Segregation & Progress

LaKisha Michelle Simmons writes in “Geographies of Pain, Geographies of Pleasure” that “segregation was tied to progress, not simply to tradition” (Walking Raddy 32). When the Supreme Court legalized segregation in the South through Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, segregation was institutionalized, through the guise of progress and the phrase “separate but equal,” as its definition suggests, to separate, to demarcate the black person. These words show just but one instance in which language has been euphemized or manipulated to justify, and veil, injustice. The newly developed urban space was an open space only to certain people. New public restrooms only served “the white people of New Orleans” (32). In 1902, progress in New Orleans and its modernization project was created in part by black people, the exploitation of their labor, but this “progress” and wealth was of and for only certain white people.

The segregated geography of Jim Crow New Orleans was an even more hostile place for black women because of “racial-sexual domination,” (32) perhaps related to what Bernice Johnson Reagon alluded to in “Nobody Knows the Trouble”: “the three and fourness of things as an African-American woman, mother, scholar, and artist,” revising DuBois’ double consciousness. Having to navigate a geography with the constant threat of physical danger, verbal abuse, and the gaze, black women were made conscious of “becoming [bodies] in social space,” looking at and measuring themselves through the eyes of both white men and women, and the “violence of segregation” (33). The case of forty-two year old Beulah Jones in 1945 shows how something as seemingly simple, that we may take for granted, or quotidian (to recall our contemplation of the word one class), as walking could offend white men on the streets. Black women were denied agency and accessibility to public spaces that were entitled to others. Jones—arrested for causing a “disturbance” on the bus a couple years earlier—had to be conscious when walking on the street, when boarding a bus, conscious of how her body took up space in either space, made aware of the politics of each space. And when she was assaulted this time for getting in front of a white man, as with all of these assaults, police rarely protected black women’s bodies, which were made vulnerable. In this sense, segregation repressed and controlled black movement, and in another sense of the word, repressed their mobility, repressed them to “second-class citizenship” and a place of “inferiority.”

In a sentiment reminiscent of, and perhaps rooted in, the historical three-fifths compromise, which counted every three out of five enslaved people as a “human being” to determine a state’s total population, which would determine the number of seats that the state would have in the House of Representatives for the next ten years, black women’s bodies were not seen as fully human and deserving of respect, autonomy, and expression (35). Years later, poet and activist Audre Lorde would say, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Black women, specifically the Baby Dolls, took fantasies and redefined themselves and the Jim Crow space they occupied by moving and dancing in that same space, veiling and unveiling themselves on their own terms.

Rosa Sparks
Rosa Sparks, 1955

Ten years after Jones, Rosa Parks, too, would be arrested for refusing to get up after a long day of work from her seat in the designated “colored section”—redefined by the driver with a new white passenger as the “white section”—a space and scene Steve Prince reimagines in his work Rosa Sparks. The piece is a relief, a sculptural technique in which the certain elements are made to seem “raised above the background plane,” echoing the Latin verb revelo, to raise. Romans used relief sculptures in sarcophagi, and although it may be a stretch to relate the tradition to the deaths alluded to in this piece to the Renaissance artists interested in faithfully reproducing what is seen, and thus true, Prince’s work seems to question both what is seen and what is true. Prince revises the tradition of the relief, oft used in sculpture or painting, through this linoleum print and in his integration of both historical and contemporary figures—in the back of the bus are Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner—gesturing us to question space as a subjective visual experience: spaces of constructed structural inequality, exclusion, and violence.

Reliefs rely on a certain completeness and incompleteness, and in his piece, the intricate texturing and detailing—another hallmark of Prince’s work, which relates to relief carving in its intense, time-consuming chiseling away of the background—of the bodies in the foreground contrast with the more abstract, planar bodies in the background. In his recent lecture, “Kitchen Talk,” Prince talked about posture, nonverbal signals and communications we may project to the world and that we ourselves may read on someone else. Posture relates, too, in how Burns and Parks were made aware of how to hold, or construct, their bodies in a bus. In this relief, Parks’ limbs are relaxed but closed, a certain fortitude in their maintained, unrecoiling position. Although sitting forward just like the women next to her, Parks’s seat is perpendicular to theirs, complicating the plane and creating a harsh interruption in the direction of the piece. Parks’ presence also interrupts the space in the glaring halo around her head, reminiscent of a low relief imperial coin, or any U.S. coin. Although that comparison may seem jarring in its representation of capitalism, when we think about the people who are represented and whose memory is reinforced on our coins and the whose bodies that wealth and “progress” capitalized and exploited, it may be an image worth considering. But the halo, juxtaposing the police officer’s hat, echoes the Armor of God represented in Parks’ breasts and in what subvert a police officer’s badge. The “I AM” sign held by a black figure protesting outside the bus, referring to God’s message to Moses—“I am who I am”: I am alive, I am a force to be reckoned with, whose humanity must be reckoned, I do not need to explain my existence or the expression of my person—underscores Parks’ position.

I am forgetting whether this point was made during a small-group discussion, I apologize, but Parks’ flats look a bit like hooves, and the oft-seen spiked or metaled shoes on the horsemen is shown on a person who draws our attention downward, his hands, the size of his face, weighing down the handle rail. The bus is a liminal space, in between one’s origin and destination, and in this piece it is a space in which historical and contemporary moments can coexist. If the figures in any way represent the horsemen we have seen in Prince’s other works, perhaps they are pallbearers of themselves or other bodies in the moving bus, the movement from the first line to the Second Line, and the afterlife. There may be passivity in being moved by another thing, but a bus is still a symbol of mobility, although often attached with racial and class bias. Hands, integral to nurturing and instructing children, to quote Prince, hold the baby close to the mother’s lips, hold down the book, integral to keeping stories alive, in her lap on the bus that moves forward.

 

 

 

 

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