Today in Post-Race History: Let Them Eat Cake
Given the kind of stuff that I cover here, sometimes certain blogs are obligatory. This is one of them.
A few weeks ago, I read an article about Toni Morrison, who has begun promoting her latest novel, Home, available to readers next month. As usual, I found Morrison’s words to be absurdly phenomenal and inspiring. I have returned to the article several times since, searching for guidance, advice, a light to illuminate the way on my pitiful journey towards becoming a halfway decent writer. It makes sense, then, that I thought of The Bluest Eye when news of Sweden’s minister of culture eating a “racist cake” found its way to my Facebook feed.
Last week, like many of you, I watched video of Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut into Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde’s performance piece: a cake of a naked black woman accompanied by Linde’s blackened face protruding from the table. Linde’s cake, one of several that were part of Sweden’s World Art Day, was meant to draw attention to female circumcision in Africa, a practice that has affected over 92 million girls. Linde moaned in agony as Liljeroth and the rest of the attendees performed a clitoridectomy, cutting themselves slices of cake while laughing. As one might expect, the (black) internet went berserk.
Admittedly, it’s difficult not to be horrified at the spectacle, especially when one has no context. I saw pictures initially, then the video with no explanation other than the person(s) posting the clips talking about the moment being yet another example of Sweden’s racism. As I watched, my initial thoughts–once I was able to gather them–turned to Pecola Breedlove, the main character in Morrison’s debut novel. Pecola, black, poor, and ugly, dreams of having blue eyes. Early in the book, Pecola goes to a candy store and purchases Mary Janes. She eats them ritualistically, hoping to be(come) Mary Jane, which is to say an ostensibly pretty white girl.
There are other kinds of consumption. Communion, for example, wherein Christians consume symbols of the body and blood of Christ as a reminder of his suffering for them. It becomes difficult, then, not to interpret Liljeroth’s et. al. consumption of a black female body outside of these already familiar discourses, even as other details emerged. Namely, that Linde is Afro-Swedish and his explanation of the purpose of his piece–to draw attention to female circumcision in Africa–and the minister of culture’s claim that she is anti-racist. Linde’s interviews suggest that those who watched his performance piece with mouths agape didn’t understand the point; Liljeroth has refuse to resign despite pressure from the National Association of Afro-Swedes, arguing that art is intended to provoke. For both parties, then, it seems a tragic moment of misunderstanding when folks place Linde’s piece next to the lynched body of a black person.
Now, the debate about the effectiveness of juxtaposing Linde’s art to a lynched body have and will be debated. I wonder, though, about the extent of authorial intent. Moreover, I’m curious about the way that the consumption of this black body by laughing Europeans undermines Linde’s point and forwards another, which is to say that the result of Linde’s performance is not greater awareness about clitoridectomies, but rather a reminder of the ways that Europe has gathered sustenance through a destructive consumption of African bodies. In other words, instead of an artful treatise on female circumcision, we’re reminded of the devastating nature of colonialism–and the hilarity of it all to those who benefit(ted).
You are what you eat. Pecola Breedlove surely hoped so. Christians appreciate such reminders. Perhaps Liljeroth’s laughter and Linde’s agony muted such adages. It seems that it did. More importantly, however, Linde’s original intent was similarly obscured. This, I suppose, is the problem of audience. Or, as Erykah Badu put it, “What good do your words do, if they don’t understand you?” Indeed, good art should provoke, inspire and/or change thought. Perhaps Linde’s audience’s laughter means that they didn’t “get it.” Perhaps Linde did not understand the potential meta conversation. Which is to say that he did not understand his audience would become part of his performance piece and significantly alter his own desires for his work.
Which all, I suppose, compels questions: What are the limits of an artist’s intent? And further, how should that intent change how we interpret the art? Or do we remain disturbed by a black man inhabiting a black woman’s body to the laughter of whites and his own monetary and/or artistic benefit? Or is the joke on us as we predictably surveil until we find more alleged racism to point out and tweet about throughout the day?
All that said, on a very basic, dessert level I would not eat the cake–and I love cake. It did not at all look appetizing to me. Yet those in attendance did. They ate it. They laughed. They enjoyed the cake. And that, no matter Linde’s own intent, is the core message of the piece as I gathered it. And so, how strong is your anti-racism, is your understanding of any non-racist, potentially satirical purpose of the performance if you find the cake attractive enough to eat–and delicious? Food for thought.