Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there." . . . But there was one yet - the biggest, the most blank, so to speak - that I had a hankering after.
- Charlie Marlow in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1910)(1)
I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and scene upon which and within which the action unfolds. If we examine the beginning of the Colonies, the application of this view is not, in its economic connotation at least, too far-fetched or too difficult to see. For then the Negro's body was exploited as amorally as the soil and climate.
- Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (1964)(2)
Part and parcel of the enduring colonial imagination has been to fathom no territorial limits in its hankering after the unknown and the unconquered, imperially and intellectually. "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art," organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, ranged across the seductively topical terrain of a neo-colonial fascination and mapping: that of so-called black masculinity.
In the exhibition catalog, curator Thelma Golden cites some thoughts by British cultural critic Kobena Mercer that articulate a conceptual premise for the show. Mercer states, extending a metaphor that recalls writer Ralph Ellison's own (above), that "black masculinity is not merely a social identity in crisis. It is also a key site of ideological representation, a site upon which the nation's crisis comes to be dramatized, demonized, and dealt with." The next sentence offers Golden's approbation, "This statement puts us at the heart of 'Black Male's' terrain."(3) She goes on to state, "I wanted to produce a project that would examine the black male as body and political icon" [emphases mine]. In Ellison's metaphor, the personification of a national drama still frames, some 30 years later, the social context within which to speak not only about the objectification of the black male body but also the sensationalized phenomenon that became the "Black Male" exhibition.
The exhibition garnered fervent responses, many denunciatory. A core issue stirring this bluster of controversy surrounding the show involved the question of what it means to organize an exhibition on such thematic specificity: on a "racial," gendered subject-type. Given the context of our social climate, including recent media spectacles of black sexuality and excoriation (a "high-tech lynching," in the words of one self-proclaimed victim), the platforms of judiciary proceedings that have served as another theater of public debate; the mounting attacks on affirmative action and other legislation affecting black families, concurrent with the corporate capitalization of black sports icons, and so on - Can a procession of national spectacles be redressed by a sensationalized exhibition that was ipso facto another spectacle? And without "trussed up" implied in the very send-up of the national drama? Without, that is, simulating the drama? Without dissimulating, unwittingly or not, a complicity?
Complicity in this case turned out to be systemic, unavoidable. It was engendered in the particular set of demands required of museum exhibitions, on the one hand, and required of the thematically controversial nature of "Black Male," on the other. This combination of demands - to embrace artwork and to regard it critically as representations - negotiated an institutional compromise in "Black Male."
An interesting implication in Ellison's metaphor is that there may be a commutability between the situation (or body) of the "benevolent" white explorer, Gulliver, and that of the Negro giant; that the trussings that bind them stem from an arresting, objectifying tendency elicited through both the exploration of the other and self-exploration - and by extension, through both the exploratory museum pursuit and the (presumed) project of self-representation by artist or theme. …