“It’s like fucking vaporware.”
I was on the phone with Kristina, Burnaway’s editor at large in New Orleans. We had been searching for days for the special edition of Vanity Fair with the portrait of Breonna Taylor by Amy Sherald on the cover and edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was standing outside of the Publix on Ponce de Leon Avenue, shuffling through my bag for my sunglasses, to protect me from Atlanta’s brutal August sun, and for a cigarette. I was a nervous wreck. I spilled my bag in the parking lot, nearly smashing my Friday evening bottle of wine and accompanying videotape. I sat down. I had gone to every grocery store, to our threadbare Barnes and Noble, I had called, I had emailed. No one had it. Kristina was not fairing any better in New Orleans.
In my heightened state I began to think it was purposeful, that the issue was deliberately being hidden from me, that no one wanted to put this Black woman’s image anywhere in the city of Atlanta, after…after all of it. Being unable to find the Vanity Fair issue seemed especially insidious, as I was otherwise seeing images of Breonna Taylor everywhere. She had been deadened, flattened into the nefarious social-disease vector that are memes. Celebrities posted pictures of themselves on yachts with the caption Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor. She was on shirts, hats, facemasks. She was everywhere and nowhere, her image a vessel of aesthetic terrorism towards every Black person in this country. I do not wish to re-traumatize anyone with what the world was like that summer. My mind shies away from thoughts of it with the vehemence of encountering a pile of one’s own sick.
The Rayshard Brooks murder was the first one that happened in my life. I live less than a mile from the Wendy’s where he was murdered, and while this is strange to say, I described it as my first Black Death. This was my first murder.
It was terrible, in every form of the word. My house was surrounded by the foggy remnants of teargas. The air—typically carrying a nearby mosque’s call to prayer and shouts of elephants in the Atlanta Zoo—was now filled with screams, shouts, clanging pots and pans, incessant sirens. I stopped sleeping. I had to keep working, I had to walk my dog. Was it so surprising that by August my nerves were fried, that I walked through that summer as a zombie? My nightmares were filled with the absolutely unforgivable Black Death Spectacle, the videos and photos haunting my every single waking and sleeping moment, never mind the mass extinction event of COVID-19 that was coursing through so many Southern communities.
I need to emphasize the tragedy here, before it is lost to euphemism. My own personal loss is just a microcosm of a plague that has killed one in every 600 Black people, and what I experienced over this summer was felt violently by every Black person in America. When thinking of how to drive this point home, all manner of moments came to my mind. The ceaselessness, the incessant social media reposts of Black people dying. Really, the incessant, INCESSANT ugliness of robbing these Black people of any dignity, even in death. I pleaded with the Atlanta subreddit to stop posting the Ahmaud Arbrey video because doing so was traumatizing and hurtful. The response was that “we had to keep sharing the video so that things would change.” I sneeringly replied, Yes, well, Rodney King really helped that from happening ever again, didn’t it? The terror of waking up one day and opening Instagram and it just being all black squares. The tearful press conference where the public health officials in St. Louis said every COVID-19 death at that point was Black. The images of bloody protestors. My mother telling me my brother-in-law had been dragged, lifeless, out of a lake in Arkansas. The text telling me one of my last connections to my Black father had died in New Orleans. The fraught phone call when one of my oldest friends told me my first love had died in Denver. The amount of emotional pain and psychic trauma cannot be overstated. And in this I need to be clear and upfront: in honor of these deaths I could not mourn, and in honor of those who were taken violently by the state.
With this bruised eye, I viewed the announcement of Promise, Witness, Remembrance at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. A similar effort had been mounted at the New Museum, under the late Okwui Enwezor, entitled Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America. Enwezor died before the exhibition was completed, and he was not alive for the exquisite summer of death the rest of us have borne. Obviously, the question of what a deceased curator would think about these tragedies is worth a whole other essay, dissection, etc. But the exhibition in New York cannot be disregarded when it comes to understanding this exhibition in Louisville, a year after Breonna Taylor’s murder, and a year after the violent, full-body shake the American corpus has undergone.
I arrived in Louisville about a week after the show opened at the Speed. I had never been to Louisville before, and upon arriving I was instantly at ease. Much like St. Louis and my beloved New Orleans, Louisville is a French city on a river. The fleurs-de-lis, the Catholic churches and schools—it was all familiar. I got a room at a hotel as close to the museum as possible, so I could walk there. Stephen Reily, the Speed’s director, met me at the service entrance since the museum had yet to open for the day. He was apologetic about my confusion and through his eyes I could see the smile behind his mask. He soon disclosed that he was from Louisiana as well, and my trust immediately deepened. We speak the same broken language.
I would be lying if I said I was not afraid to enter the exhibition. I was terrified. I was out of my mind frightened that it would be tragic, violent, ugly. The images I had seen coming out of the Grief and Grievance show had prepared me for cruelty. I had been on the Atlanta street where Arthur Jafa debuted what would become APEX and I remembered how visceral my horror and fear was, standing on the street in Castleberry Hill, watching Black people die. Knowing that Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death is prominent in Grief and Grievance, I imagined that I was going to walk into the same cruelty. I did not want to be afraid. I stalled at the entrance, talking with Stephen about the museum remodel and the use of space, while he greeted every single ticket-taker, janitor, and admin who hurried by us, preparing to open for the day. I could see her portrait at the end of the hall and I was so frightened. Stephen looked at me, and I put one foot in front of the other and I entered the exhibit, alone.
