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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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The generational burden of the beaten Black body

Quanda Johnson’s “Trauerspiel: Subject into Nonbeing” traces how racist violence creates trauma that lives on in the present.

It was October 21, 1916.  On this particular Saturday, the wealthiest man in Abbeville County, South Carolina made his way to the mercantile. He was a cotton farmer, and his seeds were of such an exceptionally high quality that even white people would buy from him in the hopes of getting a better crop. 

The man's name was Anthony Crawford. He was a Black man. 

Anthony Crawford was a farmer and a businessman. At 50 years old, he had haggled more times than he could count. He asked for 80 cents on the dollar, but was only offered 70. On this particular Saturday he decided that he wasn’t going to take less than what he asked for. 

The negotiations were heated as a young white man came around the counter. The young white man, enraged by the fact that a Black man was operating with some feeling of autonomy and authority, wound his fist and struck Anthony Crawford. A mob of white people then put a noose around his neck, dragging him through the black section of Abbeville to the baseball diamond at the fairgrounds. 

That is where he was hung. 

“Anthony Crawford always said, ‘the day a white man hits me is the day I die,’” Quanda Johnson, a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary theater studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Daily Cardinal. 

Anthony Crawford was her ancestor. 

“It truly was a horrible lynching,” she said. “Now no one was prosecuted. It was put down on record as murdered by hands unknown, but everybody knows who did it.” 

At the Chazen Museum of Art, Johnson’s archival research regarding the lynching lie digitally etched into her “remixed portrait” of Anthony Crawford. 

One of them reads, “The black must submit to the white, or the white will destroy.”

Johnson’s three visual remixes of Anthony Crawford’s story are all various edits of his iconic portrait. They serve as a third of her dissertation-based exhibition “Trauerspiel, Subject into Nonbeing” at the Chazen.

She first came across Crawford’s name in 2015 at New York University when reading the autobiography of the late James Weldon, an American writer, Civil Rights activist and leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. 

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“It was a really visceral reaction I had. Why do I know this name? Why am I responding like this?” she recalled. 

She would later confirm her relation to Crawford upon looking at her family's funeral programs. Her family had been forced out of Abbeville as a result of the lynching. 

This personal discovery, along with other numerous incidents of racial violence against the Black community in 2015 were powerful stimulants behind Johnson’s desire to “say something about [her] own lineage and culture.”

“This is what inspired the dissertation itself,” she emphasized. 

Johnson’s installation at Chazen converses with her dissertative performance which occurred on April 27, 2022. 

The installation consists of three thematic pieces/series that interrogate how Black trauma has moved through time as an integral part of the Western Hemisphere’s formation, and how that trauma reaches into the present, continuing to form what we experience as society today.

Each of the three works explores a particular facet of violence against the Black community: the violence of ridicule, the violence of mob vigilantism and the violence that finds its way into “some” safe Black spaces — especially the home. 

The exhibit 

Standing tall, stretching from floor to ceiling, is the first piece, “In Search of Negro Land, Beauty Suspended.” Physically engaging, this collage-based piece pulls the spectator into the history of how the Black body has been used as an excuse for violence. The piece argues the Black body is itself a symbol of difference that serves as the base of the structures that currently surround us.

“Before the 15th century, there was no such thing as race. We were people, humans. This idea of race did not come about until we needed to justify the Atlantic Slave Trade,” explained Johnson. “We try to enslave European bodies, but that’s difficult in the New World, it’s too easy for them to run away and merge with other people.”

“So the Black body, our hair, our noses, our lips, the rounder features of our forms,” Johnson continued. “These become a type of stigmata, a mark that separates up from the white body.” 

Hanging from the ceiling are three triangular slates, each one hosting a collage portraying a particular feature of the Back body, including hair.

“Our hair is very different from most of the hair textures on the planet, which tend to be straight, maybe with a little curl,” she reflected. 

Johnson’s other triangular slates reflect the nose, each one different from the next, merged with natural items in the collage, evocative of smell, scent, atmosphere. They reflect the Black body’s lips. 

