In the 1940s, celebrated American poet Langston Hughes introduced Jesse B. Semple—"Simple," for short—in the Chicago Defender. In the long running skit-like column, Hughes charts Simple’s interactions with post-war racial politics for the paper’s black readership. In “Coffee Break,” a 1965 short story from the series, Hughes explores racial integration.
The story inspired curator Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi’s exhibition, To a point, at the School of Visual Arts’ Curatorial Projects Space. The show features photography, video, sculpture, and prints, exploring contemporary themes surrounding the politics of racial inclusion. The exhibition takes a cue from the verbal back and forth between Hughes’ "Coffee Break" protagonists, Simple and his boss. Hughes writes:
‘Negroes are the ones who want to be integrated,’ said my boss.
‘And white folks are the ones who do not want to be,’ I said.
‘Up to a point, we do,’ said my boss.
‘That is what THE Negro wants,’ I said, ‘to remove that point.’
‘The coffee break is over,’ said my boss.
Onyewuenyi says, “For me, Simple as a character and 'Coffee Break' brought a narrative to a lot of simmering tensions. But it also highlighted that integration is not simply black and white or a generational dilemma we’ve overcome.” He says, “That is the point that Simple was wrestling with. The dialogue from his boss is this hollow form of empathy doing the rounds in today's society, an empathy that operates without considering one's position in a critical way.”
Tiona McClodden’s The Backlight, made up of one reflective jacket, explores how integration has led to a fraught and heightened visibility of black bodies in public space. “In the video documenting The Backlight, McClodden bemoans how museum and gallery spaces are quick to snap black patrons to highlight diversity.” Onyewuenyi says, “It’s a form of tokenism that the jacket silences, subverting the light in and around the black body.”
Marvin Touré’s Year One and Year Two are crossword puzzles alluding to how tokenism turns into real life micro-aggressions. The clue for 16 Across reads, “Don’t you think by focusing on racism you give it more power, its (sic) easier to ignore it right?” In the context of To a point, Touré’s art turns integration into a game.
The exhibition also features art that explores separatist ideas to offer up a counterpoint to the belief that social progress in America can only be achieved through racial integration. E. Jane’s single–channel video #mood 13 (Langston Hughes Betrayed Me) takes direct aim at Hughes, who wrote longingly of integration in his widely proclaimed 1945 poem, "I, Too." An excerpt from "@utonomous thots," the artist's Tumblr, expresses the thinking behind #mood 13: “sorry guys but i don’t think we should have to be integrated to feel safe. that’s super colonial. that implies that i have to love my colonizer in order to be protected (sic).”
Artist Chloë Bass made a vinyl print titled, I put these words in the bathroom because the bathroom is a place where people read (The Book of Everyday Instruction, Chapter Four: It’s amazing people don’t have more fights). She says, “I think about ideas of integration versus separatism a lot. These days, I feel like I have less and less of an answer about what is correct, appropriate, or, beyond that, even desired.”
Sivan Dayan’s I Want To Be Transparent, an installation of shattered safety glass, grapples with the uneven effects of integration. The work questions if desegregation has led to some degree of racial equality while suggesting that discrimination still presents real dangers to the lives of people of color.
To a point continues through September 25 at SVA’s Curatorial Projects Space. For more information, click here.