The horrific lynching of Emmet Till was immortalized in the 1955 photograph of his mutilated and bloated form. His mother had insisted on an open-casket funeral for the African American boy who had been executed for allegedly flirting with a white woman, a bold stance against the brutality of white supremacy.
Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” thought abstracted, conveyed the same gruesome contours of the boy’s face more than 60 years later, bringing an incident that would rather be forgotten into the spotlight. It serves as a poignant reminder of institutionalized racism and its evolution into contemporary police violence. But Dana Schutz is a white woman.
On the morning the 2017 Whitney Biennial opened its doors to the public, rising Black artist Parker Bright made his way up to the fifth floor alcove where “Open Casket” was on display. Wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “Black Death Spectacle,” he stood in front of the painting, partially blocking it from view for hours.
The firestorm that followed the unveiling of the painting attacked the sensationalism of racist tragedy for a career boost, treating an oppressed body as a tool to awkwardly convey hollow empathy. Schutz released a statement admitting that she didn’t “know what it is like to be black in America” but the “thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.” She is neither Black nor has she lost a child, rendering her argument of the piece as a vehicle for empathy empty. It was a slap on the face for the Black community when the same figure who lied about Till’s actions took on a different form to claim authority to that narrative.
At its core, the controversy that followed poses a question about the rights to history. Who can tell the story?
Appropriating the suffering of minorities is the fruit of bystanders privileging themselves with the belief that, with enough research, they can blend with victims seamlessly enough to speak for them. It replaces my grandpa’s memories as a Korean War veteran with the hollow, second-hand narrative of a nameless Korean solider presented by his neighbor. The spit that flew at my grandma’s face from the other side of the dry cleaner counter is covered up by claims of progress.
Pure intentions of sharing knowledge on minority struggles can morph into entitlement, drowning out narratives that don’t belong to their orators. Adaptations are the products of an echo chamber, where people are limited to the preconceived notions of their stories. When they claim to be genuine reflections, the voices that tell colored stories turn discordant and fallacious.
A white voice projected through a colored body is no less problematic. When inflections of contemporary racism are erased by colorblindness, storytellers play on a nuanced version of the white savior complex. By giving a POC body the honor of their spotlight, artists pride themselves of meeting some imagined diversity requirement or stepping out of the box of all-white subjects and casts. “Look at me!” they seem to shout while beckoning our attention, “I’m giving them a chance!” Meanwhile, the same overused voice continues to speak under the guise of inclusion.
But by confining minorities to be mere subjects of diluted attempts at diversity, attention is diverted away from those who rightfully use their own voices to tell their stories. In industries dominated by white artists, actors, and writers, the perpetuation of this imbalance is funded by the success of works that distort the truth of the disenfranchised to meet whitewashed standards. At the expense of storytellers of color, white artists gain recognition for “memoirs” and films that are filtered to cater to a predominantly white audience.
Sideline perspectives are not meant to be discounted or censored. A white storyteller’s angle is a viable, albeit distant and overused, side to the multifaceted issues of race that we still grapple with today. It only becomes problematic when they attempt to relabel themselves as primary sources. Someone craning their neck to look back at the carnage can’t claim the story of one still struggling to escape the mess.
When the story is told with its original accent, when it is painted with its original colors, the spectacle of death becomes art on resiliency. Original ownership preserves the beauty of sacrifice while posing new questions on its pertinence in the contemporary arena. In an enormous act of courage, the hurt depict their greatest terrors with their own hands, stand back and invite us to criticize, to immerse and to eventually stand in respectful solidarity with them.