A Critique of the White Gaze When Telling Black Stories in Art

On March 12, 2021, one of my favorite art podcasts, The Week in Art: The Art Newspaper, put out an episode entitled, UK culture war: how should museums confront colonialism? debating how colonial histories are told in museums. This was a very good episode in which they spoke about controversial museum activities, the lack of accountability they have had in incorrectly shaping views of colonials, and how these actions could be corrected. For example, an author by the name of Alice Procter details how she hosts unofficial tours of London’s museums and galleries, telling the ugly truth and problematic histories behind many artworks.


At around the 30 minute mark the narrator began the second segment of the show... He introduced a White male curator by the name of Glenn Adamson who told the audience about the exhibition he co-curated called, Crafting America and the book he wrote called Craft: An American History. These works showcase how craft has shaped Americans in different ways throughout the country’s history. It brings attention to important forms of craft such as jewelry and furniture as well as makers like Elizabeth Keckley, a formerly enslaved woman who created dresses for the wives of high ranking military officers during the Civil War.


Then we got to about the 38:45 minute mark when the host asked Adamson about quilting and he said something that got me quite riled up as I was driving home listening to the podcast.


Adamson said:

“When it comes to quilting, this is in some ways an overdone subject… There are rural legends about the topic like ‘quilts were hung on the Underground Railroad to signal escaping enslaved people’ which is not true - that’s a total fantasy unfortunately…” Then he chuckles a bit and doubles down by saying, “Nice story, [still] not true.”

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Now, before I get into my reaction to hearing this, I want to point out that his statement is not 100% wrong. For years, the topic of quilts being used during the Underground Railroad has been up for debate. Researchers have written books about the intricate and coded designs of quilts, along with songs, that enslaved peoples used to guide them to safety once they escaped plantations. There have been many recounts and stories that have been handed down from generation to generation of these happenings within the Black community.


The validity of these stories has been contested by many including Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a man I look up to), claiming that there is not enough evidence to support these claims. But due to the fact that we know much of history (especially global Black history) has been erased, and much of what we know comes from storytelling and not so much documentation, I am not comfortable fully writing this subsection of history off as just folklore. The stories didn’t just come from nowhere and it is documented that many enslaved people were seamstresses, quiltmakers, etc., so it's really not that far-fetched to believe.


Like many other great questions throughout history (such as whether or not dinosaurs had feathers or who the real Jack the Ripper was) we may never know the truth, but there is enough evidence one way or the other to at least consider it as a possibility.


Alright, so back to me driving in the car listening to the podcast…


When I heard Adamson write-off this history of quilts as folklore, I lost it! I started clapping my hands at the radio and exclaiming my annoyance with his disturbing comments. I was not only irritated with what he said, but how he said it.


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Had he said something like, “this is a highly debated topic, but to my knowledge quilts being used during the Underground Railroad is not factual…” I would have been cool with that. You are entitled to your own opinion. But whether he realized it or not, because of the power he holds as a White man in this dominant White society, his words hold more validity than those of any Black researchers that are qualified to contest his views. White privilege is dangerous in that way because it allows for his words to be considered definitively true even when the jury is still out.


As I explained to him when I emailed him to let him know that I was going to write this article, this is exactly what my exhibition BRIGHT was about: the dangers of Black people’s stories being told through a White lens - and would you look at that, the same narrative reared its ugly head.


Unfortunately, Black people are in a very vulnerable position right now (and have been throughout modern times), because we cannot control our own narratives on a massive scale. Our stories are laughed at. Our histories are distorted. And our researchers are discredited on the basis that there isn’t enough “evidence”, even though half of the history we learn in school is made up! I.E. Christopher Columbus discovered America!


Now, I don’t type this with malicious intent towards Mr. Adamson. As a matter of fact, we had a very civil email exchange in which I gave him my perspective on the issues and he responded with an appreciation of the criticism.


I want to use this as a teachable moment: An international podcast has an episode about how museums can correct the damages done to the world due to colonialism, and a museum curator of colonizer descent was discrediting the experiences of the descendents of the colonized. I viewed this as hypocritical and I would not be doing my job if I didn’t call it out.


All in all, I hope everyone can learn from this sort of experience. I personally know artists and organizations doing research on the topic of quilts and their usage during the Underground Railroad. So, it isn’t fair for someone wielding power to discredit those people. As we move forward in a world in which people will continue to be held more accountable, we must be cognizant of our words and actions, and their dangers and implications.


-Thomas

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