least 60,000 modern slaves being forced into labor in the United States. Moral imperatives are moral imperatives, and the need to stop injustice shouldn’t be limited by something as trivial and arbitrary as national borders. But at the very least, we should be able to save the 60,000 poor souls living within our own.

The problem is immense, and on a global scale; it also encapsulates a wide stretch of definitions, everything from involuntary child prostitution to forced labor. The rush to finish infrastructure for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi led to widespread human rights abuses of migrant laborers, with a similar pattern occurring in Brazil with their preparations for the World Cup. In countries such as Mauritania, children can be born into slavery

This isn’t a problem easily fixed; it’s enormous and entrenched. When existing infrastructure that could be solving the problem has yet to, the solution is far more complicated than cut-and-dry 1), awareness, 2), widespread horror, 3), call-to-action, 4), problem solved. This illuminating op-ed was published in the New York Times— 14 years ago. The State department released this report a year ago It’s been half a century since Abraham Lincoln legally freed American slaves; and yet the 27 million slaves struggling to survive today are still waiting.

What’s past is prologue

by David Romine

Now here’s a little truth, open up your eyes
While you’re checking out the boom-bap, check the exercise
Take the word “overseer,” like a sample
Repeat it very quickly in a crude voice sample
Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer
Officer, officer, officer, officer
Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity, check the similarity
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off, patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you’re doing
The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest (Woop)
They both ride horses
After 400 years, I’ve got no choices
The police them have a little gun
So when I’m on the streets, I walk around with a bigger one

–KRS-One “Sound of da Police”



As Alisha and Andy have pointed out previously, a discussion the traumas of the Middle Passage and legacy of slavery resides in many genres of music on both sides of the Atlantic. “Sound of da Police,” one of Bronx-born rapper KRS-One’s (b. Lawrence Krisna Parker)  most famous tracks, articulates the shared plight of African slaves and modern black youth by drawing a continuous line to the past, connecting the violent methods of control utilized on the plantation to that of the police in modern urban spaces. The past here is not a foreign country, but a place where people of color exist every day in a world in which police brutality is an everyday experience. Drawing comparisons between nineteenth century slavery and modern police brutality illustrate the history of African American poverty and oppression. While the forms are different, the results are the same.

Lyrics, however, are not the only connection that music draws with the past. Hip-hop as a musical form provides a unique sonic archive because it is constructed from pre-existing musical samples. The preference for soul, funk, and R&B records in the construction of hip-hop tracks, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s, is due in part because of trend in those genres to feature songs which contain musical breaks. In mid-century music, the “break” was when a bass or drum-driven rhythm was repeated for several bars without overlaid vocals. This allowed that segment to be isolated and, with the right equipment, to be repeated. That repetition of the break through a mixing unit, functioned to create a new rhythm from the old. When paired with new lyrics or other samples, the finished result emerges as a unique, and new, work of music. This process forms the basis for the earliest examples of modern hip-hop, originating in the Bronx.


(A photo of an early sound system party DJed by one of the founders of hip-hop, Kool Herc)

The appropriation of earlier musical forms through the process of sampling also serves to create new sonic archive that resides on a register distinct from the lyrical. “Sound of da Police,” for instance, is constructed from a break in a song by legendary funk and soul group, Sly & the Family Stone. “Sing a Simple Song,” the B-side to the group’s famous track “Everyday People,” was released in 1968, arguably at the height of the band’s fame. As a song, it would have a great deal of resonance to those of KRS-One’s generation, something that they would have listened to during their childhood or that would have been playing at neighborhood sound system parties. While many casual listeners of the song might not pick up on the sample, other musicians and DJs would notice and mark it. The choice of a guitarist to utilize steel strings or electric pickups, as opposed to vinyl or acoustic, is an artistic decision which affects the construction of the song produced. The choice of sample serves the same purpose.


(Promo shot of Sly & the Family Stone c.1968)

As Russell A. Potter points out, “hip-hop’s continual citation of the sonic and verbal archives of rhythm and blues, jazz, and funk forms and re-forms the traditions it draws upon.” KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone was both a recognition of the band’s influence and a testament to its familiarity, but arguably a reference to its politics and philosophy. In its heyday of the late 1960s, the band was politically and socially on the cutting edge. Their songs featured impassioned please for love, peace, acceptance of difference, and understanding among different peoples. Sly Stone consciously and publicly integrated his band at a time which integrated bands were still rare. Similarly, the female members not only sang backing vocals, but played instruments on stage, another rarity in a time in which most female band members were there for stage presence and backing vocals only. KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone suggests both his political leanings and illustrates this continual revival and appropriation of past musical forms, based on their perceived value, familiarity, and utility. Early hip-hop was quite literally constructed from the soul, funk, and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s, by a generation who had listened to those records and those artists growing up. The crates of second-hand records became the DJ’s sonic archive, both a way to reference the old and create the new.

