It’s not often that I am engaged in a conversation in which the truth of The Paradigm is centerstage and all parties involved are staring unflinchingly into its abyss. That said it’s not everyday that I stare into the abyss without a flinch of my own. But, when those moments do happen, or those conversations come about, the trajectory of my day-to-day gets all messed up in some type of way and I’m left to ponder the violence shaping Black everyday “living.” Some will say that’s no way to go about life! And here I insert some Paul Mooney, “all you Jim Jones kool-aid drinking muthafuckas,” this ain’t for you (but keep reading, maybe you’ll put down the cup a little later in the article).
“IM BLACK. LETS DEAL WITH THE SOCIAL FACT”
The conversations I enjoy most I will admit come from like-minded Black conscious folk—those who have dedicated some aspect of their life (if not the whole damn thing) to progressing an understanding of anti-Blackness and Black existence. I find in these interactions a devotion of entire intellectual capacity and/or political work towards understanding the complexity of the problem without an air of “what should we do?” distracting us from that very complexity that birthed the interaction. In conversations with other Black people that aren’t necessarily thinking in terms of The Paradigm that sidetracking question operates in a very specific and complex way that I do not wish to unpack here, now. Rather, it is in conversations with white people, particularly liberal white folk that that question plagues most and I have come to expect in at least 98% of my interactions. My response is the same every time: I do not know. I don’t know what white people should do when Revolution breaks out or what to do in the meantime to help pave the way for Revolution. And while I do have some ideas on the matter, Ill keep them to myself for now and encourage everyone to contemplate the work of Adrian Piper in this waiting period. And whether or not she herself admits it, I do believe certain aspects of her work to be speaking specifically to ‘white’ people and I specifically encourage ‘white’ folk to listen up (we will quickly see why the scare quotes matter).
“YOU MUST FEEL THAT THE RIGHT AND PROPER COURSE OF ACTION FOR ME TO TAKE IS TO PASS FOR WHITE.”
I was first introduced to Piper’s work through a fleeting reference in a conceptual art class I was taking at the time. Her LSD paintings of 1965-67 were held in high regard, and I was intrigued, but my research didn’t extend much further than the three slides presented in class and a few flashcards with (1) artist name (2) title of work (3) series title (4) year.
It wasn’t until nearly three years later that I learned Piper was Black! And I wasn’t even in an art class.
Piper, Self Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981
“I HAVE NO CHOICE. I’M CORNERED. IF I TELL YOU WHO I AM YOU BECOME NERVOUS AND UNCOMFORTABLE OR ANTAGONIZED. BUT IF I DON’T TELL YOU WHO I AM I HAVE TO PASS FOR WHITE. AND WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO DO THAT?”
I was taking a class entitled “Race Mixture Politics,” with one of the leading critics of multiculturalism and coalition politics. We were staring at the Paradigm through a tracking of the nation’s entanglement with miscegenation—Blackness. Piper’s article “Passing for White; Passing for Black” popped up on the syllabus toward the end of the quarter and I was captivated. A half Black, half white woman, who to many could pass for white was proclaiming her Blackness and forcefully rejecting what she was terming the “racial club” of whiteness. But it was a complex rejection, one I still do not fully understand and perhaps never will, but I offer her work here now on negrosunshine for us to all think through together.
One of my favorite past times I share with some of my closest friends is making white people uncomfortable, either about Blackness or their whiteness (which is actually all mixed up together so I suppose there is no “or” in the matter). Adrian Piper does this well. The above photo is a screen shot from her video installation, “Cornered” (1988). Imagine with me. Walking into a gallery, in the corner of the room a Piper installation. An overturned table leaning against a television set. Above the TV are two copies of her father’s birth certificate. One reads he is white, the other that he is octoroon (one-eighth Black). Chairs await the viewer’s body in front of the screen and the cornering begins.
