[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #16: Black Bodies, White Gold

Tuesday, Apr 30, 2019

Black and white image of Black farmer's hands holding cotten.

Hank Willis Thomas, Black Hands, White Cotton, 2014

In this episode, Eddie Glaude discusses with Professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson her application of research on textiles,  music, and photography for her upcoming book  project entitled, Beyond Recovery: Reframing the Dialogues of Early African Diaspora Art and Visual Culture. Professor Kesson, an Art Historian at heart, reveals the history and nuances of blacks and cotton and the turbulent history across America and Europe. Not only does she examine the economic equivalence, in which enslaved people and cotton were commodities in the eyes of the law, but she also explores how it physically framed the way a slave looked, and in turn felt. Ultimately with this research, her goal is to examine how this history complicates what it means to be free and black in today's world.

 


 

 Podcast Transcript:

 

(0:00) [background music plays]

Eddie: Hello, and welcome to the AAS21 podcast. Conversation around the field of African American Studies and the black experience in the 21st century. I'm your host, Eddie Glaude, Chair of the Department of African American Studies here at Princeton University. I'm delighted to have with me today my wonderful colleague, Professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson. She's an assistant professor of African American and Black Diasporic art with the joint appointment in the Department of Art in archaeology. She's also a faculty Fellow at our Wilson College here at Princeton. Born in Sri Lanka, she completed undergraduate degrees in New Zealand and Australia and worked as a registered nurse in the UK before completing her Ph.D. in African American Studies in Art history at Yale University. She focuses on African American Caribbean and British art with an emphasis on histories of race empire and transatlantic visual culture in the long 19th century. She's currently revising her manuscript Black Bodies White Goal. Extraordinary, I think, account of the visual cultural history of cotton, which will be published by Duke University Press. She also received an ACLS collaborative research grant for her new book project entitled, Beyond Recovery: Reframing the Dialogues of Early African Diaspora Art and Visual Culture. Welcome, Anna.

Anna: Thank you.

Eddie: How are you? So delighted to have you with us today.

Anna: And well, it's lovely to be here. 

Eddie: Yeah. So I want to talk about this amazing new book that you have on the horizon, Black Bodies White Gold. This is an extraordinary account, by my quick read in its early phases, kind of visual history, a cultural history of Cotton, right? How Cotton was, you know, at the center, in the Civil War and Reconstruction, how it helps us understand the relationship between Britain and, and the US and former colonies in India? (2:00) Um, how it connects black slaves and freed plantation workers to, to the industrial setting in the US and in Britain? I mean, Cotton, tell me a little bit about how you came to the project and how you came to your particular way of thinking about this?

Anna: Well, I think the first way I came to the project was through the idea of movement. Partly through my own experience of a movement growing up in Sri Lanka and Australia. And, you know, so basically, growing up in the form British Empire and moving around so much. I was very interested in trying to find something I could study that would allow me to explore movement as an idea and experience and as a kind of form of representation in a way or, and so Cotton was, was such a provocative subject, in that sense,--

 Eddie: [laugh]

 Anna: --because of its movement--

 Eddie: Right.

Anna: --because of all the places and people it connected. And also because it connected histories of colonialism and histories of slavery in such--

 Eddie: Yeah.

 Anna: --close and intimate ways. 

Eddie: So how so, I mean, it helps you connect, right?

Anna: Well, first start, in cotton and slavery, are so intimately entangled. Frederick Douglass has this great quote about how when the price of cotton goes up, price of the slaves body goes up on the, on the market. So there's that close economic connection, both slavery and cotton underpin the Industrial Revolution, and Europe and this country. So they're all of these historical and global economic processes that-- commodity like cotton and a his-, and a history of slavery bring together. And for me, as an art historian, what I wanted to do is try and look at that history. And its implications in the visual material culture of the US and- and Britain. (4:00) And particularly, in the ways it-- these histories intersected in the representation of people in the Black Diasporic.

 Eddie: So how- how did you go about doing that?

Anna: So it was [chuckle]-- it took, it took a little--

Eddie: [laugh] I can imagine the archive was like.

Anna: Yes, the archive was immense. 

Eddie: Yeah, immense like that.

