This project was inspired by and drew from Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus, Hortense J. Spillers “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987) and Sylvia Wynter’s “‘No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” (1994) in connection to the Black woman’s body through time and space in conjunction with “Fragment of a Queen’s Face,” a figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York.
Theory I: Flesh and Fragment
Theory I is an epistolary to “The Fragment of a Queen’s Face.” The figure was made from yellow jasper during the Amarna Period (ca.1353-1336) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten in the late 18th Dynasty. The most significant feature of the figure is that more half of the head is missing and only the lips are visible. In the letter, I use personal history and connect various works that articulate historical and sociopolitical views of the Black female body.
The Visits describes my first visit and subsequent returns to the “Queen’s Face” and my affinity to the figure. Decoding the Hieroglyphics features theoretical groundings of how the “Queen” came to be. #SayHerName challenges the silence about the violence experienced by Black women throughout history. The Killmonger in Me discusses the role Black women in science and cultural institutions. The Riddle connects the past to the present. P.S. The Ties that Bond makes universal connections.
I first met you when I was 16. As an US History assignment, I had to visit cultural institutions and landmarks around New York City including The Met. When we got there, my home girl and I headed towards the Ancient Egyptian section. I was in awe of all the artifacts. Out of them all, I was most intrigued by your warm and welcoming polished yellow jasper. I was looking at half of you, yet you still seemed complete. I had never seen anything like you. Your label read, “Fragment of a Queen’s Face.” Who were you and why do you look foreign yet familiar? We circled the museum and bounced, but since then I have always returned to see you. When I was bored, when I broke up with him, when I started college, when I wanted to escape New York without leaving the city—it was a no-brainer, all I needed was a MetroCard and time.
I have since wondered about how you were damaged: who damaged you? Why do I feel such an affinity with you? The damage done aligns with the history of removing noses is hardly a coincidence. The fracture right above your cupid’s bow looks like whoever struck you was trying to destroy your nose and ended up taking off most of your head. However, I see the attention to detail that went into creating you. Your smile line, the creases in your neck…You were loved. Your plaque reads: She cannot be securely identified with certainty.
The Met speculates that you are either Queen Nefertari or Kiya. The museum also gives possible reasons for what happened to you, among them a territorial conquest, but after looking up other the images and figures of Nefertari and Kiya—some of their noses are missing as well. Apparently, when the artists created their works with wide noses, they were likely to be destroyed.
In November of 2017, I needed to escape and decided to pay you a visit, but this time was different. My knowledge of the Black experience had grown exponentially, now you weren’t just a face of curiosity. In my naiveté, I was a bit voyeuristic; now I looked and thought of you critically. Without words and sealed lips, you began to tell a story. I listened with my eyes.
She cannot be securely identified with certainty.
Decoding the Hieroglyphics
a. A hieroglyphic character; a figure of some object, as a tree, animal, etc., standing for a word (or, afterwards, in some cases, a syllable or sound), and forming an element of a species of writing found on ancient Egyptian monuments and records; thence extended to such figures similarly used in the writing of other races. Also, a writing consisting of characters of this kind.
a. transf. and fig. A figure, device, or sign having some hidden meaning; a secret or enigmatical symbol; an emblem.
b. humorously. A piece of writing difficult to decipher.
3. One who makes hieroglyphic inscriptions. Rare.
A few ways that we identify people is by how they look (from their physical appearance to their fashion statements), the way they speak (soda vs. pop) and their name (Hayashi vs. Hernandez). This is not perfect because it is always an incomplete picture. I state this because somewhere along my life journey, I learned how looters and destroyers—who called themselves archaeologists, soldiers, historians, geographers, and the likes—visited Egypt and did as they pleased. Their colonial practices excavated and disrupted histories and legacies in the name of research, imperialism and culture. Despite the great cultural history here, ankhs as a symbol of religion and wide noses, signifying Blackness, were damaged and destroyed.
