Take a look at this photo:

my lincoln copy

After hanging in a prominent local coffee shop for the last few weeks, it was suddenly taken down after one or more customers “complained about the racial content”.

No sour grapes to the coffee shop.  They’re good people, and the coffee is delicious.  The photo’s barely mine to begin with; all I did was formalize and repurpose someone else’s expression (the title of my original posting was “Integral”).  I see no particular point in artistic provocation, and there’s enough in here – graphically, historically, and culturally – for this photo to speak for itself.  Break it down: the artist superimposes a word fiercely, inextricably entwined with black racial identity over an iconograph of American solidarity.  A white one.  And he makes it possessive.

I can’t find anything to complain about.  And in light of the events of recent weeks, it seems to me that censoring any racial discussion which is not itself inflammatory, which does not sanction anger and divisiveness, is symptomatic of the way Americans handle the problems that look – and possibly are – too big to resolve.  Rather than engage in a conversation where one is imminent, we shout down opposition at the first word we don’t like.  We’ve become abysmal listeners, in defense of sensitivities which serve no constructive end.

I’d like to suggest, moreover, that whoever put that face and phrase together turned four hundred years of deceit and oppression into an image of great racial unity, without attempting the cheap shortcut of color blindness.  There aren’t two informed ways to interpret this image.  It means exactly one thing, it’s clear and concise, and it’s plastered on a surface that can be read, without much of a stretch, as graphically emblematic of the division that birthed it.  It’s a division freighted with so much abuse and neglect that at times the single word, all by itself, causes offense – even though it’s used with a purpose co-opted to mean the explicit opposite of its historical precedent.

In a healthier social environment, there would be no need to explain this.  I get the sensitivity.  Like all art, this photograph basically serves itself and offers no redemptive powers.  It cannot be hung in enough coffee shops in America to change the way we confront disparity, bigotry, guilt, shame, or rage.  Coffee, however, is a great thing that heals all weary souls, and if this image, with its vile language unsuitable for children or the unbelievably privileged, taints the acquisition of the all-American drug, my sincere sympathies to the barista who was asked to take it down.

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