The endless toggling between fascination and suspicion—or what I call my love affair with visual culture—began in Boston after I emigrated from a sun-drenched peripheral town at the edge of a sugarcane plantation. I was thirteen when I landed in the stuffy eighth-grade classroom commandeered by Mrs. R., a skinny white woman with boisterously curly red hair. Mrs. R. combined her instruction in English grammar and pronunciation with lessons on watercolor and entomology. She also taught us how to make pinhole cameras out of tin cans and introduced us, an energetic bunch of black and Brown teens, to the Surrealist masters. I remember being in awe of the meticulous flamboyance of Salvador Dalí’s landscapes and the visual antics of Pablo Picasso. In her class I became enchanted with saturated colors, the elegance of jagged lines, and the majesty of form. I was in search of the sublime, but Mrs. R. warned against such naive desires. She insisted that art was not about arousing the sensorium but a vehicle of ideological disruption.
In college I feasted on the delicious deceptions of trompe l’oeil, became interested in history painting, and staged dioramas that I photographed with my Konica C35. In spite of my sensitivity for the modes of speculation that art engenders, however, my formative experiences with art institutions were not pleasant. Museums and galleries were off-putting: wall texts and labels were abstruse, prices were out of reach, and these temples of contemplation required that the body be silenced in order to appreciate art in a reasoned manner. Above all, exhibitions were conceptually distant; they did not resonate with my experience or history. This sense of alienation was exacerbated by the ethnocentricity of art history. The survey courses that taught me to recognize genre conventions and the virtuosity of masters also taught me that art was the exclusive property of white men. These same courses taught me, by omission, that no creative ethos could take root in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia. The lesson was simple and devastating: the genealogy of art began and ended in the West; Europe was both the center and the horizon of the aesthetic universe. My formal introduction to art was, therefore, predicated on the epistemological violence of exclusion.
A woman I never met taught me to distrust well-worn histories. I was still in college but had become suspicious of form and color and had begun to wonder about the sharp vestiges of colonialism. I abandoned photography and took up collage. I rummaged used book stores for print materials I could destroy, reassemble, and re-signify. I found her tucked inside a book, a Taschen-like edition of Picasso’s works. Her voice materialized as dainty inscriptions inserted between the lines, on the margins, and close to the book’s gutter. She made heavy use of asterisks and brackets. Often she would encircle a phrase or draw an arrow to direct the reader’s eyes toward her quick rejoinders and tart asides. She was angry. Resentment drove her to take possession of almost every blank space in the book, where she planted words that grew into a deliberate attack on the author’s argument. Usually she penned long disquisitions, tightly packed at top or bottom margins, that excoriated the editor for expunging Africa from the story of Picasso’s genius. A lot of times, her rage was compressed in thunderous refrains. Africa!?! Africa!?! Africa!?! would bleed out of her pen and into my gut. Turn the glossy white page and there it was, Africa!?! Africa!?! Africa!?!, a triplicate indictment of erasure, desperation, and alienation hinged together by incensed exclamation points and saddened question marks. If the call, “Look, a negro!” plunged Frantz Fanon into blackness, the refrain—Africa!?! Africa!?! Africa!?!—pulled me out of alienation.1 But I didn’t know what to do with this flicker of freedom until much later. For years, it sat in my ear as low-frequency sonic disturbance.
The margins were her workshop, a place where she unveiled the grotesque figurations of Eurocentric accounts of art history and the ground on which she inscribed the primacy and centrality of Africa to the history of the West. The insolence of the alien scribe was earth-shattering. I had never come across the suggestion that art and Africa could be reflections of each other. And it had never occurred to me to question the authority of men who write. Her interlineal glosses and sideline agitations were an exercise in disfiguration that reordered the topoi of the book and revealed the fallacies of the canon. Years later, when I became a PhD student, I came to interpret her defacement of the mystifying history of Western art as the ethos of scholarship: to write in the margins, from the margins, and about the margins.
My encounter with the audacious scribe fueled my desire to salvage what had been deleted from the pages and landscape of history. More importantly, this fortuitous meeting forever changed my conceptualization of education. Until then, going to university was the ultimate in a series of utilitarian acts of survival. My mother held on tight to the belief that education was the only dignified vehicle out of poverty and the measuring stick through which society would ascertain my value. My mother buried herself in a mountain of debt to school me. Since those of us who struggle in the peripheries of plantations, the ghettos of opulent cities, and destitute towns set against rolling prairies are only allowed to possess the bare minimum to sustain life, the luxuries—cultivation of the mind included—can only be purchased on high-interest credit. A photograph I keep amid other brittle mementos fails to document the transactions that underwrote my education, but it reveals the performative mechanisms through which the ideology of education as a serum that transforms the subjugated into a proper middle-class individual is ritualized (figure 1).