“I would make a distinction in this case between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ and impose that distinction as the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions. In that sense, before the ‘body’ there is the ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography.” (Spillers, 1987: p.67)
By highlighting the works of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter, Alexander Weheliye (2014) argue that racial assemblages—humans, not-quite humans and non-humans—determine differentiation and hierarchy of races through sociopolitical processes. Using the term habeas viscus (you shall have the flesh), Weheliye relies on Spillers’ distinction between the flesh and the body along with the writ habeas corpus (you shall have the body) to examine the “breaks, crevices, movements, languages and such zones between the flesh and the law” (p. 11).
I decided to look at Spillers’ (1987) and Wynter’s (1994) work and how they examine language in relationship to the violence against Black bodies. In reference to the violence committed against Black bodies during slavery, Spillers (1987) argues that flesh tells the narrative of the body and when it came to physical trauma—breaks, fractures, brandings, punctures, missing parts, etc.—the body kept score. This is what Spillers called the hieroglyphics of the flesh.
According to Spillers, the hieroglyphics of the flesh is not just the violence committed against the Black body, like the “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but the flesh itself as a marker for racial violence no matter the institution whether scientific, social, political, educational or economic, it is the color of the flesh, which determines if and what kind of violence is inflicted on someone (Spillers, 1987). For example, the impact of mass incarceration on the Black and Latino communities versus white communities. Blacks and Latinos get harsher sentences than their white counterparts simply because they are not white.
Wynter’s and Spillers’ work overlaps when they discuss “captivity.” Spillers writes about the “captive body” while Wynter references James Baldwin’s term “captive population” which describes how Black lives are viewed and how we are a nation within a nation (Baldwin, 1968/2017). From these captivities emerge questions surrounding the value of captive lives and how they communicate our truths and what happens when we refuse the hegemonic “truth.”
When discussing the rhetoric of the hegemonic “truth,” Wynter (1994) calls out grammarians, the scholars (gatekeepers) who over centuries have perpetually reproduced gender and racial inequities through their literature. Wynter argued that rhetoric in the Humanities and the Social Sciences creates and maintains a caste system of racial hierarchy where whites are on top (dominant) and Blacks on the bottom (inferior). However, grammarians, who can identify as any gender or race, erase race and codify racialized language using economic and geographical terms such as “middle class suburbia” to mean white and “inner city poor and jobless” to equal young Black males (Wynter, 1994). Of course, there are exceptions to who is being identified and discussed within these categories, as previously mentioned, but for the most part, this framing of language conceals the racial oppression and the “hidden cost” of “subjective understanding” (pg. 60).
I wanted to argue about “today’s world,” but truthfully the hidden cost has always been a thing post-1492. In Spillers’ analysis about the “truth” value of the words that represent race, she wrote “We might concede, at the very least, that sticks and bricks might break our bones, but words will most certainly kill us (p. 68).”
You not only have markings, but part of you is missing. Was someone clumsy or was it a violent sociopolitical process used to maintain hierarchy? If those who committed this act against you were rivals during ancient times, why didn’t they just break you down to rubble? What purpose does keeping half of a face serve? We know the natives used to go in and steal gold and things that bling bling. You’re not that. Or maybe your lips weren’t destroyed because they thought no one would listen to what you had to say? I study your fractures again, especially the groove above your cupid’s bow…
She cannot be securely identified with certainty.
