72" x 48"
I can recall my 1980s Saturday evenings as a young boy growing up in Charleston, South Carolina. Saturdays always started with cleaning the house from top to bottom, while my dad washed the cars and cut the grass. I was responsible for keeping my bedroom clean and doing the other duties my dad would assign to me. It ranged from scrubbing the car tires to bagging up the grass or leaves, depending on the time of year.
After the inside of our house was spotless- smelling like PineSol, the cars had a showroom shine, and our grass was freshly manicured my mom would head to the market for groceries. My dad prepared for his Saturday evening activities with his ‘partnas' and I was allowed to hang out with my ‘partnas’ in my neighborhood. My outdoor activities always came to an end with the awakening of the streetlights. No questions, I had to come home.
After putting my bike up in the back shed I would always come through the backdoor of the house which led directly into the kitchen. Like clockwork, the smell of cooked hair filled the air. My sister’s long and dark chocolate body sat in a chair near the stove by the window. My mom perched over her, straightening her hair for church on Sunday. The smoke circled around my sister’s head and every once and again my sister would scream, “Mama! My ear! My neck! My forehead!”
Though my mama was very good at this process of “laying those naps down,” nobody was perfect. I would imagine it is nearly impossible to sit perfectly still as your mama burned through all of your natural self with a hot comb. My mama would then reach for the butter tray and would apply some warm butter to my sister’s scorched ears or burnt body parts. I can remember thinking to myself, “Why and hell are they going through this?” The answer, it was just a part of what we did as Black folks to get ‘pretty.’ Honestly I didn’t have any real interest in watching my sister get her hair done or get ‘pretty’, I just liked to hang around to watch her ears, neck or forehead get burnt.
Fast forward to now in 2020. Me as a Black Artist. Me as a grown Black Man who knows why my sister got her body parts cooked as a means to get ‘pretty.’ Me who fully understands my surroundings. The why and how of America. What does this piece of Fine Art mean to me? It means honesty and transparency about my narrative.
The spear at the center of this piece speaks to the fighting nature of who we were as an African people and through a series of calculated steps we had to abandon that fight for the hot comb. Trying to blend into a society that truly never saw us as humans. We were aways seen as things, savages, animals who needed to be ruled over by those ‘civilized humans’ who murdered, looted, raped, stole, enslaved and lied their way into power in America. That hot comb. That shining tool that would help us to get closer to perfection and looking ‘pretty’ for those who would never admit how ‘pretty’ we really are. That hot comb, would help us to become ‘citizens in America.’
As you get closer to Woodensteel you will see Bible pages serving as a backdrop for this tale of Black folks seeking clarity and forgiveness in our complicated America. How many Black daughters cried and screamed as their ears, necks and foreheads got burnt on Saturday nights as their mamas and grandmamas prepared them to get ‘pretty’ for Sunday worship? Looking closer at the painting you will see the ropes intertwined across this visual narrative as they speak to our trying relationships with our country’s hypocritical religious dogma. Tied and bound to a sinking ship where our civil rights have yet to truly show up to save the day.
You don’t get anymore ‘American’ than denim. The denim represents the raging and brutal waters of capitalism rushing in from all corners. We struggle to continue to assimilate into a country ran by those who have never seen my people as people. We are things. We are tools. We are animals. We are savages. We are not ‘pretty.’ So they think.