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Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa on the play of freedoms in Rosalind Fox Solomon's Liberty Theater

Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
and it is easier to stay at home
    - Gwendolyn Brooks1

I think that I have to begin responding to this work by way of a digression, by way of an apparent movement away from the iridescent surfaces on which these var­ious bodies have been inscribed in time and space as photographs. I need to start through a kind of move­ment that takes distancing as a route to proximity. I want to begin by remembering.

Our story takes you down this shadowed path to a remote and guarded building....2 These are the opening lines of a film, spoken as an inaugural silvery image wells up out of blackness. We are sluicing along a leaf-strewn pathway in a slow tracking shot toward an indomitable stone gate. A shadowy uniformed figure stands behind barred windows inside the gatehouse, while rearing at its left, an enormous arcing wrought iron gate is silhou­etted against a spectacular estate. It is the Melbridge County Asylum, a place built “to house the shattered minds of the war that was to end war.”3 The film is Random Harvest. I see now, as I work my back along memory’s seams, that Fox Solomon’s photograph of warped and distended plantation gates sent me back here, by way of Mississippi, 1977.

So I am bound up in a movement between the grand obsolescence of the antebellum slave plantation, and an amnesiac’s escape to freedom after the First World War. But where and how do these points converge? In the film, Charles Rainier suffers amnesia from the shock of trench warfare, and survives with no memory of his life and no knowledge of his name. He flees the asylum on Armistice Day in 1918, stumbling into Paula

Ridgeway in a tobacconist’s shop, who then helps him abscond into the countryside on a train. She names him John Smith, or Smithy, and the following year, when he has recovered, they fall in love and wed.

Smithy is a runaway. He has slipped the carceral grasp of that looming black gate. Here, I remember the words of Saidiya Hartman, who writes with awful clarity that the “passage through the blood-stained gate is an inaugural moment in the formation of the enslaved.”4 She speaks of the “horrible exhibition” in the first chapter of Frederick Douglass’s famous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which he witnesses the rage-filled beating of his Aunt Hester, describing sub­jection to such torture as “the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass.”5 In Random Harvest, our protagonist John Smith is formed under conditions of total erasure —of name, of kinship, of rights to memory—and in response he flees this gate, flees the madhouse of detention to forge new memories and a free life for himself. Somewhere along the path of his flight from those gates, John Smith became Will Brown in the recesses of my memory, so that now I am in Omaha, Nebraska, on September 26th 1919.

At around the dark hour of midnight, Milton Hoffman and Agnes Loeback were assaulted and robbed at gunpoint on their walk home from the late screening of a film. Their assailant, a black man, held them both at gunpoint while dragging Loeback by her hair into a nearby ravine, where he raped her. On this Friday morning, the local Omaha paper exclaims that a white woman has been assaulted by a “black beast,” and a posse of four hundred armed men led by Loeback’s brother descend upon the house of a “suspicious negro,” Will Brown, who has been living with a white woman, and drag him out from under his bed for Loeback and Hoffman to identify.6 Both victims identify Brown as the perpetrator, and despite the repeated efforts of a mob outside the house to string him up and lynch him on the spot, the police arrest Brown and lock him up in Douglas County jail. By the following day, Loeback will admit to local journalists that “I can’t say whether he [Brown] is the man or not.” A physical examination of Brown will reveal that he suffers from chronic rheumatism and is crippled by his condition, contradicting any allegation of his guilt. But by that Sunday, the 28th September, Hoffman will exhort two hundred young students to gather at the courthouse where Brown is being held, and their numbers will soon swell to between four and five thousand strong.

They will begin with shouts and chants, escalate to throwing rocks, move on to setting random fires, assaulting black passersby, then loot nearby stores for firearms, beat the mayor with blunt objects and attempt to lynch him for beseeching peace and reason, then set fire to the courthouse with gasoline. They will attack the fire brigade who come to save the inhab­itants of the building, using their ladders to scale to higher floors and break into the courthouse, setting armed men at each exit and refusing the occupants any means of escape from the flames. They will insist on this blockade until the judge and policemen will­ingly surrender Brown to the mob. Having burst into the building from various sides, they will rush to the fourth floor, tie a rope around his neck and drag him out into the street, hang him from a traffic tower, fire a hail of bullets at him until long after he is dead, then tie his corpse to the bumper of a police car and drag him through town, set him on a pyre and roast his corpse while posing for photographs, and then tie his charred remains to the police car and drag them around the black section of town.

