What is the relationship between beauty and exploitation?

Photograph of Walter Benjamin

[I]n every case...[cultural] treasures have a lineage which [we] cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," in Selected Writings, Vol. 4: 1930-1940

recreation of early modern sugar subtleties
Replica of early modern subtleties, made of sugar.
Domino Sugar factory with Kara Walker title

a Subtlety

or the Marvelous Sugar Baby

An homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar refining plant.

photograph of part of Kara Walker's A Subtlety, depicting female sugar sphinx and molasses children
Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Installation at the Domino Sugar Factory, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2014.
photograph of part of Kara Walker's A Subtlety, depicting female sugar sphinx, side view
Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Installation at the Domino Sugar Factory, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2014. Side view.
photograph of part of Kara Walker's A Subtlety, depicting one of fifteen sugar babies
Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Installation at the Domino Sugar Factory, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2014. One of fifteen sugar babies.
photograph of part of Kara Walker's A Subtlety, depicting female sugar sphinx and molasses children
Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Installation at the Domino Sugar Factory, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2014.
photograph of part of Kara Walker's A Subtlety, depicting female sugar sphinx and molasses childrenMammy piggy bank, cast iron
Kara Walker's A Subtlety sphinx; cast iron Mammy bank c. 1900.

Content note: the next slide depicts people pretending to violate the sphinx's body. You may wish to look away.

visitor to A Subtlety pretending to violate the Sphinx's bodyvisitor to A Subtlety pretending to violate the Sphinx's body
Visitors to A Subtlety pretending to touch the sphinx sexually.

“I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do. It's not unexpected. ... [H]uman behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate. And I think my work draws on that.”

 

Kara Walker, interview with Carolina Miranda, Los Angeles Times, 13 October 2014.

Cane

by Jean Toomer, 1923

Thinking Literature 1 | Week 11 | Natalia Cecire

n.cecire@sussex.ac.uk | @ncecire

photograph of Jean Toomer
Jean Toomer
Historical contexts:
  1. Jim Crow laws
  2. lynching
  3. the Great Migration
  4. the Harlem Renaissance (or New Negro Renaissance)
  5. modernism
1861-1865: American Civil War
 
1865: Reconstruction begins. New rights extended to Southern black Americans enforced by Yankee occupation of the South and supported by the Freedmen's Bureau.
 
Late 1860s: Freedmen's Bureau starved of funding, rise of Ku Klux Klan (in the south and north).
In addition to African Americans, the KKK also targets Catholics, Jews, and Asians.
1872: Congress fails to renew legislation for the Freedmen's Bureau, shutting it down. P. B. S. Pinchback, a free-born light-skinned African American and Jean Toomer's maternal grandfather, becomes Governor of Louisiana, the first black governor in the US (and, until Douglas Wilder's election in Virginia in 1990, the only one).
 
1877: Reconstruction ends; US Army withdraws from the South.
 
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act nearly eliminates immigration from China.
 

The post-Reconstruction backlash:

  1. Jim Crow laws
  2. lynching

Portrait in Georgia

 

Hair—braided chestnut,
     coiled like a lyncher's rope,
Eyes—fagots,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
     of black flesh after flame.

Portrait in Georgia

 

Hair—braided chestnut,
     coiled like a lyncher's rope,
Eyes—fagots,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And hér | slím bód|y, whíte | as the ásh |
     of bláck | flésh áf|ter fláme.

1890s: Rise of Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters, and other forms of racial discrimination. Journalist Ida B. Wells documents the rise of lynching, publishing Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases in 1892. Lynching reaches its highest annual numbers during the 1890s.
 
1894: Jean Toomer is born, and raised mostly among the Washington, D.C. black elite in the household of his grandfather, P. B. S. Pinchback.
 

map of the first Great Migration

1900: Beginnings of the first Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities.
1900s: Jim Crow laws continue to increase.
Southern and eastern European immigration in large numbers.
 
1905: Robert S. Abbott founds the Chicago Defender, an influential African-American newspaper that spurred many southerners to migrate north.
 
1907: Peak of southern and eastern European immigration to the US.
photograph Harlem in 1924
Harlem in 1924. UNIA parade. The sign reads, "The New Negro has no fear."
cover of The Crisis magazine
1909: Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, and others found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Most southern black Americans are disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws at this point.
 
1910: Du Bois founds The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.
 

