[guest post by Dana]
Rashaad Thomas, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, poet and essayist has opined that a photograph hanging in a Phoenix restaurant that captures coal miners with their soot-blackened faces sharing a beer after work made him feel threatened:
… Then a photograph caught my attention.
Friends said, “It’s coal miners at a pub after work.” It was a photograph of coal miners with blackened faces. I asked a Latinx and white woman for their opinion. They said it looked like coal miners at a pub after work. Then they stepped back, frowned and said it’s men in blackface.
I asked the waitress to speak with a manager. Instead, I spoke with a white restaurant owner. I explained to him why the photograph was offensive. Evidently, someone else had made a similar comment about the photograph before.
Yet, the photograph remained on the wall. He said he would talk to the other owners and get back to me. While leaving, I asked him had he spoke with the other owners. He had not spoken with them, but mentioned Google said it’s coal miners after work.
Thomas freely acknowledges that the facts don’t matter, it is his emotional response that does:
Fact: The photograph shows coal miners’ faces covered in soot. The context of the photograph is not the issue.
Art can be a trickster. People view artwork once and subsequently see something different.
Viewers cannot determine the intention of an artist’s work. Art also exposes society’s blind spots. Blackface is only a glimpse of a larger issue. The larger issue is the lack of representation of marginalized people and their voices in Phoenix.
Frequently, I enter art galleries and I am not represented in the art, which leads to uneducated curation for exhibitions. While shopping I am ignored because it is assumed I unable to purchase anything, or I am followed by a security guard because it is assumed that I am a threat to the store.
Each assumption is based on a stereotype. Blackface caricatures stereotypes of black people.
At the downtown Phoenix restaurant, my concern that the photograph of men in blackface was a threat to me and my face and voice were ignored.
A business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me, “Whites Only.” It says people like me are not welcome.
Except this isn’t an artist’s rendering in the sense that it wasn’t created from someone’s imagination, nor was it the result of individuals specifically adopting blackface for a photograph. This is a very real capture of very real people after a very real day at work. Because the photograph does not represent in any way, shape or form the racist intent of historical “blackface,” to use it as a weapon of complaint about feeling threatened and inadequately represented is disingenuous. The photograph of the coal miners covered in soot is not the same as a group of white people dressed up in “blackface” seeking to denigrate a specific group of marginalized people. Thomas sorely hurts his cause, and the cause of everyone interested in seeing equal treatment and respect to individuals of every race and color by lumping coal miners covered in black soot in the same basket with racist bigots in blackface. It’s ridiculous to claim that hard working men in the photograph threaten anyone. Perhaps if Thomas immersed himself in the history of coal mining, particularly during the time period when the photograph was taken, he might temper his claims.
Interestingly, as the photograph in question appears on the cover of a book titled The Home Front 1914 – 1918 How Britain Survived The Great War by Ian Beckett, and Wales Online describes the photograph as colliers in a public house in Cwmbach, Aberdare in about 1910:
Concerning the very dangerous work of coal miners during the war, that anyone was able to live to tell, let alone have a beer at the end of the day was awfully lucky:
In the First World War trenches cleaved Europe from the North Sea to Switzerland. While the battlefield above ground was static, a secret subterranean war raged underground.
The British Army began to form specialist army units of trained tunnellers in 1915, initially recruiting men from poor coal mining communities in Britain. Their job was to create a labyrinth of long underground tunnels that extended under enemy lines and could be packed with explosives, and to dig ‘camouflets’, smaller mines used to collapse enemy tunnels. They were also tasked with building extensive networks of tunnels behind Allied lines, allowing for undetected movement of men and supplies.
Added to the hazards of early 20th century mining, the miners were exposed to the particular horrors of underground warfare. These included enemy explosives, asphyxiation, trench foot, drowning, entombment, cold, cramp and the threat of unearthing German soldiers digging in the other direction and having to fight hand-to-hand to stay alive. Mining casualties were high; one tunnelling company had 16 killed, 48 sent to hospital and 86 minor cases treated at the shaft head in a six-week period.
Tunnellers worked by candlelight and operated in silence to avoid detection. Allied miners used the ‘clay kicking method,’ a technique borrowed from sewer, road and railway works in England. In each team there would be a ‘kicker’ who would lie on his back on a wooden cross and use his legs to work a finely sharpened spade known as a ‘grafting tool’ into the rock face. A ‘bagger’ would then fill sandbags with soil, and a ‘trammer’ would transport the debris out of the gallery on small rubber-tyred trolleys on rails. He would return with a trolley stacked with timber. The wood was for the walls, which would be erected without nails or screws in order to maintain silence; miners relied on the pressure of the swelling clay to hold it in place.
Facts must be taken into consideration when responding to situations. If facts are willingly ignored, our responses are subjective as we become little more than non-reasoning, knee-jerk emotional responders in spite of being otherwise informed by very tangible evidence. Because we willingly choose to see a situation through only an emotional lens, does not make that reality. Thomas certainly has the right to his views, and to express them publicly. I applaud anyone who has the wherewithal and follow through to do so. But in this particular instance, his efforts to make use one innocuous photograph to further a complaint about the much broader issue of unequal representation of blacks is misguided.
(Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.)