On June 5, 1951, Lillian E. Smith delivered the commencement address at Kentucky State College. Entitled “Ten Years from Today,” Smith’s speech contained hope and optimism for the future, stating that by 1961, Jim Crow will have faded away. This, of course, did not occur; however, she provided the audience with tools to help to dismantle white supremacy and segregation. One of the tools that Smith points to is art, in its myriad forms (visual, musical, literary, etc.). Today, I want to spend some time looking at Smith’s comments on art as a tool to enact social change to combat white supremacy.
Individuals latch on to images and representations of both themselves and others. If individuals feed on myths that claim they are superior to others or that the old way of life, in this case the Old South, was glorious and idyllic, then then their perceptions of themselves will become skewed in that manner. This is what occurred with the “moonlight and magnolia” myth of the Old South and with the demonic rhetoric of white supremacy that came across not just from the political stump but also from the big screen, the printed page, the radio, and more.
Smith begins to discuss art by mentioning that the South has been through Reconstruction and it does not want to do it again. In order to stave off another bloody reconstruction, individuals must change, and in order to do this, Smith says, “we must give our people new beliefs, new images of themselves to substitute for the old ‘superior white’ and the old ‘hurt, frustrated Negro,’ new outlets for their frustrations, new and creative outlets.” Art exists as a space where the dismantling of old images occurs and where the formation of new images takes place.
Here, I think about comics. Recently, I was rereading Dwayne McDuffie and M.D. Bright’s Icon (1993), one of the launch series for Milestone Media. Milestone’s comics worked to counter negative representation in comics on multiple fronts, and they succeeded, as the letters page for each series points out. One letter at the end of issue #3 stuck out to me as I was rereading. Kate Murray writes,
Is it all right for a middle-class white chick to love this comic? Raquel Ervin is a great character–a dream for the all the fifteen year old girls “with nothing to write about” who are nonetheless coming out in words like some people come out in hives. (I used to be one of those.)
I buy at least a half-dozen comic titles every week. My husband always asks which one is “this week’s winner.” This week it’s ICON, hands down. If the standard of writing stays where it is, and the artwork keeps its combination of realism and dramatic images, I’m going to be saying that a lot in the future. Go for it.
The editors replied by telling Kate, “Of course a ‘middle-class white chick’ can love ICON. In fact, I’d suggest you’re SUPPOSED to love it. We can’t celebrate diversity very well without you.”
This exchange highlights the impact that art has on individuals. It creates within us images of the world around us, and these images can either be positive or detrimental. Icon, the story of a pregnant fifteen-year old Black teenager Raquel Ervin who becomes a superhero alongside Icon, Augustus Freeman, challenges the previous narratives, creating, as Smith said in 1951, “new beliefs, new images.” Kate sees this and embraces it; however, others did not readily embrace the changes that Milestone put forth.
In issue #6, Stacie Hamilton wrote in to “Iconoclasts” expressing her displeasure at the series. She complained, “The longer I read the more offended I became. Icon is not a hero who happens to be black. He’s not even a black man who happens to be a hero. Icon is a hero only for black people.” While Stacie does not specify her race from the outset as Kate does, she tells us halfway through the first paragraph that she is white. Within Stacie’s initial comments, it is unclear what she wants from Icon. I would argue that what she seeks is something that reaffirms the myths and beliefs that she has imbibed about African Americans, myths and beliefs that position her as superior.
She continues by claiming she doesn’t see color because she has never “judged anyone, not one single person, on the basis of their skin color, or religion, or sex, and I’m sick and tired of people telling me that I’m insensitive, bigoted, oppressive and generally a lousy human being because I’m white.” When confronted with a narrative that goes against her own preconceived images, Stacie retaliates, falling back on the age-old accusation of reverse racism. With this, she refuses to engage with the art and the deconstructions that McDuffie and Bright enact.
Stacie’s response reminds me of an anonymous letter writer who wrote to Smith after the publication of Strange Fruit in 1944. The person wrote, “You are far from a lily–you are a thorn . . . How could you do such an awful, sinful thing? I did not read it–they told me to read this and that and thais and that–I was really sick afterward.” The individual condemned Smith’s book about segregation and racism, without reading it, based on what others said. In order for art to be effective in enacting change, one must engage with it. If one does not engage with it but bases his or her opinions on what others say, then the myths win. If one engages with it and still comes away as Stacie does, then at least a conversation begins. Now, it comes down to the audience about what they want to take away from the piece.
For Stacie, she did made up her mind early on, refusing to accept the mirror that she stared into. Art can only go so far. It is up to the recipient to make the next step, the step that requires the person to struggle with the change, to interact with the change, to embrace the change. As Smith puts it, “Dreaming, talking, acting: this is the way that free men bring change about, whether it is change within themselves or within their culture or laws.” One must embrace the change in art in like Icon and Strange Fruit to enact the change in the world around them.
In the next post, I will continue looking at Smith’s comments on art from “Ten Years from Today” and elsewhere. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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