Anna: That, that the way I-- um, I think the, the way I really said again, to it was through contemporary artists. So, um, contemporary artists sort of frame my chapters in the sense that they-- I- I talked about them at the beginning as a way of opening up these historical case studies and example would be the work of Lubaina Himid, who, she created a web called cotton.com in 2002. When it was first displayed, it was, um, basically two-- there are two parts. There was a cascading row of painted cotton canvases, and they-- they're painted in black and white. And opposite to them, there was a brass block with a quote that was sort of a paraphrase of a description, written by Frederick Olmsted, of a, um, enslaved water carrier on a southern plantation. It says something like he says, she's quoting, she's 10, the quiet around to have come from the mouth of an enslaved woman. And the, the enslaved woman is saying, "He said, I looked like a wa-- a water carrier by a painter because I was working on the plantation", or something like, something like that. But um, it- it the way it's created in the way it's displayed, it brings together you know, the work of and enslaved laborers, the work of factory owners that brings together these different industrial spaces, these different countries and these different histories, colonialism, slavery, all through material and visual objects. 

Eddie: Hmm-mm.

Anna: So, ah, he means what could have led me to look at archives in, in a new way, in the sense that, you know, I'm looking at plantation records, but always thinking about how they might connect to factory record, a records of (6:00) about the factory operatives. And when I was doing with some of that early research, I came across these samples of cloth called Negro Cloth, which were produced in--

Eddie: Right, right.

Anna: -- the factories in the north of the US and--

Eddie: So describe- describe negro cloth for, for, for our listeners.

Anna: [sigh] Well, to look at, it's very boring looking like the colors are drab, it's often beige, or sometimes they were dyed in, in blues. They were course,  very rough to touch. They remain very quickly. And part of the, their importance was the fact that that they were cheap. So these, these pieces of cloth, attached to letters that was sent between plantation owners and manufacturers. And, and so they, you know, they're small, so that you can imagine, you can really imagine how a plantation owner may have, you know, taken the letter out and felt, felt the cloth. And from that touch, you know, they would be able to immediately, you know, think about the cost, they could think about what kinds of clothing they, they would need for the year.

Eddie: Wow.

Anna: They could also, you know, they'll be thinking about the profits that would come from buying, maybe set a number of, of yards of the cloth, or a certain number of coats and trousers and jackets. And now all of these issues around profit and productivity and its relationship to cloth that are written into these letters. And--

Eddie: So this tactile encounter, just feeling gives one the entree into the circuitry of a certain kind of market relation?

 Anna: Yes, exactly. Yes. 

Eddie: That's crazy. Yeah.

Anna: Yes. So that, so that's what I, I sort of started trying to unravel. Um, and that, yeah, that's one, that's one of my chapters.

Eddie: Hmm-mmm.

 Anna: You know, focuses on that. And so in, in, that sense, you know, when I think about cotton, I'm thinking about this, this economic equivalents that I mentioned earlier, that you know, that Douglas is (8:00) talking about. It's the way enslaved people and, and cotton, or both commodities, you know, in the eyes of the law. But I'm also thinking about the way cotton physically framed the way an enslaved person looked. And Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, so many people write about how uncomfortable this cloth was, how they hated to wear it, how it made them feel horrible because it looked awful. So there's, there's all these, these other ways of thinking about how cotton literally brings blackness into interview. 

Eddie: Wow.

Anna: And so that, that's a, that's another really important aspect of what I'm, what I'm working on. 

Eddie: So Himid kind of opens that up for you and, and, opened up how you approached what was obviously a vast archive?

 Anna: Yes.

Eddie: What are some of the other, who are some of the other contemporary artists that kind of helped you in the project or help anchor the project?

Anna: The project. Well, another, another contemporary artist, I'm also joined from as Hank Willis Thomas. And he has-- I used two of his photographs in my, in my book, The first is called Black Hands and White Cotton. 

Eddie: Hmm.