According to the inscription on the back, written by my father in blue ink with self-assured penmanship, this photograph records the inauguration in 1979 of the Sacred Heart School in Puerto Tejada, Cauca, Colombia. The president of the Republic, Julio César Turbay Ayala, came to town to cut the ribbon—a ceremony that sanctified state power as benevolent. Four statuesque black kids stand in the foreground; I am one of them. The other children on stage pay attention, they look at the camera. I don’t. I squint and point my eyes somewhere beyond the crowd. Behind me, the handsome town’s mayor, Miguel Gómez, clad in a suit and tie, gifts the photographer a flirtatious smile. To his left and at the center of the composition, the head of state stands. The bespectacled old white man does not look presidential; rather, in this snapshot, we see him as a priest. Caught in mid-motion, his hand looks as if about to anoint the child in front of him with the baptismal waters of wisdom. The other notable presence is the bodiless face of Mrs. Zolia, my preschool teacher. She smiles in admiration of the pupils. We, the chosen four, were the best crop of each of her classes. We were role models, we learned the ABCs dutifully, we sat still, we were polite and diligent. I, barely five years old, solemnly bask in the glory of being praised as the future of the race. There I am: a photo prop, a citizen in the making, the best student in preschool.
My solemnity, it turns out, had nothing to do with the state of my soul that day. I was in pain. That year, I attended school in flip-flops, but on the day of the Sacred Heart School inauguration I wore my cousin’s shoes. According to my mother, I had been crying because they were too small and hurt my feet. The loan she secured to celebrate her daughter’s learning aptitude was not enough. There was never enough—choosing which necessity to satisfy was the rule: uniform or shoes; arepas with or without eggs. This time the little money she borrowed was only enough to cover fabric for a new uniform and fees for the seamstress. So, there I stood, crisp and shiny, next to the president. I was publicly celebrated for my judiciousness and privately I agonized over the blistering pain of poverty.
By the time this photograph became part of my inheritance, my mother’s total expenditure on my education was beyond calculation. I paid for college with a series of “promissory notes” that amounted to tens of thousands of dollars. This insurmountable string of zeros paid for the privilege of mastering the techniques of rhetoric, close reading, and formal analysis; bankrolled my introduction to Sojourner Truth, Karl Marx, and the massacre of El Mozote; funded my descent into the bowels of Elmina Castle; sponsored my discovery of Angela Davis, C. L. R. James, Patricia Hill Collins, Faith Ringgold, This Bridge Called My Back, Alma Woodsey Thomas, and Borderlands/La Frontera. Through debt I financed my comprehension of the mechanics of colonialism. To learn that oppression is systematic, that it contaminates everything, reconfigured the chemistry of my eyes and the focus of my vision. My sight longed to be entertained, in the deepest sense of the word, by black art, by black ways of seeing the world.
I began to consider academia as a career because I wanted to understand how blackness was made, how black people thought themselves into being. I had no particular discipline in mind, the only thing I was sure of was that I needed to grasp the sociopolitical and ideological architecture of colonialism so that I could work to reverse its effects. I wanted to be an “enlightened activist.”
Graduate fellowships and another string of zeros secured by “promissory notes” bought me a PhD. I learned to decipher the meaning of surplus and exchange value, enslaved labor, and the discourse of race in Latin America. As I reflect back on my doctoral training, what I find most ironic is that while seminars were the testing ground of innovative theoretical approaches to oppression, the issue of class hierarchy in the university didn’t make it into the syllabus. We spent hours criticizing the violent procedures of exclusion on which the Western literary, philosophical, and aesthetic canons depend, but I don’t recall discussions about contemporary barriers that kept the university and thus knowledge itself lily-white and privileged. The financial, social, racial, and class systems that sustain the university were invisible and invisibilized.
I have inherited nothing except old photographs and my labor power. Most of my colleagues inherited the good manners, habits, and experiences that buy a red-carpet entrance into the ivory tower. Although a few subalterns have infiltrated the university, the number of interlopers remains stubbornly small. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016 there were 1.5 million faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States. The majority of those who teach are white: 41 percent are white men and 35 percent are white women. Not surprisingly, the number of faculty from historically marginalized ethnic and racial groups is painfully small. Polling reveals that 10 percent of professors in the US identify as Asian/Pacific Islander (6 percent are men, 4 percent are women). The remaining 14 percent is made up of: black men (3 percent), black women (3 percent), Hispanic men (3 percent), and Hispanic women (2 percent). American Indian/Alaska Natives and multiracial individuals are counted together; their presence is almost statistically insignificant, at 1 percent of the total number of people who belong to the profession.2 Moreover, those of us who manage to enter the academic hallways are at an economic disadvantage. The 2015 US Survey of Earned Doctorates reports that “approximately half of American Indian or Alaska Native and black or African American doctorate recipients and more than 40% of Hispanic or Latino doctorate recipients belonged to families in which neither parent had been awarded a college degree.”3 I don’t need to cite these numbers to remind you that we are the minority.
