In his artist's statement for his show Strange Fruit, today in its last day on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Hank Willis Thomas wrote:
"Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of 'black history' as somehow separate from American history, and to reinstate it as indivisible from the totality of past social, political, and economic occurrences that make up contemporary American culture."
Hank Willis Thomas, Strange Fruit, digital photo, 2011
I went to the Corcoran the other day, and was stunned and awed by the power of Thomas' work. His work is impeccably, seductively beautiful. (The image on this blog does not do it justice. Check out his homepage too, for more, better quality reproductions.) But the subject matter of his photos and collages is some of the most painful and distressing features of American history: black slavery, sharecropping and particularly lynching.
The pop-culture image of the black male body today is often shown as a sports hero -a basketball, or football star. And it is a horrific truth of our past that the image of the black male body through the 1960s was often shown as the victim of a lynching. These images was reproduced on postcards of the lynching "event" which people could buy and send to their friends and relatives to show what a fun time it was. This visual flippancy about the violence and inhumanity of lynching strikes me as one of the most barbaric things about it. I'm not putting an example of a lynching postcard on this blog, because the subject feels to horrific and overwhelming for me to try and frame in a single thumbnail image. Go instead to the collection of lynching photos put together and discussed by the website Without Sanctuary.
Thomas' artwork forces us to confront these lynching images in our contemporary context. Are we yet free of this past, or is it haunting the lives of black people, the lives of all of us in America today?
For this Martin Luther King Day, I want to humbly acknowledge this part of our American history, our status as perpetrators and as victims, our need to face it. I want to acknowledge the vital humanizing role that the civil rights movement played in putting a stop to lynching. This history is, as Hank Willis Thomas says, "indivisible from the totality of... American culture."