When Visual Arts Meet Poetry, Political Commentary is Born

Searching for the silver lining of this moment on America’s political clock, more than one social commentator has meekly chimed in that art produced now and for the foreseeable future should be amazing, citing history itself as proof. That’s an excruciatingly white, hetero, and even classist POV that handily ignores that for a lot of people (those who are of color, LGBT, immigrants, the working class of all races,) the big hand and little hand have been stuck on fucked for more than a minute, and often seem glued there. It also ignores that we’ve been receiving missives from the battlegrounds for a very long time now, and a lot of the creative output we’re currently swimming in is the result of lives and realities having been observed and documented for years already. A recently published poem by Charif Shanahan arrived with its powerful influence in tow: Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s visual art installation “How to Suffer Politely (and Other Etiquette.)”

Image courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.

Image courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.

On her website, Rasheed describes the work thusly:

Blending satire and the structure of etiquette guides, this series of public aphoristic large format digital prints explore how suffering, anger, and responses to trauma are policed to ensure that said expressions of suffering do not disrupt or declare accountable oppressive systems. This series examines the choreography and performance of the “angelic negro” who in the face of routinized Black death must display superhuman restraint in repressing anger. This compulsory affective labor of smiling through the pain and performing calculated emotional acrobatics so as not to make others uncomfortable persists as a way to maintain social order. This large-scale public work seeks to make explicit the implicit scripts and norms that make confronting the nuances of oppression “impolite”.

Image courtesy David Willems Photography.

Image courtesy David Willems Photography.

Inspired by the visual work, Shanahan penned the poem “Lower the Pitch of Your Suffering,” titled after one of the prints in Rasheed’s installation, which includes the lines:

“I know my suffering is loud but my skin

is light as sky and I was told to let it

open doors, shake hands, slip the cover

over their eyes, so I could be. Free

is not a negro doused in white, blanched,

bleached, and sent down the path. Free

almost never means alive…”

The rest of the poem can be found here.

Top image courtesy Justin Hoch.