What Do We Want History to Do to Us?

Zadie Smith:

Two women are bound at the waist, tied to each other. One is a slim, white woman, in antebellum underskirt and corset. A Scarlett O’Hara type. She is having the air squeezed out of her by a larger, bare-breasted black woman, who wears a kerchief around her head. To an American audience, I imagine, this black woman could easily read as “Mammy.” To a viewer from the wider diaspora—to a black Briton, say—she is perhaps less likely to invoke the stereotypical placidity of “Mammy,” hewing closer to the fury of her mythological opposite, the legendary Nanny of the Maroons: escaped slave, leader of peoples. Her hand is held up forcefully, indicating the direction in which she is determined to go, but the rope between her and the white woman is pulled taut: both struggle under its constriction. And in this drama of opposing forces, through this brutal dialectic, aspects of each woman’s anatomy are grotesquely eroticized by her adversary: buttocks for the black woman, breasts for her white counterpart. Which raises the question: Who tied this constricting rope? A third party? And, if the struggle continues, will the white woman eventually be extinguished? Will the black woman be free? That is, if the white woman is on the verge of extinguishment at all. Maybe she’s on the verge of something else entirely: definition. That’s why we cinch waists, isn’t it? To achieve definition?

The two women are traced in Kara Walker’s familiar, cartoonish line, which seems to combine in a single gesture the comic brevity of Charles Schulz, the polemical pamphleteering of William Hogarth, and the oneiric revelations of Francisco Goya and Otto Dix. The drawing was made, according to Walker, in “1994ish…when I was 24ish,” which is to say at the very beginning of her career, when her drawings were still largely unknown, and few people knew or could guess at the busy chalk portraits that lurked on the other side of the newly famous—and soon-to-be notorious—paper cutouts. The sentence underneath the image reads: what I want history to do to me. Its meaning is unsettling and unsettled, existing in a gray zone between artist’s statement, perverse confession, and ambivalent desire. The sentence pulls in two directions, giving no slack, tense like the rope. And just as the eye finds no comfortable place to rest in the image—passing from figure to figure seeking resolution, desiring a satisfying end to a story so strikingly begun—so the sentence is partial and in unresolved motion, referring upward to the image, which only then refers us back down to the words, in endless, discomfiting cycle.