Black History Month: 13th

If I say “prison-industrial complex,” do your eyes start to glaze over immediately? Then 13th is the documentary for you. Ava DuVernay intentionally made a primer on this issue, a well-researched but still easily digestible 1 hour and 40 minute introduction to the history of the American problem of mass incarceration. It’s a hell of a history.

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DuVernay and her interview subjects draw a clear line from slavery through to the present day prison set-up. I know a lot of (white) people think discussions of racism and structural discrimination focus too much on slavery, and can’t we as a country just move on? But people have been saying that since emancipation, and at no point have we ever reckoned with this foundational part of the United States, which means the underlying issues of systemic racism and oppression are never fully addressed, and we keep repeating the same terrible shit over and over.

The throughline runs from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow and lynching to prisons and the disenfranchisement and lack of possibilities upon release. The 13th from the title is the Constitutional amendment that abolished slavery and forced servitude — except as punishment for a crime. What the documentary makes crystal clear is that much of the oppressive, inhumane treatment from slavery carries over through these other forms, and the thing that allows that is the phrase in the 13th Amendment “except as a punishment for crime.” Just rebrand people as criminals and you can have much the same effect. It’s devastatingly simple and clear when you say it like that, and the rest of the film shows how it was done.

First, arrest people for vagrancy and put them to work rebuilding the South after the Civil War. Then push the idea of the black man out to rape white women, and the dangerous, immoral nature of black people in general; public lynchings are celebrated and black people move from the south to northern cities in the Great Migration, fleeing a life of terror. Set up an entire system to keep black people separate, second-class citizens under Jim Crow; the very fact that they are forced to use separate facilities for everything marks them out as alien and less than human. When the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s successfully breaks up this segregated system, and you have to drop the explicit racial talk, immediately implement coded terms so that “criminal” almost always means “black.” Start a “war on drugs” that punishes black people disproportionately, based on the drugs used overwhelmingly in poor black communities (crack cocaine) as opposed to rich white communities (powder cocaine). Represent black people on TV as criminals disproportionately. Introduce mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing and a 1994 crime omnibus bill that put more black people — especially men — in prison than ever before. Privatize prisons so that, through contracts with the prison corporations, the state is incentivized to jail people. Allow prison corporations to be part of a task force that writes legislation for lawmakers, so that laws favorable to the prison companies are put into place and those companies can profit from punishment. Put prisoners to work for little to no pay, producing many of the “Made in America” goods we’re proud to buy, and making it more difficult to extricate profit from the prison system (and here we see “prison-industrial complex”). When enough people get angry about the set-up of the prison industry, start “reform” movements that keep profit in the hands of the few and keep black people disenfranchised and not at liberty, for example by introducing more GPS tracking. Whatever strides black and brown people make toward true equality, adapt the system to disallow that. And always deny that any of this has to do with race.

DuVernay and her crew interviewed leading thinkers in American history, prison abolition, and race over the course of two years. She also interviewed people who may not agree with much of what her documentary is saying, including conservative politicians and a particularly hapless ALEC member. She apparently spent two hours talking with each interviewee, which is much longer than interviews usually go on for, and in this way she got more honest and in-depth conversations from people who might otherwise dissemble or evade. One of my favorite subjects is Angela Davis, who has made much of her life’s work about prison abolition, and other speakers who made me think and write down word for word what they’d said include Malkia Cyril, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, and Michelle Alexander (whose book, The New Jim Crow, I have on hold at the library).

DuVernay’s artistry shows mostly in how easy to understand and yet challenging the documentary is, and how seamlessly she moves from one topic to the next, all within the larger topic. There are also some particularly affecting moments, like when the camera lingers on a photo of Trayvon Martin for a long time, burning this murdered child’s face into our retinas. Another is the heartwrenching and enraging sequence wherein she alternates between scenes of groups of white people at Trump rallies pushing and hitting black people and scenes of groups of white people pushing and hitting black people from the time of the civil rights movement and before, all while Trump talks to the crowd saying things like “Knock the crap out of him, would ya?” and “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough.” It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking and it places white people firmly in the spotlight: this behavior in 2016 is the same as the behavior in 1956, so everyone saying they would’ve been on MLK’s side back then, where are you now, when it’s just the same?

Today, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for white men in the United States is 1 in 17. For black men, it’s 1 in 3. ONE THIRD. Black men make up 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population. That’s what is meant by disproportionate. That is what is meant by an epidemic. That is what is meant by a broken system that systematically breaks down communities of color and steals the futures of generations of children.

Bryan Stevenson points out that “the presumption of dangerousness and guilt follows every black and brown person everywhere”; it’s this criminalization of an entire group of people that makes it possible for the majority of the country to care less about them — “oh well, they did something bad, they’re criminals” — and to ignore what’s done to them. As Jelani Cobb asks, “Whose life do we recognize as valuable?” The answer may well be in prison abolition — not reforming the system, but breaking it apart completely and finding a different way of approaching law, order, criminality, and the people involved. And it certainly lies in retraining the country to see people of color as valuable human beings, not as criminals or statistics or a problem that can’t be solved and doesn’t need to be heard. Malkia Cyril says, “Black Lives Matter… is about changing the way this country understands human dignity.”

13th is essential viewing for anyone who lives in the United States, but especially those who don’t see a problem with the prison system or who think #BlackLivesMatter is an overreaction — let this be the film that you watch in an evening and ponder for weeks to come.

 

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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern

If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”

The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.

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April 4 by Sam Gilliam

Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.

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America the Beautiful by Norman Lewis

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Processional by Norman Lewis (apologies for the slight blurriness)

My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.

The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.

Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.

Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.

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I Got Rhythm by Betye Saar

A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”

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Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell

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Detail of Black Prince by Wadsworth Jarrell

Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.

One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.

There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.

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Bill & Son by Roy DeCarava