Why Did a Scramble to Expand Black Representation Have to be Preceded by Tragedy?

The May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by police marked a rupture in the collective US American psyche. Thousands of people around the world protested, looking for catharsis in the midst of a global pandemic that is disproportionately killing black and brown people. During the demonstrations, individuals held signs saying, “I can’t breathe,” carried depictions of Floyd’s likeness, and set fire to institutions they felt had wronged them for too long.  

At the time, I was quarantining in my Manhattan apartment, so I couldn’t take to the streets. Instead, I endlessly scrolled past minuscule black squares on Instagram, lists of books singing praises of black authors who we all “need” to know, and video clips of Floyd’s final moments. Critics lauded once overlooked Black artists for their portrayals of Floyd and other victims of police brutality, like Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And lily-white publications compiled directories of black-owned galleries and museums and began suddenly reaching out to Black journalists for freelance assignments.

As a Black writer and artist, I wasn’t exempt from this. I saw the offers trickle in; editors wanted Black writing and galleries wanted art. While I was happy to receive these jobs and to share my work with the world, I wondered why the demand had to be preceded by such an appalling event.

I felt the frenzied energy emanating from my computer screen, an energy that was electrified by the balmy humidity that ushers in every New York summer. When I watched images of burning police stations, I thought that these demonstrations would alter the conversation about race in America in a way that similar tragedies hadn’t.

But my hypothesis was wrong: That kinetic energy lost its verve in the same way that the summer did — turning cold, and the black squares got lost in our bottomless feeds.

In times of racial upheaval, we tend to say names, share posts, and ask Black artists to contribute something — anything — to the discussion. But when the news cycle shifts, the demand for Black art seems to wane: When was the last time you saw troves of anti-racism lists?

In her essay Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance scholar bell hooks writes that:

Work by black artists that is overtly political and radical is rarely linked to an oppositional political culture. When commodified it is easy for consumers to ignore political messages. And even though a product like rap articulates narratives of coming to critical political consciousness, it also exploits stereotypes and essentialist notions of blackness.

This observation rang especially true in the months following Floyd’s murder, when institutions scrambled to add Black artists to their rosters. Though such representation is long overdue, the feverish search for us seems strained, like it is more about saving face or fetishizing Black pain than fostering systemic change. And, as hooks mentions, such art is inevitably commodified, which is evidenced by phenomena like prominent collectors flipping Amoako Boafo’s paintings while the artist only received a fraction of his work’s proceeds. Such occurrences are especially pernicious in a world where a white painter was allowed to display her portrait of a lynched Black teenager at a major biennial, but countless Black artists are still excluded from art institutions across the globe.

Black artists should be treasured, regardless of the whims of the art market or society at large. As Black creators, we should form our own communities where we support one another’s art, but mainstream art institutions and publications should also embrace Black creators because we deserve reparations from places that have excluded us for too long. Establishments that exploit Black ingenuity without fair compensation are oiling the gears of systemic racism, which is especially harmful because Black households often have fewer assets than white ones. We were here; we are here; we will be here.

As we move closer to the anniversary of Floyd’s death, it’s clear that white supremacy still exists and may come to a head again soon. Why does it take a drastic event for people outside the BIPOC community to support Black artists in meaningful and sustained ways?

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