Historians generally bristle at the over-simplified idea that the past repeats itself. The distinct context of each moment means that nothing ever truly happens twice, but there can be no denying that similarities resonate from past to present. The past of African-American music is not simply the repetition of older forms, but their re-appropriation, revision, and reconstitution such that they are able to serve the needs of people in the time of their creation. In doing so, artists, producers, and DJs leave a sonic archival trail of the musical forms and ideas that they chose to utilize. Tracing this trail backwards not only leads historians on a chronological path, but it also leads those who look on a path that moves in and out of space. “Sound of da Police” as a musical archive originates in San Francisco with Sly & the Family Stone and ends up in the Bronx with KRS-One’s appropriation of the sample, but the trail does not stop there. According to the website WhoSampled?, “Sound of da Police” has been sampled over 88 times in the nearly three decades since it was released. Those samples are mostly from other American hip-hop artists, but the influence of hip-hop world-wide meant that the song moved far afield from its origins in the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, it became a part of the burgeoning French hip-hop scene through its appropriation by French DJ Cut Killer in his track for the 1995 movie “La Haine.”

Cut Killer (b. 1971 as Anouar Hajoui) builds his track from a variety of samples, beginning with KRS-One’s infamous opening “Woop!”. The track also includes a distorted rendition of Edith Piaf’s famous “Non, je ne regrette rien” which the singer famously dedicated to the French Foreign Legion fighting to maintain France’s crumbling colonial empire in North Africa. Piaf’s distant, thin vocals are overlaid by short bursts of angry lyrics from the French hip-hop group, Suprême NTM. NTM, as they are also known, was a product of the Paris banlieues that encircle the city, emerging from Seine-Saint-Denis département. Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the smallest départements at 236 sq. km, also has one of the highest populations (1.5 million), 21.7% are immigrants. [edited to correct earlier mistake citing Suprême NTM as originating from Marseilles]

In addition to the sample from KRS-One and NTM, Cut Killer also includes other samples from American gangsta rappers on the American West coast (N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”) and East coast (Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk.”) The resulting track lacks a lyrical, linear narrative, but instead of resulting in cacophony, it emerges as pastiche, explicitly referencing the experience of the black Atlantic in the “West” through the interpolation and appropriation of sonic forms and directly connecting them to the experience of blackness in France. The violence that characterizes that relationship and the frustration that generations of young people have articulated at the system in which they live is rendered in sonic form. While many of the tracks that make up “La Haine” have lyrics, they are deliberately distorted and layered atop one another, rendering them less important than the track as a whole.

That this track was made for the 1995 French film of the same title thus seems rather fitting. “La Haine” tells the story of three young men from the banlieue, an impoverished suburb of Paris where immigrants from former French African colonies now live, and their struggle with hate, violence, and the dehumanizing, destabilizing nature of poverty. Their encounters with the authorities result in dislocation, pain, suffering, and death and their recognition that their situation is related to the French colonial past is referenced continuously throughout the film. The film, a commercial and critical success, helped bring more attention to both French hip-hop and the suffering in the banlieues, though the uprisings in 2005 suggest that attention has not been enough to improve conditions in which so many people live.

(Promo shot from “La Haine”)

The legacy of Cut Killer’s track as a pastiche of European and American forms should rather be considered a collaboration across the African diaspora. Hip-hop’s sonic archive offers a way to literally listen to the movement of ideas and shared expeeriences back and forth across the Atlantic. It is both past and present, piled up atop the legacy of the Middle Passage and colonialism, and continuously recognizing the oppression of the marginalized. The present, like the past from which it is contracted, articulates forms of resistance and testimonies of violence, the sonic archive of the black Atlantic is as rich as that of the written.


(KRS-One in 2002)

What’s “Religion” Got to Do With It?: Religion and Revolution in Haiti

By Lenny Lowe

The now mythic ceremony of Bwa Kayiman that is supposed to have initiated the first stage of the Haitian Revolution in 1791 serves as a sort of gravitational center for thinking about both Haiti and religion in Haiti. And yet, the connection between religion and revolution is most often underdeveloped in at least two ways. First, rare is the text that can actually make much sense of what it means to demonstrate the centrality of “religion” to the Haitian Revolution. Is it supposed to change the way that we understand the mode of revolution, the inspiration for revolution, the agents of revolution, or the significance of the revolution? Most often, the coincidence is cited, but explanatory priority is granted to other kinds of forces. Secondly, the extent to which the events that took place at Bwa Kayiman should be characterized as “religion” or “religious” is, to my knowledge, nowhere critically interrogated. Why ought we call these events “religious” in the first place? What makes dance, music, utterances, and animal sacrifice “religion”? To understand the difference it might make, one has only to consider the way that Haiti’s history might have been different if the slave uprising has been planned on a Sunday afternoon at a meeting of a Catholic confraternity rather than at night around a mapou tree. What if the meeting were led by a young Toussaint Louverture rather than Boukman the “papaloi”, or if the insurrection had been voted upon by an assembly rather than made in a blood pact over the slain body of a black pig? What difference does it make that it was “religion” that was at work at the Bwa Kayiman ceremony and not some other European social category like “politics”, “culture” or “economy”? I suspect it makes a rather significant difference, and thus the combination of these two scholarly oversights concerning this politically potent bit of lore seems even more serious.

