Yves Jeffcoat wrote this essay for the fifth session of our Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program. The session was led by Chuck Reece, co-founder and editor of the Bitter Southerner, and was titled “Where Does Your Work Come From?” He asked the mentees to reflect on what compels them to write, and specifically to write about art. We were impressed and at times moved by the essays, which we’ll be featuring over the coming weeks.
When I was young and naive and upset, which wasn’t that long ago (and I’m still at least two of those things), I wrote an essay for my nonfiction class about what I then thought was my abhorrence for the term “African American” — not because I rejected either of those appellations, but because I was bitter that I couldn’t put my finger on the “African” and how it led to the “American.” Soon after I wiped my hands of that vehement but misguided essay, I saw Carrie Mae Weems’s work I Looked and Looked to See What so Terrified You at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in “Posing Beauty in African American Culture.” In response to that essay my professor had told me earnestly, “Sometimes we just need more time. You just need more time.” It was true. I needed more time to process my feelings so I could write more eloquently about them. And now, about three years later, I’ve mulled over my frustrations and how they’ve evolved, and I still feel like I need more time.
I had that same feeling two winters ago (months after I saw the exhibition that Weems’s work was in), when I was sitting on my “extra-long twin” box spring in Lacoste, France. My roommates were all white, and they were all talking about their family crests, and all I was thinking was, “What the fuck is that?” It was another one of those moments where I felt punished and ignorant for not knowing my own history. I wanted that kind of knowledge and felt like less of a person because I didn’t have it. I felt like Carrie Mae Weems in the double portrait, wearing my heritage on my back like her quilted dress but still looking at myself and saying, “What’s wrong with you?” But time had passed since that essay — in which I reminisced about the time a high school teacher yelled at all the black kids in the class because we didn’t know our countries of origin (“You’ve got to be from somewhere, right!”) — and I felt more comfortable knowing that I couldn’t delve deep into the annals of Ancestry.com and dig up the shades of my ancestors. Like the woman in the photo, I felt critical and doubtful and out of place, but still proud. I’d learned that I could embrace the good and the bad and recognize them both as a part of me.
If the photograph hadn’t been in such good company, surrounded by other artwork celebrating the Black American image, like the wall full of Jet Beauties of the Week and images from Sheila Pree Bright’s Plastic Bodies series, it might’ve seemed vain. Her hair and outfit are pristine. She’s poised, touching her face, holding up a mirror. And there’s not just one of her, there’s two, like the Instagram models who mirror their photos to get double the likes—maybe. There’s an element of narcissism that, in the context of the exhibition, you know she couldn’t afford. I Looked and Looked to See What so Terrified You is a doubling in many ways. “I’m maintaining that facade, too,” I want to say to her. “I’m struggling to find my self-image, too.” I’m reminded of the time when my black woman principal whispered to me in high school, “I’m so happy a black girl is salutatorian” and my 18-year-old privileged self only kind of understood that that was because I was giving people (and myself) a reason not to be so terrified.
But as I stood there and looked at Carrie, in the esteemed gallery of an HBCU, I still felt that sense of shame and inferiority that had been instilled in women like her and me and that is perpetuated in black families to this day. She seemed like she had the same feeling I had after I swung my two bow-tied, bone straight ponytails from side to side after I got my first relaxer. Or that I have when I get too mad in public, like I had to tame my terrifying-ness.
It’s a notion that we (black people) have adopted and unfortunately let inform our actions. In the portrait, Weems has to be even better than the best, prettier than the prettiest, smarter than the smartest, and damn-near-perfect. So, while she’s saying she Looked and Looked and sees a human like any other, she’s also saying she Looked and Looked in the sense that she scrutinized and molded and tailored herself to appease the terrified — and in the process became unable to accept her own blackness. Like me, the Weems in the portrait is worried about the appearance she sees in the mirror: a skewed self-image, one created by years of institutionalized racism and ignorance and apathy and hatred.
Weems’s artwork hasn’t clarified my feelings on identity or the lack of it or helped me figure out my family tree. She, too, made me realize that I needed more time. Just now, instead of being angry that my history and identity were marred and molded by someone else, I realize the true cyclical and defeatist nature of that attitude. Now when I look at the mirrored I Looked and Looked to See What so Terrified You, I see an infinity of self-doubt, shame, and stagnancy. And that’s not African American.
Yves Jeffcoat is an Atlanta-based writer and was a participant in the inaugural cycle of BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.