Anna: And I just recently found out actually, the picture shows two hands, grasping some bowls of cotton, and they look almost like the, ah, crust up there. So stay immediate, as soon as you see them, you're seeing these very dark and very lines, leathery hands holding this very effervescent, what, you know, cotton balls, and they immediately, you're immediately thinking about shackled risk because of the way they're framed. And then behind them is sort of see that expanding plantation landscape. And it's very beautiful in the way Thomas has created it. It comes from an album of a group called the Butterscotch Caboose.

Eddie: [laugh] 

Anne: And they're from Memphis, I think (10:00) back in the '70s.

Eddie: The Butterscotch Caboose.

Anna: So and the song's called Black Hands, White Cotton. And they're an all-white group but they're singing about the [inaudible] Caboose. And so Hank found, found that, um, that image, and he, you know, he kind of blew it up and, and really brought out there the visual features. So I use that, I use that image to in the chat room I'm working on that looks, thinks about Caboose[?]. And so there, the way cotton is used to frame representations of free African-Americans.

Eddie:  Ahh, yes.

Anna: So one of the things that Hank Willis Thomas does with his photographs is to try-- he's interested in these visual economies that are embedded in American society. And really, I think, not just America, global visual economies. And he purposely goes to archives that sort of, to, to see how these, these representation of norms continue. And his way of challenging that is to try and kind of short circuit, those networks and those associations. And so this image is obviously very much focused on the ongoing commodification of blackness. And in a way, there's a, there's a counter image in his work called, The Cotton Bowl, which you probably know. It shows a sharecropper and an NFL player.

Eddie: Right.

 

Anna: And throughout the chapter, what I'm interested in is how these images of, of cotton and black sharecroppers. And we've all seen them. There are these, these stereotypes, stereoscope, some postcards, and now they kind of-- they reworked this plantation ideology of the South. And they keep, they draw, they draw very specifically on the history of slavery. But what I'm interested in is how this history frames, what it means to be free, and free and black in the post-Pelham era.

 

Eddie:  (12:00) So how this history complicates?

Anna: Complicates.

Eddie: What it, what--

Anna: Yes.

Eddie:  --what the word free actually registers, right?

Anna: Yes.

Eddie: So you have these contemporary artists kind of serving as anchors that, that orient you to a vast archive. And then you have a kind of theoretical apparatus that's really fascinating to me. Talk a little bit about what you mean by speculative vision, and speculation. For some reason, Anna, I'm hearing marks underneath a lot of this.

Anna: [laugh]

Eddie: So it kind of give me a sense of ah, what you mean by speculative vision and speculation, right? In your account of cotton.

Anna: Sure. What-

Eddie: 'Cause I'm- I-I- I'm hearing something like, you know, it makes me think of Marx's understanding of the commodity, commodity fetishes, right?

 Anna: Hmm-mm.

Eddie: So help me, tell me if I'm right or wrong, or if there's something going on underneath here that we need to, we need to smoke out.

 Anna: Yes, no, I think I think you're absolutely right. And it goes back my idea of speculative vision, particularly, in a way it's framing. And I should be clear here, this idea of speculative vision is framing blackness for a white audience, right. That's, that's what I'm examining. It goes back to this, to this economic connection, I mentioned about black bodies, like enslaved people and white cotton. And I guess the, the [sigh] best example I can give to kind of materialize what I'm trying to say here is the example of the slave market. 

So there, cotton fabric is used in another way to sell, to buy and sell, um, and play with people. So you see often on the slave market, enslaved people, as shown in what was often called fancy cloth, often patent, colored cloth. And the idea was that it, this cloth, Walter Johnson talks about at turning people into products and--

Eddie: Right.

Anna: And it was, it was a way of expressing the marketability of a, of (14:00) an enslaved person, and it shaped to a framed way of seeing black people that was always about looking for profit, or looking for potential. Jennifer Morgan talks about futurity. So it's this, the sense that on the, at least in the, in the slave market, cotton is framing this, this speculative vision that's about what will an enslaved person produce in terms of profit. And in a similar way, I think Negro Cloth does the same kind of work in that. It's mocking an enslaved person as a commodity, and also points towards their productive potential--

 Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Anna:  --all registers their projected potential, because it's, it's a uniform in a way. So I use those material qualities of cotton to try and theorize this visual framing of blackness. So in the, in the, in post-Pelham era, this idea of speculation relates to freedom and relates to the potential of enslaved-- of formerly enslaved African Americans to be productive citizens. And so in these photographs of, you know, sharecroppers, laboring black cotton pickers, I'm arguing that this, these images of labor, essentially our way of showing white audiences, the potential of black Americans to be, but they're not yet but to be productive citizens. So that's how I think about speculation. It draws in many ways from your idea of the value gap, you know, this, this idea that, well, you argue, society values, values, white people or white lives more than black lives. And so--

Eddie: How does that valuation evidence itself.