Painting of Bwa Kayiman by Ulrick Jean-Pierre

I would like to start with the second issue of naming this “religion,” which, while little more than a series of  reifications, has had a profound impact on our understanding of Haiti and its history. Most people today (excepting, perhaps, Pat Robertson and apparently even the occasional Guardian journalist) would use Antoine Dalmas’ original 1814 account of the Bwa Kayiman to demonstrate the sensationalism of Eurocentric accounts. Still, none have questioned his basic claim that these events are best characterized as “cérémonies religieuses” of “les nègres.” (1:117) For example, in his 1938 The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James confidently asserts that “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” (86) More recently, in his Avengers of the New World (2004), Laurent Dubois tells us that “[t]he story of the Bois-Caïman ceremony symbolizes the place religious practice had in the slave insurrection,” and that it “serves as shorthand for the complex and varied presence of religion in the planning and execution of the insurrection.” (101) Yet, the way that certain practices and utterances came to be named as “religion” in the first place has a very particular history within Enlightenment-Christian Europe and its encounters with its colonial others. For Talal Asad, this history begins most clearly in the seventeenth century, “following the fragmentation of the unity and authority of the Roman Chuch and the consequent wars of religion.” (40) He suggests it was here that the first attempts were made to produce a universal definition of religion, starting with Lord Herbert of Cherbury in De veritae (1624) who formulated a notion of “Natural Religion” in terms of beliefs, practices, and ethics. Extended by Locke and Kant, the idea of “natural religion” was born in an effort to account for difference and to universalize human experience. However, not unlike the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that emerged in the same era, this “universal” definition had at its core an exclusionary process and was inherently unrealizable as “universal.”

Lord Herbert of Cherbury

The first reification was to name the events at Bwa Kayiman as “religion” and thereby to subject it to criteria of evaluation according to its “truthfulness.” What holds these events back from being “true religion” or “right religion” is, of course, not dependent upon prime European notion of belief. For, one does not have to dig too deeply into the African-inspired practices of Haitians to discover what they themselves discovered — a profound affinity between the Catholic cosmos and their own. Rather, the problem of these events as religion (and the problem of what is named Vodou today) has much more to do with the practices — the aesthetics, the material objects deployed, the music played, the dances danced, etc. The second reification, the naming of the practices and utterances as “Voodoo”, is perhaps an even more pernicious one. If the notion of “religion” still allowed the utterances, material objects, dances, and songs of Bwa Kayiman to be particular to this night in 1791, C.L.R. James’ naming of them as “Voodoo” enacts a stabilization and an a-historicity that has rarely worked in favor of Haiti or Haitians. The fact that even today few Haitians would identify their practices as “Vodou” should make this point even clearer. So, perhaps the first step might be to seek a new language by which to describe the events of that night, words that are less burdened with European power and more descriptive of Kongo-inspired power, words like dance, song, rhythm, ancestors, the dead, or the mysteries.

The first issue, however, is perhaps the most vexing. It is easy to identify the co-incidence of these “religious” practices and the meeting of insurrectionist slaves of Limbé. It is, however, far more difficult to determine what this co-incidence might mean. When Laurent Dubois speaks of the centrality of “religious practice” in the insurrection, he seems to mean that religious practices provided both the occasion and the social structures of organization that allowed for the planning and implementation of that first slave uprising. Dubois also shows us that somehow this “religion” provided something of the content of the insurrection; the slaves carried ouanga (fetishes or charms) and danced and sang as they fought. But, here, the problem of “religion” as sui generis presents itself again. For, Dubois must qualify this by noting that “[t]hough religious practices facilitated and spurred on insurrection, it was only their combination with careful political organization that made the 1791 uprising successful.” (101) Because the practices and utterances of Bwa Kayiman are “religious,” they are therefore not political and must be paired with political organization to be effective. While these are undoubtedly strategic and descriptive distinctions for the historian, their separation obscures the reasons that readers should care that Bwa Kayiman was “religious” in the first place. Might we not simply consider Bwa Kayiman to have been primarily a political event in which politics implies power and/or powers or primarily a religious event that implies the same?

Perhaps the most compelling response to my honest questions about what difference it makes that “religion” was present at the inception of the Revolution comes in Kate Ramsey’s The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (2012).  Ramsey’s work seeks to understand why the popular “religious” practices of Haiti have so often and for so much of Haitian history been prohibited by law. She is partly interested in how these laws were used to defend the black republic against Euro-American anti-Haitianism, but also what the “internal politics stakes” have been at different moments. She writes: “This is an especially important problem in light of the role attributed to African-based magico-religious practices, organization, and leadership in unifying enslaved, maroon, and free rebels in northern Saint-Domingue in 1791.” (2-3) She effectively argues that, indeed, the laws against practices such as “sortièges” and “pratique superstitieuses” were designed and maintained throughout much of Haitian history at least in part to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti” — the rural population. (3)

Ramsey recognizes that, no doubt, Vodou is the now the “religion” of Haitians. But, that designation tells us very little if it is allowed to remain a first-order category. Vodou as religion is also constituted by the historical events that she aims to narrate. By searching out language that more closely describes the particular practices that have come to be named Vodou, she does what Asad asks all scholars to do — namely, to “[unpack] the comprehensive concept which he or she translates as ‘religion’ into heterogeneous elements according to its historical character.” (54) Vodou has come to reside within the Western category of religion, but it still does so uneasily. It is made to oscillate between being a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans) and the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite). In 2003, it was made to occupy the space of “cultural heritage,” but since the 2010 earthquake, it has been pushed once again into the place of primitivism and anti-progressivism.

