Making It: Race and Class in Contemporary America
Panelists include Kerry James Marshall, artist; James Meyer, associate curator of modern art, National Gallery of Art; Mary Pattillo, Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University; Hortense J. Spillers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor, English department, Vanderbilt University; Dan S. Wang, artist and writer. The central theme of the exhibition In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall, on view through December 8, 2013, at the National Gallery of Art, is the Middle Passage—the violent journey of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas during the colonial and antebellum periods—and its traumatic impact in the lives and memories of African Americans in particular. Marshall’s show begins with images of human beings and the open sea, of sailboats and an amusement-park water ride, evocative of the Middle Passage. Yet the exhibition also includes scenes of backyard pools, suburban lawns, and white picket fences, of children riding bikes and celebrating the Fourth of July. The memory of the slave ships seems remote from Marshall’s paintings of suburbs, part of the artist’s Housing series. In fact, all of these works examine the American Dream from an African American perspective: the middle-class children and adults depicted in these scenes are haunted by the memory of a trauma that they did not experience personally but which impacts them in ways that are not easily understood. In the art of Marshall, the past is never really past; history exerts a pressure, often unconscious, on the living. In this program recorded on October 27, 2013, Kerry James Marshall and exhibition curator James Meyer are joined by panelists Mary Pattillo, Hortense J. Spillers, and Dan S. Wang to discuss varying perspectives on race and class in contemporary America.