Anna: Exactly.

Eddie: In particular sorts of ways.

Anna: Yes.

Eddie: So you take you, so you take this reader on the journey, right? So where--

Anna:  Yes.

Eddie: --does the reader end up? In (16:00) Black Bodies White Goal? And where do you want them? I mean, because it's interesting, right? What gets us, gets us into the archive, these contemporary representations, right? So cotton becomes this theoretical paradigm of representation to use your language, right?

Anna: Mm-hmm.

Eddie: Which then orients you towards, um, um, maybe I'm jumbling it up, but this kind of visual accounting that allows you to go back and forth, where are we supposed to end up? What- what are you trying to tell us at the end of the day?

Anna: I end with examples of how these ideas of speculative vision and how cotton itself is used in US colonialism and British colonialism and, and what I call a kind of, um, colonial commercialism. Um, and, and I sort of put that together with African American intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois and artists like Metalwork Fuller[?], who working to have short circuit, this, this one visual gaze and short circuit these, these ideas of all these completions between blackness and potential, and put your words like progress.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Anna: Um, and I do that because I, I'm not, I'm not trying to sort of suggest that, you know, there's an easy way out of this kind of visual conundrum.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Anna: But I wanna, I want people to see how these histories create a kind of burden subject-hood for, for African-Americans at the, at the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century that they're actively working through and working out of using visual imagery. So you know, I look at Du Boi's--

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Anna: --exhibit in Paris. I look at meta, meta workflow that makes these dioramas that are used to celebrate black progress from the plantation to Douglas's commencement speech at Howard University. And so there's, there are these alternatives (18:00) histories that are themselves speculative.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Anna: But our ways of imagining of the other conditions of blackness, but also other conditions of viewership for a, a white audience.

Eddie: Yeah. Well, we can't wait to Black Bodies White Goal, um, hits this bookshelf so that we could all dive into it and, and really kind of learn not only by reading but by seeing, right? Around this, this obviously complicated history. There, but there, but your work, this is just inaugural moment. I mean, there is, there is a, an agenda here. Um, you have a collaborative project, right? That's a result of, of that wonderful ACLS collaborative fellowship you received, that, that you're working on now. It's called, it's Beyond Recovery: Reframing the Dialogues of Early African Diasporic Art and Visual Culture. Talk a little bit about that.

Anna: Sure. Thank you. Yes, that's a very long title, which we're trying to condense.

Eddie: [laugh]

Anna: So yes, Professor Mira Banners[?] from Two-Lane[?] and I were awarded a, I say it's a collaborative research grant to basically look back at 18th and 19th century Black Diaspora art and rethink, rethink it in, in ways that would, hopefully, this is what we want it to do. It's a project that would allow us to focus on the ways African and African and Black Diaspora artists in the 18th and 19th-century. We're exploring artistic forms, we're in, we're experimenting, we're expressing alternate conceptions of blackness through, through art forms. So the reason we're doing this project is because most of the work on that is available on 18th and 19th-century, African American artists, and Black Diaspora artists focus on biography, will focus on their social context as enslaved or, you know, free people of [inaudible] [crosstalk]. (20:00)

 Eddie: Almost just like the fact that they're there. 

Anna: Right.

Eddie: [laugh]

Anna: Yes, which is the beyond recovery. 

Eddie: Right. Right. Right.

Anna: Right. So we know they're there. But now, what Mira and I want to do is think about these artists, as artists. 

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Anna: Think about the world's they inhabited, as artists, think about, think about how they moved when they move to. So the idea of Diaspora is very important when we're spending a lot of time thinking about how these artists were not caught between worlds, but were actively engaged in multiple spheres. 

