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Testing the Indivisible

The greatness of America is that its citizens consider themselves indivisible. We standup and recite such a pledge at various formal and sporting events on a fairly regular basis. But in a country that seems more divided than ever can we ever really understand others that do not look, sound, speak, act or pray like us? And should artists, regardless of medium even try? Or are we overstepping our bounds by attempting to walk in another’s shoes who comes from a different culture?

I was prompted to raise this question by an article I read a couple of weeks ago, (yes, unfortunately I’ve been out of commission for few weeks and my blog productivity has suffered because of it), about a visual artist who has come under criticism for painting the face of a young Black adolescent; in fact, the face of the handsome young man pictured above. However, the painting looks nothing like Emmett Till’s picture you see here, as it was based upon the face seen at his 1955 open-casket funeral after it had been beaten to a pulp by two white men because he’d had the audacity to wolf-whistle at a good looking white woman as she walked by.

Emmett’s face was unrecognizable as human, and white artist Dana Schutz’s abstract rendering of same is even more surreal. But my point here, is not that this racist atrocity occurred in the first place, even though I could go on for days about the importance of civil rights, it is that Schutz received significant backlash from Black artists who felt she had culturally appropriated the event and argued whether a white artist should even attempt to depict such Black pain and suffering.

Can the same be held true for literature? Does an author have to be Asian to effectively write about Asian issues? Or be gay to write about the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ community? Can a man really know what it’s like to be a woman, or vice versa?

In an essay about comedians crossing the line, author Dr. Casey Henry discusses how American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis initially was vilified as a male chauvinist for his protagonist's rants against women. In his own defense, he suggests, “Just because you’re writing about a misogynist, doesn’t make you a misogynist.” Is this true? Does an author have free reign to place themselves in other people’s minds in order to create their fiction? I say absolutely! And let the merits of the work itself be the barometer for how successfully their faux-worldviews come across.

If we go back to Ms. Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, and the accusations levied that she appropriated the sufferings of the Black community under the oppressive Jim Crow laws that existed well into the mid 20th century, we must also acknowledge the likes of the white female activist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin about the lives of enslaved Blacks was probably the single most important document of the abolitionist movement. Many historians have argued that without its influence the American Civil War may never have happened. Good things really can come out of people trying to cross ethnic boundaries in their art.

Just like Ellis’s self-defense in reference to American Psycho (which has since been recognized as a satiric parody of about the protagonist’s cluelessness), Schutz has defended her decision to create a version of Emmett Till’s open-casket face from a mother’s perspective; to show how dreadful it must have been for Emmett’s mother to see her son like that and how brave she was to insist on an open casket to show the world what humans can be reduced to when they embrace division rather than unity.

For my part, I think not only was Schutz’s painting perfectly acceptable, I think the demonstrations were too, for we should never forget the Emmett Tills of this world. Any time we can remind ourselves about the dangers of divisive rhetoric and keep the coversation going about how to fix it is a good one in my book. What are your thoughts?

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