After waiting about 20 minutes in line, we were in. I assumed the Domino Sugar Factory would smell like sweat and underpaid labor, so I was ready to whip out a SARS mask. Alas, it was the sweetest saccharine smell. It felt like a good hug from your favorite Sunday school teacher.
We were here to see Kara Walker's public installation, "A Subtlety." As we entered, we were instantly greeted by a series of sugar boys, some made from resin, then covered in molasses, and others that were complete taffy sculptures. And then I got a quick glimpse of the reason we were all here: the enormous, sugar-coated sphinx at the center of the show. I directed my attention back to another sugar boy. And then everything hit me.
I was sent this meme a few days ago and laughed hysterically.
In this moment, however, I lost sight of all the humor. I stood in front of a sugar boy carrying a huge basket oozing what began to look more like blood than molasses. I looked to my right and a white kid was licking one of the boys while his parents stood there unfazed. I walked over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself.
I obviously didn't expect to start crying, but it happened and I let those tears run free. I was snapped out of my sob by a white guy yelling, "This is boring!" Tears for my ancestors turned into hot, angry tears. It took everything in me to not walk over and clobber him to death.
I pulled myself together and walked directly in front of the mammy-faced sphinx and could not stop staring. It was the heaviest, literally and figuratively, piece of artwork I'd ever seen. It suggested the damage done to the West Indies, that have yet to recover, over the precious sweetener. This white-colored woman with African features was speaking directly to the refinement process—turning naturally brown sugar white—and how it related to black folk and our own refinement process. The exposed vulva conjured up emotions about the hypersexualization of black women throughout America's early years; about the environmental rape of Mother Africa and the West Indies.
And in the midst of all of these feelings, I heard people yell "Sugar tits!" "Hey, did you get a picture of the lips? Those sweet lips!" and "That's a big ass!" Then came the photo ops, which ranged from the Munch/Home Alone "Scream" face to sexually inappropriate. My head was spinning.
I knew going into this that the black people in attendance would be in a completely different headspace than the non-blacks. This show was telling an American story, but using our face. A story that, save for a few generations, would have us cast as main characters. But I hadn't expected this. After storming out of the factory filled with I-just-saw-Roots-for-the-first-time black rage, I checked Instagram to survey the scene under the #karawalkerdomino tag. This was what I found.
Like a fool, I expected all adults involved to act like, I dunno, adults?
After a (well-meaning) white guy interrupted a libation ceremony at the Brooklyn Library's Henrietta Lacks celebration two weeks ago, I'd gotten the sense that deep reverence may not be white people's spiritual gift. But where's the respect? How do you not realize that you are currently standing on sacred ground and staring the sickness of our country dead in the face?
I'm sure scholarly black folk would label this "white privilege," but I'm not one to give big, fancy names and deep meanings to something that can simply be interpreted as "bad behavior," "no home training," or what the kids call having "no chill."
Colorlines recently posted an article titled, "The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art," which detailed the huge gap between black and white art patrons. The lack of chill from that subsection of white people on Saturday shot my mind back to this article. I wanted to know what white people think when they engage with work from black artists, many of whose work ties directly to their blackness.
And with so many white people in the Domino Sugar Factory checking out "A Subtlety," I couldn't help but wonder. Where did their interest lie? How were they explaining these sculptures to their children? (If you haven't gone yet, expect tons of babies running amok.) Hell, how were they explaining it to themselves? Is stopping by Domino just the current "it" thing to do in NYC? Were they leaving with a better understanding of the existence of black people in this country?
After Saturday's experience, I am feeling super overprotective of black artists. I want to put my performance artist hat on and shroud every piece of black work in the world with a drape and a sign, reading "For mature and reverent eyes only. Disrespect will not be tolerated." As a people, we are discounted, ignored, and mistreated on a daily basis by this country. Can we at least protect that which holds our stories and our legacy or are we left powerless like our forefathers when massa was yelling for our mama's sweet lips and sugar tits? Oh.
I'm heading back to Domino this Friday as soon as it opens to hopefully have some time alone with "A Subtlety." I want to be able to love on her without any distraction. By July 8th, she will be apart of our memory's museum, but we are left with the knowledge that the women she represents loved us. They prayed for us more than they prayed for themselves. They endured subjugation and hard labor knowing that it would birth opportunity for us. We are the fruits of an unshaken tree that have no other option besides excellence. As I've said before, only white people can change white people. I hope that some of the offenders have an awakening on their own or via another viewer, but it's not my job to do it for them. What I (and everyone else that had a crappy experience at the show) must remember is that neither a tasteless Instagram post nor a sex-laden comment yelled in that factory will take away the richness of our history or the validity of our existence and how sweet that is!
Stephanye Watts, a proud graduate of Clark Atlanta University, works in fashion but writing is her first love. Her quest to discover everything cool and cheap below 14th Street and in Brooklyn is chronicled on her site, iso14below.com, where a version of this essay originally appeared.
[Image via AP]