On Making a Video: Free, White and 21
I decided to make Free, White and 21 after yet another run-in with racism in the art world and the white feminists. I was feeling very isolated as a token artist. I found that white women wanted me to be limited to their agenda. When they were beginning to be represented by galleries and shown in exhibitions, women of color were rarely considered. Their omission was rarely noticed, except by a few. I was told I was jealous because I noticed and talked about it. Racism, as a constant assault in the daily lives of all people of color, was not a high priority for them. It was seen as “a cause,” “a special interest group,” “political”—something for their temporary concern if their attention was engaged. Some of the women of color who spoke out were considered “belligerent.” I remember hearing that the feminists wished I had been “cooperative.”
The white voice was the dominant voice. What the white male’s voice was to the white female’s voice, the white female’s voice was to the woman of color’s voice. The dominant voice was usually limited to the middle- and upper-class white women, but all classes of white women participated consciously or unconsciously in racism. (Several years after I made the tape, when I saw the ending, I felt that it was symbolic of the women’s auxiliary of the KKK. Instead of a white sheet, like a bank robber, the white character covers her face with a “polite” white stocking.) I remember hearing racism explained as a distraction from the real issues offered by the system, which needed a scapegoat. The white voice was to be the dominant voice; its goals were to be the dominant goals. The collectives in the 1970s were often predominantly white. If they were not in charge, then business was not to be conducted.
It was about domination and the erasure of experience, canceling and rewriting history in a way that made one group feel safe and not threatened. I call it the “Hatshepsut maneuver.” The pharaohs who followed Hatshepsut’s reign removed the cartouche in an attempt to cancel out her place in history. In this case, the white women were removing the cartouches of women of color.
I quit my job at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979 and started teaching. Although I was beginning to be outspoken about issues of de facto censorship and racism in the art world, my work as an artist was usually devoid of personal, narrative, or autobiographical reference. I considered myself fairly voiceless in those days. Several months after I started teaching, I was in a freak accident as a passenger in the back seat of a car on the way to my job. One minute I was fine, the next I was in an ambulance. I had amnesia—a temporary loss of some of my long- and short-term memory. I was also aware that there were those who were pleased: because of my injuries, there was the possibility of my voice being muted. I know now that the desire to keep me silent, and to be pleased that I might be, by default, forced into silence, was an extension of the legacy of slavery and racism. I remember the day, almost within the first hour that I returned from two weeks in the hospital, when I received a call from one of the white feminists who asked me for a recommendation. I tried to explain that I had been injured. She was insistent that I should write it for her as soon as possible. I never did write it, but was enraged by her need for me to provide a “service” with full knowledge that I was injured and would need time to recover. I have found the need for service to be a common trait of “liberal” racists, even those who call themselves progressive—the expectation that they must be served constantly no matter how inconvenient it is to others. Whites often find this funny, but they do not know what it is like to always be expected to be grateful, to be taken advantage of, and to be considered needless and wantless. The women’s movement often talks about this relative to men’s expectations of them, but they rarely talk about their expectations of women of color and all people of color, who frankly represent 85 percent of the planet.
My work in the studio after the accident helped me to reconstruct missing fragments from the past. My parents lived with me for several months, as I was not strong enough to be on my own. I was very grateful for this. Eight months after the accident, I made Free, White and 21 in my top floor loft during one of the hottest summers in New York. The tape was autobiographical and pertained to a wide range of experiences, focusing on gender issues and race bias. I had faced de facto censorship issues throughout my life as part of the system of apartheid in the United States. In the tape, I was bristling at the women’s movement as well as at the art world and some of the usual offensive encounters that were heaped on top of the racism of my profession. The tape was first shown in an exhibition directed by Ana Mendieta at A.LR. Gallery when it was located on Wooster Street in Manhattan. The exhibition was called Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States (September 2–20, 1980). The artists included Judith Baca, Beverly Buchanan, Janet Olivia Henry, Zarina Hashmi, Senga Nengudi, Lydia Okumura, Selena Whitefeather, and myself. I understand that when my tape was entered in a video competition in 1980, the jury felt that it was too divisive.
