Blog Post

Race, Racism, the Art Market, and the Whitney Biennial: A Head-Spinning Syllabus of Useful Readings

Michael Gillespie (author of Film Blackness) and I are co-profs in "Teaching Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom."  Actually, that's not true.  We are co-learners in one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking classes I've ever been part of.  Our students are building out our course on a bare-bones syllabus that Michael and I crafted.  They give us homework, and lead us each week in interactive, student-centered exercises that everyone can then use in undergraduate classrooms.

Last week, we talked about visuality and race, and started off with Michael's frustration that the incredible Whitney Biennial, with its premiering of such exciting new talent, especially of black and brown artists, was turning into a story of Just One Painting, a white artist put at the center again.   The questions about that painting (can a white woman paint one of the most famous icons of Black history, a symbol of white violence against blacks) aren't even particularly original--in fact, they are pretty much the same ones and with the same sides drawn in identity controversies from 30 years ago.  

Wasn't there profound racism in controversy swirling around one (white) artist such that the rest of the show and its many emerging artists, including exciting new black and brown artists, had been rendered invisible?  

As a friend of mine asked ironically, "Oh, you mean there's more than one painting in that show?"

This week, in response to a provocative discussion on race, racist texts, representations of race, what it means to be called upon to teach required texts in the undergraduate classroom that one might find offensive (including historical texts whose meaning has changed over time), our students came up with the most provocative group of readings imaginable to frame (or un-frame) the Whitney controversy on identity.

Besides Film Blackness and Nicole Fleetwood's Racial Icons, the graduate students have assigned us an amazing list (NB: some of it is definitely NSFW) designed not to come up with pat or definitive, passionate or defensive arguments about one painting but to push us to ask the deepest and most vexing questions about representation, race, realism, the art market, and how whiteness normalizes and centers itself (even when it is not central or normal).

Our assignment for Tuesday's class is to read and view all this and then, returning to Michael Gillespie's proposition that "the idea of black film is always a question, never an answer," go to our internal class blog and write out 3-4 questions.  I have dozens....  I can barely wait for Tuesday's class!


Michael Gillespie, Film Blackness

Nicole Fleetwood Racial Icons

Martine Syms's  Black Vernacular: Reading New Media.
James N. Kienitz Wilkins,
B-Roll with Andre, 18 min, 2016

Hennessy Youngman videos:

How to make an art:[]
How to be a successful black artist[]
Institutional critique:[]

Danez Smith, Black Movie
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
Mat Johnson Incognegro
Jeremy Love, Bayou


Also, an article that lends historical perspective, by Coco Fusco[



The assignment the students set our class was to read and view these texts and then to ask, on our internal class blog, three or four questions.  Here are three I came up with (although another dozen questions are spinning in my head after this day of reading and viewing):

(1) Why is it so hard to separate "race" from "identity"? Martine Syms writes (brilliant essay, by the way):  "Black is not monolithic but race is a shared social condition."

(2) And then my second question:  "Is 'race a shared social condition'?  If shared, is it shared equally?

(3) If race were shared equally, why would conservative legislators be especially incensed by professors teaching "whiteness studies"?   This goes to the question so brilliant in McLoud and Mat Johnson (another incredible piece of work): how do we "normalize" whiteness? why and how does "white" become normative?



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