Eddie: Hmm. And then in the early stages of the second monograph too, right? Global plantations.

 Anna: Yes. So this--

Eddie: That's such a facet, really. Gotcha.

Anna: [chuckle] Yes, I think I think is this is, as with all my projects, it's starting off really-- [chuckle]

Eddie: Right.[chuckle] Extensive.

Anna: Extensively, but, yes. And it's coming, it's come out of the cotton project.

Eddie: Mm-hmm. 

Anna: Um, which, you know, raised a lot of questions particularly about, un-free labor or forms of un-free labor but beyond sort of the US, um, and, you know, the British Caribbean. And so I'm interested in sort of these visual, what I call visual vocabularies of un-free labor as they are represented and expressed insights within the British Empire, but sort of beyond where we might immediately think of. So I'm, I'm interested in plantations in Sri Lanka and India, also in Queensland, in the north of Australia, there was also forms of, uh, enslavement in Australia, both of indigenous people and people from Pacific Islands.

 And then also I'm looking at, at endangered laborers in the Caribbean. So predominantly, Indian endangered laborers, which is something I looked at a long time ago. So it's nice to kind of come back.

Eddie: It's really fascinating to kind of through line of, of the work. You began with that kind of autobiographical moment of your own kind of experience of moving from place to place and trying to kind of not necessarily give an account, (22:00) but how it shaped the way you see.

Anna: Mm-hmm.

Eddie: And each project bears the kind of residual trace of that beginning, it seems to me.

Anna: Yes I think, I think that's very true. Um those--

Eddie: That reduce it all to, to autobiography, but you know--

 Anna: No, I, when I do, I can't remember who said this to me, but someone said, you know, you often and in your intellectual work, you end up trying to answer questions that have come up through your own experiences. And I, I certainly think this, my interest in Diaspora and movement in the reaches of Empire, and the interest of empire stems from my, my early experiences.

 Eddie: So let's, let's kind of bring it all full circle, in terms of, you know, field of African-American Studies, right? I mean, your work is extraordinary, you know. How do you see yourself from what you do, as, as kind of illustrative of this field that we both occupy? You know, where do you situate yourself? I mean, you, you come out of that vaunted program of Yale, right? And you, you, it's art history and African American Studies. So you've been thinking about the kind of relationship between, you know, the relationship between what you do, and how you're situated in terms of discipline. So talk a little bit about how you think about your work in African American studies?

 Anna: Um, well, I think that my perspectives, while they, you know, have this autobiographical aspect, and there's only very much shaped by the field of African American Studies, even if you look at 18th and 19th century, black artists. This, there's a sense in which they understand their work as African Americans within a much broader frame of connection. And this is, I think, a, a key aspect of black intellectual thought--

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Anna:  (24:00) --that you know, that for me, was embodied. And so in my case will carry, lost your call, [inaudible]. That's the kind of intellectual tradition I think I drew from when I was at Yale. And so for me, I think this, this sense of the global, the global outlook of African American Studies is perfectly embedded in the, the radical imaginary zoom, of African American and black diaspora I think is across history--

Eddie: Right.

Anna: --really. So I, I don't, I feel like that's, that's why I'm in the field. That's the space that I think the field gives scholars like us to think and to do our work and in this expansive way, because the implications of African American studies as a field, as a discipline are far broader than the United States, right?

 Eddie: Absolutely. They always have them, right?

 Anna: They always have been, yes.

 Eddie: Right, right.

Anna: Well, I'm delighted to, to be a colleague of yours. I learned from you every, every time we, we sit down to have a conversation. I'm so excited about the possibilities that Black Bodies White Gold will open up for us. 

Anna: Thank you.

Eddie: So thank you for joining us for this conversation Professor Arabindan-Kesson. Additionally, a special thanks to Courtney Brian for providing the music to this podcast. To the staff of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Our departmental manager, April Peters, my assistant and events coordinator, Dion Worthy. Our Communications and Media Specialist, Anthony Givens, [background music plays] and our technical support specialist and audio engineer Eleo Leo. Remember, you can find this podcast and more by visiting our website aas.princeton.edu. Thanks and until next time.

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(26:00)

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[END]

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