I am an artist, and my job is to decode the full spectrum of being human. The studio is a necessary sanctuary, a place of quiet and contemplation that allows me to do my work as a painter. My difficulty has always been one of faith: what justifies staying in the studio when the outside world is constantly testing my belief in art?
Summertime in Bessemer, Alabama, is hot, sticky, and muggy. Growing up there, it was forbidden for Black kids to swim in the local city pool, which was reserved for Whites only. The older boys in our community built a dam of mud, tree branches, and stones on Parson’s Creek. The dam made a perfect swimming hole. We even tied a car tire with a rope to an overhead tree limb, which allowed us to swing into the water. It was great fun! One morning our fun ended abruptly after the first kid to jump into the swimming hole came out screaming with bloody feet. Evidently the white people thought that the Niggers were having too much fun and under the cover of darkness threw bushels of broken glass bottles into our swimming hole.
In 1946, Timothy Hood, a 23-year-old US Marine veteran from Bessemer’s north side, was shot five times by a streetcar conductor because he removed the “White/Colored” sign on the public bus. Hood escaped with his life, only to later be killed by a single shot to the head by the police chief of neighboring Brighton; there were no legal repercussions. Timothy was a school friend of my eldest sister, Martha, and I clearly remember the funeral procession moving very slowly through the neighborhood, and I remember his flag-draped coffin visible through the window of the hearse.
Twelve miles away in Birmingham, four young Black girls were killed in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in the hate-infested racist environment of my upbringing. Because of my background, I share the same legacy and strength of growing up within the Black church as the nine Black worshippers massacred at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina this June. These are examples of the continuation of violence against Black people.
I have never witnessed a lynching, but I grew up with stories from people who had. I have never served in the military, but I do know what a bullet sounds like when it passes close to the body. I am a parent, and I have personally suffered from the availability of guns in American society. The murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School—three years ago this month—was particularly painful: the loss of innocence touched a raw nerve, and it exposed how vulnerable people are to violence. We all share a visceral response to spilled blood; the violent violation of the body is a powerful traumatic experience that embeds itself deep in the psyche. Even experienced professionals who encounter trauma on a daily basis must learn to cope with the aftermath of violence. It is not something that we simply get used to.
Empathy is an important element of being human; it’s our way of coping with grief. In comparing the recent photos of little Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the surf of the Mediterranean with the photo of Tamir Rice lying face down in a park in Cleveland, or Eric Garner in Staten Island saying “I can’t breathe,” or the assassination of Texas deputy Darren Goforth while pumping gas for his car, our empathy remains the same.
Daily news media presents a constant flow of what I call the “generalities of violence”: 300 election officials, including at least 50 women, killed by firing squad in Mosul; 142 people killed and 351 injured in a suicide attack during midday prayers at two mosques in Sana’a, Yemen; the detonation of a bomb-packed refrigeration truck at a food market in Baghdad leaving at least 76 dead and another 212 injured; 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh killed, his parents and brother critically injured, as a result of their home being firebombed. And in November, at least 129 people were killed and 352 injured in terrorist attacks in Paris, and 43 were killed and more than 200 wounded in dual suicide bombings in Beirut… I could continue my list of generalities of violence forever.
The 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, which resulted in the murder of 2,606 people in my neighborhood of TriBeCa, is an example of the “particularization of violence.” What distinguishes the particularities of violence from generalities of violence are close proximity and our relationship to the victims. It is one thing to sit in the comfort of our living rooms watching a TV newscast and another to experience violence as an eyewitness. I had to watch those poor people jump to their deaths, and I have often asked myself, “What would I have done?”
I acknowledge that the categorization of violence into generalities and particularities is a bothersome notion. Violence is violence, and any attempt to compartmentalize its traumatic effect on the psyche is a doomed ethical venture. If empathy is to maintain its value as a necessity in being human, then we must insist on its global application in all cases of violence. Ultimately, I feel sorrow for all victims of violence whether they are Black, White, Palestinian, or Jew. My Grandmother Etta used to say, “We’re all God’s children.” I believe that we are all God’s children, and it’s time that we start acting like it.
