Can't You See Us

“Can’t You See Us?” was created to express my frustration and disappointment with Duke’s administration and with those living, teaching and interacting with the campus. After seeing the murder of Keith Scott online, and witnessing this nation’s epidemic of police brutality firsthand, I was horrified but otherwise unsurprised. What did shock me, however, was our campus’ deafening silence. I couldn’t understand why no allies confronted this; was it because engaging in this conversation was too painful or because they couldn’t be bothered? I couldn’t decide which was worse.

It seems like many ignored Charlotte because conflict makes us uncomfortable. Death on social media is personal. For black folks, this pain and fear are amplified because, for us, deaths’ such as those of Keith are personal and all too relatable. This is why the presence of allies is essential; I needed my anguish to be acknowledged and to be supported by someone who did not carry the same burden as me. But when I looked around and failed to find that support, I was heartbroken. It seemed like we all had lost our humanity. Was the death of a black man, of a brother, of another being, so habitual that it was not worth recognizing? Was his life so worthless that it did not deserve grieving? Have we dehumanized black bodies so forcefully that we are able to accept and even justify their murders?

Whatever the reasoning for such complacency is, this national moment has only reinforced the fact that black lives do not matter. This was abundantly clear on Duke’s campus when students chose to discuss Brangelina’s recent breakup instead of the Charlotte protests, when healing spaces were not readily accessible and advertised and when Broadhead and the administration released a shallow and unsatisfying statement regarding the recent murders. I felt unsupported and undesired on campus.

I found the healing I was yearning for when I went to Charlotte. When I was in the crowd, I felt a closeness to these strangers that I had yet to experience on campus. I spent time with people in a space where black bodies and feelings were not only acknowledged but celebrated. We were an unstoppable force, moving together boldly and proudly. People celebrated each other, people cried together, people loved each other. And in this moment, I found a space for emotional release that was both cathartic and healing.  This is the support system that I want for this campus.

Let me rephrase my previous statement. “Can’t You See Us?” was not only created to express my own frustration, but also to hold allies accountable. This painting was created for Keith which was why I painted a black man. The red background was never a choice. In order to convey the frustration, the anger, the pain, the sadness and the blood that has been spilt, the image needed to be washed in it. I wanted to bath Keith in the anger and sadness of our people and in the blood of those who have died in it. Then I painted the eyes, the ominous presence that refuses to see. When I tried to paint Keith’s face, I became frustrated. This reminded me of a prior conversation with my friend Alexus. That’s when I realized that his face didn’t matter because the individual doesn’t matter. Our conversation revolved around the fact that we, as black people, are afraid to take up space. We operate under the mentality of ‘white feelings over black deaths’. That’s why I left him as a black body; that’s all that society will ever see him as. I covered him in whiteness to give the illusion that he was being erased and that, in his place, something new was starting, when in actuality, something was being destroyed. They can try to cover it up but his broken presence is still felt. The moment I decided to white out his face is when I realized I needed my Alexus present in the photograph. And in that moment with the painting, she became me and embodied all my frustration, my sadness and my inability to be vulnerable during this entire situation. This painting was, for me, a way to cry but seeing her break down made me look away. In that moment, I realized I was doing what I was criticizing others for. Her pain and her vulnerability was an inconvenience, it made me uncomfortable, so I couldn’t look. This is what’s happening now. America won’t look at its black community. Our pain, our anger, our very presence inconveniences them, makes them uncomfortable. And they refuse to address it. To them, we are no more than “strange fruit” swinging in the trees. This is why I’m calling out allies on being silent. We’re already moving against a brick wall. The people that are supposed to moving with us should not be part of the white noise that silences us.

Catherine Farmer