He's Still Your President
- Oct 6, 2010
- Reaction score
- Not paying plastic bag taxes
A few weeks ago, I attended a holiday party at a downtown Phoenix restaurant. I walked around to view the photographs on the wall.
Then a photograph caught my attention.
Friends said, “It’s coal miners at a pub after work.” It was a photograph of coal miners with blackened faces. I asked a Latinx and white woman for their opinion. They said it looked like coal miners at a pub after work. Then they stepped back, frowned and said it’s men in blackface.
I asked the waitress to speak with a manager. Instead, I spoke with a white restaurant owner. I explained to him why the photograph was offensive. Evidently, someone else had made a similar comment about the photograph before.
Yet, the photograph remained on the wall. He said he would talk to the other owners and get back to me. While leaving, I asked him had he spoke with the other owners. He had not spoken with them, but mentioned Google said it's coal miners after work.
For me, the coal miners disappeared and a film honored for its artistic merit, despite being the most racist propaganda films ever, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) surfaces, in which white actors appeared in blackface. The white owner saw coal miners in the photograph. Therefore, it was not offensive.
Fact: The photograph shows coal miners’ faces covered in soot. The context of the photograph is not the issue.
Students have painted their faces black at the Arizona State University Sun Devils’ Blackout football game. During Halloween people are encouraged not to wear blackface. Phoenix Institution of Contemporary Art showcased Bob Carey’s portrait of himself in blackface.
Art can be a trickster. People view artwork once and subsequently see something different.
That photo tells me I'm not welcome
Viewers cannot determine the intention of an artist’s work. Art also exposes society’s blind spots. Blackface is only a glimpse of a larger issue. The larger issue is the lack of representation of marginalized people and their voices in Phoenix.
Frequently, I enter art galleries and I am not represented in the art, which leads to uneducated curation for exhibitions. While shopping I am ignored because it is assumed I unable to purchase anything, or I am followed by a security guard because it is assumed that I am a threat to the store.
Each assumption is based on a stereotype. Blackface caricatures stereotypes of black people.
At the downtown Phoenix restaurant, my concern that the photograph of men in blackface was a threat to me and my face and voice were ignored.
A business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me, “Whites Only.” It says people like me are not welcome.
The operators of that downtown restaurant can choose to take the photograph down, leave it up or create a title card with an intention statement. No matter their decision, I think the photograph should be taken down — sacrificing one image for the greater good.
Rashaad Thomas is a husband, father, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, poet and essayist.