The canvas had been painted with the regal portrait of Thomas Jefferson then draped and folded back to reveal another portrait behind it. A sullen Sally Hemings peers forth, her bare shoulder and leg exposed, irritation and resentment just beneath her placid expression. It’s a powerful piece.
In Behind The Myth Of Benevolence, Titus Kaphar seeks to question how history has remembered Jefferson as a color-blind progressive while rewriting Hemings as the willing recipient of his advances. It is part of a larger exhibition featuring works by Kaphur and Ken Gonzales-Day entitled Unseen: Our Past in a New Light at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Hemings was just 14 to Jefferson’s 44 years at the time when the affair is believed to have begun, an age which hardly suggests she possessed agency over herself, even had she not been the man’s property. Kaphar’s piece aims to amend the record, shifting the focus to reveal an “alternative history that is often hidden beneath the dominant narrative.”
Much like the historical evidence we choose to claim and report, the art we hold in esteem is a commentary on what we value as a society. When the canon is predominantly by and about Christian, white men, both artists and subjects that veer outside that demographic struggle to be legitimized.
In The Atlantic Interview podcast, Chef Mike Solomonov confesses that his now-renowned Philadelphia restaurant, Zahav, sat empty upon opening. Solomonov, the James Beard Foundation’s 2017 Outstanding Chef (as well as 2011’s Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic and the writer of 2016’s Cookbook of the Year), admits that guests had a hard time envisioning Israeli cuisine as more than the street food staples of hummus and falafel. It wasn’t until a Philadelphia Magazine review touted Zahav the best new restaurant in the city that diners were able to reconcile their preconceptions with the fine dining experience being provided.
Native, African, and Asian art are still largely relegated to uncredited, anthropological exhibits in natural history museums while European art is perceived to be the great work of masters. But it is not enough to merely elevate the art of the marginalized. Art is a reflection of a society’s culture. Omitting marginalized voices from the annals of the respected has further-reaching connotations then denoting a lack of respect for their output and reducing the worth of their contributions. Their erasure in art extends to the version of history we have been taught. Removing their voices from the archives obscures the violence they endured, disqualifying their experiences.
The art of women and people of color is not only undervalued but also underrepresented, often relegated to notoriety only within their own communities. Though 15% of the American population self-identifies as black, Marcus Samuelsson is one of few black chefs to gain the recognition of his white counterparts. Samuelsson, an Ethiopian chef raised in Sweden, received acclaim and the James Beard Foundation’s designation of Best Chef: New York City as executive chef of Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit before erupting into the pop lexicon with winning turns on Top Chef Masters and Chopped All Stars 2012: Judges Remix. However, this success rewards him for cooking that built on the food traditions of white culture. This is not to snub Samuelsson’s talent. Artists have the right to produce whatever art they are moved to create. Indeed Samuelsson has followed his turn at Aquavit with both Japanese and American soul food restaurants. Red Rooster, his Harlem soul-food gem, has received both popular and critical acclaim, but one wonders how much appreciation for Samuelsson’s prior work influenced media to take the endeavor seriously.
What seems obvious is that were Red Rooster Samuelsson’s first restaurant, it may still have been celebrated, but that reception may have been limited to Harlem and the African community. Red beans and rice may be beloved, but its standing below cassoulet within the food hierarchy is deep-seated. For proof, just look at their price tags.
We cannot degrade the art of one culture and still expect its artists to be revered. African American chefs cooking food rooted in African American culture are woefully absent from discussions of fine dining, even though logic would dictate one in six distinguished American chefs to be of African descent. But the lack of respect and prestige is only part of the problem.
Catherine Grace “Cady” Coleman is a doctorate-holding research chemist, former U.S. Air Force Colonel, and retired Chief of Robotics for NASA’s Astronaut Office. Questioned about when she decided she wanted to be an astronaut, she responded, “For me, it wasn’t when I was a little kid because girls just didn’t do that. I would see a picture of the Mercury 7 and none of those people looked like me and it never occurred to me to do that.” It was while attending a lecture given by Sally Ride at MIT that the thought, “Maybe I could have that job,” first struck her. People are resistant to attempt the impossible. They must be able to envision themselves in a career in order to be compelled to pursue it.
Globalization allows us a unique opportunity to promote women and people of color outside of their specific arenas. Most of us are just trying to get by. When faced with the daunting task of becoming a champion for civil rights, those who can afford to often relinquish their seat in favor of one in the back of the bus. This is laziness at best, and at worst, willful disregard of the issue, at a time when it has never been easier to be proactive. The internet encourages discovery. While reinvesting in our communities is admirable, we no longer have to subsidize flawed systems and ideologies due to proximity. Including accurate representations of varied viewpoints only serves to expand the knowledge and compassion of all.
In a conversation with The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates outlines the steps needed to remove whiteness as America’s default. He cites the necessary redistribution of the 20 to 1 wealth gap and an ability to feel black suffering, like the murder of Trayvon Martin, as more than an abstraction, but insists a shift in ideology is paramount. “If you think about how status works in this country…The way you define yourself as having some sort of place on the societal ladder is that there is this bottom you can never sink to.” White Americans have always been able to bear their burdens by finding comfort in the thought that no hardship would place them level with African Americans. “I don’t think you can undersell how much the loss of that, the idea that you actually could be on the bottom, that anybody could be on the bottom, the chaos that that represents.”
Compassion does not naturally adhere to lines of color. Anyone can be moved by the words of Langston Hughes, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Sandra Cisneros, even when their experiences vastly differ with that of our own. The idea that art must cater to white sensibilities in order to be palatable is one without basis in truth, an excuse to perpetuate the status quo. To remove Nina Simone or Mark Bradford or Spike Lee from their blackness would be to strip them of their power. Art may be enjoyed for its beauty, but it is respected for its ability to challenge.
Supporting the art of the marginalized is not an end sum game. Acknowledging the work of minority-identifying artists does not reduce the quantity or quality of output by Christian, white men. That a single film about white men speaks to the entirety of white men would be ludicrous, and yet it is not uncommon for that assumption to be made about any film detailing the experience of Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, or Women. If the market can withstand eight installments of The Fast and the Furious, surely it will not be oversaturated by a second Black Panther.
By expressing our desire to be exposed to more varied stories, we inspire them to be promoted. By voting with our dollar, we make room for those who might otherwise not be heard. If we only see art by and about white men then it stands to reason that their work would be more valued within our communities. Opening ourselves up to experiences unlike our own allows minorities to reclaim their place at a table that has largely remained segregated. Art has the potential to hold a mirror up to society. Some people may be made uncomfortable by that reflection, but we can not transcend our past if we remain unwilling to confront it.