Barkley Hendricks and the White Imagination

Last night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I went to see an exhibit by Barkley L. Hendricks. Known for his life-size paintings of ordinary African Americans, Hendricks’ work is shockingly realistic. I spent about 45 minutes walking through the exhibit. Most museum exhibits that I have seen have focused on the novel and the unfamiliar. But
surrounded by more than fifty of Hendricks’ huge paintings, I felt at home. These were faces that I knew. The detail to clothing, posture, and emotional expression was so remarkable that I expected each painting to come to life and begin talking to me as I gazed at it.

Later, there was a dialogue about African American men and body image that was inspired by Hendricks’ work. Did I mention that there were more than fifty paintings depicting a diverse array of black women and men from across the diaspora? Well, the sponsors of the dialogue chose to focus on one painting – Hendricks’ Brilliantly Endowed, a self-portrait of the artist
wearing nothing but a fedora, wristband, tube socks and sneakers.

Because I’d stepped outside of the exhibit hall for a drink of water and had gotten waylaid by a conversation with a friend, I missed the first part of the discussion. When I returned, I found a group of mostly white (and some Asian) faces sitting and standing in front of Hendricks’ exposed
penis. On an easel at the front of the group there was a flipchart with these words:

BLACK MALES TODAY

BLACK MALES IN HIS ART

flashy

basketball

crime

unemployed

hip hop

hypermasculine

power

drugs

style

homophobia

rap

danger

soul

un(der)educated

ghetto

really nice guys

confident

cool

defiant

in control

thoughtful

in your face

meditative

well-dressed

muscular

serene

comfortable

relaxed

challenging

attitude

angry

deep

successful

suave

sexy

As I stood looking at the chart, a few African American couples joined the crowd, including my friend and her companion. Each pair began murmuring among themselves. Finally, a young man leaned over and whispered, “Were you here when they put together that list?” None of us were.

And we were all wondering what question had led to that left side. Perhaps they had specifically asked for negative stereotypes about black men. That was my hope anyway, even though I suspected otherwise.

At one point my friends’ companion spoke to the group at large: “It’s disturbing to walk in here and to feel so good about being surrounded by paintings of people who look like men, and then to come over here and see how the artist’s work is being received. I suspect that it tells us less about the artist than it does about the audience.” A middle-aged white woman spoke up cheerily, trying to reassure: “I don’t think you were here when we did the exercise. The left side wasn’t actually in response to his work.” As if that made it better.

At the end of the dialogue, I asked one of the facilitators, a young Asian woman, about the question that had prompted the list. She responded brightly, “Oh, we didn’t have anything on the paper other than the two headings, Black Males Today and Black Males in His Art. We just
asked people to say what came to mind when they thought of black males today. It could have been from media, from perception, from anything. Then for the other side, we told them to say what comes to mind when they thought of black males in his art.”

Ironic. At a time when a black man has made history by becoming the first person of color to have a viable chance of becoming the presidential nominee for one of our major parties, it is the stereotyped representations of African American men that whites spontaneously report (and
yes, I’m ignoring the “really nice guys” given that it’s a pathetically absurd attempt to make up for what came before it). That this was supposedly the educated, progressive crowd made it even worse.

But perhaps the real tragedy is that there are some African Americans, including those in high-profile positions, who seek to capitalize off of and perpetuate this image. BET (aka Booties Every Time) comes to mind. Which image do you think a white cop is more likely to have in mind when he encounters a black man with a wallet in his hand? How about a white human resources manager when she receives an application from a black man? Based on the list above, it is certainly not Barack Obama’s “bright, clean, and articulate” self. Clearly, this is not just entertainment.

Directly across from Brilliantly Endowed was another image, Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins), a painting of one of Hendricks’ black female students from Connecticut College. Slumped on a sofa, hand up to her head, the sister has a look of resigned frustration that is reminiscent of Fanny
Lou Hamer’s, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I’d been drawn to the painting my first time through the gallery. After the group discussion, it became my clear favorite. Looks like that sister had just been around a group of white folks having a discussion just like this one.

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3 thoughts on “Barkley Hendricks and the White Imagination

  1. Anonymous says:

    My people remind me of trees . every winter the trees die and there appear to be no life in them. However if we live to see spring time they come to life again and all the trees look like they have afros. God has brought a special group of people to America and though we appear dead if the people live long enough they will witness a new life in a special people. As Steve Harvey say “God is not finished with us yet”

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  2. I really like this metaphor. As African Americans, we have been conditioned to focusing on the negative – the ways in which we fall short. We often forget that our survival as a race is truly a miracle and a testament of God’s grace.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m puzzled why, despite the overwhelmingly positive impact African American women and men have always had in our country, public opinion of black women and men, especially black men are depressingly negative even among us. I recently returned from a tour in Iraq (I describe the whole experience as a “monotonous emotional rollercoaster of mind numbing boredom interrupted by incidents of paralyzing sheer terror and carnage”) by the Grace of God I’m still alive after being blown up twice. Near death experiences are way overrated! I’m injured but thankful to be alive. My adventures with the U.S. ARMY will soon close in three more months (Retirement). One day I was reading the “Souls of Black Folks” by Dubois and my Commander happened to walk by and asked me “are you working on a book report? I responded “No Sir, I’m just reading”, he then asked “Oh, are your reading for a class?” It was at that point I felt insulted but simply stated again, “No Sir, I’m just reading”. He then walked away with a confused dumbstruck expression. He was surprised that black people actually read books for enjoyment. I suppose if I’d been listening to “Hip-Hop” he wouldn’t have noticed at all! Because of my relationship with Jesus Christ, I have strived to be an example of professionalism to my superiors and a mentor to subordinates. A few years ago I had conversation with a young Soldier who was a “card carrying” member of the KKK assigned to a Unit I was in. My fellow African American Soldiers were not pleased to observe our discussion which was about the Civil War and Combat Skills Training. The young man’s father and grandfather had also been members of the Klan and actually took part in Civil War Reenactments. (The three were filmed in the battle scenes of the Movie “Glory”, of course as members of the Confederate Army.) A friendship developed and to make a long story short this young man began asking me for my advice, would look for me in Unit Formations just to talk, and often he’d follow me around just to “hang out”. It’s surprised me, and yes the “Brothers” wanted to know “what’s up with the gray boy?” Before my eyes I saw a change in this young man‘s “world view”. The power of God’s Love can “work in us” in unexplainable ways. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” … I John 3:1I’m from the South (New Orleans); my self image is founded in the Grace of God. His hand has always moved in my life especially when I should have been judged instead of loved. I don’t believe racism will ever end in America or the rest of world, (maybe in my old age I‘ve become a “hopeful pessimists” {43yrs old}), because the skin problem, as you know is really a sin problem. “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?” … Proverbs 20:9. I’m married to an intelligent and beautiful black woman, and blessed with three wonderful daughters; a thirteen year old, eight years old, and two and a half years old who is a handful, just like me at her age (ha-ha). I tell them all “I love you”, I scrutinize everything that is said to them by others. I demand they respect and obey their Mother, treat everyone with dignity, and always stand on ethical high ground, regardless of argument. In God I trust, all others will explain who, what, and most importantly why?I don’t know what a “good black man” is; I just sort of know what a Man is supposed to be and maybe, (I hope) how to be a Father. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Gal 2:20 God Bless

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