A Bittersweet Tribute to Black Womanhood

She Matters: Artist Kara Walker’s “Marvelous Sugar Baby” takes on the uncomfortable issues of race, gender and sexuality.

Artist Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” or “The Marvelous Sugar Baby” Demetria Lucas

Finally we make our way around to the much-photographed back of the statue. On a typical sphinx, usually male (at least the Egyptian ones I’m used to seeing), the figure is sitting and all the action is in the front. But in Walker’s version, the hind parts are tooted up high, revealing heart-shaped buttocks and a large vulva—a “sweet spot,” if you will.

I look at it, then at all the (mostly white) people with their smartphones enthusiastically photographing “it,” specifically the butt. I don’t want to think of the Hottentot Venus because I don’t think every black body that’s displayed should be compared or reduced to the 19th-century kidnapped South African woman who was forced to be on display as some sort of amusement.

That comparison seems too convenient, but it’s what I think of anyway. Here’s a(nother) big, black booty on display, and here are (mostly white) folks gawking at it, some even posing with it. Walker must have seen this one coming, but I wonder why none of the reviews I read caught it. Maybe the cluelessness of the white audience’s participation in a spectacle without knowing they’re part of it is an inside joke for black folks to laugh and shake their heads at history unintentionally repeating itself. (This happens when a black woman and I catch each other’s eyes as a man bends over in front of the sphinx to mimic its pose.)

I want to argue that sometimes folks aren’t gawking but celebrating … right? And I’m staring at this big, black—well, actually white—butt, wondering which category the sugar sphinx falls into, when my mother interrupts again. We’re back to ants—or, er, pesticides.

“You shouldn’t stay in here too long,” my mother cautions. “I don’t believe it’s safe.” She walks toward the exit. I follow her without arriving at an answer to my question. I’ve mulled it over and been back to the exhibit again and still don’t have an answer.

Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.