Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Suicide and Survival in the Work of Kara Walker

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Suicide and Survival in the Work of Kara Walker

Article excerpt

Young, black and Artist

gifted, dead at sixteen overwhelmed

by

an overdose of sentimentality,

admiration and awe.

-Kara Walker: The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago

Kara Walker's visual essay, "Chronology of Black Suffering: Images and Notes, 1992-2007," was assembled from items in Walker's personal picture files and included in the catalog for her retrospective exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Within the essay, Walker includes an altered promotional still from the obscure film Professional Sweetheart (1933) written by Maurine Watkins, best known for her play Chicago (1926). The original still captures the character Vera, a maid played by the actress Theresa Harris, appealing to a group of white male characters. Vera is holding her arms out before her, with her wrists turned upward, as if she were pulling a string taut. Walker has altered the still in a number of ways, most notably by adding splashes of red paint that transform the still into a pulpy image of suicide (fig. 1). Although the iconography of suicide in Walker's body of work has not been comprehensively studied, it is extensive. Walker's images of suicide refer to representations of the suicides of slave women and mothers in nineteenth-century abolitionist narratives, where these deaths functioned rhetorically to engender sympathy and condemn slavery's injustices. "Narrative," Walker explains, "is very important to my work. I appropriate from many sources . . . frontispieces for slave narratives, authentic documents, as well as a novel or a great sort of artistic spectacle" (quoted in Golden 2002, 47). Walker's life-size silhouette Cut (1998) (fig. 2) draws from the frontispiece of William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853), which depicts Clotel's tragic leap into the Potomac, and from an illustration in Jesse Torrey's A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery (1817), which shows a woman named Anna leaping from a window after learning she would be returned to slavery without her children.

In her sensitive account of Anna's leap, historian Terri L. Snyder argues that the act of slave suicide contained within it the contradictions of slavery itself:

Suicide, an anguished assertion of personhood, undermined the human commodification . . . fundamental to enslavement. Once dead, a slave ceased to be an object of property, an entity to be traded, or a subject from which to extract labor. In this sense, self-destruction by enslaved people was often viewed as an act of power, a visceral rejection of enslavement as well as a visible statement of personhood. Yet there was a fatal cost in asserting the power to die, of course. Death by suicide was not always, consistently, or even typically, an unequivocal, unambiguous, or intentional act. (Snyder 2015, 4)

The suicide rate of slaves is likewise equivocal and difficult to ascertain, as suicidal deaths were misperceived or went unrecorded (Lester 1998, 9). Nevertheless, narrative accounts of slave suicide survive in abolitionist literature, in oral accounts passed down intergenerationally, and in Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews of ex-slaves (Snyder 2015, 14). Walker's images of suicide are half fictions that assume and transform the contradictions Snyder outlines while attending to the ways in which history is apocryphal, romanticized, and ever-present. To the image of Clotel's suicide included in "Chronology of Black Suffering," for example, Walker added a red superhero cape (fig. 3). Clotel plays the "tragic mulatta" in Brown's narrative, and by recasting Clotel's suicide as a scene of heroic self-sacrifice, Walker alludes to the "superwoman" stereotype, a contemporary controlling image rooted in the myth that black women are "unshakable" and thus not susceptible to depression or suicidal tendencies (Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2003, 21).

The image of Anna's leap from A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery is reproduced in the exhibition catalog Walker created for the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (fig. …

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