Left: Cover of the first issue of The Crisis, 1910.
Source: Modernist Journals Project.

cover of Broom
Cover of Broom 5.1, one of the modernist little magazines in which Toomer published.
cover of Little Review
Cover of The Little Review 9.3, one of the modernist little magazines in which Toomer published.
cover of Little Review 9.3table of contents of Little Review
In this issue of The Little Review, Toomer's "Fern" (reprinted in Cane) appears alongside work by Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Francis Picabia, and Guillaume Apollinaire. Source: Modernist Journals Project.
cover of Broom 4.2table of contents of Broom 4.2
In this issue of Broom, Toomer's "Karintha" (reprinted in Cane) appears alongside work by William Carlos Williams, Kay Boyle, Baroness Elsa von Freitag-Loringhoven, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, and Marianne Moore. Source: Blue Mountain Project.
first edition copy of Cane

“I am glad to be in the fold...Waldo Frank, Gorham B Munson, TS Eliot.”

 

Dust jacket, first edition of Cane (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923).
Source: Beinecke Library.

advertisement in Broom, October 1923
Boni & Liveright full-page advertisement in Broom, October 1923.
advertisement in Broom, October 1923

Detail from Boni & Liveright full-page advertisement in Broom, October 1923.

“colorful”...“a sweep of emotional power saturated with a moist lyric beauty”...“a heavy, languorous beauty [that] stuns the intelligence entirely, lulls it into torpor and compels it to recognize the authenticity of the racy negroes delineated”...

John Armstrong, "The Real Negro" (review of Cane), New York Tribune, 14 October 1923.

“a daring overflow, for it presents the black race . . . mournful, loving beauty, ignorant, and full of passion untutored and entirely unconnected with the brain.”

Anonymous review, Boston Transcript, 15 December 1923.

photograph of Jean Toomer
Jean Toomer
first edition copy of Cane

Dust jacket, first edition of Cane
(New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923).
Source: Beinecke Library.

Martin Puryear woodcut rendering of Kabnis curves
Artist Martin Puryear's rendering of the curves that precede "Kabnis," in the Arion Press art book edition of Cane (2000).

Through the cement floor her strong roots sink down. They spread under asphalt streets. Dreaming, the streets roll over on their bellies, and suck their glossy health from them. Her strong roots sink down and spread under the river and disappear in blood-lines that waver south. Her roots shoot down. Dan’s hands follow them. Roots throb. Dan’s heart beats violently. He places his palms upon the earth to cool them. Earth throbs.

"Box Seat," Cane

first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. Du Bois, from The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).

Note the quoted excerpt from the spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."

map of the first Great Migration

November Cotton Flower

Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, season’s old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. ø Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

Song of the Son

Pour O pour that parting soul in song,
O pour it in the sawdust glow of night,
Into the velvet pine-smoke air to-night,
And let the valley carry it along.
And let the valley carry it along.

O land and soil, red soil and sweet-gum
     tree,
So scant of grass, so profligate of pines,
Now just before an epoch's sun declines
Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee,
Thy son, I have in time returned to thee.

In time, for thought the sun is setting on
A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set;
Though late, O soil, it is not too late yet
To catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon
     gone,
Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul soon
     gone.

O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened
     plums,
Squeezed, and bursting in the pine-wood
     air,
Passing, before they stripped the old tree
     bare
One plum was saved for me, one seed
     becomes

An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Caroling softly souls of slavery.

One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes

 

An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Caroling softly souls of slavery.

 

"Song of the Son," Cane

Red nigger* moon. Sinner!
Blood-burning moon. Sinner!
Come out that fact'ry door.

 

"Blood-Burning Moon," Cane

 

*This is a profoundly pejorative word; do not say it.

     Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
     O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
     Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
     . . . When the sun goes down.

 

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.

 

"Karintha," Cane

What is the relationship between beauty and exploitation?

What is the relationship between beauty and exploitation?

When does the representation of suffering reproduce it?

Questions for further contemplation:

  1. How is African-American religion represented in Cane? What are the uses of calling to Jesus, praying, or singing hymns? What is the role of the sacred?
  2. What role, if any, does a vision of Africa play in this work?
  3. How does Cane position itself in relation to the politics of respectability?
  4. What is the role of uncommunicative or enigmatic women in Cane?
  5. Does beauty redeem the memory of historical violence in “Kabnis”?

This presentation was made using reveal.js 3.5.0, by Hakim El Hattab.