“NOONE IS SAFELY UNQUESTIONABLY WHITE. NOONE”
“SOME RESEARCHERS ESTIMATE THAT ALMOST ALL REPORTEDLY WHITE AMERICANS HAVE BETWEEN FIVE AND TWENTY PERCENT BLACK ANCESTRY”
A talking head, poised like a newscaster, perhaps a teacher, librarian, someone with some type of importance in the corner we’ve just entered stares straight on from the television. She blinks a few times, adjusts her head, sighs, and then explodes (figuratively, or rhetorically quite literally), “I’m Black, now, let’s deal with the social fact and the fact of my stating it together. Maybe you don’t see why we have to deal with it together. Maybe you think this is just my problem and that I should deal with it by myself. But it’s not just my problem. It’s our problem.” Our problem of Blackness? What do we do with this as we view it in the gallery? Whose seat becomes uncomfortable? Which one of us is ready to get up and leave? Who is drawn in further?
Piper’s video is sixteen minutes long. She speaks in a manner sounding and appearing to be a middle-class, well-educated white woman. “I’m Black,” are the first words out of her mouth and she continues with a host of rhetorical gestures: does her Blackness upset us? Is she simply making a big deal of her race? Is this a shallow attempt at gaining attention as an artist? Does she hate white people? The most stunning part of the video, which I also found to be the most noteworthy argument in “Passing for White…” was the claim that her Blackness upsets whites for two reasons: (1) they have to check themselves to make sure they don’t dabble in racism and (2) whiteness is called into question, their presumptions and their own “white” standing.
“IT IS A GENETIC AND SOCIAL FACT THAT ACCORDING TO THE ENTRENCHED CONVENTIONS OF RACIAL CLASSIFICATIONS IN THIS COUNTRY, YOU ARE PROBABLY BLACK”
Departing from my mental escape in a swanky New York gallery, I’m placed squarely back in the Long Beach (CA) queer coffee shop I’m writing this from. Looking around the room occupied predominately by white males while Piper’s video is playing in my headphones; I’m wondering how their Blackness is structuring their conversations and/or lives. Or how they and I have recognized I’m the only discernably Black person in the room, but do they know that if I were to leave, Blackness would still be ever so present? Of course this is not the average thought of the day, not even for me. Rather I am thinking about my initial arrival at the coffee shop. I waited in line behind a “white” man engaged in conversation with the “white” barista. A friendly exchange of strangers that let me know I had entered a friendly atmosphere, until I got to the counter. The barista’s demeanor changed, subtly, but noticeable. Nothing that alarmed me, just let me know I was not his interest, a decision he had made by either one of two things: the iced chai latte I ordered, or my skin that was about two shades darker than the drink. I wonder: at that awkward stare he gave as I smiled and paid, what if I would have said, “yes, I’m Black, let’s deal with this social fact.” Could it have led to a fruitful conversation on the implications of his presumptions about me, and about himself? Or would it have led to a pointless awkward exchange now had through language rather than just stares? I’m not sure I can answer these questions. But if we take serious Piper’s claim, “It is a genetic and social fact that according to the entrenched conventions of racial classification in this country, you are probably Black”, you being most reportedly white people, these questions deserve some contemplating while certain presumptions about the “whites” in the coffee shop (barista included) and their whiteness, and subsequently my Blackness, are all thrown into the air. And as I sit here, certainly not a member of the racial club that surrounds me and dictates my interaction with the barista, I must contend with it, for I need a place to breathe, write, and drink coffee. And just as Piper ends her riveting video “Cornered,” I say to you all reading this, WELCOME TO THE STRUGGLE. I’ll keep her work easily accessible in my arsenal for daily use.
Adrian Piper was born in 1943. Her art, which can be viewed as autobiographical, address issues of race, gender, and racism in the U.S. context. Piper is a philosopher by training, which truly shows in the intelligence, wit, and grace of her art. In the 1970s she offered a series of guerilla street performances, often dressed as a Black man, which she referred to as “the mythic being.”
Adrian Piper. Ashe.