While looking at you, Sarah Baartman (1789-1815) came to mind. Of course there is a huge difference between the exploited life of a Black woman and the exploited life of statue of a Black woman, but parallels are present. Born approximately 4,000 miles south from where you were on the same continent, Sarah Baartman was called a “freak” and was used for “science and spectacle” because of her large buttocks (McKittrick, 2010 p. 117). Enslaved people were commonly being used for medical research without any ethical consideration (Spillers, 1987). Sarah Baartman was no different because her body was used to explain inherent Black inferiority. As McKittrick (2010) argued:
“…across time and space, and sometimes across race, Baartman is the analytical template through which racist pornography, the grotesque, and the lewd seduction of black female popular-culture figures can be understood in relation to a history of racial imprisonment, bodily dismemberment, sexism, and white supremacy.” (p. 118)
I sat with that. In between those lines is a patriarchal component that we, as Black women, sometimes unconsciously privilege before our own lives: the lives of our brothers. Sometimes we don’t think or know how to articulate the violence inflicted on us (Love, 2017). I think of my brothers safety in this world knowing that I am just as vulnerable. Not until the last two years, did I center the violence inflicted on me because that is the way the world turns and I have things to get done….until one day it caught up to me. I began to do a survey of my spirit injuries—more than I thought—and some were unrecognizable, a hieroglyph. I guess I should consider myself lucky because I know what needs healing while many others don’t and/or can’t. Adrien Katherine Wing argues that if there are many injuries it results into a what Williams calls a “spirits murder” (1990).
Then there is the actual murdering of Black (trans)women and the lack of recognition when she has taken her last breath at the hands of the state. Things are starting to change with social media platforms like Twitter, to share our sisters’ stories. Think tanks such as African American Policy Forum (Crenshaw, Ritchie, Anspach, Gilmer, Harris, 2015) and sites like Black Perspective that make sure these women are not erased. The margins in which these stories reside are now disrupting the mainstream. We are learning their stories, honoring their lives, finally having these conversations and saying their names…
#ShantelDavis #MyaHall #KendraJames #LaTanyaHaggerty #FrankiePerkins #KathrynJohnson #DanetteDaniels #AlbertaSpruill #EleanorBumpurs #MargaretMitchell #ShellyFrey #YuvetteHenderson #KaylaMoore #TanishaAnderson #ShereeseFrancis #MichelleCusseaux #KyamLivingson #ShenequeProctor #RekiaBoyd #AiyannaJones #TarikaWilson #AuraRosser #JanishaFonville #NewJersey4 #YvetteSmith #FrankiePerkins #KathrynJohnson #DanetteDaniels #AlbertaSpruill #DuannaJohnson #NizahMorris #IslanNettles #RosannMiller #SonjiTaylor #MalaikaBrooks #DeniseStewart #ConstanceGraham #PatriciaHartley #KorrynGaines #AlteriaWoods #CharleenaLyles #MorganRankins #CariannHithon
The Killmonger in Me
After Baartman’s death in 1815, her body was dismembered and placed in the Museum of Natural History in Paris until 2002. You, Queen, were “gifted” to the Met in 1926…The year my favorite girl was born…In Black Panther, when Killmonger stared at the mask with intrigue and Ulysses Klause asked if it was from Wakanda, Killmonger replied, “Nah. I’m just feeling it.” Killmonger wasn’t just “feeling it.” The connection is much deeper than that. N’Jadaka (Killmonger) saw something in that Igbo mask. There was an affinity; a connection. I thought of our relationship, me and your fragmented face. I am not a psychoanalyst, but I know a lil’ sumthin’ sumthin’. For me, we are both fragments of a disjointed story. Our story.
Killmonger effortlessly challenges the history of artifacts placed in the museum. “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it…like they took everything else?” Art reflecting life.
Killmonger later states, “You got all this security in here watching me since I walked in…” He is addressing the surveillance of the Black body which determines the imprisonment, dismemberment and sexist cataloguing the body is to undergo (McKittrick, 2010; Spillers, 1987). As I write this there has been a surge of videos in where white people are calling the police because of the mere presence of Black people, which demonstrates the criminalization that follows the Black body in different spaces Anderson (2004) and the non-police surveillance of Black bodies (Dancy, Edwards and Davis, 2018).
Your life in a glass case is for the white gaze. You weren’t initially placed there for me to learn about my history. Of course, some could argue that if you weren’t brought to the museum, how would I get to see you. To that I say, if my ancestors and their artifacts weren’t brought over here, there wouldn’t be anything to debate. Therefore, I will need the colonizer and their pigmented minions to stay silent on the matter.
