Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 19, 2021
Richard J. Powell Going There: Black Visual Satire Cambridge, MA and New Haven, CT: Hutchins Center for African & African American Research in association with Yale University Press, 2020. 240 pp.; 76 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300245745)

Darryl Dickson-Carr writes, “African American satire’s earliest purpose in both oral and written form was to lampoon the (il)logic of chattel slavery and racism itself” (African American Satire: The Sacredly Profane Novel, University of Missouri Press, 2001). Despite the power of Black satire, there are few comprehensive studies of it. The early twenty-first century saw the publication of several books, including Dickson-Carr’s and Dana Williams’s edited collection of essays, African American Humor, Irony, and Satire (Cambridge Scholars, 2007). More recently Danielle Fuentes Morgan has published Laughing to Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century (University of Illinois Press, 2020), which deals with film, TV, and performance; and Derek Maus and James J. Donahue edited a volume of essays titled Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights (Oxford University Press, 2014). Maus notes that the discourse on African American satire is heavily focused on literature. Richard J. Powell’s Going There: Black Visual Satire is a timely contribution dedicated entirely to Black visual satire as a genre and adds to this growing attention to Black satire as resistance. Wide-ranging and painstakingly researched, Going There situates Black visual satire in historical, political, and discursive contexts that tease out the nuances of the form.

Powell lays bare the stakes of his project by proposing that satire “has a distinctly African American lineage and presence in modern and contemporary visual art.” This radical idea suggests that Black people developed a tradition parallel to Euro-Americans rather than in imitation of them (4). Chapter 1, “‘More Than a One-Liner,’” establishes the book’s foundation by offering an introduction to the history of visual satire while interweaving Black satirical modes of expression. Three primary issues are at the heart of the text. The first concerns the creative risk and manner in which satire creates an antagonistic relationship between the artwork and its audience. In this way, satire’s effrontery can potentially cause confusion and frustration rather than understanding. The second issue is the deployment of stereotypic and racist referents in Black satirical visual art. The question for Powell is whether this, in fact, achieves the artistic objectives of the artists. The final concern is with the dialectical paradigm that satire brings into relief and that complicates a direct understanding of the mode of expression; hence, satire is not a didactic art and can be easily misinterpreted by the viewer. The majority of the chapter is used to define Black visual satire and what distinguishes it from European and Euro-American traditions. Powell claims Black visual satire’s primary targets are racism and the Black community for its “social hypocrisies, political compromises, and moral failures of African Americans” (24), and in this way operates as intra-community critique. A wide array of visual examples from the canon of African American art and film supports his arguments, including the work of David Hammons, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, and Carrie Mae Weems. Powell’s inclusion of white filmmakers (Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope in chapter 1 and Brian de Palma’s Hi, Mom! in chapter 3) indicates a broader interest in the possibilities of what Black visual satire can be.

The second chapter, “Drawing the Color Line: The Art of Ollie Harrington,” examines the career of Black editorial cartoonist Oliver (“Ollie”) Wendell Harrington (1912–1995). The primary focus of the chapter is on how Harrington’s editorial art conveys its satirical meanings through distinct aesthetic strategies. Powell crafts a biographical narrative that begins with the racial primal scene, as it were, that inspired Harrington’s dreams of becoming a cartoonist and ended with his return to the United States after a self-exile of approximately thirty years in East Berlin. The author focuses on aspects of Harrington’s artistic development that contextualize his contribution to Black visual satire. For Harrington “growing up in genteel poverty in the South Bronx, living and working in Depression-era Harlem, and, most importantly, participating in the lively repartee between different black New York constituencies” were the foundation of his impressive body of work, which became the vanguard of the form (69). He learned about Black life in these neighborhoods and developed what Powell calls a “satiracy,” the fusion of satire and literacy, that “made palpable incongruities and aberrant social realities as metaphorically experienced under a black American, blues-inflected soundtrack” (69). The end of the artist’s career, Powell intimates, coincides with the demise of his brand of satirical cartoon and Black visual critique.

