Martin Luther King Portrait & Coming To Terms With Our Own Privilege

Martin Luther King Portrait, by Theresa Felling

At the recent BOOST Conference we met Jane Felling of Box Cars and One Eyed Jacks.  Upon her return home, she sent us this portrait that her daughter-in-law, Theresa Felling made for a friend of Martin Luther King.  It’s more than a portrait of him to her because it represents her journey to waking up to her  white privilege,  our country’s roots in racism and discovering a way through it with art.  Below is the story that goes with this portrait.

Artist Statement About The Work:
Starting on the right hand side are stylized cotton plants, the ‘quintessential’ American slave crop, and in this context a symbol of human greed. Racism as an ideology came about because white people needed cheap labor for their cash crops, and they needed to be able to justify the cruelty they inflicted upon African and Indigenous populations. Developing a racist ideology, one which dehumanizes people of color and reduces them to chattel, was essential to their money-making project. In the 19th century this took a very ‘scientific’ flavour in the social darwinist and later the eugenics movements.Above the cotton plants is the mighty Mississippi, coloured red for the blood of black and native peoples. It is also an artery, the lifeblood of the United States. So much of the wealth that bolstered the United States in its infancy came from slave labor. Americans seem very keen to believe that their can-do, protestant entrepreneurial spirit is what built their nation; I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on the economic powerhouse that was slavery. It’s a hard truth to come to terms with. Even the White House was built, in part, by slaves.

The four dots on the American map represent:
Montgomery, Alabama. Where J. Marion Sims performed his experiments on black women. Also the setting of the Montgomery bus strikes.
Money, Mississippi. Where Emmett Till was lynched.
Memphis, Tennessee. Where MLK was shot.
Ferguson, Missouri. Where Michael Brown was shot.
The three faces (from top to bottom) represent the Past, Present and Future. And by that I mean the past, present and future as MLK would have known it.

(PAST) The Anonymous face of Slavery. This isn’t a likeness of anyone in particular; because no true likenesses of these women exist. This figure represents collectively Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy, who were three slave women (or more accurately, slave girls) living in the pre-civil war south. They were suffering from debilitating fistulas (tears in their vagina, urethra and anus) brought about from childbirth. This condition causes sufferers to constantly leak urine or feces, and as you imagine, is a source of considerable pain and humiliation. J. Marion Sims, an enterprising young white doctor, decided that fixing fistulas was how he was going to make a name for himself. Using slave women as guinea pigs, he performed surgical experiments without the use of anaesthesia. On Anarcha he did more than 30 unanesthetized surgeries. Sims claims in his journal that these women were glad to receive treatment from their conditions, but because there is no record of their voices, one can’t be sure. What is known is that later Sims went on to use his perfected technique on white women, this time with the benefit of anesthesia. He even performed this operation on the empress of France. Sims, the so-called “Father of Gynecology”, had a statue erected in his honour in Central Park which stood until April 17th, 2018.

To me, this represents the atrocities perpetrated against black women, in particular the sexualized violence they faced. Enslaved black women were used as breeding stock. They were impregnated as early as possible so that they could bear as many slave children as possible. They were also at the mercy of their white masters and overseers. It’s interesting to note that as soon as slavery ended, black mothers became vilified for having too many children, for ‘breeding like rabbits’, and for being welfare queens.

Women today are beneficiaries of Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy’s exploitation – just as we are beneficiaries of the birth control pill tests that were executed upon Puerto Rican women in the 1950s. (Hence the halo – a symbol of saintliness or martyrdom.) Where feminism has made progress, it has firstly made progress for white women. While white women were breaking glass ceilings, black women were sweeping up the shards. This is the case even today, when so many POC women serve in domestic and service industries at minimum wage so that white women can advance in fields once dominated by men. Said Malcolm X, “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

(King’s “PRESENT”) Jim Crow and Emmett Till. Emmett Till was viciously lynched for (purportedly) flirting with a white woman in 1955 Mississippi. His death made national headlines when his mother insisted on an open casket funeral to show the world how his body had been maimed. This was a defining moment in the burgeoning civil rights movement. What happened to Till and other lynching victims would have surely been in the forefront of MLK’s mind – Till is positioned at the same level as MLK, and the Jim Crow figure dances on MLK’s shoulder. At the time, black people were forced to engage in various humiliating deferential practices in order to prevent “the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people.” Till, who hailed from Chicago, was even warned of this before he left for Mississippi. And of course, one of the main reasons black men got lynched was for acting too familiar with white women.

The terrorism of black communities was part of larger project to remind black people of their place and keep them subservient. While black people hung from trees white people hung monuments in memory of the romanticized confederate south – monuments to white supremacy which remain standing to this day. This is what MLK and the civil rights movement were facing. “What the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished [was] not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches. He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south….” [Hamden Rice, Essay, Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did]

(“FUTURE”) aka our present, Michael Brown. Brown was an unarmed black teenager who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, MI. His death sparked BLM protests and anti-police riots across the country. The 13 on Michael’s lapel stands for the 13th amendment (section 1) which states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This is how the stereotype of black criminality started. After slavery was abolished, states made laws that targeted Black people specifically so that blacks could be arrested on trumped up charges and used in chain gangs for free labour. Even today, the prison-industrial complex capitalizes on incarcerated populations, a disproportionate amount of whom are POC. Black people also get harsher prison sentences than white people, particularly when it comes to drug-related charges. Michael Brown was shot because black people, especially black men, are seen as more thuggish, more criminal, more dangerous. The stereotype exists because it is profitable. And when you have to make a snap decision, such as when to fire a gun, the fallback is to rely on stereotypes. It’s like a cognitive shortcut.

Michael Brown also represents the way the education system fails black and minority students. After his death, Brown’s mother emphasized how hard it was for her to get him to simply graduate high school. Brown’s high school’s academic standards and finances were so poor that it had been declared “unaccredited” by Missouri state education authorities. Educational inequality perpetuates racial inequality.

What the three faces have in common is that they were all just teenagers. Anarcha was 17 when she was being operated on by Sims. Till was 14. Brown was 18.

MLK was assassinated 50 years ago this past April, within living memory. Rest in power.  Theresa Felling, 2018