Speaking of pigmented minions, on May 25, 2018 at approximately 3:30pm, Mike and I went to the Met and I was showing him another sculpture with a missing nose and as I was raising my hand to its’ face, a security guard standing by the partition of your gallery and Gallery 119 yells at me, “Don’t touch!” My back was turned so I don’t know how long she was watching me, but clearly she had her eyes on me. I finessed a clapback that let her know I’m not the one without getting kicked out. She tried it.
Anyways, you’re made of jasper, a semi-precious stone which is a six and half to a seven on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. Jasper can be harder than steel depending on the composition and when broken has a conchoidal fracture. Your impeccable smoothness and detail may have confused a perpetrator into thinking that you were actually weaker than you looked. Perhaps thinking you were going to break like granite, which was used for many of the figures. I think of all the Black women who have endured so much, but you wouldn’t know by looking at them. Even if you can see it, they are still standing despite the violence committed against them.
She cannot be securely identified with certainty.
Another movie filmed in a museum came to mind…when I was a little girl, I used to watch Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art all the time. Long story short, in the movie, a young Ancient Egyptian prince, Sahu or the “hidden one”, was trapped in the Met until he met two criteria: to answer the riddle, “Where does today meet yesterday?,” and his heart had to be lighter than a feather. If he fulfilled the requirements, he would reunite with his family as a star in the sky. The Sesame Street gang was also locked in and tried to help Sahu.
As the night went on, Big Bird and Snuffleupagus kept thinking of the answer. Finally, Big Bird figured out the answer: a museum. He also negotiated the weight of Sahu heart that was heavier than a feather because he missed his family. In the end, Sahu was able to reconnect with his family. That was real cut and dry, but my point is, like the riddle, you are part of my history and I am part of your future and we met at a museum; where today meets yesterday.
She cannot be securely identified with certainty.
P.S…The ties that Bond
“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.” Rumi
I started to grow impatient with this project because I started it in the fall of 2018; the seasons changed, life and death happened. Black Panther and Everything is Love were released. I continued to learn about Black women, #Blackgirlmagic, Black Feminist Theory, Black Girls Rock!, Professional Black Girls, the ways in which Black women heal, the ways in which we love, and most importantly, our different survival mechanisms. We have survived a lot (shout out to Lorde and Gumbs).
I also realized that the universe is in concert, seeing N’Jadaka (Killmonger) in the museum scene staring at that Igbo mask gave me goosebumps. When I saw Beyonce at Coachella donned in Ancient Egyptian garb, it motivated me to step up and complete this project despite my demanding priorities and Murphy’s Law. Beverly Bond’s book, Black Girls Rock!, is filled with the narratives of Black women, young and old for us to embrace each other and to tell our stories. Then the Carters dropped Everything Is Love and their visual for “Apeshit” in the Louvre (the Met of Paris); lyrical references “I will never let you shoot the nose off my Pharaoh” and a nod to Prince’s Purple Rain (a project I completed, but not ready to share with the world) in “Black Effect”; “Black queen, you rescued us, you rescued us, rescued us” on “713” and; how can I forget the mature Jamaican woman explaining love and laughing. I realized we are all telling stories of Black women, Black experience. No matter where you get the message from the story will be told through the screen, audio and text whether in print or digital format. Kruger, Bond, The Carters…and people like me. We were all telling these stories in our own way. (Shout out to the homies, Kia Perry and EbonyJanice!)
Of all the bonds connected to this work, this is in honor of my grandmother, aka My Favorite Girl and my shweeheart. The woman who only had a third grade education, but a Ph.D. in Life from the School of Hard Knocks. The woman whose heart was bigger than her body and had a warrior spirit. In honor of her strength, her courage, her sense of humor (because sometimes you can’t do anything, but laugh) and her undying love. Although she is no longer here physically, her prayers, love and lessons still with me. Every once in awhile a lesson whispers in my ear. As I was making final edits, I heard: Nothing is due before its’ time. I miss you and thank you.
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