01 Lug FREEDOM FROM RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
On this International Week of Solidarity with the Peoples Struggling Against Racism and Racial Discrimination, we reflect on the human right to be free from racial discrimination, whose difficult achievement is a still current subject.
The notion of race developed through history on a false assumption that categorized the world, differentiating between “enlightened” and “civilized” world regions as opposed to “savage” and “barbarous” regions and peoples (see: 1835 William C. Woodgridge: Modern Atlas) in which the “white race” was seen as the enlightened one. Eventually, race started to be used to describe and categorize people into various social groups based on characteristics like skin color, physical features, genetic heredity.
Race became a real social construction that gives or denies benefits and privileges.
In the US, the notion of superiority and inferiority of race managed to survive during slavery despite + altogether with the strengthening of universal values of liberty as well as the affirmation of unalienable human rights, thanks to a well-constructed practice and theory of dehumanization of people of African descent. A dehumanising process of slaves enabled the possibility for all men to claim unalienable rights while simultaneously accepting that (“non”) humans could be owned as property.
In South Africa the notion of race served as a basis to segregate people using laws that effectively precluded those of the “non-white race group” the possibility to access public life, own land or do a particular job, among other things (Apartheid).
The legacy of structural and legal racism is still very present in our societies, as subtle as it may sometimes be. It can take various shapes (police brutality, discriminating laws, identity politics) and have different targets (migrants+refugees, Roma/Sinti people, Asians, Black people…)
But the discourse against racism is now global, anti-racist movements grow more powerul everyday and the solidarity with victims of discrimination is shown regardless of physical or cultural distances, as the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrated.
James Baldwin – or the “disturber of the peace” as he used to self-describe himself – was born and raised in Harlem in 1924 by his mother, with eight brothers and sisters, and his stepfather, an evangelical preacher. His legacy, both as a witness of racial and sexual discrimination and as a writer devoted to unveil the truth of deep-rooted racism within the American society, persists until now. He was an acclaimed writer, a novelist and an activist but above all an artist committed to tell loudly “what it is like to be alive”. His best-sellers such as “Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son” and “The Fire Next Time” exposed the urgent issue of racial injustice and the black oppression in the United States. Baldwin’s reflections on his own personal experiences of racial discrimination combined with the strong will to speak to our common humanity, free from any race or other social-cultural constructs, made him an outspoken observer of his time.
At 24 years old, after being the target of several beatings by police and local youth due to his blackness and homosexuality, he left the United States and moved to Europe where he would spend most of his life. Baldwin considered himself as a “transatlantic commuter”, often travelling to the United States to spend time with his family and attend Civil Rights Movement and literary events. He became a close friend of civil rights figures such as Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who were all tragically assassinated during the 1960s political turmoil.
James Baldwin’s masterpieces and unfinished works have also inspired many artists and film directors. Among these are @officialspikelee and his “Malcolm X” based on Baldwin’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X”, Raoul Peck and his powerful documentary “I am Not Your Negro” inspired by the unfinished manuscript “Remember This House” or Barry Jenkins and his movie “If Beale Street Could Talk”, an adaptation of Baldwin’s novel.
Sources: @nmaahc; @poetryfoundation
The subject of race and its implications have been increasingly inspiring artists worldwide. Today we would like to bring forward the work of Mary Evans, a Nigerian-born British artist. Her work explores the relationship between contemporary Britain and its imperial past in Africa and reflects upon how a migrant background can shape cultural identities.
While race was not necessarily Evan’s prime interest in her artwork, at one point it became such a defining aspect of her life that she could not ignore it as an artist, as she explained in an interview to the @guardian: “Race became a focus of my practice when I was studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. I was the only black student in my year and the only student who kept getting asked to get my passport stamped at the aliens’ police station. Later, I lost my passport and I had to go to the British consulate to apply for a new one. But they kept asking: “How do we know you’re British?” – and I didn’t know how to prove it. At that point, something changed. I couldn’t go back to making paintings that were quite nice, quite colourful, interesting to a point, but ultimately weren’t about anything.”
Evans works in paper cut-outs to create installations and compositions of silhouetted figures that, as Monique Kerman acutely describes, “evoke racial and sexual stereotypes and thus powerfully communicate humanity’s historical tendency to categorize and prejudge”.
Evans’s series Please Do Not Bend – from which the image used here is taken – uses this technique and can be seen as a tribute to the resilience of Africans and their descendants who have migrated, voluntarily or by force, over the centuries.
Follow @maryevansartist to see more of her work.
Read Monique Kerman’s “Paper Weight: History’s Legacy in the Work of Mary Evans” and
“The aesthetics of Migration in an Age of Anxiety: Zineb Sedira, Allan deSouza, and Mary Evans”
Use of the image kindly granted by the artist.