In 1928, a writer living at 119 West 131st street publishes an essay that includes the sentence, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
In 1991, an artist, also living in New York, uses black oilstick and stencils to fill a gessoed wood panel with this 13-word sentence repeated over and over again. While the first lines of text are neat and clear, as the artist works his way down the panel the letters become increasingly clotted until the phrase is barely legible.
On a Sunday afternoon in 2009, a poet is at home watching Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters play in the women’s singles semi-finals of the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows. Williams is down a match point when a lineswoman calls a foot fault on her second serve. Furious, Williams lashes out verbally at the official, an outburst that results in her being penalized a point and, thus, losing the match. The poet recognizes Williams’ rage as something she, too, has often felt as a black woman. It’s not about one bad call, but about a lifetime of injustice. Thinking of Williams and her sister Venus, and wondering what “a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space looks like,” she recalls the Harlem writer’s 1928 statement. When, five years later, she is assembling a book about racist microaggressions, it makes perfect sense to pair her account of the U.S Open incident with the artist’s 1991 stencilled version of the 1928 text.
It is only after the book is published that the artist discovers his work has been included. Rather than being upset, he is thrilled. In an email he tells the poet, “This book explains so much to me about how I feel.”
(Zora Neale Hurston, Glenn Ligon, Claudia Rankine)