Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Face of Race

It happened twice during a conference on "moral education in a diverse society" many years ago; it happens every time I wear that necklace.  It’s a necklace I love and have had for thirty-plus years. And yet each time I wear this necklace it brings me to the question of race.

Back in the 1970s, living in Manhattan, walking down Third Avenue as I’d done thousands of times, I saw a young man seated at a small table with about twenty pieces of silver jewelry.  Sidewalk vendors were an every weekend occurrence in Manhattan at least throughout the spring, summer, and fall.  It was the way-of-shopping life and how I bought most of what I owned.  I stopped and looked, as I’d done over and over again  every other Saturday in the city at the 26th Street Flea Market, at the Lexington Avenue Fair, at Union Square.  A discriminating shopper (and not one to easily part with my money) one lovely piece caught my eye  a simple silver rectangular face; an inch wide, eighth-of-an inch longer. A kind of molded impression of a face  nose, mouth and concave depressions for the eyes  a truly simple, yet haunting piece I felt I had to have.

“This is beautiful,” I said to the twenty-something guy behind the table, looking carefully at the piece. “Did you make it?”

He replied yes and seemed glad I was interested.  “It’s silver,” he said trying to be helpful, “see, it’s marked on the back.”  I turned it over to see the 925 and two simple vertical loops on the other side.  “You can wear it as a pin or put it on a chain as a necklace,” he added hoping to cinch the sale.

“I’ll take it,” I said, as I dug around in my over-sized bag to find the cash to pay him.  I honestly don’t remember how much it cost; it’s been thirty years, but knowing me, I wouldn’t have paid more than eleven or fourteen dollars for it. 

“It’s not signed.” I said to him startled that I just realized it.  “You didn’t sign your name on the back.”

He looked at me uncomfortably.

“You know if you’re going to make things as beautiful as this, you really should sign them," I said a bit emphatically, "even if you put just your initials, you really need to, because this is a work of art,” I said hoping to impress upon him the importance of what I was saying.

As I prattled on, he seemed to grow more and more uncomfortable and I took the rectangle that he’d wrapped and taped in a tissue, and dropped it in my bag.  I said thanks and walked away, but I wanted to go back and ask him his name. Ask him so I’d remember years later (when he became famous) or if someone asked, I’d be able to say, “________ made it.”  But I didn’t. 

I didn’t because he was African-American and I sensed that asking him, he might think that I thought he wasn’t really the artist; that I was questioning if these pieces were really his.  He hadn’t offered his name.  I had asked many a struggling artist their name when buying an etching, watercolor, or handmade scarf on the street.  This time, because he was black, I didn’t.

My sister gave me a box-link silver chain that suited the face perfectly. I wore it constantly and every time I did, someone, and often more than one someone, complimented me on the necklace. 

Photo: Jack Edinger
“I love your necklace! Where did you get it?” and each time I would say, “I bought it on the street from this young African-American artist and I am so bummed I never asked his name.”  I said it for a reason.  I identified him as African-American because I was saying, “See?  You really admired this and it was made by someone you didn’t imagine would make this.”  I don’t know if it was racist or anti-racist, but my intention was to honor this young man even though I didn’t know his name.

However, whenever someone African-American would notice my necklace and tell me how much they liked it, then I had a problem.  I pretty much told them the story in the same way, of how I spotted it, purchased it and didn't know the artist’s name, but I didn’t mention that he was African-American.  I wanted to; I wanted to say, “See this thing of absolute beauty was made by a black artist…but I didn't, because I didn't know how it would be heard.  Would the person be offended?  Would they think, “God isn't she racist?  She wouldn't tell me if the artist was white.”  (And that was true.) Or would they be pleased that they might share a sense of identity with the individual who had created this lovely thing?  I didn't know.  But each time it happened it bothered me. 

     Bothered me all around. 

     Bothered me that my assumptions about his identity originally stopped me from asking his name. 

     Bothered me that my perceptions of how to bridge the racial divide “colored” my description of the maker. 

     Thoroughly bothered me that my insecurities about whether or not I would be thought of as racist caused me to react           differently depending on whether the admirer was a person of color or not.

Perhaps my discomfort was that I initially censored myself because of some assumption about racial identity and that left me feeling guilty.  Perhaps it was shame at not getting his name or of having bought his piece of art on the street, assuming it would help pay the rent. But the bottom line was that I didn’t know his name and I could never truly credit him the way I did with so many other pieces of my pottery, jewelry, and art collected over the years.  It was race and it was racist and yet what was the right thing to do?  Be color-blind about the maker?  Perhaps. 

The conference ended with the session, “What Difference Does Race Make?” and before I got to that session, twice my necklace had been admired, both times by men who were black.  I still didn’t know what I should have said. 

I wish I had asked.

1 comment:

  1. OK, I think you're over-thinking this a bit. So now I will.
    He didn't sign the piece, he didn't offer his name. Many artists are humble in this way. But you thought it was because he didn't make it, maybe.
    Whatever the real truth, what rankles you to this day is that you didn't pursue it with him; ask your questions. That has become the most damning evidence of all (of your racism).
    Not wanting to offend becomes the larger offense, evidence that you consider his 'otherness' too great to risk real communication.
    Well, all of us are a little bit racist (to quote from 'Avenue Q') but your
    awareness is the antidote. It's unfortunate, though, that the least racist among us are the ones most tortured by the evidence.