Searching for Empathy: Revaluing self in relation to others

By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett

“The Immigrants No.3” (c1990), Maxwell Taylor, artist’s proof woodcut print on paper, 32 x 48. Part of the National Collection.

I am not your boy,

I am not your negro,

I am not your hoe

I am not your Haitian,

I am not your dawg

I am not your…

Where is our empathy?  Empathy is our ability to understand other people’s experiences and to provide some support, either from afar or from nearby.  We understand, or so we claim, that Black Lives Matter; we get the idea that Black and Latino youth have different experiences in the United States than most white children.

We can appreciate, or we say we can, that 1 in 3 black male babies will be sent to jail in their lives; we see that over 60 percent of homes in the country are headed by single mothers and this negatively impacts child development, not because women cannot raise children on their own, but because children need parents and parenting is a fulltime job and because of patriarchy, under which we are still functioning. This, notwithstanding our matrilineal home life, has a limited how we value ourrelationship with femininity.

In the language of art, the images we see of women is usually inscribed and described in this manner.  They are bodies to be consumed, not humans to be understood.  This week we build on ideas from Bryan Stevenson, human rights lawyer in the United States, as they come through art and relate to universal experience.

It is ironic then that our ability to feel other people’s losses is limited to our willingness to feel our own losses.  We do not have time to experience loss.  Trauma is usually hidden and revealed in very complex ways.  In Max Taylor’s The Immigrants No.3, the focus of last week’s “From the Collection” by Natalie Willis, demonstrates a scene that has limited access for us when we refuse to feel.

Art breaks down barriers to feeling, so that the art of film similar to works of fine art creep into the feeling body of the viewer.  bell hooks examines this in interesting ways, in her essay “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Critique” attacks the ownership of women.  As she reads Spike Lee’s work and asks in Reel to Real (1996)  “Can a man really tell a woman’s story?”  perhaps the answer to this is no, but why is it that a man can not tell another man’s story even when they come from similar backgrounds? Have the ecosystems and boundaries erected between them disallow, disavow and radically remove any shared experience?

So much so that when we look at poor people’s experiences with racism in the United States, we do not see ourselves.  When we read James Baldwin’s unfinished Remember this House or see the film, I am not your Negro directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (2016) which negates the possession of the black body that we seem so happy to celebrate, are we affected?  Or do we stick with the usual suspect movies that project hoes and gangsters across the screen? The way we look at and the way we see ourselves determines our relationship with self and our relationships with others. Impacting on our relationship with empathy and affect.

We often see black figures in art that are actively subjected to other people’s idea of beauty, savagery, subalternity, or the sexualized “Other” that is hopelessly locked in a prison of the body marked by race and ethnicity.  In Cidade de deus (2002) the Black bodies are marked by poverty and violence.  They are barred from any other way of being, of succeeding, of being seen or for that matter, heard.  They are pushed into a violent realm of being.  Much like young black males in the Bahamian context, particularly in Over-the-Hill communities where the only access to running water is at the Standpipe on the corner, who are defined, restricted and confined to their spatial identification with poverty and criminality of blackness, their bodies are criminalised.  They are cast as lazy and lousy.  But are they really?  As articulated of Puerto Ricans by US President Trump via Twitter, “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort…”

This harkens back to a re-presentation of Blacks and Latinos, of all Caribbean peoples as lazy and listless.  So, here, we have two images deployed by the mainstream.  The image of criminality and poverty created by poor people’s unwillingness to work and laziness that reduce them to poverty because they refuse to work. Women are similarly reduced to property, as hooks alludes to in the aforementioned essay.  We are taught, therefore, not to identify with these inferior beings because they are not like us.  We work hard for what we have.  By hardworking we understand that we should not be poor.  It does not occur to us that we are using similar language reinforcing racists stereotypes when we say things like ‘our Haitians’.

Max Taylor’s work depicts not a group of people obviously impoverished, but a group of fully-clothed people seemingly oppressed, but unyielding so, with heads held high in determination of their humanity.  When we look to art for its celebration of humanity we must look at the work produced during and/or emanating from the lineage of the Harlem Renaissance that focus on black as beautiful, not as inferior or depraved. Taylor’s work provides an alternative reading.  The black and white textured etching provides a certain amount of feeling that disturbs the established discourse.  On one level, he does not use bright colours, typical of Caribbean art, but rather a more sombre palette that nuances the message.  The flow, the movement of the work brings to life a strength of character and depth of human feeling and dignity that is often contradictory to re-presentation.

Once upon a time, the immigrant was anyone in search of happiness, a better life, those Black loyalists who journeyed with white loyalists from the Southern US, to The Bahamas, though they did not receive the same land grants the white loyalists did, they held their heads high and carried on.  Is this a picture of formerly enslaved Africans bound for the plantation, that we, according to the myth of a more gentle form of slavery in The Bahamas would not have truly experienced?  Can we begin to discuss this through art?

Art provides an avenue to healing as well as to conversation. Fine art, film and Junkanoo, gives space to dialogue, to self-expression otherwise blocked by an official voice.  Does silence still occur in today’s society?

Silence is blanketed on many subjects when we refuse to allow people’s humanity to be observed.  Taylor’s feet moving in the work is not about static depression or dispossession, or surrender, but rather of forward movement.  We may never be sure what comes next, but art shows us that we can survive and keep going.

Installation view of “The Immigrants No.3” (c1990) by Maxwell Taylor, part of the National Collection as seen in the current Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics”.

The alternative to domination

bell hooks not only challenges male domination of women and their bodies in Spike Lee’s She gotta Have it, but articulates the reality that perhaps a man cannot tell a woman’s story, but why would he want to unless he has walked in her shoes? Can an ethnocentric writer tell the story of an ethnic group which s/he sees as inferior?  What will the story look like?

When we articulate the same ideas of poverty and Blackness, of youth criminality and female disempowerment through objectification, subjectification or commodification we ignore the messages sent through so much art.  Much mainstream film, music and visual art articulate the spatial injustice of deep and blinding poverty even in the postcolonial state. There is no insistence on seeing my Haitian as something different from my Negro.  We are blinded by our own lack of empathy our inability to feel our struggle in a way that bars us from understanding someone else’s suffering. We see these images but we are somehow unable to understand, to deal with, or even to accept that they are human bodies just like ours.

The dignity evident in Taylor’s work, is also obvious in Baldwin’s writing.  The need for empathy, for knowledge and power shouts out from both of these works.  Art can provide an avenue for expression, we simply need to access the space that allows art to speak with us.  Art is larger than the negatively-controlled, predetermined image of Blackness mediated by so much of popular culture today that we consume and ultimately defines who we become and our inability to feel. Maybe except for the pleasures of the flesh that lead to our own thuggish existence where we distance ourselves from humanity by erecting a wall against feeling.