Speaking of Theories …Oscar H. Blayton / May 27, 2022
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Marcel Verdier’s 1840s painting, “Punishment of the Four Stakes/Pegs in the Colonies,” depicts an enslaved Black man, staked naked and spread-eagle face down on the ground as he is whipped by another enslaved man, while a White planter, joined by his wife and infant child casually look on. This painting speaks to the power of the White man and the helplessness of the Black man. This painting initially was created for an exhibition in Paris, France, in the mid-1800s. But the exhibition jury rejected it because it was thought that its harsh theme would offend the colonial ambassadors in Paris at the time. It now hangs in a museum in Texas.
While the rabid right wing of this country is foaming at the mouth over what they are misidentifying as critical race theory, claiming that it will make little White children ashamed of their heritage, they are blissfully ignorant of the fact that their dirty drawers are showing from the backsides of their britches.
Tatters of their hateful bigotry flap in the breeze for everyone to see as they strut down history’s highway, pretending to be assured of their own superiority while fearful of being exposed for their inadequacies.
The display of these dirty undies is made more obvious by visual culture theory.
Visual culture theory is an intellectual framework that helps us to understand that in a visual culture such as ours, artifacts and pictures are made to be seen in a certain way.
There is not room in this commentary to delve into art history, aesthetics, the psychology of perception, the philosophy of reference and vision science, or visual-cultural studies in history, sociology and anthropology. Instead, I offer the shorthand term, phenomenological symbolization, as an all-encompassing process.
When my ancestor, trekking across the African savannah, spotted a lion in the distance, he gave it a wide berth because he did not get close enough to see that the lion was in the last stages of dying from old age. The lion, as a phenomenon, symbolized “danger,” and recognizing that symbol was necessary for my ancestor’s survival. But as in this example, symbols are sometimes misread.
In our lives, there are many symbols that represent various phenomenon, from the simple to the complex. A cross, a Star of David or a crescent may symbolize an entire series of beliefs and understandings that are so firmly held that societies have gone to war based upon those beliefs and understandings. The same can be said of flags when national communities place great meaning in pieces of cloth arranged in various patterns of color and design. But it is not uncommon for these religious icons or national flags to be misread in terms of what they represent. And therein lies the danger that can be avoided by understanding visual culture theory.
Visual cultures create visual vocabularies. And just as an articulated word can bring a visualized phenomenon to mind, so too can a picture or an artifact articulate an abstract thought, such as danger or hatred. And as certain words can be a part of a racist verbal vocabulary, so too can a picture or artifact be a part of a racist visual vocabulary.
While early Americans used certain racist words, phrases and images to justify slavery, French, British and other European expansionists were using images to rationalize European nationalism and colonialism. Visual culture is not unique to America; it is a worldwide phenomenon.
After centuries of this cultural legacy, we are left with today’s visual vocabulary of race and difference. We live in a toxic environment where a certain skin color is made into a negative symbol. Aunt Jemima may have been liberated from the boxes of pancake mix and bottles of syrup, but the old racist images are too numerous and too widespread to deny that they existed on supermarket shelves for decades. This country is cluttered with Americana artifacts that demean Africans Americans and other people of color and speak to the racist nature of this nation.
Racial bigots articulate their hatred with words and deeds, but as visual culture theory shows, they also speak with their art and artifacts. The absurd denials of racial animus on the part of certain politicians are made that much more ridiculous by their clinging to the old icons of their believed racial superiority. Junius B. Stearns’ portrait of Washington on his plantation with his enslaved field hands in the background speaks to White supremacy and racial superiority as much as Verdier’s horrific scene of punishment.
But Stearns’ portrait of Washington is more culturally damning than Verdier’s work because while Verdier condemns slavery in his painting, Stearns applauds it in his. Stearns created five paintings portraying Washington as a statesman, soldier, farmer, with Martha during their wedding ceremony and, finally, on his deathbed, with his faithful enslaved valet, William Lee, in the background.
The racist culture in America, both past and present, is too deeply chiseled into the bedrock of this nation to be erased, hidden or otherwise obscured. We must point it out when we see it in words and deeds. And we must also point it out when we see it in our visual culture. We cannot let White supremacists continue to portray us as anything other than who we are. And we cannot let them portray themselves as anything other than what they are.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.