So, what difference does it make that Bwa Kayiman was “religious”? It seems to make a crucial difference throughout the history of Haiti, both in terms of its internal and external politics. But, if scholars are to make this difference work for Haiti and for Haitians, then we must do better than simply state the coincidence, and we must find better language than simply “religion” for the power therein.


Works Cited

1. Antoine Dalmas, Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue (Paris, 1814).

2. CLR James, The Black Jacobins : Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2d ed., rev. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

3. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World : The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).

4. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion : Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

5. Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law : Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).




Empire State of Mind: Kery James and the Colonial Complex


Cabot Andy

Nos rapports avec Haïti sont plus délicats, émotifs et rétractiles parce qu’en clair-obscur, ils mettent en jeu les rapports de la France avec elle-même. (Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, 2004)

(Our relations with Haiti are delicate, emotional and subjected to mutual discontents because of their shadowy nature, they say something about the relation of France with itself)

 In 2004, the publication of an official diplomatic report on French Haitian relations marked a turning point for the two countries. After almost two centuries of near abandon, the French government decided to survey diplomatic relations between the two countries as the Caribbean state celebrated the bicentennial of its independence.

 Diplomatic relations between France and Haiti represents a critical aspect in what we could refer to as the “post-colonial world”. In January 1804, after thirteen years of tumultuous conflicts opposing it to France, the colony called Saint-Domingue became the Republic of Haiti. What started as an isolated slave revolt in 1791 against planters in the Northern Province of Haiti became a national war of liberation. Though this rather quick summary might provide a good overview of the situation, the historical fate of the newly founded Haitian Republic was everything but simple.

 Indeed, Haiti’s independence was won primarily by the blood and sacrifice of former ”Bossales”—slaves recently deported from their home societies who had no blood relations in the colonies—a mass of gang labor slaves that defeated Napoleon’s brother in law Charles-Victor Leclerc and his troops, which was then the strongest military force in the world.

 In the aftermath of its defeat, France devoted sustained international efforts to silence and suppress the consequences of this colonial disaster. In 1825, French King Charles X and Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer agreed that Haiti should pay reparation amounts to French planters who had fled during the Revolution. By 1914, as the Haitian state credit interests to French banks rose to extreme proportions, the country was concentrating almost 80 percent of its national wealth to repair its debt to France. Even today, there might still be interest payments due that had been frozen by the French government (Laurent Dubois, Aftershocks, 2012, 7-8)

 In the early 21th century, relations were still very precarious. As the 2004 report indicates, while two American presidents chose to visit Haiti during the 20th century, no French president or high official bothered to set foot on the island. Still, regardless of this ideological denial by France and other Western countries, the former colonial power managed to maintain strong connections with Haiti and its other colonies throughout the years. In the Haitian case, the fact that the French language was still being spoken by the great majority of the elites—as well as the growing presence of Haitian migrants in French-speaking areas—offered possibilities for a diplomatic rapprochement. In many ways, this twofold factor (language-migrations) also characterized the destiny of many African countries that achieved their independence from France in the 20th century. Still, this rather “bright” picture of a possible new future between an imperial power and its former colonies leaves us with an idyllic contemplation of the problems facing what has now come to be understood as the “Francophone” world.

 In 2013, the French rapper Kery James expressed these hardening concerns in most blatant terms. The new title track of his recently released compilation “Lettre à La République” provoked outstanding reactions from public figures in the French media. The song was violently dismissed and degraded for being a model of anti-Frenchness, an insult to the nation, and almost an act of betrayal. In effect, James’s song is not moderate in any sense towards the national sentiment in France. Castigated as a remnant of colonial domination and inherent national racism, the words “France” and “Republic” are successively portrayed as engines of destruction, cultural mechanisms of superiority primarily directed at submitting French migrant population to a colonial continuum. At the height of his suffocating prose, James declares “Mon respect s’fait violer au pays dit des Droits de l’Homme. Difficile de se sentir Français sans le syndrome de Stockholm” (My respect got raped in the country of the Rights of Man. Its hard to fee French without the Stockholm Syndrome).