I find myself now at the courthouse steps in the city of Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1976. A somber-faced and suited man nearing middle age brandishes an unfolded copy of an indictment by the state of Alabama, whose Grand Jury finds that Clarence Norris “forcibly ravished Ruby Bates against the peace and dignity of the State of Al­abama” in 1931. Though Bates recanted her testimony, though no physical evidence was ever produced of the assault, though the US Supreme Court reversed the verdicts of two separate convictions as miscarriages of justice, Norris was sentenced to death in 1937, the sen­tence commuted to life in prison in 1938, then paroled in 1946, at which point he too took flight from the mad-house of detention, finally receiving a pardon on this day, October 25th 1976. The suited man looms above me in the soft glow of the camera flash, his head nearly as tall as the bell tower that caps the colonnaded courthouse behind him. Since I know that the picture was made with a twin-lens reflex camera, I know that he has either chosen or been invited or instructed not to address the photographer who stands before him, but to gaze down directly into the lens. This angle affixes him to the aus­tere structure that lends him his patrician heft, so that his figure is flattened backward in slow recession into the structure from which it has emerged. There is nothing but consternation in his face; even the manner in which he holds the documents— each clasped together by three delicate fingers so as to bare them more nakedly to the lens—seems to radiate a certain distaste for their contents. He is implacable and stentorian: a sentry planted squarely between our onlooking gaze and any possible entry into the halls of justice. The figuration of the frame, and the symbolism of its constituent parts interweave into an iconography of white power, which seeks here as it always has to regulate the play of freedoms. I think about the ornate polished bulk of his class ring cocked sideways on his right ring finger, and I remember the epigrammatic image that opens the se­quence of photographs in this book. I think of the great white heat that must have softened that metal into pliable liquid form, I think of the force that reft it from the earth to bathe it in flame and cool it, so that those veins of ore might be stamped into miniature bucklers and shields on whose surfaces the litany of American freedoms might be written in high relief: 

Here is the square and compass crowning the letter G, the traditional symbol of the Free Masons, a brotherhood of secrecy and uninterrogable power. There are the Boston firemen, “America’s Heroes,” mounted atop a horse-drawn cart. Here, the flattened fea­tures of Geronimo, the Bedonkohe Apache guerrilla war chief who plagued US military expansion, surrendering only to escape over and over again, his head skewered by the long-barreled sweep of a rifle. There is a reward for the capture of Billy the Kid, alive or dead, for $5,000. And here the “Indian Head Penny” from 1877, descendant of the “Flying Eagle Penny,” designed by James Longacre, who said of it “the feathered tiara is as characteristic of the primitive races of our hemisphere, as the turban is of the Asiatic. Nor is there anything in its decora­tive character, repulsive to the association of Liberty.” There alongside lies the string of three recursive Ks, emblem of white supremacist terror, touchstone of the Lost Cause, the scion of slavery, segregation and severalty. And everywhere the emblems of American commerce, Budweiser, Pepsi and so on—fruits of immigrant invention dis­tilled and purified into symbols of national purity and endeavor.

The question, the problem in fact, is how to draw a line that encompasses both ourselves and these histories, and yet seeks to claim them in the morbid light that they cast on us all in this place, as inheritors of a dream whose radiance is buttressed by so much blood that the telling of it sickens, withers flesh, prompts an instinctual aversion of the eyes? What is it to want this, if this is America? What is it to want an America that cannot own its genesis, if not the wilful obliviousness of Random Harvest, the sort that obliterates all recol­lections of the trauma of bloodshed in order to find freedom and love in the hollowed vacuum of amnesia? What sort of freedom would ask of us to forget acts and events such as these, and the sure and certain knowl­edge that their calculus continues, both at home and abroad? Or, is forgetting in fact the necessary measure of American freedom?

I think that Fox Solomon’s work begins in a refus­al of such forgetting. It continues in a deeper commit­ment not to diminish the moral complexity of being free in a present sustained by the pitiless logic of such histories. I think of the double picture spread, spanning Tennessee, 1977 and New Orleans, Louisiana, 1990 as a set of notes that develop resonances devolving around the contested play of freedoms. At left, an elderly white woman seated in decorous leisure, the sweeping coif of her waved hair mirrored in the bowed metal curves of her sidetable, the decadent curvatures of all forms— from armchair to filigree curtain, from pearl necklace to sidetable—bespeaking an overall ease, which is in turn reflected in the sheen of two sensuously interlaced fig­ures in the classical bas-relief on the opposing page.

Beneath that bas-relief in New Orleans sits a chaise lounge one could easily imagine in the grandeur of that Tennessee room, but at right we see a young black boy dutifully tapping out solitary notes on a piano as his grandfather props up a double bass and stands at patient attention. It is as though this evolving line of black musicians at right have been stepping it up lively in the parlor for decades, as though they will play songs at this woman’s behest, and for her pleasure, in an endless generational cycle of repeating bars: free, so long as they continue to entertain.

I think about sensuousness, about the liquidity of those youthful sculpted figures, and about their elevation into high relief as I page on through the book. I think of miscegenation and of melting: the dissolution of racial markers, their sublation into the viscous depths of fervent affections. Such mixing is at once benign and generous in the elderly couple grinning warmly in Miami Beach. It is tender and attentive in the two nude male lovers, one black, one white, lain atop a bed, their interwoven torsos describing the curved entan­glements of Makonde carvings. But it sounds a note of terror elsewhere in the book, resurfacing the traumas of racial hegemony borne out in the assertion of property and possession in relations between black women and white men. I struggle to shoulder the weight of her look in Miami Beach, Florida, 1994.