I do not know how to correct this flaw in being human, but I do know that proper legislation is the first step in establishing a rule of law designed to enforce significant punishment for acts of violence. Must we wait for another mass killing to occur after the recent massacres at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and during an office holiday party at a San Bernardino social service center? The common denominator of most acts of violence in America is the use of the gun as the weapon. The least we can do is to legislate and enforce restrictions on the manufacture and distribution of firearms in America. Granted, considering all the various sources of violence, no nation can legislate laws effective enough to totally prevent such hideous acts of violence, but we must start somewhere. The African American community in particular has suffered and continues to suffer the regularity of systemic acts of violence against our people. The psychology of racism is a deep pit composed of descending layers of historic fears—fears that are ancient and lie deep in the psyche of people. It is an archaeological stratification of complex calcified mental deposits of collective myth, signified through stereotypical visual images of the Other, which has solidified into a mass of material doom. Racism is a poisonous sickness.
In European myth, the whiteness of skin was symbolic of “purity” either of a sexual nature or of holy perfection within the eyes of God. For some stupid reason, the whiteness of skin automatically allowed one closer access to the Godhead! This notion of purity was easily translated into aesthetics, which is OK: aesthetics had to start somewhere. The problem is the translation of aesthetics into the political. Once aesthetics becomes political, we have a problem. The imposition of one’s feelings onto the Other, simply because one has the power to do so, upsets the social balance. America experiences social unbalance on all fronts: economic, political, identity, gender, spiritual, etc. Social unbalance is a circle of blood, and must be corrected.
In America, our legacy of racism was expanded through an institutionalized system of slavery resulting in a seriously damaged worldview. Worldview is a cosmic declaration of being; it guarantees us our place in the universe. The structuring of a viable worldview is hard work, and filled with risk. Ultimately, we Americans must ask the most basic question: “What kind of a world do we want?” I know what I want. I want a world without the poisonous sickness of racism, without romantic fantasies of being Black or White!
Artists are demolition experts. We destroy stereotypes. Film, dance, photography, theater, painting, sculpture, video, installation, performance … all the known mediums, even those not yet discovered, are historically proven effective in the destruction of stereotypes. Stereotypes, imposed by one group on another, are fixed cultural patterns designed to maintain the status quo.
Racism, beyond the notion of sickness, is an evil that has forced us into an unnecessary all-encompassing cloud of social pollution. I like clean fresh air to breathe. I like clean fresh drinking water. I like good invigorating mind-cleaning sex. I like good red wine, and I like safe non-polluted, chemical-free food. I don’t like people shooting at me! Why should anyone accept and perpetuate racism? Racism does not give or maintain power—it destroys power!
Art is the only thing I have to offer, the only thing I trust. My firm belief in art is grounded in personal experience. I am a product of American apartheid. Racism and violence are something I have dealt with all my life, and I am fully aware of their poisonous effects on society. My art is an antidote used to counteract this poison. Art has the power to heal and restore balance both in the individual and society as a whole. Art has the power to break down barriers erected by simple-minded fundamentalist thinkers who attempt to maintain power. If fundamentalists are afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue, then Red, Black, and Green, or Pink and Lavender must give them nightmares!
Art is not going to bring back Alan Kurdi, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Darren Goforth. Art is not going to stop some deranged fundamentalist from strapping on a suicide vest and annihilating a thousand or more people, or from picking up an AK-47 and blowing away hundreds of people within minutes.
Yet paradoxically, art is our best hope: Perception, perception, perception. Reality is founded in perception. If we can change perception, then we have a good chance in the restoration of balance that is necessary for a sane, healthy society.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Jack Whitten is a New York–based artist who for more than five decades has explored the possibilities of paint, the role of the artist, and the allure of material essence in his innovative studio process. After moving to New York in the early 1960s to attend Cooper Union, Whitten had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1974) and a retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1983). Long involved in the civil rights movement, Whitten created “memorial paintings”—several of which are featured in the exhibition Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting (on view at the Walker Art Center September 13, 2015 through January 24, 2016)—which pay homage to cultural events and figures ranging from Ralph Ellison and Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre of 2012 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.