Blogs > Karlos K. Hill > Is It Appropriate for a White Woman to Paint a Portrait of a Black Lynch Victim?

Mar 25, 2017

Is It Appropriate for a White Woman to Paint a Portrait of a Black Lynch Victim?

tags: lynching,Emmett Till,Whitney Biennial,Open Casket

Parker Bright's Protest

Dr. Karlos K. Hill, Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is the author of the book Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and The Murder of Emmett Till: A Graphic History (Oxford University Press, under contract).

Is it appropriate for a white woman to paint a portrait of a black lynch victim? 

This controversial question is swirling around the 2017 Whitney Biennial art exhibition due to protests of white female artist Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” painting. Schulz’s painting portrays the disfigured face of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black boy, who was lynched by two white Mississippians in 1955. 

Schultz’s inspiration came from historic photographs of Emmett Till’s open casket funeral which brought national and international attention to Till’s murder.  Parker Bright, a black artist, has blocked the view of the painting as well as engaged patrons in conversations about it. In a Facebook Live post, Bright can be heard saying to onlookers, “I think this piece is an injustice to the black community. It does not do anything for the black experience and it is a mockery for the Whitney to display because it does not do any justice. She [Dana Schutz] does not have the privilege to speak for black people as a whole and the Emmett Till family. It is an injustice to the art community and the black community. No one should be making money off a black dead body.” 

Others have piled on. A New Republic article condemned Dana Schutz and the Whitney for being tone deaf. “For a white woman to paint Emmett Till’s mutilated face communicates not only a tone-deafness toward the history of his murder, but an ignorance of the history of white women’s speech in that murder—the way it cancelled out Till’s own expression, with lethal effect.”

As a historian of lynching, I understand that white people have appropriated lynched black bodies for their amusement and profit. During the lynching era, white photographers sold photos of white mobs gathered around black lynch victims. White people purchased those images and mailed them as postcards to friends and family to mark the event. 

When the exploitation of lynched black bodies occur, I have a duty to confront and condemn. “Open Casket” is not one of those occasions.

Quite frankly, the protests and blanket condemnations are offensive. 

I understand questioning an artist’s motives and intentions. I understand questioning an artist’s creative choices. I even understand questioning an artist’s relationship to a culture they do not belong to and are attempting to represent. 

However, to assert that a white female artist cannot paint Emmett Till because she is white is hypocritical and flies in the face of the history of artistic anti-lynching protest.

In 1935, the NAACP co-organized “An Art Commentary on Lynching” at a gallery in New York City. The exhibition featured white female artist Peggy Bacon's drawing of racist Southern judges and their penchant for imprisoning black men on baseless charges of white female rape. (Bacon incidentally contributed art to the New Republic in the 1930s.) The NAACP hoped that Bacon’s work along with the other artists featured, would build awareness and political support for federal anti-lynching legislation.

“An Art Commentary on Lynching” exhibition and “Open Casket” represent the tradition of interracial anti-lynching protest that is seemingly lost on protesters.

Furthermore, Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, would have been opposed to the recent protestations. In 1955, it was Mamie’s courageous decision to have an open casket funeral. She allowed the media to photograph Emmett Till’s disfigured face “so that the world could see what they did to my boy.” That mission did not fade with the passing of Mamie Till-Mobley in 2003 and certainly she did not envision the mission as one in which only black people should undertake.

If white artists or white people more generally cannot take a stand against the lynching of Emmett Till, then where does that leave us? How does racial healing occur?

Emmett Till’s legacy is sacred to black America. We know that he died a brutal death at the hands of white men who went free even after admitting that they had committed the crime. Black America has not gotten over that injustice and likely never will. But creating a false protest in the name of Emmett Till is wrong.

Emmett Till belongs to all of us who stand against racial bigotry and intolerance. Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” is a part of an artistic tradition of anti-lynching protest that highlights American society’s urgent need to confront the history of lynching. We should be applauding her work rather than condemning it.

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