Photographed in front of a decorative backdrop while showcasing the crispness of the portrait, one might assume the two figures in this art piece to be a physical marker of success for the black freedom struggle. The multiplicity of Rashid Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas’s Portrait of Two American Artists as Negro Scholars echoes in form of protest. Yet, as one closet examines the presence of two black fists, two sets of black eyes, two black suits, and two black bodies, one questions if this twoness is enough. Does it truly capture the wide range of expression that heeds the fire of protest or does it silence the possibility for liberation?
Even though the suits and posture create a sensibility in which black life is accepted under the terms of the scholar, the spaces in which such liberation is possible extends beyond the photographic power and effect of this portrait. Therefore, to continue to explore the transformative effect of this portrait, one might journey to the theory of double consciousness, constructed by W.E.B DuBois. Here DuBois offers an analysis of what the identity of African American may be and a means of viewing such. However, when juxtaposing DuBois’s theory with a close reading of Allan Sekula’s explanation of the honorific and repressive, one might be able to argue that the production of identity and race is further complicated and problematized as the dichotomy is even more limiting, and not per se, liberating.
To begin, DuBois situates this concept of double consciousness on the precept that the African American identity has been regarded as an external and internal problem. There is not a space to refute this problem in DuBois’s literature, as he shows that he has accepted the everlasting state of this problem, and even more, the strangeness that accompanies such. Therefore, DuBois’s preoccupation lies within the sight and perception of such a strange experience. Hence, he writes,
The Negro is a sort of the seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (DuBois).
The quarrel in this sense is not the portrayal of the Negro. As stated before, the Negro will always be seen as a problem through the eyes of America and the world. However, the dynamic that shifts and I would argue that alludes to liberation, is the ability to see. The twoness that DuBois describes is a twoness that is liminal. The Negro does not control this double sight or can even manipulate such. Rather, DuBois presents is a gift that the Negro is inherently born with, which suggests flexibility in society.
Given the true nature of the sensation, this twoness is actually an internal struggle of constant wrestling between two souls, ideals, and striving, which is ultimately compacted into one body. To be black and to be American is an opposing situation as the two naturally contradict each other. Therefore, in any attempt towards more in the American context, whether by means of riches, education, or craft, is a move away from Negro, as the two forces are constantly at war with each other, in Dubois’s framework.
However, referring back to the portrait of Thomas and Johnson, one must consider how they titled it Two American Artists as Negro Scholars. This title itself highlights DuBois’s literature, as it shows the binary created between American and Negro. Even more, it supports his argument, in that this portrayal that they have captured, is in fact, they claim themselves as American Artists performing the role of the Negro Scholar. It is not a holistic composition of their identities, and given that they both are artists, it shows that this is how they see themselves.
Fitting in the analysis in which DuBois outlines the way in which the Negro sees, the photographic appeal of such further exacerbates this problem. All in all, in this twoness, the experience is still of the Negro is still strange. The problem persists, and the Negro is continued to be othered and considered deviant. When added, the layer of the photo, Allan Sekula shows that a binary is still enacted when acknowledging how race continues to be produced. Sekula aligns his argument by contextualizing the progression of the photographic and construction of the archive. In doing so, Sekula’s looks at ways in which photography plays out in social structures.
For Sekula, at the rise of photography, its major function was in the legitimizing of criminality through legal processes. More specifically, he wrote about the Daguerre types of photos that would consist of two portraits (one straight on, the other to the side) capturing the physical features of the criminal to be archived. In examining this process and the spread of portrait photography at the time, Sekula recognized a system that was created, which he terms the honorific and repressive. He explains,
We are confronting, then, a double system: a system of representation capable of functioning both honorifically and repressively. On the one hand, the photographic portrait extends, accelerates, popularizes, and degrades a traditional function… This role derived, not from any honorific portrait tradition, but from the imperatives of medical and anatomical illustration. Thus photography came to establish and delimit the terrain of the other, to define both the generalized look — the typology — and the contingent instance of deviance and social pathology” (Sekula 7).
Clearly, photography functions in a two-fold representational system. The ability to capture the portrait was transformative mainly because it reversed its traditional function and popularized the image. Now many more people were able to access photography. Conversely, it definitely created a mechanism in which the body is captured in a scientific and objective fashion. Thus, the effect in which the photo operates in this double fashion can also be read to further explicate DuBois’s theory of double consciousness.
The notion that the black body is trapped in this liminal state in which they can not fully see themselves, is translated across the honorific and repressive representational system that Sekula frames. Given the portrait by Johnson and Thomas, one can see honorific effects, especially in the light given that they are claiming their American identity as artists. In this sense, they have control of the narrative and in this case the performance. Especially given the context of what it may mean to be American, they are able to do what they wish and take control.
One may even be able to read the honorific effects of this twoness in the form in which the photo was taken. The decorative backdrop and positioning of the subjects. It resembles the Daguerre type structure, given one face is the front and the other is slightly positioned to the side. However, the two subjects are not identical and the twoness that they present has a sense of variability (i.e. hair and facial expression). Therefore, given these factors, one might be able to read on the side of the binary where American identity is glorified.
On the other hand, the title of the work is American Artists as Negro Scholars, which implies a repressive function undergoing in this performance. As the title of the art piece, shows how the doubleness of their identity and being black, essentially creates a spectacle. In that spectacle, the Negro does not exist simply as a scholar, rather he is being seen through the lens of another. Looking closer at the image, one sees this even in the overall sentiment of the photo. While they do look dignified, there is also a stiffness as there is not a full range of expression. As they grip the shirts, they look restricted. The mouths are tight as if they are wanted to see more, yet viewers solely get a static image. This brings one to question to full capability in which they are owning the identity Negro Scholar. They are not quite able to recognize themselves fully, both as American and Negro, which situates them at what DuBois would deem as a problem. Hence, they continue to subside in such a liminal state.
To conclude, DuBois’s theory fills in gaps to explore the realities and workings of the photographic. In its representational effects, Sekula offers a framework that allows for a means of understanding the twoness in which the black body endures. While there seem to be positive and transformative effects given the honorific, such effects are limited, which speaks to the problem and strangeness of the experience that is the black body. Even more, the repressive seems to quantify and objectify the black body. Therefore, in the presentation of this problem, the Negro can not truly see or be seen, which does not equate to liberation. Rather, only the deepening of a traumatic cycle of performance of this twoness, and a strengthening of the honorific and repressive.