“The lips I put in a background of vegetation, of taste, of fruit,” she noted. “[Then there’s] the beauty of roundness, the voluptuousness of our bodies is evocative of the cosmos. So I set it in a type of cosmology here.” 

The hanging collages invoke an appreciation for the beauty in these features — just as anyone might appreciate how special the unique features of any culture are — and how they speak to beauty in their own ways. 

However, a stark reminder remains in this portrayal of natural beauty. These features of the Black body were not always sources of joy for the community but markers that set them apart and held them under the scrutiny of the “white gaze.” 

Johnson inserted the gaze in her collages as penetrating: a force of control, a reminder that Don Imus once called the predominantly Black Rutgers women’s basketball team ‘nappy headed hosand a reminder that the Blackface Minstrel outlined the Black person’s lips in white or red in a excessively and grotesquely large manner as a contrast to the white features enforced as desirable. 

The penetrating gazes are the sets of blue eyes on the collage that corrode the natural freedom of the black body with their piercing presence. The penetrating gazes are the ones on the wall behind, every face belonging to a white body who partook or witnessed a black person being lynched. The penetrating gazes are our own, reflected in the mylar along the wall's height. 

“We’re all implicated. It doesn't matter if you were born in the Western Hemisphere. It doesn't matter whether you were born in the Americas. If you are here in this part of the world, you are implicated. You are somehow benefiting from everything that has come before,” added Johnson.

Anthony Crawford stares right back at the white gaze from his three ‘remixed’ portraits next to Johnson’s “In Search of Negro Land, Beauty Suspended.” 

He exudes strength, certainty and courage — as if in retrospect he knew that he would one day face the violence of the vigilante mob. This violence was so often ignited by the view of the black individual as dangerous when autonomous … a toxic entity that had to be torn apart when detected on the same platform as white people. 

In the next of Johnson’s remixes of Crawford’s portrait, poison is mirrored in the form of its symbol: a skull. As our eyes meet his, we realize that we are now the white gaze that he once met with his own;  this is how the Black body was introduced into the Western Hemisphere. 

“The Ballad of Anthony Crawford Remix” is a probe into the gruesome nature of this story. 

In her set of works, Johnson tells the ongoing story of how trauma has moved from the Western Hemisphere’s historical premises of white supremacism to the current experiences that descendants of the victims go through today. This second piece serves as the bridge between the societal narrative of "In Search of Negro Land, Beauty Suspended," and Johnson’s last set of pieces that explore how these stories have played a powerful role in shaping her life growing up. 

Johnson’s final pieces in the Chazen are “The Frame” and “The Window.” 

The latter is an introspective dive into her family life. Her father sits blurred yet present while her mother sinks into the sofa's back. Johnson herself sits straight spined with a smile stretched as if alone in the act of holding the family together and her autistic brother averts his gaze. 

“My dad, who was a descendant of [Anthony Crawford], was a very violent man. Ivy League educated, brilliant — but a very unhappy person,” she recalled. 

He was five years old when Anthony Crawford was lynched. ‘‘The Window’’ reflects her introspective view of her family, her father’s frame filling the pane on top while her mother’s sparkling smile lies etched upon her face in the pane below. Johnson placed her father above as a symbol of his oppressiveness which had its impacts on both her mother’s and brother's lives.

“My dad said to me in a moment of clarity, when trying to explain why he was so angry, violent, ‘Quanda, I watched every hero I had systematically executed,’” Johnson said. “And he named them from Medgar Evers to Bobby Kennedy.”

“He said, ‘when they killed Bobby, I lost all hope in America,’” Johnson added.

Johnson’s exhibition, “Trauerspiel, Subject Into Nonbeing” is a sobering “digging up,” as Johnson puts it, of the very foundation of our lives here in the modern world. It tells the story of how the trauma of the past is still very real for the Black community in the present. 

Originally scheduled to have concluded on the 12th of September, Quanda’s exhibition will now remain at Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art for the rest of the month — and hopefully beyond. 

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