L to R: Detail from “Alligator Man” episode of Atlanta; detail from Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine album cover (2017); Sheila Bridges, Tarnish (2017); Janet Jackson (1987); detail from Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon (2018).
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This fourth transmission (7.16.18) features Glenda R. Carpio on Atlanta‘s “Alligator Man” episode, Charles “Chip” Linscott on Zeal and Ardor’s “Blood in the River,” Macushla Robinson on Sheila Bridges’ Tarnish, Textures Material Culture Lab on Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans, and Keith M. Harris on Kia LaBeija Featuring the Moon.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs recounted how her grandmother had loaned her mistress $300, which was used to purchase a silver candelabra. Upon her mistress’s death, Jacobs’s grandmother applied to the estate’s executor to be repaid, but was told that the estate was insolvent. Instead, the executor sold her to pay other debts, but retained the candelabra. Jacobs noted, “I presume it will be handed down in the family, from generation to generation.”1 Jacobs’s grandmother’s freedom was sacrificed for the wealth of white descendants.
The candelabra was not unique. It may still be out there in someone’s cupboard or attic, but regardless there are thousands of other objects in museums and bourgeois dining rooms, with similar stories.2 Harlem-based interior designer Sheila Bridges hints at these material histories with her piece Tarnish (2017)—a large silver spoon made for the exhibition New York Silver, Then and Now (6.28.17-7.1.18). On its handle is a geometric pattern derived from A print of a slave ship, the Brooks, 1789. One of the most famous abolitionist images, this diagram revealed the packed conditions of the slave ship’s hold. Each indentation in this pattern marks a human who was kidnapped and transported across the seas. Inscribed in the bowl of the spoon is a kneeling figure, accompanied by a banner that entreats “Am I not a man and a brother?”. This image was part of the visual language of abolition and was widely circulated on medallions made by the Wedgewood company.3 Begging for mercy, the figure invites white abolitionists to imagine themselves as heroic saviors of a subjugated other. By placing the enslaved figure in the bowl of a serving spoon, Bridges reminds us that while abolitionists fought against slavery they did not imagine the enslaved as their equals. Indeed, the paternalistic quality of much abolitionist imagery suggests that they imagined freed slaves and their descendants to be in their debt.4 In practice, descendants of slaves were frequently condemned to domestic servitude, often ending up polishing the family silver.
Bridges deliberately references the enslaved who mined silver in South America, but her spoon also invokes the ways in which so many family fortunes rest on entanglements with slavery. Tarnish plays on the idiom “born with a silver spoon in their mouth,” which equates silverware with inherited wealth. This idiom became commonplace precisely because silver spoons were (and in some circles remain) a customary gift commemorating a birth or a wedding; rituals that inscribe heritable wealth.5 Both in the plantocracies of the Atlantic British colonies and within Britain, ornaments have historically reflected an aesthetics (and ethics) of “conspicuous consumption” that was born out of class anxiety and the desire to show oneself to have both taste and means. The dinner table was the site of such conspicuous consumption, both literally and metaphorically—the place where British and American families consumed the sugar produced by slaves and presented an opportunity to display wealth through fine silverware, which would be handed down to generations.
While the term “heirloom” has come to designate any item of financial, historical, or sentimental significance, in the early fifteenth century, the term—then written as “Ayre lome”—meant “inherited tool or implement.” These adornments have formed part of a language of power, a colonial technology that demonstrates not only wealth, but also knowledge of the etiquette of the dining room, a signal of belonging at the table. That belonging was often conditioned on enslavement and, as Harriet Jacobs foresaw, it remains heritable. As they pass from parent to child, heirlooms reproduce and naturalize generational wealth. Traveling down generations, they invite the descendants of slave owners to take up their (deadly) whiteness, as though it were a benign matter of style and sensibility, as though such sensibilities did not drive the system of kidnapping, transportation, and enslavement by which whiteness birthed itself. Such objects make the legacy of transatlantic slavery concrete: the security and well-being of some and the precarious lives of others.
Bridges’ spoon reveals how these ornamental objects that were once fungible with human life, mechanisms that stored value extracted from enslaved bodies, embody and reproduce extraordinary violence. Ultimately, Tarnish collapses the distance between the dining room and the plantation field. It also collapses the conceptual disconnect between then and now. Silver, after all, tarnishes over time. Tarnishing—a darkening, a loss of luster, a discoloration, a corrosion, a stain. Slavery—a stain, on history, on nations, on families. By showing that the spoils of chattel slavery are in our midst, Tarnish is an accusation in and of the bourgeois dining room, an indictment of heirlooms. This, then, is a call to decolonize the dining room.
This is one of five essays from the fourth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 4.1 / “Alligator Man” / Glenda R. Carpio
b.O.s. 4.2 / “Blood in the River” / Charles P. (“Chip”) Linscott
b.O.s. 4.4 / Janet Jackson’s Skinny Jeans / TEXTURES Material Culture Lab
b.O.s. 4.5 / Kia featuring the moon / Keith M. Harris
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- Harriet A Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 20.
- Janet Neary writes that “by showing how slaves are distributed along with other objects, such as family heirlooms, Jacobs reveals the workings of the chattel principle and the genealogical disavowal upon which racial slavery is based.” Janet Neary, Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 159.
- The material culture of the abolitionist movement has received considerable attention over the years. However, as historian James Walvin argues, the exclusive attention paid to abolitionist images and not to the wealth of material culture produced by and for the plantocracy has served as a smoke screen. This selective focus deflects attention from Britain’s substantial involvement with slavery in the first instance, and the debt of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century decorative arts to this involvement. See James Walvin, Slavery in Small Things: Slavery and Modern Cultural Habits (Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017).
- The debt incurred by freedom is perhaps most explicit in the indemnity of 90 million francs that the French government extracted from Haiti in exchange for diplomatic recognition after the revolution of 1804. For further discussion of the debt incurred by freedom, see Tim Armstrong The Logic of Slavery: Debt, Technology, and Pain in American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
- The tradition emerged in an era when banks and currency were unreliable and silverware was considered a “safe” investment, a means of storing wealth and rendering it transferable.