Something magical happens in conversation when only we are in the room. A guard is dropped, a look is exchanged. Even though we might be strangers, we laugh because we speak the same language. We pause to judge ourselves and the world on our own terms, from our own context and vantage point, with absolute candor.
Such are the moments captured during Black List Project: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell, an exhibit on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (For those who missed the HBO documentary that aired last month, it is still on view through October 26.)
Most of the featured participants in the joint creation of photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell are celebrities who have been interviewed to the point of numbness, so drawing fresh blood is a sizeable achievement, showing why Elvis Mitchell is one of the most gifted interviewers of our time. Adept at circumventing public identities to get to the real people behind the personas of the successful, Mitchell is in peak form, making an impression even though he and his questions are edited out of the final product.
In the entrance to the exhibit, a video of black trailblazers is projected onto the gallery wall. What we are left with is the subject's voice alone discussing their blackness, defining their blackness and their accomplishments in whatever way they choose.
So what does it mean to be part of TheBlack List?
When comedian Chris Rock talks of the African-American experience, he talks of a game fixed against you, of concrete double standards and an arena that insists on excellence from blacks but tolerates the mediocrity of everyone else. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders cites as a metaphor, success for blacks can only come with a knockout punch because a fair decision from white judges is impossible. It's an interesting monologue, coming as it is from someone far more successful than the majority of white people paying the extra $9.95 a month to HBO so they can hear him say it.
Playwright Suzan Lori Parks talks not of outside forces but of internal needs. Speaking of the strong connection between the African-American community, its ancestors and its past, Parks comes to the definition, "We are a haunted people." She laughs when she says it, too, as if coming to the understanding that this burden is an equal bounty, a priceless one she's made a career of tapping into as an artist.
Former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash describes his past racial cluelessness in such a way that it becomes clear that his obliviousness was not a rejection of blackness but a way of coping with the complexities of biracial identity. As a fellow mullato, Slash always struck me like that kind of biracial guy who runs the other way in a room full of white folks on sight of another black person, for fear of association. The truth is more complicated. It's jarring enough to hear the musician talk openly about race at all given his avoidance of the subject in the past, but it becomes even more startling as his dialogue reveals that guy from the band that produced lyrics like "Niggers, that's right/Get out of my way/Don't need to buy none of your gold chains today" is actually proud of his African American heritage and sees it as a central part of his own identity.
Seeing the documentary on HBO was uplifting enough, in a Black History Month special kind of way. But to see this work, currently in the Museum of Fine Art Houston, in the museum setting is humbling as well.
Individually the pictures are stark and simple, presenting the individuals themselves in their purest form. Color photos, minimalist lighting and simple backgrounds, large format, ink-jet printing. The portraits are printed slightly larger than life, not so big as to seem completely statuesque yet just big enough to imply to the eye that this is not a collection of mere mortals. Most subjects appear fairly somber, straight faced or with the slightest of grins. The only outright smile among them comes from Suzanne Lori-Parks, whose impish grin can't seem to contain itself amid the sobriety of the room. Anyone who has picked up a Vanity Fair in recent decades will recognize the work of commercial photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
Seeing all of them there, these giants, and adding that to the equally statuesque imagery of the moment, or the presidential race that currently obsesses us, you can start to get the impression of the enormity of this moment. That despite years of haggling over the PR disasters of nightly news and hip-hop, a new mythology of black success was being born. That we are finally at a point where we are not just heralding the success of a few celebrities and "firsts" who've reached the mountain top, but of a generation's ascension to a new plateau. Not that poverty is dead and that the black community on a whole has repaired completely from the wounds of centuries of disenfranchisement. But maybe, in the this long campaign, the tide has turned and the fight for economic and social equality will inevitably be won.
In contrast to most Toni Morrison interviews in which she projects a regal, above-mere-mortals air befitting the legend she is, Morrison's Black List interview has the casual vibe of an aunt at the kitchen table. While listening to her talk of the Nobel Prize, you can almost imagine the tea and cigarette smoldering just beyond frame. Morrison talks of how she created her literary world by viewing herself and her context outside the "gaze" of the white male. Creating a vision that was wholly free and put her own story at the center. It's interesting for fans and scholars of her work, but it's even more striking considering the impact Morrison's own vision has had on the mythic identity of African Americans on the whole.
In a community that can have group-think aspirations, where lines are drawn around what actions or aesthetics are socially acceptable as "black" and which are not, it's interesting to see how the variety of our most successful members prove such assertions to be faulty. Individually, The Black List shows visions of blackness that both compliment and contradict. The viewpoints of the subjects represent their own varied individual experience rather than any generic group zeitgeist. What's fascinating about this exhibit then, standing in a room surrounded by the images of such a disparate group, is that even in the face of a multitude of idiosyncratic voices, a chorus of one people stills finds harmony.
It's rare that you get to pause within the moment and take stock of those extraordinary individuals of the contemporary era. We do this when we examine the past, looking at the Harlem Renaissance or Civil Rights Movement, when we view a time through the wide lens that distance allows. In the present, however, the moment itself overwhelms us, and the big picture is lost in the struggle to define all the little ones. While walking amid The Black List, it's striking to see our modern era defined for what it is. In the silence of the museum setting, with the ever moving participants all stilled for the photos, we are all given the chance to pause, breathe and see this moment for what it is—one of triumph.
Black List Project: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell is currently showing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until October 26.
Mat Johnson is a novelist and professor at the University of Houston Graduate Writing Program. His latest book was the graphic novel, "Incognegro" (Vertigo 2008).