Arranged in three sections—the Speed deftly using all the architectural options now available to them following their remodel—the exhibition is designed to be gentle, and with a natural progression that keeps the viewer from stewing in their own tragedy, hatred, or sickness. The movement between the sections is incredibly vital; as this is an exhibition about an overwhelming tragedy, being left to sit in one corner for too long would be catastrophic. Immediately opening the Promise section are Hank Willis Thomas’s elongated American flags, 15,433 (2019) and 19,281 (2020), the stars on each piece representing every life lost to gun violence in America in that year. The familiar motif of the American flag’s stars is an effective vector for the monumental weight of the tragedy, while the pooling fabric on the floor speaks to the absurdity of living in the only country where this happens, and no one has taken any action to stop it. There is a disembodied baritone singing versions of the “Star Spangled Banner” as one looks at the flags, as one takes in the room. The combination is incredibly effective, conveying the total failure of the United States to live up to our promises of equality, justice, and happiness. But, the exhibition does not allow you to be frozen in grief. On the left side of the room, Carousel Form II, a giant canvas dripped in a multitude of colors, aggressively demands attention, demands a view. Traditionally, the artist, Sam Gilliam, would hang this canvas across several walls, but curator Allison Glenn decided to hang it in midair, a giant demanding to be seen and understood. The arrogance of the size of the piece reaffirms a practice that Black artists have always used to great effect: If I am big, you must confront and deal with me. You cannot ignore me. Across the top of the room, Alisha B. Wormsley’s refrain is printed in large block letters: THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE. That is the promise that sticks with me, the promise that is most important to me, as I move to the next room. We are here, we’ve always been here, and we will be here, in the after.
The next room, the Remembrance section, is perhaps the most difficult. María Magdalena Campos-Pons’ flower paintings, For Breonna, are gut-wrenching. They are beautiful, still, and bright. They sing in a room dominated by Jon-Sesrie Goff’s A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield, a black-and-white video of a funeral for one of the individuals murdered at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Every moment of the film is astonishing. The film brings to the surface the absolute absurdity of grandmothers murdered while at Bible study. America is nominally a secular country, but we all know that is a lie. America is at the least Christian-flavored and at most a Christian country. To see the women with their veils, their flowers, the suited-up men directing traffic—a scene that remains virtually unchanged since Martin, Medgar, Malcolm—drives home the fact that Black people are never safe, never treated the same. It is enraging, and I can barely hold back furious tears. I glance back at Campos-Pons flowers and I try to steady my breathing. I have one more room to go.
The last room, Remembrance, is agonizing. Breonna is there, pride of place, her Kentucky blue portrait, her defiant gaze, the engagement ring on her finger, her knowing eyes. There are benches set up so the viewer can gaze upon her as long as they wish. I cannot sit down. She is so beautiful. I think of her, of her life, her work as an EMT, her vibrance, her vitality, her future. I can barely bite back the bile that rises in my throat. She is the same age as my youngest sister. The rage and grief is absolutely choking in my mouth. I read the text fragments Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, gave as a timeline for her daughter’s life. A cesarean section, an active child, a devoted child. A driven child, with hope and boundless desire for the future. It is agonizing and, yet, it is not painful. I felt all the love and care for Breonna from Tamika’s timeline, I am reassured and encouraged by Amy Sherald’s portrait. The Vanity Fair magazine that no one could find titled the work A Beautiful Life, and I held that with me as I met Breonna’s gaze. Breonna saved lives, tended wounds and who-knows-what else as an EMT. She healed, she gave life. Her life was incredibly beautiful. We are a better people for having had her in our world.
I kept my tears at bay as Stephen led me out of the museum. He deposited me at the front desk before going back to work. All of the people at the front desk were young, mostly Black, mostly femme. I asked them where I could get a strong drink and some vegan food, and what they thought and how they felt about the exhibition. Their reactions were jubilation, exaltation. Everyone said how honored they felt, how beautiful the exhibition was, how important it was for Louisville to have this. I smiled, bought the monograph for Grief and Grievance, and went back to my hotel.
I swam some laps, read the essays in the monograph for Grief and Grievance, and felt deeply depressed. The title alone told me what I was in for, but I was shocked at the level of violence. The monograph opens with another mother, Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, screaming over his deformed body in his open casket. The catalogue is aggressive and unapologetic. As I continued reading, the images and texts became even more violent, and I found myself wondering why Okuwi would do this. I read on and the answer seemed to get farther and farther away from me. I couldn’t understand what the point of all this cruelty was. I read the whole monograph, I referred to source texts by Franz Fanon and Frank Wilderson III. I have not seen the exhibition in New York yet, and I have yet to meet anyone who has, as most of my Black friends and co-workers have avoided it for reasons mentioned above. I understand the Afropessimist thought that is put forth by James Baldwin and Frank Wilderson III and Saidya Hartman, but in this overwhelming moment of crisis, brutality, and trauma, is an attitude of ever-permanent slavery, ever-permanent nothingness, ever-permanent unending nightmare the best way to attack this problem? Is “hope” a dirty word? Is there really no other option? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it isn’t for me.
Promise, Witness, Remembrance gave me something that I have not felt for a very long time. It is not hope, or future thinking. Instead, it is the warmth of a homecoming, the love and protection of a mother, and I carry these in the hearth of my mind for as long as the days promise us a future.
– St. Catherine of Siena, traditionally invoked for protection against bodily ills, sickness, fire, and the patron of nurses.
Promise, Witness, Remembrance is on view at the Speed Art Museum thru June 6, 2021. This essay is part of Burnaway’s week-long coverage of the exhibition.