Chapter 3, “The Minstrel Stain,” examines the phenomenon of the same name. “Minstrel stain” is Powell’s term not only for “stock, racist representations of African Americans” but also for its impact on Black subjects who suffer (103). Here, he traces Black artists’ appropriation of racist iconography and offers a question: Why have so many Black artists since the 1960s engaged stereotypic depictions of African Americans? To explore this question, Powell builds several narrative layers to show the historical continuities between eras. He bolsters his arguments with analyses of an extensive range of artwork from the late nineteenth century to the present day. For example, images of Aunt Jemima, Donald Glover’s music video This Is America, and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby serve to demonstrate the extent to which the minstrel stain has influenced Black artistic practice over time. Powell also describes performances and images of whiteface, which he defines as a “highly ritualized counterattack” against blackface (48). He positions whiteface as a key part of the minstrel stain. His inclusion of whiteface is surprising because it does not have the same origin in dehumanization. Also surprising is his definition of Jayson Musson’s “Hennessy Youngman” character as a blackface performance (143). Arguing that Musson specifically engages in verbal blackface, Powell suggests that the artist uses strategic essentialism to critique the mainstream contemporary art world.

The fourth and final chapter, “Colescott: Between the Heroic and the Ironic,” focuses on the visual language of the artist Robert Colescott (1925–2008). Powell identifies Colescott as the “quintessential African American satiric figure, insofar as he [envisioned] the bridges between two worlds, the heroic and the ironic” (159). He positions the artist as a pícaro, an “observant world traveler” who used his paintings to opine about lurid topics and dared to tread where few of his predecessors had gone before (159). Pícaro is a Spanish word for a rascal, a roguish but appealing hero figure who survives by his wits in a corrupt society. By characterizing Colescott in this way, Powell acknowledges both the artist’s rogue status and his keen awareness of society’s failings. He further acknowledges Colescott’s comedic prowess, which manifested as Black humor, pun intended. Later in the chapter, Powell draws a compelling comparison between Colescott and Richard Pryor, who also had a penchant for controversial material. By doing this, Powell brings Colescott’s satirical virtuosity into fuller relief. To advance the discussion about the development of Colescott’s satirical provocations, the author performs close analysis of his more significant works, such as paintings from his 1980s series Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future, through which Colescott was able to lodge acerbic critiques at historical master narratives. This series set the artist “on a dialectical path” whereby the protagonists of each subsequent painting faced ethical dilemmas made all the more difficult by the politics of identity; he makes the viewer sort through the historical contingencies that his paintings foreground (194). Ultimately, the chapter recognizes Colescott’s contributions to using satire to critique historical and continuing social and racial tensions in the United States.

Going There: Black Visual Satire is a comprehensive text that covers extraordinary terrain. Powell structured the book to give readers two overview chapters and two more-focused, biographical chapters on major figures. The writing is effortless and imparts the sense of Powell’s deep investment in the material. The book’s few limitations have to do with the two overview chapters. Chapters 1 and 3 are meant to provide an extensive background about Black visual satire and minstrelsy, respectively; however, the range of examples in each chapter is immense. Powell enthusiastically moves quickly between painting, film, video art, and performance art, which proves the pervasiveness of Black visual satire but may make it difficult for some readers to grasp his layered arguments. Fewer examples with closer analysis would have facilitated readers’ deeper engagement with the material. Additionally, there is the question of why a chapter was not dedicated to either a major female or a queer figure. A chapter on an artist like Joyce J. Scott or Kalup Linzy would have broadened the critical scope of Black visual satire. Nevertheless, Powell’s book is foundational to the discourse and should be required reading. Going There gives the reader permission to laugh at the inappropriate, but also compels her to acknowledge the suppressed histories, social ills, and ignored social malfunctions that inspire Black visual satire.

crystal am nelson
Postdoctoral Fellow, Penn State University