Deborah Roberts Explores The Fragility of Black Masculinity in Native Sons
Deborah Roberts’ impassioned exhibition memorializes Black boys who lost their lives from the social injustices of false accusations for murders they did not commit. This solemn exhibition is predicated on African American literature and takes its title from James Baldwin’s non fiction essay, “Many Thousands Gone” (Notes of a Native Son, 1955).
Roberts uses mixed media collage to create a new narrative on the fragility of Black masculinity. Fragility is not usually associated with masculinity but Roberts shows how Black boys are constantly in danger of being relegated to a pre-criminal status — without even doing anything wrong. Over the last three years Roberts has changed the face of Black girlhood in collages that associated Black femininity with beauty and power. Although she is a painter at heart, she became interested in collage as a medium for exploring the duality in blackness and changing racial stereotypes.
When I spoke to the artist she explained that she accidentally found the mug shot of George Junius Stinney Jr., while she was searching for a mug shot of Dr. Martin Luther King. “It spoke to me and bothered me for days and I felt compelled to do this work although I didn’t want to — I was called to do it.” This chilling backstory sheds light on the weight of these grave artworks.
Stinney was falsely accused of murdering two white girls in 1944 and exonerated seventy years later. He was convicted after a three day trial and killed on death row only eighty days after the murder. Roberts says, “Someone had to pay and he never had a chance. He was so little he could not fit a prison suit. He was too little to fit the electric chair so it was stacked with books.” She compares this injustice to the tragic murders of Emmett Till in 1955 and Tamir Rice in 2014 who “were never seen as innocent kids and given the benefit of doubt but criminalized right away by people who already decided they were lesser and no good.”
Roberts’ collages draw on W.E.B. Du Bois idea of the “double consciousness,” which refers to the experience of Black people feel living two lives in one body: one with white people and another with Black people. Many prominent Black artists have gravitated to collage (Romare Bearden), assemblage (Betye Saar and Alison Saar) and layering (Jacob Lawrence and Lezley Saar) to talk about the duality of blackness. Roberts says she was also influenced by the way earlier Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch used collage to challenge German tyranny.
Roberts’ collages play on disproportion to emphasize the duality experienced by innocent Black boys who are mistaken for dangerous adults. She often enlarges the size of children’s heads: Ghost Gun; and hands: Speak. She also superimposes enlarged adult eyes on child faces: James Baldwin’s eye in The Sky is Open or Sidney Poitier’e eye in The Defiant One. In Ghost Gun, the boy with an enlarged head is a reference to Tamir Rice who was viewed as an 18-year-old when he was really only a 12. His yellow toy pellet gun is a ghost because it is not a real gun. The boy has a pacifier in his mouth as a signifier of a toddler .
Facing the Rising Sun ( Nessun Dorma Series) is based on a spiritual. Stinney is dressed in an over-sized prison suit with his arms in a cross formation that suggests a christ-like stance. Roberts superimposes James Baldwin’s adult eye on Stinney’s face in remembrance of the author’s warning that America will never find true peace until it deals with the urgency of “the Negro problem.” Stinney re-appears dressed in a vest and nice velvet pants in From Feet to wings ( Nessun Dorma Series) to emphasize that he was a decent boy although he was viewed as a criminal. In contrast to his grooming, he is barefoot for a Christ-like ascension.
In I do solemnly swear ( Nessa Dorma Series), the two figures have the same face but one is darker in a reference to a photograph of O.J Simpson inTime magazine, which Roberts says was made darker “to look more devious and sinister.” The outstretched hand of one figure depicts Stinney’s oath to tell the truth in court — but he was not believed.
On Paused refers to the experience of not knowing when something could suddenly happen to turn the play button on. Roberts uses her leitmotif of one disproportionate larger hand to suggest a kid who is only safe when he is not viewed as an adult and the pause button is on.
A little Black boy and girl are bound in life experiences in Our destinies are bound because what effects one, eventually effects the other. This work is based on the idea that Black folk have to move forward together. If they come is predicated on James Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis in 1970, where Baldwin wrote, ”if they take you in the morning , they will be coming for us that night.” The boy holds one hand out in a gesture of friendship, but the other hand is clenched to fight a foe. In sharp contrast to her series of girls with clenched fists which express female power, Roberts’ images of boys use hand gestures to show what happens to a Black boys questioned by the police and told to put their hands out front where they can be seen. That One is based on “the talk” Black boys are given by their parents on how to act when approached to the police.
In her series of sculptures, trumpet of consciousness, Roberts uses the trumpet idea in an allusion to Dr King’s speech during the Sanitation protest in 1969, calling people to stand up together because all voices were needed. The stack of books refer to the execution of Stinney, who was seated on top of bibles to fit the electric chair. This work refers to labor, mass incarceration and voices coming together. The pipe is a 1940s bumper car jack which was used to lift tires to work under a car and signifies the way the child was raised for execution on a stack of bibles. A big foot on the pedestal alludes to the tragedy of a child who was never put on a pedestal.
Roberts approaches collage with the compositional skills and strong opticality of a trained painter who first learned to draw hands and feet as a child by studying paintings by da Vinci and Michelangelo in her family bible. Her visually intense works are constructed in a devotional way that resonates with the viewer in ways similar to religious masterpieces because she felt called to create them. This politically powerful exhibition is not easy to contemplate, nor should it be, because the source content is so disturbing. Roberts’ call for singular justice has a sense of urgency that cannot be ignored because, if nothing changes, then black boys are just as at risk today as they were in 1944 when innocent young George Junius Stinney Jr. was wrongfully executed. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”