 At first glance, one could be tempted to see these words as emanating from pure hatred and resentment. After all, a consequent segment of the French rap industry tends to produce short-minded lyrics about what is often perceived as the country’s colonial legacy. James is not this kind. Indeed, his letter opens us a diverse series of interrogations on the past, present and future of relations between France’s ex-colonial “subjects” and the former “métropole”. To some extent, his song epitomizes in a highly polemical but also poetical manner the unresolved issues of French imperial history brought back from the past by migrants from ex-colonies residing in France. In the same vein, this song is also primarily addressed to these populations. It conveys the sense that a different set of relations between these migrants and the Republic has recently emerged—one that contradicts the basic pattern of the French tradition of national assimilation.

 As a resurgence from military and administrative practices in the different French colonies, the idea of national assimilation took shape in the “métropole” by the late 19th century. In order to compel the first waves of non-French migrants to follow the rule of the Republic, the theory of assimilation dominated the country’s relation to migrants without any serious alternative until the late 1980s. To put it simply, it advanced that if one wished to become a citizen of the French Republic, he had to categorically abandon all traces of his home culture to prove his willingness to learn and assimilate the superior codes of French culture. As essentially a state-controlled ideological force, national assimilation turned out to become an extremely tense subject by the late 1980s when large group of migrants from North, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeastern Asia started to flood the métropole in the aftermath of decolonization. By the late 20th century, assimilation was presented by representatives from the entire political spectrum as in a state of crisis while migrant populations – through the use of popular genres of music like rap – started to voice their concerns about the place of their cultural identities in contemporary French society.

 It is only throughout these recent debates that James song puts on meaning. On many occasion, the rapper does not hesitate in drawing a parallel between migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As he says as a run-through during the song:


 La République n’est innocente que dans vos songes. Et vous n’avez les mains blanches que de vos mensonges. Nous les Arabes et les Noirs on est pas là par hasard. Toute arrivée à son départ.


 (The Republic is only innocent in your dreams. Your hands are filled with white lies. Us, Arabs and Blacks are not there by accident. All arrivals have their origins)

Interestingly, the words used are contemplating different levels of the French colonial and post-colonial realities. When he refers to “us”, James immediately assembles “Arabs” and “Blacks” in a single community. To some regards, this kind of counter-assimilation is very surprising at an historical level while being more sensible in terms of the present-day social conditions of migrants in France.

 When the first wave of migrants from France ex-African colonies massively disembarked in the “métropole” by the late 1960s as cheap labor force for boosting the domestic economy, the rather separated entities of the French Empire in Africa (the North African regions were composed of the three Algerian departments, the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia while the Sub-Saharan colonies stretching from Guinea to Cameroon were separated between the AEF and AOF) were forced together in the same urban and social environment. As poverty and weaker social aids started touching those areas in the outskirts of Paris by the late 1980s, the second and third generation of “Arabs” and “Blacks” tended to develop a shared sentiment of ostracism and abandonment.

 James’ childhood experience in France relates directly to this historical background. Born in 1977 in Guadeloupe, James’s parents chose to move to France in the mid-1980s. His parents were both Haitians and James apparently chose never to return to Haiti even during his adult life. As he experienced distance and displacement from his native land, he started recording at a very early age with different musical acts. In one of his iconic early track “28 décembre 1977”, the then coming-of-age James powerfully demonstrated the meaning of what he saw as another form of forced migration inflicted to peoples of African descent « D’une famille plus proche d’êtres pauvre que fortune 28 décembre 77, aux Abymes j’suis né Et a une date que j’ignore un jour je partirai… » (From a poor family rather than a rich, December 28 1977 in the Abyme I was born, and at an unknown date I will leave) before insisting on the dreadful social conditions his family had to put through in France. “J’ai grandi à Orly dans les favelas de France. J’ai “fleury” dnas les maquis j’suis en guerre depuis mon enfance” (I grew up in Orly in the French favelas. I came to age in the guerilla fields, I’ve been at war since my childhood). All in all, as he relates his own experience to those of African migrants, the artist here succeeds in bringing together a continent into a unique historical condition of imperial sufferings and domination.

 Twelve years after this song was recorded, James’ letter still resonates to this original separation from his home country while it meddles with his call against the ideological pressure of assimilation:

 Ici, on est mieux que là-bas on le sait. Parce que décoloniser pour vous c’est déstabiliser. Et plus j’observe l’histoire beh moins je me sens redevable. Je sais ce que c’est d’être Noir depuis l’époque du cartable

 (Here we are better than there. Because for you to decolonize is to destabilizeThe more I contemplate your history the less I feel proud of it. I know what it means to be black since playground times)

 In a broader sense, it is extremely striking to see the effectiveness of James words if one knows a bit about the common sentiments of African migrants in France. On the one hand, it is interesting, though not surprising, to hear such radical and deeply-researched prose from James. As mentioned above, the feeling of resentment against assimilation is a common theme that runs throughout many popular rap songs in France. Nevertheless, James’ song is one of the few that successfully manages to tackle the core problem that is still at stake in debates around the French colonial past: that of the relational condition of two different versions of France since the beginning of the colonial experiment in the early 17th century. Coming from a family born in Haiti, brought up in Guadeloupe in his early childhood before being thrown into the African suburbs of Paris, James had experienced the relationship between the colonial and colonized France in many different ways when he started his musical career.

