It’s not an uncommon move to attack something someone hasn’t said under the guise of addressing their argument, and Zadie Smith’s choice to challenge Hannah Black’s open letter to the curators of the Whitney Biennial makes full use of this approach.1 Compounded as it was with an ad hominem critique, it consistently fails to note the wider implications of the Whitney Biennial’s choice to exhibit Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, which were clearly outlined in Hannah Black’s letter. In her letter, Black requested that the curators of the Whitney Biennial take down Schutz’s portrayal of Emmett Till and suggested they destroy it. This much, Smith conveys. But she neither acknowledges nor engages with the bulk of Black’s rationale, which is political and cultural, critiquing the intersection of economics and society where black pain is raw material for white creativity and commerce, where white media and white artists traffic in black bodies as spectacle, where the constant sharing of video footage of black people being brutally murdered is more exploitative than empathetic.
The artist in question, Dana Schutz, has a not atypical focus on black bodies: in “Open Casket,” she paints the body of the tortured murdered 14-year-old lying in his funeral casket; a previous painting of Solange Knowles’s “elevator fight” places a special focus on her vagina. Schutz’s depiction of Emmett Till drew a visceral response, in contrast to the silence over other black pain on display at the Biennial, because of its symbolic power. Emmett Till’s open casket was an impetus for the emerging civil rights movement. Till’s mother’s choice to reveal his brutalized body and publish photographs—in an African-American magazine, not a mainstream publication—was a call to arms, one aimed specifically at black people. To see Emmett Till’s body, famously murdered by white hands, now carelessly painted by white hands is to see a powerful symbol of black injustice casually co-opted, fundamentally misunderstood, and thoroughly reduced. Such an image is especially troubling at a time when black people continue to be killed for no reason—when in 2015, 60 years after Emmett Till’s death, 102 black unarmed individuals were killed at the hands of police.
When black people in America are three times as likely as white people to be killed by police it becomes hard to argue that there is no clear distinction between black and white life. But Smith suggests otherwise: her ultimate argument rejecting the notion of any one group owning black pain stems from her assertion that Americans are one,that “‘us’ and ‘them’” narratives are “therapeutic,” but ultimately a “cheaper gag” than the practice of viewing, through a racial lens, what is ultimately a single America. It’s a galling dismissal of the brutal reality of black lives in America, where white mass murderers are apprehended alive while black unarmed citizens are arbitrarily killed. I would imagine that Kalief Browder’s family might think differently, that the black teenagers on Rikers Island, arrested without trial, held in jail and coerced into confessions might think differently. The so-called “super-predators” who became victims of the Clinton “three strikes” bill and now fill America’s prisons might think differently.
I shall be charitable and assume that Smith did not write her cheap gag comment with her mind focused on the lives of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, whose deaths are evidence that the cheaper gag here is to pretend that there is a universal “us” in the United States of America. Smith may choose not to recall that the gun used to kill Trayvon Martin was auctioned for $250,000. We can write off that example of white Americans trafficking in and profiting from black pain—the buyers and bidders dismissed as fringe extremists unrepresentative of contemporary culture. But what of the New Yorker profile granted to Michael Brown’s killer, the man who shot a teenager, six times, “like an animal” according to the medical examiner, twice in the head, once through the eye and was, of course, acquitted despite witness testimony? When black pain, as filtered through the white perpetrator who exacted it, receives a profile in one of America’s most prestigious magazines, is that not evidence of how we traffic in black suffering, but only viewed through a white lens? The witness to the murder, Michael Brown’s black friend, received no such platform, has been granted no such interviews. Neither Brown’s family nor the family of other victims were offered similarly elevated platforms on which to speak. This divide that Smith pretends does not exist is in fact terribly real, and attempting to live as though it is not has cost many black people their lives.
“I want to follow the letter very precisely,” Smith writes, but instead of addressing Black’s critique of the economic and cultural exploitation of African-Americans, Smith focuses narrowly on a single line of the letter that she thinks suggests a limiting racial essentialism on Black’s part. There are nuanced conversations to be had about the intersection of personal identity and racial privilege, but the structural reality of black trauma remains, the result of systemic injustice that deliberately targets black people through poor schooling, mass incarceration, and police killing. That injustice cannot be erased by appeals to nuance or to the ultimate fictiveness of all racial identity. To foreclose the use of the words “us” and “them” completely, as Smith attempts to do, is to foreclose the possibility of political change.
Smith’s essay ends with a pointed description of her own indifferent response to Schutz’s painting: the intent seems to be to present her own lack of engagement as a positive alternative to anger. Though Smith focuses on individual racial privilege, she fails to note the other forms of privilege that are present when a Cambridge and Harvard-educated academic, a literary prodigy, a best-selling and award-winning novelist and national (arguably international) treasure, a woman lauded for both her beauty and intellect, featured in a luxury fashion campaign and prestigious magazines, prescribes her own emotional response to the symbolic representation of African-American torment as a model for others. When Smith takes up the question of how white mainstream culture traffics in black trauma, and makes it hinge primarily on her own experience, she stretches towards solipsism.
Like Zadie Smith and Hannah Black, I too am black and British. Where they are biracial, I am the daughter of two African parents. I find the black quotient to be irrelevant; so too is our lack of American citizenship. The history of the transatlantic slave trade that determined the lives of African-Americans and the perceptions of blacks in Britain makes all three of us equally eligible to reflect on black torment. But while one’s personal connection to a story can impart experience and insight, when tasked with addressing the bloody crossroads of white commerce and black culture, black trauma and white media, the significance of our individual stories should not supplant the broader, darker narrative of this legacy.