Make Space for Black Joy
There is a white sign in a black frame in the entryway of the Medford Tufts University Art Gallery that reads: “Exhibition Content Warning: Please be advised this gallery contains artwork that references gun violence.” The sign refers to the Sanford Biggers BAM series, an exhibition that aims to memorialize and honor unarmed Black victims of police shootings. This sign was not present when we visited the gallery for an in-class activity on October 16, but it would not have made any difference with respect to our experience of the exhibit. We were split up into groups along with students from an SMFA sculpture class, instructed to look around at the Biggers exhibit, take notes, and create a performance with our bodies in response to the work.
One white student from the SMFA class remarked how excited she was to see the BAM series. A number of us—the Black students who found the work more so troubling than “exciting”—walked out. The remainder of our classmates stayed behind, wondering how they were going to complete the assignment with half of the class gone.
There is no content warning that prepares Black students for an assignment where we are tasked with treating Black trauma and death as a learning exercise. We did not leave the gallery because Biggers’s art is offensive; we left because we could not engage with yet another exercise that was careless with the Black experience. Recognizing that no space is made in the classroom for engaging with Black joy, the activity and the exhibit raised questions about this work in the broader university context. Who gets to learn in these spaces? Which experiences are presented as narratives for learning, and above all, who gets left out?
This question’s answer does not demand lingering uncertainties or hesitant prose. Its answer rings loudly for those who are called on to resolve it time and time again. One more time. Who gets left out? We do. The framing of the Biggers exhibit as a learning tool for the students and faculty of a primarily and foundationally white institution fails to recognize that Black students have nothing more to learn from tired and traumatizing instantiations of Black death.
If Biggers’s intention—per Tufts Art Gallery’s Statement—is to “bring  to light the pain these acts have perpetrated upon society,” it is a horrific oversight to imagine that, for us, these acts were ever in the proverbial shadow. If Biggers’s work is intended to bring the realities of Black death “to light,” let us recognize that he is doing so uniquely and wholly for the non-Black witnesses of his work. In the words of influential Black poet and essayist, Claudia Rankine, “though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black.”
Let’s not pretend that this “knowing” can be taught by positioning Biggers’s work as an extension of the classroom. Let’s not excuse Biggers’s work in the name of enlightening white students on the profundity of Black pain or on the necessity of Black empathy. Let’s speak plainly about what Biggers’s work does or fails to do; despite Tufts Art Gallery’s misconception that the installation of this exhibit might be radical or breaking the institutional mold, the education of white students at the expense of their Black peers is nothing new.
In addition to questioning how effective the Gallery’s goals are with respect to this work, it is important to confront the intentions of the artist himself. In a WBUR interview, Biggers explained that his creative process involves taking African objects from his collection, dipping them in wax to remove their identifiable features, and taking the objects to a shooting range to enact a process he calls “ballistic sculpting.” Biggers enlisted an assistant to pull the trigger. The term “ballistic sculpting” falls flat as a vain attempt to imagine bullet wounds as aesthetic practice. His insistence on using African figurines as symbols for Blackness is instructive: instead of authenticating the artifacts and naming which countries and cultures the figurines are from, Biggers relies on generic “African” figurines as acceptable stand-ins for human beings who lived. He makes foreign objects of the human beings we mourned.
If Biggers’s intent is to show how state actors view Black people as foreign objects, he commits a similar misrecognition with one of the sculptures currently on display, titled BAM for Sandra. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, was taken into police custody in 2015 after a routine traffic stop and was found dead by hanging in her cell three days later. Bland’s death is the result of the overzealous policing of Black citizens, but she was not killed by police gun violence. The press release notes that Biggers’s work “elevates the stories of specific individuals in order to combat historical amnesia,” but his “ballistic sculpture” of Sandra Bland presents a false narrative. Instead of pointing to how the police and carceral system had a hand in her death, she is misremembered as another Black victim of police gun violence.
A generous interpretation of the BAM series that overlooks its inaccuracies and vacuous symbolism could credit the work for inadvertently depicting how the art community values depictions of Black death over Black life. No matter how generously one views these pieces, the series fails as a memorial. A memorial that honors how someone died—and not how they lived—has the effect of naturalizing their death.
Bringing a work like this to Tufts with the purpose of “creating dialogue” is troubling. On one hand, it supposes conversation is a sufficient tribute to the lives of Black people murdered at the hands of the state, which is a really lazy ask. “The conversation” has been happening, is happening, and will continue to happen long beyond now. But it’s not happening in spaces like Tufts Art Galleries, or other spaces on campus where Black students aren’t present. Spaces like these do not allow for us to meaningfully grapple with the realities that art pieces like BAM, posing as catalysts for “dialogue,” actually invoke.
We, as Black students, are inundated every single day with images of Black people being abused, murdered, and otherwise harmed on the internet and in readings for class. We are then asked to synthesize our reactions with an “intellectual” response.
What’s at stake for the average Tufts student when pontificating about Black death? For how many Tufts students does this topic function as little more than classroom conversation?
As students for whom forced dialogue on this subject is the everyday classroom reality, the number of passively engaged students is far too high. It’s insulting then, to think that at a university like Tufts, simply creating dialogue on this piece is a sufficient tribute to the lives taken by police violence.
In an environment that demonstrates such willingness to delve into representations of Black death, we ask for the same—if not greater—willingness to explore the realities of and resistances within Black joy. Our classes are so concerned with interpretations of trauma that we are seldom asked to explore the beautiful aspects of what Blackness is. We’re not asking to abandon the study of violences that are situated within global histories of the Black diaspora but we are asking for balance. There is so much more to academic studies of Black existence than chattel slavery. There are diasporas and cultures worthy of entire classes. There are new narratives, new thinkers, new histories demanding to be told in the same manner that the work of authors of the Black cannon is currently. Black sociology cannot begin and end with Du Bois.
If our only texts are written by the dead, our context for the Black world dies alongside them. And so we are quick to forget that Blackness exists beyond what the academy has deemed its foundational texts and that the production of Black culture is a process that demands a non-linear lens. We must revisit and revise the frameworks through which we intellectualize Black existence. We must re-imagine Blackness not as a series of events and traumas to be known but rather as a way of knowing.
It’s beyond time for our work, in and out of the art gallery or the classroom, to invite us into worlds that exist beyond, before, and far after the slave ship, and above all to make space for Black joy.