 His “Letter to the Republic” acts as a highly symbolic gesture for the present day condition of migrants in France while being also closely related to a sound and significant lyrical inquiry of French imperialism. Though a bit flawed and tangling in some occasions –as when James gathers “Arabs” and “Blacks” within a supra-ethnic category of imperial sufferers- it is through the deeper roots of the artist one can find the most profound challenge contained in the letter.

 As a distant son of Haiti, James does remind us of the still pervading difficulties for solving the unresolved matters of the French colonial past. Almost two centuries after the death of Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture, the French remains of colonial prejudice tend to portray James in the same manner as Toussaint: a hybrid other, a talented man but also a sulfurous agitator. These realities still formed a highly complex set of ideological interests. When James calls France to its historical responsibility when he repeats, “Every arrival has an origin”, the 2004 report on responds « Would we be able to seize this occasion to remember our slaveholding past and get rid of the weight that servitude imposes to the masters? »Puissions-nous saisir l’occasion de nous rappeler que nous fûmes desesclavagistes, et nous débarrasser du poids que la servitude impose auxmaîtres. »

 All in all, despite all the difficulties facing France in its relations with its ex-colonies, the former “métropole” and “colonies” seem to have entered enter a new era of diplomatic relations by the early 21st century. Nevertheless, as James’ words seem to remind us, questions still remain unanswered as history’s shadows continue to weigh down on these two entities: the two versions of France.


Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, Rapport au Ministrèe des Affaires Etrangères, M. Dominique de Villepin, January 2004. Available :  [Accessed 11 March 2014].


Revolutionary Ideology: The Threat and Promise of Haiti

By Davide Carozza

Note: This blog post dovetails with Hannah Rogers’ piece here.

The photograph above shows a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette, dated June 16, 1791. Both the photograph and a full transcript of the letter are courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Jefferson addresses Lafayette as an old friend: the latter was a major-general under George Washington during the American Revolution and also a key figure in the French Revolution, which he saw as an ideological continuation of the struggle for American independence. In the letter, Jefferson asks Lafayette about the Haitian Revolution:

What are you doing for your colonies? They will be lost if not more effectually succoured. Indeed no future efforts you can make will ever be able to reduce the blacks. All that can be done in my opinion will be to compound with them as has been done formerly in Jamaica. We have been less zealous in aiding them, lest your government should feel any jealousy on our account. But in truth, we as sincerely wish their restoration, and their connection with you, as you do yourselves. We are satisfied that neither your justice nor their distresses will ever again permit their being forced to seek at dear & distant markets those first necessaries of life which they may have at cheaper markets placed by nature at their door.

The letter links three revolutions that occurred at essentially the same historical moment and that arguably shared the same revolutionary spirit. Yet Thomas Jefferson, who in 1791, and as late as 1799, was calling for the gradual emancipation of US slaves in his private correspondence[i],  expresses almost no sympathy for the Haitian struggle.  Instead, he justifies in pragmatic and economic terms the continued rule of the French government over the colony. Upon the outbreak of violence in Haiti in 1791 President Washington immediately sent aid to the white government, and Jefferson wrote this letter while Secretary of State. So, in one sense, he was bound by his official position when composing this letter. But even when he became President, Jefferson had a back and forth policy regarding Haiti that always put US security issues and economic interests ahead of the right to liberty. At various time he played both sides of the struggle, marking the revolution as a practical issue more than a moral one. It’s jarring considering Jefferson once penned these lines, part of his accusations against King George III, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

The two sentiments are not as inconsistent as they initially seem, at least within the racist environment of Jefferson’s time. According to the official organization of Monticello, Jefferson believed “that blacks were racially inferior and ‘as incapable as children’,” and part of his emancipation scheme called for the deportation of freed American slaves. He added “that slavery was like holding ‘a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.’” Jefferson felt that so long as slaves or former slaves remained in America, war was the inevitable outcome: either “a large-scale race war” if slaves were emancipated, or “a civil war that would destroy the union” if they remained enslaved. He was, ultimately, right in his second prediction. But the incredible thing is that the same man who gave the world the phrase “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” couldn’t imagine a third possibility. That is, he couldn’t fully embrace the very words he wrote. In his accusations against King George III he stresses that it is “MEN” who are being “bought & sold,” and it is “Men” who are created equal. But whatever form this equality takes, it nevertheless includes for Jefferson the inferiority of Africans.

