The Minstrel Show [visual art]

{© Michael Ray Charles}

The first time I saw Michael Ray Charles' artwork, I cried.

While I have no shame in admitting that, I was a bit surprised by my reaction. Plenty of my favorite contemporary artists---Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and many, many more---explore stereotypical images of blackness in advertising and other media in their work. I've always been able to look at their work with more of a critical, (perhaps even slightly distant?) eye.

{© Kara Walker}

{© Carrie Mae Weems}

{© Hank Willis Thomas}

I think the major difference between Charles and the other artists I referred to is that Charles deals strictly with the kind of imagery that is blatantly, patently, make-no-bones-about-it racist. Sambos, pickaninnies, mammies, blackface minstrels---these images were popularized around the turn of the 19th century and used to sell everything from rice to pancakes to school books. The underlying, more sinister purpose of these images was to make black people seem less than human. After all, it's far easier to deny the rights of/lynch/assault a Golliwog than it is a Human Being, is it not?

And what makes Charles' work so immediate is that although his point of reference for his paintings are from the late 19th to mid-20th century, the past is present. The notion that black people aren't human beings is a message we still receive on a day-to-day basis. Don't believe me? Take a look at this (or this) and tell me otherwise.

And we, as a society, really haven't done much to address why this message is so persistent even today.

With Michael Ray Charles, there's no hiding from the questions he is posing. Of course, there is the problem that his work will be viewed strictly as sensational; that people will be so put off by these violent images, that they might fail to look beyond the sensationalism.

However, his work brings to mind something James Baldwin once said, about four decades ago:

What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it...If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.

(Emphasis mine.)

Asking those questions in the way that Charles does means toeing a very delicate line. As upsetting as his work is (and I'm still trying to figure out why seeing his work makes me cry and Kara Walker's doesn't) I see his work as genuinely thought-provoking and engaging in a debate with America's messy past and present.

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