PRINT September 1996


SOMEWHERE BEFORE THE MIDDLE of Toni Morrison’s epic novel Beloved you realize that this is a story you’ve never heard. Perhaps its horror and beauty have been hinted at, whispered, but it has remained the unspeakable heretofore unspoken. Then, about fifty pages later, you realize that perhaps this is a story that you don’t want to hear. But you have to.

Kara Walker comes from the South, Atlanta actually, though by 1969, when she was born, the city had overcome, had become part of the New South. This is critical to the rest of the story, which, like the slave narratives Walker borrows from in her black paper cutout silhouettes, provides equal doses of startling fact and necessary fiction. Leaving, “escaped” as she puts it, to study up North, Walker is fleeing Atlanta’s proximity to history, the Black History Month exhibitions, the racial uplift esthetic, and a segregated art world. Fleeing the old, tired stereotypes of the Good Negress and the African-American artist, which combined would leave her nowhere. When she gets here (there) she sets about creating an esthetic within the context of her emancipation. She embraces the unspeakable and she speaks.

Her sources are clear: the Civil War, historical romances, slave narratives, the 19th-century medium of paper cutouts. Her subjects are even clearer: race, sex, violence, and their innumerable permutations. Seen through the prism of contemporary culture, the subjects—sodomy, rape, incest, mutilation, bestiality—of Walker’s pictures are dinner-table talk by way of Montel Williams. Garden-variety social dysfunction. Yet situated at this earlier moment in history, they’re shocking. They cut deep. Because supposedly we have come to terms with slavery, or at the very least we saw Roots. We know the players (benevolent slave, evil master), their motives (power), and their roles (to subjugate and be subjugated). And we don’t want to talk about it anymore. So the immediate response is to look away—but to look away like you do when you’re driving by a car crash and trying not to look because you don’t want to see the dead bloodied bodies, but looking because really you do.

You are drawn into Walker’s narratives because they are sick and beautiful and beautifully created. There are no heroes (benevolent slaves) or villains (evil masters). And thank goodness, there are no victims. Everyone is out for themselves. This is not a retribution fantasy or some twisted racist minstrel-show humor. Walker’s work is not so black and white. Just black and plainly, insightfully, hilariously spoken. And you look. Because you have to.

Thelma Golden