In the late 1980s, it became a kind of underground cult tape and was shown mainly in universities. Later, when it was to be included in one of my one-person exhibitions, a person who had written an essay for the catalogue asked me to remove it from the show. I, of course, refused. When the complaint was taken to the exhibition’s curator, he too refused to remove it. I have encountered various other reactions, including outrage from a white female critic as if I had some nerve talking about my experiences and upsetting her. I also heard that some of the white female students who saw it felt the same.
When I showed it to a New England university audience, a white woman student asked sarcastically if it made me feel better to have made the tape. When it was first shown in Dialectics of Isolation, a white male, an alumnus of one of the schools I attended and mentioned in the tape, said that he did not believe my experiences. Other artists of color have said that they felt it was not forceful enough or felt my experiences were in environments of privilege. When it was shown in a New Jersey museum, some of the older black security guards refused to turn on the video because they felt it was offensive to people of color. The tape officially begins my Autobiography series, which includes Scapegoat.
My mother passed away in the summer of 1991, and in the painful sifting through of her things I have found pictures of her from the 1920s and discovered information about my family history, which has expanded my knowledge about who she was and how it affected my own experience. I found that she had attended white schools as the only black student, because her birth certificate said she was white, as did the birth certificates of her brothers and sisters. I cannot imagine the pain that she went through, the harassments and the taunts. She was deeply affected and scarred by it. I remember her stories about being the only black student in her class at Ohio State University and it being illegal for her to live in the dorm. It was illegal for people of color to use public facilities as well as public libraries. People would become impatient and aggressive if you even brought this issue up. It was always for their comfort to keep others down. Her harsh experiences reflected the tragedy that many families suffered in the aftermath of slavery. Many families were of very mixed race as a result of the massive sexual assault (as well torture and lynching) of the men, women, and children by the Europeans and their ancestors who had kidnapped Africans and held them hostage as slaves. I found on my father’s side that one of my relatives had been blinded by the lash of one of the enslaver’s whips. The history behind the rainbow of faces in my family on both sides led to many confusions. My mother’s face—a deep, rich brown—is my face. Coffee with cream, which was my aunt’s face, looked white. We would enter stores in Ohio in the 1950s and everyone would stare at us and I would panic. For years, I could not bear to look into a mirror. There were no positive images of my people in the media or magazines unless we favored European features; we were portrayed stereotypically to make others laugh, to make them comfortable and safe. Parts of the family passed and disappeared in Oklahoma. I recently found that my grandfather’s people were from Honduras. (I discovered this only after my mother passed away.) I have so many ancestral roots that l do not know where to start. Some of the family is very, very conservative, and I am the outspoken one. Fear, I feel, motivates their silence, as the climate has become increasingly hostile, like the days when I grew up in a segregated city.
The following is the transcription of Howardena Pindell’s video work, Free, White and 21, 1980, 12 minutes, 15 seconds, U-matic.
When my mother grew up in Ohio, her mother would bring in various babysitters. There were about ten children in the family, and one of the babysitters happened to be white. My mother happened to be the darkest of ten children so that when this woman saw my mother’s skin, she thought that she was dirty and washed her in lye. As a result of this, my mother has burn marks on her arm.
When I was in kindergarten, I had a teacher who was not very fond of black children. There were very few of us, possibly two in a class of perhaps forty. During the afternoon hours we were given time to sleep. Each of us had our own cot, and we were told that if we had to go to the bathroom we should raise our hands and one of the teachers would take us to the bathroom. I raised my hand, and my teacher flew into a rage, yelling, “I can’t stand these people.” She took out sheets and tied me to the bed. She left me there for a couple of hours, and then she finally released me. One of the students filed a complaint, perhaps to a parent who did not know I was black. Perhaps the child did not know, or had not learned to differentiate between race at that time. I later found out that the teacher was fired for bothering a student. Perhaps I was not the first one.
