Who Will Sing a Black Girl’s Song?: A Case for Black Feminist and Womanist Exhibit Engagement

“‘Beyond Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire,’ then, should inspire audiences to think critically about these and the many other dangerous assumptions about Black women in ways that are far more complex than discourses outside of Black feminism and womanism typically allow. A large part of that work entails listening intently to the ways Black women, including the artists featured here, think about and discuss ourselves on our own terms, which is critical, because as the late Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde reminds us on behalf of all Black women, ‘If I did not define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.’ It is important, then, for us to spend some time here—and hopefully more time as we continue to engage the exhibit—hearing some of these Black women artists speak for themselves. Along these lines, Kara Walker tells us, ‘Challenging and highlighting abusive power dynamics in our culture is my goal; replicating them is not.’ Wangechi Mutu notes, ‘A lot of my work reflects the incredible influence that America has had on contemporary African culture. Some of it’s insidious, some of it’s innocuous, some of it’s invisible.’ And Alison Saar claims, ‘The balance of the work has been political, but coming from very much my own personal experience and personal point of view as a woman, as a mother, as an African American.’ Hence, to fully appreciate Walker, one must be intensely aware of the ‘abusive power dynamics in our culture’ that she is working to resist. In order to appreciate Mutu, one must be aware of and pay careful attention to the ‘incredible influence’ America has had on African culture. To better understand the significance of Saar, one must acknowledge the historical and contemporary social, cultural, and political contexts that inform her experiences as woman, mother, and African American. And of course, these abusive power dynamics, influences, and contexts undoubtedly include the Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, StrongBlackWoman, Welfare Queen, Hoochie, Bitch, Ho, Side Chick, Chickenhead, and other disparaging caricatures of Black women no matter how complimentary they may seem or how the names vary depending on geographical location, time period, and other determinants.
—Dr. Heidi R. Lewis in “Who Will Sing a Black Girl’s Song?: A Case for Black Feminist and Womanist Exhibit Engagement” from Beyond Mammy, Jezebel, & Sapphire: Reclaiming Images of Black Women (Jordan D. Schnitzer Family Foundation)