Die: North American Racism

It is 400 years ago this month that a Dutch ship brought the first cargo of enslaved Black men and women to North America:  to the coast of Virginia.




Personal History


A British school friend called me from London.


One of her young co-workers, a woman of British nationality who had been born an African on the Cameroonian/Nigerian border, was living and working now in New York.  She had lived and worked for some years in London. 




Die.  American People Series #20, oil on canvas, 1967, and details.

Faith Ringgold, born 1930, American.  MOMA, NY



My friend wanted me to talk through American racism with the young woman because she was confused.  It was unlike anything the young woman had ever experienced.





As above




I refused. 

I referred the young woman to an African working at the UN in New York, with permission, going through the same confused anguish. The UN in New York is used to this particular anguish.


American racism, I told my friend, has been studied at length:

its history,

conscious and unconscious biases, 

its structure:

its enforcement by American institutions;

the laws which have attempted to dismantle this structure

stats to the left, to the right, up and down, every which way

All available to everyone.






As above





My friend was taken aback.  What could be so difficult?  Is it that different from England? France?


I told her:  yes. That different.


To try to explain how American racism works at its myriad levels is beyond me, I explained to my friend. 


It isn’t a matter for the intellect.  The facts are not difficult to grasp; but it is irrational.  It is an evil.  Evil cannot be grasped with the rational mind.


When you get into this hell, words fail. You have to get to the poets, the prophets, artists.  There isn’t anything I can say.






As above




As above


Not once in any country but this, not on any continent, has anyone made the slightest  reference, overtly, covertly, subliminally or in any way to the colour of my skin. Which is black.

The one exception was in Gujerat, India.  Are you a Siddhi, I was asked?  No and I explained.  Nor were my questioners being hostile. 

They wanted to incorporate me in their universe.  





Screen printed text on a black and white photograph mounted on foam  core, 1990.  One of 4. 

Adrian Piper, American born 1948. Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation, Berlin





Screen printed text on a black and white photograph mounted on foam  core, 1990.  One of 4. 

Adrian Piper, American born  1948.  Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation, Berlin




Beyond the normative function of this prejudice, like all other prejudice, as a spiritual dysfunction,

North American racism has from the beginning permitted a people to classify another people as sub-human.



In how many cultures do men have to keep on insisting that they be recognized as men, as human beings?





Untitled (I am a Man), 1988, oil and enamel on canvas.  Glenn Ligon, American, born 1960.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC




A very peculiar institution: American slavery.   And its consequences.





Christ’s Entry into Journalism, 2017, ink and pencil on paper, cut and pasted on painted paper; and details below.

  The title is a play on the title of a painting by  the Belgian, James Ensor: Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889.

  Kara Walker, American born 1969.  MOMA, NY



White and Black Americans are intimately connected by blood, by love, by hate, in work, on the sports field, on the battlefield, in politics, in the work place, in their neighbourhoods.  Some of their neighbourhoods. 

Black music: the cathedral of their joint and worshipful attendance.

(But their churches are separate. Barbershops catering to African Americans are safe havens; likewise hairdressers).





As above



In every way in which people relate to other people.  They know each other intimately. 


That is what Faith Ringgold shows in her painting, Die, of the racial disorder in a middle class, integrated setting which we recognize so that we don’t dismiss it out of hand as another mass-murder in the ‘ghetto’. 





As above



This is what Adrian Piper says in her amended photographs above:

Adrian Piper, a celebrated artist who, in her words, fled the Unites States ‘with her life’ and lives now in Berlin.

And will not return to her native country except as ashes, hair and nail clippings which she has bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art, NY to the puzzlement of their lawyers.





As above


But then it is this very intimacy which lends this racism its murderous potency.





As above




And here we are:  400 years to the very month since a (Dutch) ship arrived off the coast of Virginia bearing the first load of enslaved Africans for sale.

The same old shoe, 400 years old and stinking to high heaven of everyone’s encrusted blood is dropping again.





As above



No, I told my friend, I have learned nothing from all this except how evil works in the lives of people: in their bodies and minds. 

How it diminishes people.  How it destroys them from inside and outside.  





As above



The continuing experience of it would be a catastrophe  were it not for the strength and persistence of American Blacks.



Why, my friend asked, have you never before said anything? 



To what end? I asked her. 

We have shared almost all the griefs of our lives since we were at school.  Some of these in our adulthoods were god-awful.


Let’s drop intractable sorrows of this kind. We can’t fix this one.


Yes, she said.  






2018.  Chalk on a playground in Queen Village, Philadelphia, laid down to expunge an incident in which two young boys – one Black and one White – hung a black doll in effigy in the playground.

  They said that they did not know what ‘lynching’ was and they were sorry; and were forgiven with a history lesson and a warning.








5 thoughts on “Die: North American Racism

  1. Racism is very sad for our country. Did it begin 400 years ago or even before that? How many generations until it’s gone?
    But dehumanizing people you don’t agree with is common. I’m white and I had a mixed race friend that called 3rd party voters knuckle draggers. She knew I like the libertarians. I don’t think she meant to to insult my race and she apologized but I still don’t want to talk to her.
    Is that correct with the last photo where Philadelphia means love of the city? I always heard it means brotherly love.

    1. Discrimination for reasons of gender and the skin colour seems to have been a world-wide ‘indulgence’ of our species for centuries. Only recently have its structural elements been done away with by law and only in some countries. Even in our own country, structural elements remain in place. The amount of red-lining in Philly in areas where Black Americans have lived for generations makes you sick. 40 years after the Civil Rights.

      Gender and racial discrimination as a matter of attitude – as in the case of your friend apparently, is a prejudice and they require the hard work of one’s own spiritual evolution. I am a registered Independent and I don’t have knuckes and so that is just the silliest statement. Even though I recognize why a Black American might say that.

      The problem with the American version of racism is the virulence, length and life-global nature of it. And that has to do, I suppose, with its history. It is odd and sad and saps away the life of our nation.

      Yes: Phila means love and adelfos means brotherly and so it does mean City of Brotherly Love.

      It was probably someone being politically correct who wrote it because that playground was the site of a complete show down between the Blacks and the Whites here: it was found to contain the oldest Black-owned cemetery. Over time it became a playground. A resolution has been found: a memorial on the site of the graveyard and a playground also. Lots of room. But it was 10 years of tension and now nobody wants to go into tension about ‘brotherly’ because gender is as sensitive as race!

      It is all mad.


      1. Thanks for your insights and the info. I’m from PA and I heard about the part of Philly I should avoid when visiting it, but I always had a good time there.
        The thing about being called a knuckle dragger that surprised me so much is that my former friend is part Jewish and part Puerto Rican.
        My parents never said a bad word about anyone, mainly because they didn’t talk much, I guess. But that let me to make up my own mind about who my friends are and I find more in common with people who are outside of generally being accepted by society, like myself, no matter their race.
        It is nuts out there.

    2. Nuts is right.

      Communication is good. Part Jewish? Have you spoken to her about this?

      I say communication is good but……….I don’t do it much in these circumstances. I have decided, I suppose, that silence is better. The discourtesy, the meanness, the lack of maturity and basic good manners: I say nothing. The only exception is if it is a child or a young person or a foreigner who is the target. Then I say things…………

      I know that many people of good will are working on themselves and in community to calm the waters. But it is 400 years later!

      Thanks for talking with me about this most sensitive subject. Looking so forward to the abstract horse!


      1. She was so beautiful when we were young, and so open minded. No, I’m not talking to her. I’m eliminating bullies from my life. Avoidance is a good defense, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Always a pleasure to exchange ideas with you.

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