The Dialectics of Aunt Jemima
As a former staff writer for newspapers ranging from Newsday to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I've acquired a certain distaste for letters-to-the-editor sections and am embarrassed that (gasp!) I'm actually writing one. I don't want to sound like some of the bitchy readers who have attacked my articles or op-ed articles in the past, but my fingers cannot resist the need to respond to some of the concerns or fears expressed about the art of Michael Ray Charles ["The Art of Darkness," by Shaila Dewan, June 12].

As an African-American female and a Ph.D. candidate in the UH English/ Creative Writing Department, I am most proud to see a brother find a venue for his art, especially when I know how underrepresented we are at UH and at other graduate schools across the country (and, thanks to Hopwood v. Texas, our numbers will shrink even more, but, hey, that's another subject...). Nevertheless, I mention my distinction as a graduate student if only because I know -- without having met Charles -- that it must not have been an easy feat for him to earn his MFA here, or anywhere else for that matter.

Why? When people of color try to express themselves artistically, whether it's through paintings or a short story, we always seem to be held to some weird type of scrutiny or double standard that I've never, ever seen directed toward my white counterparts. It's bad enough white folks rarely seem to "get it" (as far as the message you're trying to convey through your art), but then black folks expect you, an artist, to cater to some unspoken rule about what is and is not acceptable in the black community. Either way, the artist is denied the right to express him or herself in the way they see fit. Once an artist has their vision manipulated by some outside concern, the work ceases to be art and becomes propaganda.

My ultimate point is that anyone -- particularly a black person -- who has a problem with Charles's work should get over it and check themselves out about why they are so uncomfortable with images that are a part of our history, whether we like it or not. The beauty of Charles's work is that he has embraced what could be viewed as negative and turned it into a positive message, much in the same way black folks have taken the word "nigger" and turned it into a word that we can use and there's no harm done (now, of course, a white person who uses the word is in for an ass-whipping, but, again, that's another story...).

This controversy reminds me of a time when I infuriated a number of my black co-workers at Newsday by telling a joke that I still think is funny: "Q: How does a black fairy tale start? A: 'You motherfuckers ain't gonna believe this shit...' " The problem, according to my black co-workers, was that I shared the joke with white people! (I guess this means white folks shouldn't tune in to black comedy shows on cable TV.) This gets to another point about the race of the people who purchase Charles's work: So what? I have a very tiny art collection of prints that cost me thousands of dollars. I know of only a handful of black folks who have the necessary funds to invest in art. Believe me, if I had some of that Spike Lee money, I'd have a check waiting for Charles right now. So, obviously, socioeconomic factors determine who can and cannot invest in art, correct?

In addition, are we now expected to monitor and record the viewpoints of art collectors to make sure they're purchasing black art for the "right" reasons? "Right" according to whom? Furthermore, I have had a membership at the Blaffer and can't say I've ever seen another black person there whenever I've stopped by to view an exhibit. In fact, I can say the same thing about going to the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art or any other museum I've been to in this country. (Okay, I've seen black security guards and a black girl working the admissions desk at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, but I'm not counting employees.) So very rarely -- based on my observations -- do black folks make it a point to show up at anybody's art exhibit. Therefore, I think it's unfair to make this distinction about Charles's exhibit as if to suggest black people are somehow boycotting his work. For goodness sake, I recently traveled to Austin to see the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, coupled with a poetry reading by Kevin Young, a young brother who had written poetry inspired by Basquiat's art. There were fewer than a half-dozen black folks at that gathering, and I'm counting myself and Young in that number. Get the picture?

Anyway, I raise my clenched fist in support of Charles to do his thang any way he wants to do it, because to deny him that right of complete and total artistic expression really sends us back to the days of slavery. Black folks need to get over their shame of the past and recognize that if it wasn't for the mammies, the real-life Aunt Jemimas and Stepin Fetchits, we would not be here. They are the very people who struggled and survived so that I might live and be able to do my own thang when the time was right. That time is now, and I'll be damned if we go back to the days of being silenced. The only difference here is that our own community is trying to put the muzzle on our freedom of expression.

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