I latch on to these numbers. These numbers confirm that we are unique; that we have made it. These numbers remind me that I am not alone. We dared to believe that reason could inhabit us and we could inhabit reason, and this unprecedented leap of faith has made a dent in the structure. Although our numbers are small, every day we produce scholarship that bends the rules, highlights the obscured, and shifts the terms of foundational debates in art history and visual culture studies. My current research project, for example, seeks to recover and situate a series of neglected projects of representation created by Afro-Brazilian cultural workers that unsettle ossified depictions of black embodiment in the turbulent years between the abolition of the traffic in slaves (1850) and the official end of slavery in Brazil (1888). In the book, provisionally titled Compromising Portraits: Visual and Literary Renditions of Black Subjectivity in Nineteenth-Century Brazil, I show that the symbolic construction of blackness was not a closed circuit of objectification but rather a charged enterprise contingent upon political environment, aesthetic genre, and modes of circulation. I track the ways in which portraiture, a genre that actively refused to depict subaltern subjects, was forced to accommodate a cadre of black men who became notorious popular figures and thus worthy of visual memorialization. I also foreground literary works like Maria Firmina dos Reis’s Úrsula (1859), the first abolitionist novel penned by a black woman in Brazil, that imagine multidimensional black characters—characters who narrate their own histories, criticize the status quo, and thus provide a blueprint for the imagination of black subjectivity. I argue that the visual and literary cultural objects under review exemplify what I am calling compromised acts of portraiture—that is to say, visual and textual performances that pierce generic conventions and provide complex lines of flight out of reified aesthetic and discursive typologies. Taken together, these projects of representation manage to alter the grammar of portraiture to reveal self-determined, although besieged, black subjects. By undertaking an integrated reading of painting, lithography, photography, and journalism, I paint a more nuanced picture of insurgent programs of representation that sought to regenerate black subjectivity. This is the kind of research I’ve always loved to do: excavating unheard narratives to complicate the picture of what we think we know.
Unfortunately, the meaning of the statistics I cited above always circles back to the sad reality that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person of color to inhabit academia. An exaggeration, perhaps. But the pithy numbers stare back at us; they haunt me. They’re a source of conflict. They’re a cruel reminder that universities are bastions of privilege. Do I encourage students of color to join the ranks and, little by little, tear down the walls that keep us out? Or do I use the numbers as a cautionary tale? And what do I caution against? After all, the university, like most spaces in US society, breeds micro aggressions, tiny punctures into one’s soul that build up slowly, like plaque, ultimately bending the back and exhausting the will.
I believe that the academic aspirations of people like me should be nurtured and strongly supported. Conversely, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that to work at the university is to engage in a daily battle against institutional racism, marginalization, and misogyny. We subaltern academics who believe that the university should be a space inhabited by all should ask: What price are we willing to pay to be scholars? While I believe that we must actively engage in the production of knowledge, it has become increasingly difficult for me to devote my labor power to further enrich the white 1 percent. For me, the cost is too high in terms of psychic pain, isolation, and financial insecurity, to name a few. I am not naive; it is clear to me that most institutions in our society exist to sustain the status quo. In my case, however, the pleasure I derive from conducting research, writing, and teaching has stopped being an antidote to the nagging feeling that I am a mammy. Familiarity with “otherness,” the geopolitics of the Global South, and the aesthetic languages developed by oppressed, all of which I teach, have become required skills for the white-collar class that the management of transnational capital requires. As I see it, my labor is the milk that nourishes the younger members of the US bourgeoisie.
The suspicious optimism that sustained my academic aspirations has evaporated under the weight of a million micro aggressions. For me, the time has come to take inventory and reassess how I/we should invest the assets I/we have gained in academia. Two decades have passed since the bald-faced scribe who lived in the margins of a book about Picasso changed the tenor of my existence by demonstrating the power of critique. I lost that book long ago, but I search the confines of my memory for her words. This time I want her to be my guide as I wander out of the ivory tower on my way back to the dusty town at the edge of a sugarcane plantation where my story began.