I think of the terrible wordless stare of the name­less black woman sorting peanuts by the handful alongside Billy, who grins with the lackadaisical com­placency of middle management in Plains, Georgia, 1976. I think of the black maid ‘taking refuge in absence’ against the hard flare of white light, or against the unrelenting stare of little dolly in the electrifying Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1976, the portrait a paroxysm of “queer domesticity.”7, 8. I think about the oral fixation of the suited white businessman who sucks, or perhaps chews on a long thin white straw, as his eyes drink in the tasseled gyrations of bare black nipples in the dark, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1977. I think of that nude black woman’s joyless bright white teeth bared in the semblance of a smile. Whose milk does the freckled white boy drink from the black bottle in the portrait that follows? What sticky resin coats the slim white baton he grasps tightly with his other free hand? What of the black-faced doll cradled lovingly in the arms of the white man that follows the freckled child in the book’s sequence, the blackness of its painted face fading and peeling under the harsh glare of sunlight?

It seems that the gentle ministrations of interra­cial love cannot be unbound from the idolatrous and transgressive threat of black sensuality, or from white terror of miscegenation, which always veils a fear of powerlessness and illicit desire. Along the fractious surface of this line of picturing and of relation, the play of freedoms within and between these images turns on a question of property: who is owned, who is fit to own, who is free, to what degree, and can that freedom—always implicitly or explicitly white—be separated from the right to reassert a degenerating hierarchy of difference, from white to yellow to red, from brown to irremediable black?

In the United States of America of the present day, forty-two years distant from the pardoning of Clarence Norris by the virulently racist Governor George Wallace,9 we are witness to a changed form of Grand Old Pageantry in service to the newly ascendant myth of the Lost Cause. Just this summer, the President pardoned white nationalist Cliven Bundy, so the rank injustices of the Scottsboro Boys case find their contemporary echoes in the ongoing essentialization of black guilt and white innocence, as they do in this President’s calls for the ritual executions of the Central Park Five.

The white bonnets, the Beauregards, the delicate corn-blonde curls, the virginal white dolls, the Confed­erate figurines, the Klan robes, the whole sordid puppet show of purity and puritanical virtue, of nobility and bloodless tradition have swelled back to the putrescent surface of the national scene. Fox Solomon’s photo-graphs retrace the lines of a history that vehemently refuses its relegation to the past—a halcyon, selectively amnesiac history that presently serves as the dark space of white fantasy brought to vibrant and vicious life like a relentless golem, swelled by the musculature of federal power, animated by the unreasoning and irrepressible forces of white rage.10 These ghosts move among us as the freshly minted coin of the realm.

And yet from that same ore, from that soil, from the very instruments of enslavement in an alchemy of pure collective will came Jazz, and an imagining of a freedom unalloyed by the violence of race and caste. Liberty Theater, once the name of a non-whites only cinema owned by Fox Solomon’s family in Chatta­nooga, in this sense represents a willful insistence on dreaming otherwise in the dark, in the margins, in hope, in retrospective anticipation of a future still yet to come. That too echoes in this book. I see its arc across these pages in the uneven trajectory from Klan buckle to saxophone, the metals of slavery bent collec­tively into the transgressive musics of freedom: a dis­solution of ‘purity’ into the amalgamated irreverence of improvisation.

There is more here too. This book itself is an index of Fox Solomon’s itinerant movement across rigid lines of race and class; it both reflects and contravenes the structuring forces of those entrenched segregations by making of this southern terrain, and of the irregular stations of its inhabitants, a vivid and cacophonous melting pot. Her pictures move with effervescent grace from rebel musket to trophy wife, from linoleum square to yard sale, from clown to church to carnival, tracing a circuitous route through seven Stand Your Ground states over a period of twenty-five years. The fractious unions they suspend in the lineaments of this sequence are charged with the same volatility that marks this moment—the one of my writing, and of our national tribulation—with a mix of dread fear and incipient possibility. These are pictures, memories, histories of encounter that we can ill afford to forget. If the photo­graphs unsettle us now, it would be well for us to question the virtues of comfort in times like these.

July 2018

 

Notes
1 Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Chicago Picasso,” August 15th 1967, in Gwendolyn Brooks, In the Mecca [New York: Harper & Rown, 1968], 40
2 Random Harvest. Director: Mervyn LeRoy, Screenplay: Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, Claudine West. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942
3 Ibid
4 Saidiya Hartman, “Introduction,” in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America [Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1997], 3
5 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass [Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009], 19
6 The Omaha World-Herald, Omaha Daily News, Omaha Bee, and the Omaha Monitor editions of September 26, 27, 28, and 29, are the main sources for descriptions and events of the 1919 riot. See: Orville D. Menard, “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot,” Nebraska History No. 91 (2010)
7 Édouard Glissant, “The Black Beach,” in Poetics of Relation [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997], 123
8 Saidiya Hartman, “The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 18 No. 1: Black Women’s Labor: Economics, Culture, and Politics (Jan–Mar 2016), 169
9 Governor George Wallace will be notorious to those who recall the infamous line from his Inaugural Address following his election as Governor of Alabama, on January 14th 1963, at the State Capitol: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
10 See: Carol Armstrong, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide [New York: Bloomsbury, 2017]

 


Text 'The Plays of Freedom' by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa from 'Liberty Theater' by Rosalind Fox Solomon, published September 2018.