SOUTHERNSCAPES: Festive Discomfort / by Heather Topcik

Last week, we gathered people together for the closing of Joshua Kristal's showing of Southernscapes, a photo series we have been living with for the past two months.  We kept to the Southern food theme again, making chili, cornbread and - my personal favorite - a pineapple-pecan-cream-cheese-ball. Yes, that is actually a thing. About 20 or so people wandered the apartment looking at Joshua's work.  The mood was festive.

In what has become a SfDM tradition, about midway through the evening we gathered everyone around the living room to hear Joshua talk about his projects.  I was curious to see the same work discussed for a second time, with a new set of visitors.  The Baby Beauty Pageant series was already hanging on the wall, so we started there, which was appropriate because when I originally approached Joshua about exhibiting his work in our "domestic gallery", this was the series he chose because of its connection to family life.  And if these five photos had been the only ones on view, we could have easily spent the whole evening talking about pageantry and gender identity and the kinds of subcultures on which Joshua often casts his lens.  But as it happened, these images ended up getting short shrift, acting as an incongruous warm up to the much bigger project: the lynching series. 

There is no question that the lynching series is difficult work.  Despite their formal beauty, the photographs - especially when coupled with the book that inspired them, Without Sanctuary -  represent an ugliness that is really hard to face head on, yet can't be ignored.  Over the past two months, amidst the unrest in Ferguson and the outrage around the death of Eric Garner, these haunting landscapes have been a daily reminder of the dark history that has shaped current events.  It seemed fitting that we were all gathered, on the very same evening as the Michael Brown verdict was to be announced, to talk about a project that aims to highlight this history in the interest of moving toward some kind of healing. 

This time, the conversation was less about the formal merits of the photographs as works of art, and much more about the issues they represent: racial injustice and the violence that enforces it. The kind of thing we never talk about.  And by we, I mean white people. Or maybe I just mean me (perhaps it's better if I just speak for myself here).  Why? Well, because it's uncomfortable and, honestly, pretty easy to avoid (when you're white).  I haven't had a full-fledged "conversation about race" since I was an undergraduate in the early nineties and even now the thought makes me cringe. My generation prefers irony and sarcasm to unvarnished truth.  Once you're a card-carrying adult, burdened with the daily grind of existing and relieved of the luxury of time that dorm-living provides, it's surprisingly easy to avoid heavy topics of all kinds.  But the real reason I think we avoid the topic is fear.  Fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of shaking up a comfortable world view, and the biggest fear of all: if you are white, how do you make sense of the possibility that your own great-great grandparents, by virtue of their own whiteness, were complicit in this history? And how does that trickle down to now?

 With that in mind, I was feeling very self-conscious about the fact that our gathering was made up primarily (but not all) of white folks. What right do we have to this discussion? While there were a few people of color in attendance, by the time we got to talking the crowd had thinned a bit making it a conversation of mostly white people and one young woman who was a first generation African American.  In addition to being saddled with a healthy dose of white liberalism, I'm also from the Midwest, which makes me innately averse to conflict and uncomfortable situations of any kind. Yet here I was, in my own living room, moderating what was shaping up to be a fairly honest and raw conversation about race, in all of its messy discomfort and intensity, thanks mostly to the bravery of one woman who was willing to engage a roomful of people and shake things up a bit.  She said things that needed to be heard and I would like to think she was.  The discussion itself wasn't all that groundbreaking, but the fact that it happened felt important.  When was the last time you went to a party, ended up really engaging in a difficult conversation that left you thinking?  For me it was probably 1993.  Maybe it's time to take that up again.

A few days after our event, the Quartz article entitled, 12 Things White People Can Do Now Because of Ferguson, was recirculated.  Originally published in August, it is a powerful piece of writing that gets to the heart of why all of us - and by that I mean white people (duh)- need to be more proactive in speaking up.  This convergence of events has made me think differently about Joshua's series of photographs.  While the larger goal of creating tangible memorials in these places is worthy of pursuit, it is the photographs themselves, I think, that have the power to create change.  Perhaps they should just be passed around from living room to living room as catalysts to get people to start really talking about those things we have spent too much time avoiding.  While we will soon be saying goodbye to this series, I will be keeping one photograph:  the tree that marks the site of the lynching of Frederick Jermaine Carter in 2010.  I'm keeping it because it is both beautiful and terrible. And because it will a reminder to keep the conversation going.