Uncle Julius' Porch
Most African Americans came from people who had no space of their own when they landed on this continent. They no longer owned land; no longer had a home, and even their bodies were a space that didn’t belong to them. Physically stolen and packed into ships like inanimate cargo, the space slaves owned could not be physical. That which remained was psychological, spiritual, and historical.
Slaves kept with them the oral tradition of storytelling as one of the only ways to maintain this non-physical space, to maintain a sense of culture. An allegory or folk tale could communicate ethics, resistance and lessons. Through this tradition the next generations were taught their history, for writing and reading were largely forbidden. They were verbally taught craft and survival. They retained spirituality through oral custom- bringing traditions of music and root-working with them. This became a psychological space that was not accessible to outsiders unless they were invited. The slave masters were not able to penetrate and pillage this space as they had physical space.
Charles W. Chesnutt, a black author in the post-reconstruction era, revolutionized a kind of inherited space. In the late 1800s, the popularity of white-authored tales of a romanticized black southern life inspired Chesnutt to write a series of tales that mock this genre with his cunning character, Uncle Julius in Conjure Tales. The character Julius, an ex-slave, and the coachman to John, the narrator, bears no accidental “childlike” similarity to Uncle Remus (from white author Joel Chandler Harris’ stories, 1880-1905) or Uncle Tom (from white author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852) who were designed after racial stereotypes and slurs that include the word “porch”. But Chesnutt’s Julius plays into the minstrel stereotype to control it.
Julius retells a story which he “‘member(s) well,” where the reader does get the feeling that this allegory was not necessarily witnessed directly by Julius, but perhaps was a tale passed down to him from an older generation of witnesses. His stories are not of a far off land, or of fantastic creatures, but of a recent past on the same land that the listeners stand- where he has an authority because he and his people have been there as witnesses and subjects. With each generation, as with any oral tradition, details are omitted or embellished to suit the storyteller, his memory and the context. His story is grown into a different time or place and it becomes his own. And as with any oral tradition, this natural adaptation is overlooked for the sake of the lesson, and fiction returns to fact.
The story “Dave’s Neckliss” begins with Julius being invited to eat some leftover ham at John’s dinner table, “when he happened to be about our house at mealtimes, my wife never let him go away hungry.”( Chesnutt, Charles W. Conjure Tales and Stories of the Color Line. New York City: Penguin Group, 2000. 90.) A reader may guess that it is no accident that Julius happens by when he does. Nor that he proceeds to prolong his stay, and his meal, by weaving an unsettling story inspired by the supper. As the story proceeds we find Julius slowly making his way further and further into the house, penetrating this forbidden zone. As the ultimate manipulator, Julius ends up walking home with the whole ham. “‘The fact is,’ she (John’s wife) said, pensively, ‘I couldn’t have eaten any more of that ham, so I gave it to Julius’.” (Chesnutt 102.) Not only did he maintain a certain physical territory for himself on the plantation, but also he retained control of a certain social space by using storytelling as his means. Reclamation of this physical space of one’s own gives a sense of healing and a place of belonging, not just surviving but also flourishing. It is conceivable, then, that one may not only inherit physical space from one’s forefathers, but also social and psychological space.
Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales originally inspired my thesis project, Uncle Julius’ Porch. Thinking about this realm of inherited space, I decided that I would fly my father in to collaborate with me. I told him the concepts I was thinking about, we discussed them, and side-by-side we designed a porch and built it.
Chesnutt’s work was subversive by aiming at a literary audience that was consuming white authored romantic slave narratives, he flipped the genre on it’s head bringing it into a critical “realm of feeling and passion,” and giving the Uncle character psychological depth and prowess.( Chesnutt ix.) Both Julius and Chesnutt delved deeper and therefore beyond ground their forefathers had explored. Thinking about the influence my family has had on what I do, as well as artists who have come before me, I wanted to use what they have given me and push my territory further. It is arguable that both Julius and Chesnutt were cognizant of their unique privileges and what their privilege could get them.
As participants in Uncle Julius’ Porch, the public inhabited a certain privileged space. They were aware of their physical involvement with the space, and they had clear choices of how far they were willing to engage. They were invited to peel layers away from the piece, to consider their true frames of reference and find out if they were able access core content I may have intended. Whether it is their own story, the story of their history, or the history of the space they occupy, the participants are included and invited to consider where their position is on the porch.
