Emmett Till painting raises concerns of cultural appropriation

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Emmett Till painting raises concerns of cultural appropriation

When artist Dana Schutz presented “Open Casket,” an abstract painting of Emmett Till’s open casket-the Chicagoan 14 year old African American male teen lynched in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955- she could not have fathomed the conflagration that erupted. The painting hangs at the Whitney Museum in New York City but under the daily watchful eye of protestors blocking its view they termed the “black death spectacle.”  Some protesters sent letters of grievances to the museum curators requesting the painting be taken down and others have flatly demanded the destruction of it.

Because Schutz is white queries abound about cultural appropriation and exploitation, asking whether a white artist can sensitively and appropriately depict black pain. The Whitney Biennial aims “to gauge the state of art in America today.” Schutz’s abstraction was inspired by the infamous photograph of Till’s mutilated corpse. The photo first appeared in Jet Magazine, that galvanized support for the 1960’s Black Civil Right’s Movement, at the insistence of Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, who wanted the world to see the reality of racial violence on black children. In an interview Schutz’s shared that the genesis for her painting was the reminder of the recent rash of unarmed black males shot by police across the country, and that “the photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous of the time: what was hidden was not revealed.” Shutz’s shared that as a mother she, too, empathized with Mamie Till Bradley.

While Schutz, and many white mothers like her, no doubt perhaps had their moments “empathizing with black mothers,”realizing that Travyon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, to name a few, are their children’s age, none of their children, however, reside—urban or rural—in the daily reality of the possibility of no returning  to them or  being gunned down because of the color of their skin, and then gazed upon like “road kill” (Michael Brown).“Being a mother" doesn't hold water,” Corinne Cooper, a white Southerner from Winston-Salem, NC told me. “Schutz may carry a concern for her children's safety but has she had “The Talk" about what to do if stopped by a police officer?”

“The Talk” is a heartbreaking one which is needed for our children’s survival outside the home. Sadly, it robs them their life- like it did 12-year old Tamir Rice - of enjoying childhood. And, undoubtedly, it does psychic and emotional harm to their self-esteem and sense of innocence and fairness