Dipesh Chakrabarty draws a distinction between two ways of understanding history, which he calls History 1 and History 2. History 1 is a narrative of the Enlightenment, founded on reason and an assumption of human progress. And while this assumption of progress ostensibly includes a rejection of intolerance, Enlightenment thinking is also fundamentally hierarchical. David Hardiman, summarizing the argument in his review of Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, says that societies that don’t share in Enlightenment beliefs “are considered ‘backward’ and ‘undeveloped’—an inferior ‘Other’.” The tension between the Enlightenment’s supposedly progressive views and its hierarchical impulse mirrors that in Jefferson’s writing. In other words, the ideology of History 1 allowed Jefferson to make the claim “all Men are created equal,” but it also allowed him to view Africans as “incapable as children.” History 2, on the other hand, is the history of the subaltern, which challenges the reductive narrative of progress that History 1 assumes. This distinction helps us understand the nature of the Haitian Revolution. The slave revolt in Haiti refused to wait for the Enlightenment model of history, which had gestured toward the possibility of equality, to refine its ideology to the point of truly embracing that equality. History 1 put the terms of equality on the table; History 2 refused to wait for that vision to be fulfilled.

In many ways, Chakrabarty’s insight helps make sense of the extraordinarily complex nature of the Haitian Revolution. Dessalines sent a letter to Jefferson just before Haiti declared its independence hoping to strengthen ties with the US. Jefferson ignored the letter because of Dessalines’ policy of exterminating the French and US fears of the slave revolt expanding.[ii] Making moral claims about violence is always difficult, but it seems especially so given the Haitian context. When the revolutionaries of the country couldn’t even depend, at least consistently, on the support of nations and governments trumpeting principles of freedom and equality, they were left with few options. In a clash between History 1 and History 2, and here I speak for myself, not Chakrabarty, it is difficult to sort out precisely where ethical responsibilities lie. Thus, for example, the markedly different positions of L’Ouverture and Dessalines, including Dessalines’ brief defection from L’Ouverture and then his quick return. These complications arose precisely because those who should have been staunch allies of the Haitian struggle were only intermittent ones, or, even worse, only posed as such. Time and again, it wasn’t possible to know what others would do or whether they could be trusted. It wasn’t possible to know if they would live up to the ideals they nominally espoused, or if they would ultimately sacrifice them to economic or practical concerns. The Haitian Revolution was always simultaneously a threat and a promise: the threat of violence begetting always more violence, the promise of Enlightenment ideals truly realized, even if through bloodshed. In the end, it represents the explosion of energy generated the moment an untenable ideology fractures.

[i] I draw this fact from page 23 of the Tim Matthewson article I link to, which is unfortunately mangled in the free PDF above. It is also available through JSTOR for those who have access.

[ii] Again from Matthewson, page 24.

On Contemplation Mountain : Abd Al Malik or Modern Blackness in Jazz

Andy Cabot

Abd Al Malik Gibraltar Live 2007

“Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui pleure un rêve qui prendra vie, une fois passé Gibraltar.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui se d’mande si l’histoire le retiendra comme celui qui portait le nom de cette montagne.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui meurt sa vie bête de “gangsta rappeur” mais …
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune homme qui va naître, qui va être celui qu’les tours empêchaient d’être.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui boit, dans ce bar où les espoirs se bousculent, une simple canette de Fanta.
Il cherche comme un chien sans collier le foyer qu’il n’a en fait jamais eu, et se dit que p’t-être, bientôt, il ne cherchera plus.
Et ça rit autour de lui, et ça pleure au fond de lui.
Faut rien dire et tout est dit, et soudain … soudain il s’fait derviche tourneur,
Il danse sur le bar, il danse, il n’a plus peur, enfin il hurle comme un fakir, de la vie devient disciple.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar y’a un jeune noir qui prend vie, qui chante, dit enfin « je t’aime » à cette vie.
Puis les autres le sentent, le suivent, ils veulent être or puisqu’ils sont cuivre.
Comme ce soleil qui danse, ils veulent se gorger d’étoiles, et déchirer à leur tour cette peur qui les voile.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui n’est plus esclave, qui crie comme les braves, même la mort n’est plus entrave.
Il appelle au courage celles et ceux qui n’ont plus confiance, il dit : “ramons tous à la même cadence !!!”.
Dans le bar, y’a un pianiste et le piano est sur les genoux, le jeune noir tape des mains, hurle comme un fou.
Fallait qu’elle sorte cette haine sourde qui le tenait en laisse, qui le démontait pièce par pièce.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune noir qui enfin voit la lune le pointer du doigt et le soleil le prendre dans ses bras.
Maintenant il pleure de joie, souffle et se rassoit.
Désormais l’Amour seul, sur lui a des droits.
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, un jeune noir prend ses valises, sort du piano bar et change ses quelques devises,
Encore gros d’émotion il regarde derrière lui et embarque sur le bateau.
Il n’est pas réellement tard, le soleil est encore haut.
Du détroit de Gibraltar, un jeune noir vogue, vogue vers le Maroc tout proche.
Vogue vers ce Maroc qui fera de lui un homme …
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar … sur le détroit de Gibraltar …
Vogue, vogue vers le merveilleux royaume du Maroc,
Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, vogue, vogue vers le merveilleux royaume du Maroc …”

 In 2006, the French rapper Abd-Malik released « Gibraltar » as the first single of the eponymous album. During an interview, he described the song as a landmark in his career, an artistic gesture incarnating his spiritual and human journey :

