I am no stranger to panel discussions on race. Generally, the talks can center around race relations, cultural aspects, and history of the US. I even attended a lecture in college presented by Jabari Asim on his research in regards to using the N-word. I love lectures and panels, and I find discussions on culture and history fascinating. Over the weekend, I had a bookish afternoon and attended the panel discussion “What Does Blackness Mean?” at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.
The panel consisted of Sarah E. Lewis, a Harvard professor of Art History; John Harvel, the author of The Story of Black; and Katrin Trautwein, the founder of a paint company called kt.COLOR. I was unfamiliar with their background and appreciative that each guest had a chance to introduce their work, not just their names. Katrin Trautwein’s company had recently created 12 shades of black paint by mixing various color densities and materials. John Harvel gave us a condensed version of his book, a historical look at how people interacted with the color black in their everyday lives, from ideological beginnings to dyes in fashion. Sarah Lewis has been working on an art collection book mixed with narratives and art by some of the top creators, and her book comes out in a few months.
This was a very different panel discussion than I had ever attended. Looking back, it all makes perfect sense, but at the moment, I was completely confused. For the first few minutes, I didn’t even think I was in the right place. The panel started with a discussion on the color black and its chemical components. Trautwein’s work has led her to understand that the color black was a chemical makeup of 50% or more black pigment. That was not what we have usually thought of as cultural blackness and the one drop rule. Then Harvel’s book gave us even more thoughts on blackness from a color wheel perspective (for example, the Catholic Church started to equate blackness to sin and would wear black clothes), leaving me questioning what I had signed up for. It wasn’t until Lewis began speaking that the color black combined with the idea of black people/cultural blackness started to make any sense.
She started presenting slides of famous art.
It was like looking at a picture taken in a dark room of a black person standing next to a lighter colored person- you had to HUNT for the black person in the background. This is when people started to get a sense of blackness- space devoid of light and depth. Then she presented slides of “scientific” propaganda showing the correlation between black bodies and chimpanzees, vs. white bodies modeled after greek sculptures (you know, as opposed to Greek sculptured modeled after men).
Depictions of black people and black culture, created by the hands of whites, have depicted shame and worthless as far back as they could create art with black making materials. Sarah Lewis poined out that black color, black people, and blackness where so intertwined, individuals of history would not have been able to separate the art and imagery from the people and persecution.
In my search for individual blackness and what it all meant, I had overlooked Art History. This could be a misstep in my liberal education- remember, I have a Humanities degree with relies heavily on Art History. It could also be a continuation of the erasure of blackness from mainstream cultures, such as in music and literature. Regardless of the reasons, attending this panel showed me that I was attempting to build a narrative without all the information. People wonder why I care so much about history and historical context- this is why. Mindsets change over time. People change with history. Even the meaning of symbols change; but if you’re accepting just any meaning for modern mindsets, you could be missing something. You could be missing the entire picture.
Like I was.
The panel did not change my thoughts on what blackness is. It didn’t clarify them either- which means I still have some reading and research to do. What it did do was expand my search for blackness and black culture in mediums that I am not familiar with, and reinforce the idea that historical context is the right path for me to keep searching.
The best part about this event is that is is a part of the “Open Art” series presented by Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo is an open forum and believes everyone is entitled to great educational content. The panel I experienced is available to watch, in its entirety. You can read, see, and hear so much more on Zocalo’s site.