As the participant approached Uncle Julius’ Porch, they were faced with two choices to engage; to step up onto the porch (creating sound of wood creaking and footsteps), or to crouch down and enter a pathway under the porch (which could be claustrophobic and required crawling). To be in the room at all, one had to interact with the work directly. In the end, the porch filled the entire gallery and the stairs leading up onto the porch began in the hallway. It stood thirty-three inches off the ground and was made of southern pine. It was made with traditional framing as structure and securing the one-by-four inch unfinished decking using flathead nails as a porch in the turn-of-the-century south would be built. The walls above were bare except for one photo placed above the doorframe at the exit. It was a four-inch image of Paul Robeson in his college football uniform. Paving high standards for his son, Robeson’s father was a runaway slave; he joined the union army and went on to earn a degree from Lincoln University. The image I chose was of Robeson in his years at Rutgers where he was the first black football player, and a two time All-American. As I began my time at Rutgers, the school’s football team won their first bowl game, and four months later the school’s women’s basketball team, in the NCAA championship, became center of a national racial conflict regarding the media’s “freedom of speech.” Not only was Robeson a football player, but also valedictorian of his class in 1919, went on to become a lawyer, a well respected singer, actor and an international humanitarian. He was a controversial revolutionary in the McCarthy era, which is why his legacy is obscured. I thought all of this timely in picturing Robeson as an icon of forefather-ness. (Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand, Beacon Press, Boston, 1971)
In many ways Robeson aligns with Julius and with Chesnutt in that he was accepted as somewhat of a token, but had agency and pioneered ground while slipping under the radar of sorts. In many cultures a good luck charm or a blessing is placed in this same location above a door. The found image became almost talismanic. One may see Robeson just before they leave the porch and enter the outside world, as a reminder and a blessing of standards and histories of a space. This was a way to not only memorialize Robeson, but also make note of his place as part of this inherited space, a forefather.
Above the porch was minimal, clean, formal, bare, and somewhat peaceful. Below was confining and dark, but warm and multiplex. Under the porch I built a path lined with brown fabric so one might squat down and crawl. Many people noticed the pathways likeness to fort building that a child might make with blankets under furniture. Halfway down the pathway the participant came to a juncture leading to different destinations. They chose a path and discovered that each ended in a cave like structure. The first cave provided a tv/dvd player and a collection of movies, books, cds and a mirror. The collection ultimately offered some narrative for the piece: James Brown: Live in Montreux, Slavery and the Making of America, Friday, The Color Purple, Cleopatra Jones, School Daze, Waiting for the Barbarians, Conjure Tales and Stories of the Color Line, The Anxiety of Influence, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, The Culture Game, etc. One was invited to make use of the collection while they lounged among blankets and pillows that floored the cave. The second path led to a storytelling station where one could share their own experience or story with the participants that visited after them. There were four pencils hanging from the ceiling/bottom of the porch and a diary that my father used to sketch out plans and thoughts for the porch. People were encouraged to contribute to the diary or write on the walls and bottom of the structure with clues to their feelings, experiences and stories. As the crawlers leave they see two more photographs. The first appears at the junction of the two paths, it is a photo of a group of Buffalo Soldiers sitting on a southern porch playing music. The other appears as one exits the underground, it is a picture of Charles W. Chesnutt who has the physical appearance of being a white man. The idea of perception has been a recurring theme in my work and he embodies that complexity.
This underground space did refer to the Underground Railroad, but one also might be reminded of Dante’s Inferno, or histories like Robeson’s that pass under our radar, and to identities like Chesnutt’s or the porch itself that may not be immediately perceivable. The coexistence of above the porch and below the porch might suggest such binary characteristics as dark and light, black and white, agency and manipulations. As the porch itself is a site for storytelling, it is also a space of duality - one that is between house and field, inside and outside, private and public. The re-contextualizing of the porch into the gallery manipulates its identity further, questioning its authenticity, intention, and function. The piece gave room for a participant to bring their own frame of reference, alluding directly to the concept of inherited space. Besides its life as a porch, the piece has evoked imagery of palate rafts from a Cuban woman, memories of docks from a woman who grew up on a lake, and thoughts of a stage from a modern dancer. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” (Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936)
Not only may a thing have an actual history of its own, but what may be more apparent is the content that a viewer brings to a thing. Its specific narrative may transform and change depending on who experiences it, which is exactly what happens to stories that are handed down orally.
During the opening reception, I hired three dancers of mixed race and ethnicity to be my catalysts for experience on top of the porch. They engaged with the porch as if they were a neutral participant until, for 15 minutes out of each hour, James Brown’s “Its A Man’s World” looped at full volume in the space. The song pointed again to the concepts of duality and inherited spaces, written about the balance of the sexes throughout history by both the iconic “Godfather of Soul” and Betty Jean Newsome, his empowered girlfriend.