I went to a high school in Philadelphia which was for girls and emphasized academic achievement. Everyone was very competitive with one another for grades. I did very well in history classes and asked that my history teacher put me in the accelerated class. She told me that she would be happy, with my grades, to put me in the accelerated level. However, she felt that a white student with lower grades would go further; therefore she would not put me in the accelerated course.
You know, you really must be paranoid. Those things never happened to me. I don’t know anyone who’s had those things happen to them. But then, of course, they are free, white, and 21, so they wouldn’t have had that kind of experience.
I went to Boston University, and for my first year I lived in a dormitory. I was entered as a freshman student in January. I had been active in high school running for various offices, so I decided to run for an office in Boston University within my dormitory. The office that they had available was one where you would act as a liaison with other universities, with MIT or with Harvard. I did whatever was necessary to get my name on the ballot, and just before the vote was to be taken, my house mother brought me into a meeting with other officers of the house and members of the Boston University student community. I was informed that my name was being removed from the ballot because they felt that my being black—and if I, of course, won—I would be highly inappropriate for that office.
You ungrateful little . . . after all we have done for you.
When I graduated from graduate school, I proceeded to look for a job. I was not able to find a job, although I had applied to over fifty schools for teaching positions. I received approximately fifty rejections. So I decided to come to New York and go door-to-door looking for any kind of job. Someone suggested that I try Time Life and to apply for a job as a picture researcher. I went to the Time-Life Building and the personnel office was willing to see me, because they saw on my application that I had graduated from Yale University. While sitting in the front office waiting to be interviewed, a number of women came in looking for secretarial positions. The white women were told to fill out an application, and when they turned in the application were told they were interested in their qualifications and would notify them if a position became available. Any nonwhite women, Hispanic or black (I did not see any Asian women coming in looking for jobs at that time), were told that there were no positions available. They were not given applications, they were just told point-blank that there were no positions available, and then they would leave. Eventually I was interviewed, and I was told that I would not be considered unless I came in with a slide projector.
Don’t worry, we will find other tokens! Don’t worry!
I was invited to be in a wedding in Maine. I was the only nonwhite at the wedding. One of the [bride’s] friends owned an old house that had been built in the early 1800s. She wanted to invite all the members of the wedding party to her home for lunch—that included the five bridesmaids and the five ushers. When we entered the house, she gave us a tour and finished the afternoon by giving us lunch. She seemed quite unnerved that I was a member of the wedding party, and had her place changed from another table to my table where she could sit and watch me eat. At the end of the afternoon, as we were leaving, the men stood on one side of the door and the women stood on the other side of the door. She shook hands with all the white women, skipped over me, shook hands with all the white men, and then came to me last.
You really must be paranoid. Your art really isn’t political either, you know. I hear your experiences and I think, well, it’s gotta be in her art, that’s the only way we’ll validate you. It’s gotta be in your art in a way that we consider valid. If it isn’t used in a way—if the symbols are not used in a way—that we use them, then we won’t acknowledge them. In fact, you don’t exist until we validate you. And, you know, if you don’t want to do what we tell you to do, then we will find other tokens.
After the wedding ceremony there was a party held for the bride and groom and for members of the wedding and their guests. They had a live band and dancing. Of course, no one asked me to dance until near the end of the party. The minister, who was a man in his mid-sixties, came over to me, winked, and asked me to dance. Then he whispered into my ear, “I come to New York often, why don’t we get together, we can have some fun.”
You ungrateful little . . . after all we have done for you. You know we don’t believe in your symbols, they are not valid unless we validate them. And you really must be paranoid. I have never had experiences like that. But, of course, I am free, white, and 21.
From The Heart of the Question: The Writings and Paintings of Howardena Pindell (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1997).