Essays

On Hearing a White Man Co-opt the Body of Michael Brown

Michael Brown (image by the author for Hyperallergic)
Michael Brown (image by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

On a Friday evening, my partner and I wander into an auditorium at Brown University and find ourselves five minutes into what is apparently Kenneth Goldsmith’s poem “The Body of Michael Brown.” It sounds like “The Autopsy Report of Michael Brown.” It is a crisp, gray day at the Interrupt 3 conference as Goldsmith smoothly reads through the extent of Michael Brown’s injuries, pausing here and there for dramatic effect. My collaborator Sophia Le Fraga has mentioned his name before, and judging by his clothes and educated tone, I take Goldsmith to be a sensitive, new-age guy — the kind that self-identifies as spiritual, is well traveled, and enjoys (even makes) conceptual art. His head is bald and his beard long, his glasses are thick, and he wears a slightly patterned blazer over an unremarkable shirt, ending in a long, heavy black skirt and boots with red laces. His appearance seems to reflect vast interests in things like the internet and globalization. Above him is Michael Brown’s graduation photo. Brown is forever 18 years old; his skin is smooth, his goatee trimmed, his face looks strong and his hands soft.

Something is off about Goldsmith’s tone. I start to pick up a giddy somberness, the way some people giggle when they deliver bad news, like they aren’t sure what else to do. By now, I’m starting to get angry, and apparently visibly so, because my partner asks me if I want to leave and I whisper back, “No, I’m curious.” As my anger rises, I begin to count how many people of color are in the room: 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 maybe …

Kenneth Goldsmith reading "The Body of Michael Brown" at Interrupt 3 (screenshot via @soulellis/Twitter)
Kenneth Goldsmith reading “The Body of Michael Brown” at Interrupt 3 (screenshot via @soulellis/Twitter)

Reading nearly every banal medical word of Michael Brown’s autopsy, Goldsmith flitters on, his skirt swaying as he paces in a five-foot line onstage. I can see the videographer trying to keep up with him. As Goldsmith details the mutilation of Michael Brown’s hands, I look down at my own. I want to raise one, to stop this, to slow things down, but I don’t. I just look up at Brown’s graduation picture, finding his hands instead. At this point the work has deteriorated into a mind-numbing description of Brown’s body, which still somehow remains as vivid as ever. Goldsmith turns to Brown’s legs, thighs, and eventually his genitalia. The whole description feels sexual. Goldsmith’s voice rises slightly in pitch as he reaches the climax of his 30-minute poem”: “All surrounding genitalia is unremarkable.”

Confused, stunned silence ensues. Some people clap.

A panel of white poets takes the stage awkwardly as the microphone gets passed around the auditorium for a Q&A. I raise my hand. After two NPR-ish listeners remark on the vivid nature of the poem and placate without provoking, I receive the mic. I immediately regret raising my hand. I have no idea what I have to say, just that I need to say something. There is a sensation you get as a black American in American academia when white Americans start to talk about black people. It’s a complicated feeling, a helpless rage that cannot be quelled unless explicitly penned in.

Goldsmith is a famous poet — he founded a whole movement in which some of my poet friends work. I can feel my anxiety rising, and I scramble to call the work a cop-out. I realize later that what I mean is there are political realities from which art cannot hide. To take a document like this and attempt to make it into a form of art is blatantly not engaging with the issues at hand. Using a white body to try to interpret and illustrate the violence wrought upon black bodies in America is lazy.

A white girl with white glasses directly responds to me, explaining that we must respect Goldsmith’s art: in her view, Goldsmith essentially took us all hostage for 30 minutes, and as hostages to the work, we must try to interpret it without lashing out. Another NPR listener definitively states that while he found the poem thought-provoking, bringing up Michael Brown’s penis at the end was uncalled for. More white people speak. A doctor says that, for her, this reading was very vivid because she knew so much of the language and could easily see the extent of the wounds on the body. She found that powerful. As a few more white people speak, I hear Michael Brown’s body referred to over and over as “a body,” “the body,” “it.”

Another white girl speaks passionately about love and kindness and the indifference indicated by reading Brown’s autopsy report aloud. She seems well intentioned and smart enough to know that she cannot speak for anybody other than herself. She is also tired of hearing Michael Brown’s body referred to as “it”. The videographer’s lens, now a feed on the large screen, shows Goldsmith sitting just two rows in front of the white girl. Goldsmith’s face is getting red as he stares at her.