And after man has made everything, everything he can
You know that man makes money to buy from other man
This is a man's world
But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl
He's lost in the wilderness
He's lost in bitterness. (Brown, James and Betty Jean Newsome. It’s a Man’s World. James Brown. King, 1966)
I chose this song not only to add an uncomfortably slow piece to dance to, not only to amplify the element of sound which automatically violates boundaries, and not only because it exemplifies another form of oral tradition, but to also highlight the conceptual duality of my authoring ideas of black masculinity in the piece. Brown is another recurring icon of forefather-ness and inherited space to me; not only changing the sound of popular music forever, but also claiming a territory with his diverse audience that gave him critical political power, that of a powerful, black masculinity, but not too threatening to loose control of his audience and the people around him. Yet beginning in the years of the civil rights movement, Brown by no means fit the bill of a clean-cut token. He had soul, but he wasn’t beautiful, he was super-bad but he wasn’t afraid to sweat it out. “Always let them see you sweat…sweat softens [black masculinity].” (DeFrantz, Thomas F. “My Brother, the Dance Master.” Lecture. Ain’t that a Groove: The Genious of James Brown. Richardson Auditorium Princeton University. Princeton, New Jersey. 30 November 2007.) Brown brought new territories to music and dancing: soul, power, content, politics, and sweat. He broke crucial ground in the concept of the artist as manipulator.
The lights stayed bright but the dancers immediately treated the space as a late night dance club, invading participants personal space by Bump ‘n Grind on each of them. During the 15 minutes of this intervention, the existence of below and above the porch changed. What was originally minimal and clean, open and peaceful above became invasive, awkward and aggressive. And the underground, which was claustrophobic and dark and took an effort to partake in fully, became a peaceful and secluded escape from above. Participants were essentially forced to become a dancer on this porch, regardless of inheritance or appearance. I am interested in manipulating the viewer to involve them in the subversion of the idea of minstrelsy; putting them in a position of subject and not viewer, where they might walk away with questions, conversation and a physical memory of the experience. Through this process of reclaiming control of a destructive racial stereotype, I want a participant to leave with something that they can continue with after their immediate interaction and possibly consider their responsibility and the problems as a performer.
The dancers invaded this personal space and this iconic porch space to create a sort of minstrel show using all the participants who walked on top of the porch. What was unpredictable was that the dancing became infectious and the more word was spread that this was an action in the piece, the more comfortable people became with the exhibitionism. They began to not be a victim in this Bump ‘n Grind dance, but to reclaim their power and engage freely in the action with their friends. Even the Chair of the Visual Arts Department proclaimed, “I bet you didn’t know this about me!” while engaging atop the porch.
In any age of advancing technology, there coexists in the social imagination, an age of nostalgia. We search for our identity by looking to the past. We define ourselves through a fine balance of imagination and history, through outside and inside influences. There are physical forms that evoke a primal response from us as humans regardless of our having had direct engagement with that form first hand. White columns will always evoke imagery of plantations for me, though I’ve never been to The South, and I am perfectly aware of columns in Greek and Egyptian architecture. These forms have an identity. This imagery is passed down from generation to generation, possibly through culture and stories, but the inheritance may not even exist in words, maybe it exists intuitively.
”But when you ask ‘what things are for a given society’ (noticing, by the way, how societies have taken the place of things as the given), surely the inquiry should include attention to those artistic and philosophical texts that would become sources, then, for discovering not epistemological or phenomenological truth but the truth about what force things or the question of things might have in each society.”( Brown, Bill. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 “Things.” Autumn, 2001. 10)
There may be no logical relationship between a viewer and an image, but because each person holds these inherited associations, that should be considered, with every form, an image creates a story that is relative and depends wholly on the viewer’s act of reading to give the image, and the experience of reading them in a re-contextualized space, value. “…Imagination augments the values of reality…” (Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, Boston. 1969. 3)
Walter Benjamin argues that an image’s authenticity, its truth, is jeopardized by reproduction, because it then erodes its place in history. (Benjamin 3) But I think, through my experience creating Uncle Julius’ Porch, I’ve learned that the truth of an image (or an art object) is actually not in fact or originality. An object’s “aura” is in it’s essence, it’s soul, and that is the unique echo that a viewer may pick up on when reading a re-contextualized image or object, like a column, a porch, or a picture of Robeson, in a space.
“To specify exactly what a phenomenology of the image can be, to specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry, rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, is a phenomenology of the soul.” (Bachelard xvi)
I want to encourage viewers to relate with my work not only through physical interaction or personal associations, but also through a dialogue that depends on their perception. I want to create a space for conversation in which to understand the world’s territories. As we begin interacting with and learning about each other, a silent and maybe even subconscious stage of judgment is diffused. I believe people listen better when they are involved in the process of discovery.