“Walker’s gigantic temporary sugar-sculpture speaks of power, race, bodies, women, sexuality, slavery, sugar refining, sugar consumption, wealth inequity, and industrial might that uses the human body to get what it needs no matter the cost to life and limb. Looming over a plant whose entire history was one of sweetening tastes and aggregating wealth, of refining sweetness from dark to white, she stands mute, a riddle so wrapped up in the history of power and its sensual appeal that one can only stare stupefied, unable to answer.”
-Nato Thompson, Chief Curator at Creative Time who commissioned the artwork.
One of the worst things about my experience with the Kara Walker exhibit in Brooklyn was the lack of space available for me to mourn the devastation of Blackness, nor appreciate its power. There were white bodies everywhere I turned; white bodies laughing, white bodies posing for pictures, white bodies giving me strange looks as I solemnly shuffled around the warehouse, white bodies overflowing the space, white bodies spilling into my physical and mental space.
This happened most profoundly as I stood in front of one of the little Black molasses boys. This particular one had toppled over on it’s side, the molasses comprising the sculpture horrendously warped, conjuring images in my head of some beast mauling the sculpture before I arrived. Bolstering the intensity, as with every other sugar boy, was a puddle of mostly dried molasses beneath the sculpture, reminiscent of blood seeping from the child’s body.
I could only stare at it. Stare at it and think about all that it symbolizes, all the pain embodied in that moment, that moment when Black children are prematurely ripped away from their childhoods. I stood there for what felt like a very long time, which may have only been three or four minutes. While I stood there, there were various individual and groups of white people who would pass by, observe the sculpture, and move on although they weren’t actually very disruptive. After a few seconds of sitting with the piece, I figured out a way to block them out.
A group of two or three young white woman decided to stand next to me after I’d been standing in front of the sculpture for a while. I know I was emitting my emotions as I sat and contemplated the fate of the fallen molasses boy in front of me; I know that it must have been very uncomfortable for the white people who flocked around the sculpture to be near me as I mourned because most of them gave me a furtive glance before fleeing elsewhere within the factory. But this one very blue-eyed and blonde haired young white woman began not so sneakily searching my face for… something.
In the muted light of the sugar factory, her very blue-eyes glowed as they searched my very pained face; they glowed with a mixture of pity, guilt, and confusion- perhaps these are the components of the ever toxic sentimentality? Then, at that moment, I became uncomfortable, realized that even though this was obviously a cemetery, a place of remembrance and mourning for how Blackness has been distorted and destroyed throughout history, the pain I felt would always take a backseat to the comfort white people seek in lies. In that moment, I began remembering what violation felt like.
I have no way of knowing what that young white woman’s intentions were; was she wanting me to move because my mourning made her uncomfortable? Was she trying to figure out how to best console me as she navigated the treacherous terrain of gauging another being’s emotional state? I doubt I will ever have an answer to these questions.
I do, however, know that I would’ve preferred her not invading my space and keeping her distance while I sat with the heavy things rising to the surface of my conscious. I know I would have preferred her somehow quietly keeping other white people out of my space if her intention was to bring me comfort. I know good intentions mean very little in practice.
The realization that there was no space to engage with the art in the way in which I preferred became more apparent as I moved closer to the mammy sphinx; where no one seemed to understand the meaning of the mammy. They didn’t seem to understand the significance of her breasts, arms, and ass being out of proportion to the rest of her body as smiles plastered their faces as they had their pictures taken in the space between the mammy sphinx’s outstretched arms. The white women with their children in strollers must have been comforted by the headscarf overpowering the mammy sphinx‘s head as they posed with their toddlers between her arms.
At one point, all I could do was hug the rusting wall on the side of the mammy sphinx in an attempt to find mental space for myself away from the waves of white people desecrating the physical space. My need for space came to a head as I stood in front of the mammy sphinx with my friends Gina and Khadijah, watching in barely audible rage as more and more people posed between her breasts for a portrait. And it became too much, so I suggested to my friends that we pose in front of the mammy sphinx holding up the Black Power fist, with a picture of us doing so to be taken by our white chaperone from our youth organization.
As we stood there, with our fists defiantly raised to the ceiling, the mostly white people in front of us became much quieter, they seemed offended even. Khadijah says she heard people whispering, “It’s not about that…”. One white man gave us a look of bemused indignation, rushing to the space we had just claimed as our own after our picture had been taken, only to pose for yet another smiling portrait in front of the mammy sphinx. Perhaps he did that to prove a point, a point sprung from the murky waters of privilege and ignorance.
And my spirit sank lower into my gut; I could feel it dragging me down towards the molasses-resembling-blood splattered ground.
Malik Thompson is an eighteen year-old cis Black queer. He’s currently finishing his senior year of high school and looking forward to getting the hell out of his hometown, the swiftly gentrifying District of Corruption (Washington, DC). Into photography, writing, DJing, and theatre, Malik is constantly looking for ways to incorporate his art into the social justice world.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.