Maybe it takes a sick-minded person to see images of slavery and immediately think: “beauty.” Then I suppose I’m just sick. Kara Walker’s artwork entitled “Slavery! Slavery!” uses black cut-outs to depict the culture of southern slavery in the United States, and somehow, all that I can see is beauty. Walker’s art is realistic and raw, down to the smoking chimneys of the slave shacks, the Spanish moss limping on the tree branches, and the wide, elegant antebellum dress bigger than the little “pickaninny” trailing behind it.
But there is a twisted, uncomfortable beauty that lies within these images. It’s the same type of beauty that Keats discusses in his famous poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In the poem, the beauty of the urn comes from its eternal nature, because “when old age shall this generation waste / thou shalt remain,” never vulnerable to aging, wasting away, or forgetting. How glorious right? But on the other hand, with eternal possibilities also comes eternal questions, and hence, eternal uncertainty. Keats mentions a bride that is “still unravish’d” and a “Bold Lover” that can never kiss. I presume the same fate for the images in Walker’s art. The two slaves sitting in the buggy will always be on their way to a new destination but will never arrive. The dancing slaves will never finish their dance, and the moss on the trees will continue to hang from above, watching it all.
It’s frightening to think of the past, especially an institution like slavery, as something that perpetually exists. It’s so much easier to consider it “abolished,” “terminated,” “outdated.” But is it? Or are we still awaiting our destination, still dancing our way out of misery, still hiding in the shade provided by overgrown moss?
-Photo above is from Kara Walker’s work entitled “Slavery! Slavery!” featured in Mandala Journal’s 2011 issue: Reconciliation