En fait, ce Noir, c’est moi. Mais, j’ai essayé de faire en sorte que d’autres puissent s’y projeter et en faire une toute autre interprétation. C’est l’idée que le Nord a évidemment fait de moi ce que je suis. Mais ce qui m’a rendu vivant, c’est le Sud. Ce rapport particulier que j’ai avec le Maroc, avec l’Afrique, c’est ce qui fait de moi l’individu que je suis. J’ai eu envie de dire : tout le monde va dans un sens et bien moi je vais dans l’autre

 After the single’s release, the young artist gained increased recognition in his home country. Leading media and newspapers and France endeavored the multiple musical traditions Abd Al Malik considered as primordial. In 2012, after publishing his third written novel Le dernier français he praised the many authors and artists which had influenced him. These names that came to define his sound, his music and his thought demonstrated its extremely large culture: Seneca, Dante, Deleuze. Aime Cesaire, Jacques Brel, Juliette Gréco and Raymond Carver.

 Today, at the height of his musical career, Malik is widely considered as a talented musician and author. Some even called him the « last poet » in a country where the influence and commercial impact of rap music still unleashes heated intellectual disputes from time to time.

 However, at the time of « Gibraltar », Malik had not experienced a significant commercial breakthrough. As he meditates on his coming of age in his largely autobiographic novel, a feeling of discomfort and bitterness animates the artist:

 Il resta debout et regarda ses baskets en fredonnant le refrain du morceau 3 qui se terminait. Les cris avaient commencé dès la fin de la matinée, pendant qu’il prenait son petit déjeuner dans la cuisine. Alors, le jeune homme de 24 ans s’était enfermé dans sa chambre et n’en étant plus sorti. Ils s’engueulaient comme ça depuis toujours, son frère aîné et sa mère. Peut-être même déjà avant que le père s’en aille (Abd Al Malik, 28-29)

 In a large sense, Malik’s childhood experience was typical of many young migrants from France’s ex-African colonies who left their native countries after the 1960s decolonization. Born in Paris in 1975, Abd Al Malik, Régis Fayette Mikano of his real name, moved back to Congo Brazaville with his family in 1977 where his father held a high placed position in the Congolese government. In 1981, ethnic conflicts forced him to leave his country with his family. By then, the Mikano’s family was settled near Strasbourg in the North East of France.

 Isolated from his father and the rest of his family, the then Régis Fayette found a refuge in literature and street violence. During his teen years, he got involved in several cases of house break-ins and aggressions while being at the same time a model schoolboy. As he later admitted, this world of words and rage was embedded in its complex relation to literature « There’s everything in literature. Its like a fireshot ». Lacking vision and models, Malik’s adolescence was thus marked by a restless search for inner peace.

In the late 1990s, two discoveries played a decisive role in his life : Music and Islam. The spiritual questioning on his condition first emerged. In 1998, after several encounters with Hamza al Qâdiri al Boutchichi, spiritual guide of the Qadirriyya Boutchichiyya brotherhood located in Morocco, Kayette became a new convert. Close to Sufism –a branch of Islam religion focused on the internalization of its creed and close readings of the Quran- the artist described his conversion to as a turning point in his life, a way to return to a mythical African self. Then, a new found passion in music completed this spiritual journey. As he went through religious education, music found its way into Kayette’s heart. In 1996, his first musical act New African Poets released their first LP album and helped him along with his stage partners gain national attention from well-known French rappers. (Abd Al Malik, 72-77)

During his first years as a solo artist, the once lost teenager started to reflect on his past years. At the turn of the century, he decided first to change his name for a Muslim patronym. Régis Fayette Mikano thus became Abd Al Malik.

 « Gibraltar » is first and foremost a remembering of these years. A manner of speaking the inner Malik faced with the remains of colonial prejudice, the distant « Africa », the lost familial bound. In a sense, it relinquishes on traditional themes of a highly symbolic exile (the African captive) faced with its modern condition (Diasporic migrations). Interestingly, Malik uses a simple melodic pattern throughout the song borrowed to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” thus showing the deep emotional relation with past African-American melancholic yearning and other diasporic communities : “Il cherche comme un chien sans collier le foyer qu’il n’a en fait jamais eu, et se dit que p’t-être, bientôt, il ne cherchera plus.”

In many ways, the song is also a strong vindication of a universal Islam unified with Black African culture. It considers in the most blatant terms the cultural genocide committed by Western nations against Islam in the aftermath of 9/11 : “Sur le détroit de Gibraltar, y’a un jeune homme qui va naître, qui va être celui qu’les tours empêchaient d’être.”

 Throughout journeys evoked and spiritual transformations, « Gibraltar » appears as a centerpiece of many debates : the place of migrant communities in contemporary France, the renewed interest in Islam for Black communities in Europe but also the rapprochement of Diasporic communities throughout the Atlantic. But, in a larger sense, its prime interest points us towards another direction : the still infinitely complex condition of European blacks in the 21th century.

References :

MALIK Abd Al, La Guerre des Banlieues n’aura pas lieu, Paris, Le Cherche Midi, 2010.


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