thinking about zadie smith, maya angelou, & 2017 nostalgia
TW: Mention of SA in literature
Hi, friends! It’s a beautiful Friday afternoon in southern California, and this week I’ve been thinking about the following…
Feel Free & censorship
I finished reading Feel Free, a book of essays by Zadie Smith, about a month ago, and my library copy has been lingering on my side table for that length of time. I thought about returning it a few weeks ago, but decided not to, because when I finish books I usually draw conclusions from them almost instantly, and I wanted to be different this time around. So I’ve been trying to sit with it and be more contemplative.
I wrote down a few quotes that made me pause when I was reading the book. As I’m rereading them now, one stands out –– from the essay “Getting In and Out,” which meditates on both Jordan Peele’s film Get Out and Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket. Smith talks about the controversy surrounding Schutz’s painting, which depicts the corpse of Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was beaten and lynched in 1955. Curators of the Whitney Biennial asked for the painting’s removal from the exhibition, because Schutz is white, and thus, they concluded, was “transmut[ing] Black suffering into profit and fun.”
Smith critiques this argument in the quote below:
“I stood in front of the Dana Schutz and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But [Open Casket] never got that deep into me, neither as representation nor appropriation...the letter lives in a binary world in which the painting is either facilely celebrated as proof of the autonomy of art, or condemned to the philistine art-bonfire. The first option, as the letter rightly argues, is more often than not hoary old white privilege dressed up as aesthetic theory, but the second is – let’s face it – the province of Nazis and censorious evangelicals. Art is a traffic in symbols and images, it has never been politically or historically neutral, and I do not find discussions on appropriation and representation to be in any way trivial. Each individual example has to be thought through, and we have every right to include such considerations in our evaluations of art (and also to point out the often dubious neutrality of supposedly pure aesthetic criteria). But when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than the antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity.”
Basically, Smith says in the essay, if you make the argument that only Black artists can legitimately create art about Black pain, all you’re doing is making a sharp distinction about race that doesn’t exist in actuality. Smith herself is biracial; she asks whether she, a biracial Black woman, can be allowed to create art about Black pain. What about her children, who are three-quarters White and one-quarter Black? What about the offspring of slaves and slave owners? “Is making art a form of concern?” she inquires. “Does it matter which form the concern takes?”
Or, she asks, should we view all paintings holistically, in terms of their politics and history and aesthetic, but without the absolutist, narrow-minded punishment of removal?
I’ll admit that the phrase that initially jumped out to me was “censorious evangelicals,” because it reminded me of going to high school in my mostly white, culturally evangelical hometown, and learning that we weren’t allowed to read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in class due to parental complaints about its rape scene. I have not since fact-checked whether this is true, so my memory could be wrong, but I do remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings outside of class specifically because I was curious about why it had been banned. Both that book and Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie were my first introductions to writing that centered on sexual assault.
So I wonder what that form of local censorship says about the mode of engagement that reigned at the time, that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was probably intentionally “unincluded” from my high school reading list due to its subject matter. I feel like the mode of engagement that existed then, and maybe still exists now, is if you don’t want to talk about or acknowledge certain realities of existence, then make a note of not including it. But I occasionally wonder what my classmates and I could have learned in discussions about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, about Maya Angelou, the despicable acts that occur in some people’s lives without their invitation, and also about each other. It might have been a lost chance at learning about other people’s lives and how to carry heavy burdens – both our own and others’ – well. Or maybe the parents’ concern was valid: after all, a discussion ill-conducted could possibly be traumatizing for survivors. (I also, at that point, had no idea how to even be a good friend to other people, so there’s an enormous chance I could have said something stupid and hurtful in class discussion.)
Engage with art, Smith urges in her essay. Critique it. But removing and/or destroying it reveals more about the remover or destroyer than the artist or the art itself. If you actually want to be harsh, prove your ambivalence towards it: walk away.
Plz let me be nostalgic for 2017
On the music front, I’m currently obsessed with Griff’s One Foot in Front of the Other, which is a quick little compilation of tracks that are all fun, fresh, and bouncy (Taylor Swift endorsed her via Instagram stories a few months ago). I’m also sitting with Lorde’s latest, an album called Solar Power, which I listened to in one go last night. It was an immensely relaxing experience, the kind of album you can listen to while you’re lying on the beach half-asleep.
Solar Power has strengthened some of the 2017 flashbacks I’ve been getting recently. Lorde’s Melodrama (her last release before Solar Power) was released in 2017; so was Kendrick Lamar’s, and he just announced that he’s working on his next album. I have an entire playlist dedicated to music from 2017, mostly because that was the year I graduated from high school, and I remember it as a blinding flash of a million changes happening in rapid succession, set to “Green Light” and “HUMBLE” and also the Chainsmokers lol. Remembering and recording these cultural benchmarks is helpful for mapping my own memories and experiences and also – this is, like, arguably more important – what you learn about the things outside of your own context. When I first listened to Kendrick’s album DAMN., I realized I didn’t understand hip-hop or hip-hop culture at all; I mostly only had a sense of how it sounded, and even then that wasn’t enough. As helpful as art is for tracking personal history, sometimes you sit with it and realize that you’re confused. And then sometimes you decide to let your confusion stay confusion, because you don’t have enough time or energy to turn it into something else, and sometimes you don’t want to be as confused, so you try to learn. That’s how I feel about hip-hop (and, honestly, about most things I consume). I don’t want to listen to it just to feel cultured, or relevant, or cool; I want to be able to understand it. I still don’t, really. But I’ve decided that means that I should just keep listening.