*   *   *

A memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (photo via Wikimedia Commons)
A memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

My sister is a junior at Brown University. Throughout the weekend after the reading, we debated the lack of merit of this piece, searching for a context in which to analyze and critique the experience. On Saturday, organizer Francesca Capone asked me if I’d be interested in speaking — or interrupting — during the final Interrupt event on Sunday; I agreed.

There were 30–40 people in the auditorium on Sunday, and the conversation began with poet Aaron Apps’s presentation of a brilliant and furious sound piece read through the voice of a computer. It was liberating to hear a seemingly neutral mouthpiece chew on this recent series of events and say:

The image, the death, is ubiquitous. Lyricizing a racialization of Brown’s corpse is horrific. Why would one do that in this space? Wait, that question isn’t interesting. Goldsmith’s piece isn’t provocative, it is explicitly invasive.

Apps continued:

How dare you make poetry porn out of a medicalized, dehumanized body? How dare you? How dare you present it in this space filled with privileged people playing at radical politics at the site of formal interventions in poems and lines of code? How dare people sit in the audience and talk about how important it was that they sat there and listened to it? How dare someone enact a microagression against me when I entered the conference?

Apps’s piece pushed the audience by stating plain, evident truths, woven through pop culture, personal history, poetic criticism, and pure frustration. We didn’t get to enjoy that peace for long. Without skipping a beat, a white girl sitting onstage with us brought up how Friday night’s event had reverberated through her weekend as she examined her own white privilege; she said that she couldn’t sleep all weekend. A middle-aged white man questioned the auditorium about Adorno, who suggested there could be no poetry after Auschwitz — the interjection felt relevant as the man weighed these two circumstances, trauma for trauma. The conversation continued for a moment. More white people confessed that they too had not slept. My sister, outraged and well rested, interrupted and asked about the black body and this obvious kidnapping. She explained that for her it felt like Goldsmith physically took Michael Brown’s body, chewed it up, and spat it out, exhibiting it for only the institutionally brightest minds to see.

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?'s "Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera"
Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s “Good Stock on the Dimensional Floor: An Opera”

She coaxed me to speak. I admitted that I am an artist, not a poet, and I said that I approach these ideas with the canon of art as my fertile point of reference. For me, watching Goldsmith felt like the same trauma as reading about Joe Scanlan’s Donelle Woolford project after the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? (Yams) Collective withdrew their poem/opera “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor” from the Whitney Biennial last year. The Yams collective clarified some of the reasons they withdrew from the biennial in an email from Sienna Shields last May:

We’re sure that we don’t need to explain how the notion of a black artist being “willed into existence” and the use of a black FEMALE body through which a WHITE male “artist” conceptually masturbates in the context of an art exhibition presents a troubling model of the BLACK body and of conceptual RAPE. The possibility of this figure somehow producing increased “representation” for black artists both furthers the reduction of black personhood and insults the very notion of representation as a political or collective engagement.

A fictional artist, a 30-something-year-old well-educated black lesbian artist from Georgia (now from Detroit) who is actually a 53-year-old white male artist, was one of the only nine participating black artists/groups in the Whitney Biennial (whose totally contributors numbered more than 100)? Seriously?

Later, in an interview with artnet News, some of the Yams members explained that Donelle Woolford is just a symptom of a broken system. Shields called their invitation to participate in the biannual exhibition tokenism, citing the obvious exclusion of black artists from previous biennials. Andre Springer put it more bluntly: “The Whitney Museum promotes this idea that it is the voice of American art and speaks for the nation when it comes to what contemporary art is. But it’s completely not diverse, and so it misrepresents the direction where art is going. I feel it’s lost touch with what art is today.” Saying “yes” was the beginning of the Yams’ protest; pulling out of the show was just the completion of that action.

Ferguson_Day_6_Picture_12
A Michael Brown protestor in Ferguson, Missouri (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

It runs deeper, obviously. There are thousands of stories told often in the black artist community. Almost every black artist whose name you know has been snubbed, passed over, and ignored in one way or another by a major institution; imagine how it is for the artists whose names you don’t know. Trust me, white supremacy is alive and well in the art and academic worlds today. Brown University’s faults are not its alone.

Goldsmith’s reading gave me a glimpse of the white supremacist patriarchy alive within me. It runs deep in my mind and stops me from defending my people and myself. I guess I can take solace in the fact that I did get some sleep last weekend.

While writing this essay, I found an interesting irony: at the bottom of Michael Brown’s autopsy report it reads, “For Official Use Only.”

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