I stood found in the lunchroom doorway with my pal Kevin, bewildered. It was our initial week at the High School of Music and Artwork, a West Harlem general public school, and we had become instant friends. Still, I did not understand where I belonged in an area that got casually self-segregated into racial camps where “minority” teens gravitated to one aspect, whites to the additional.
Apparently, in 1971, the choice was simple for almost all of our classmates. But less so for me. I knew I needed to sit with Kevin. But while both of us lived in low-income casing jobs, we differed in one significant method: Kevin was dark and I was white. After a white student advised us we didn’t belong on her behalf side, my brain was made up: We headed to the “Black Aspect,” as we known as it, where we ate until the lunchroom gradually included during our freshman time.
This story comes to mind whenever I’m asked why I write about race and photography. I go back to it because where I sat for the reason that divided lunchroom says a lot about my marriage to race and my lifelong fascination with it. My sister and I were among the few white kids inside our predominantly dark and Puerto Rican casing project on the low East Side. Except for a harrowing stint at a Jewish moment university, where I was tormented for being poor, my classmates and my small neighbors and close friends, were all people of color. They allowed me to their lives, and I discovered a lot from them.
But it was the prejudice they experienced, and I observed, that provided my most eye-opening lesson.
As a Jew, I’ve known anti-Semitism. As a gay person, I have known homophobia. But neither possesses seemed as relentless as the racism I witnessed developing up – a steady drumbeat of slights, thinly-veiled hostility and condescension perpetrated by even the most liberal and well-meaning people. It was painful to view, and as my close friends let me know, somewhat more painful to endure.
Regularly observing this reality shaped how I understood racism: When people told me they had experienced prejudice, I believed them. I got rejected the liberal inclination to defensively dismiss the victim to safeguard the accused.
My childhood likewise exposed me to cultures and histories that most white people were oblivious to, whether or not they lived within an international city. I learned about these exact things from my close friends, classmates, teachers and my socially mindful father. As my activism and passion grew, so do my solidarity with the low East Aspect. But my enthusiasm was dampened at Music and Art, where my poverty again alienated me from a few of my teachers and classmates.
Out of embarrassment, I hid my background and fascination in race.
My freshman advisor at Hunter College, certain that the analysis of race was inconsistent with my “cultivated brain,” as she put it, persuaded me to concentrate on art background. My studies in university, and after in graduate school, accomplished my transformation from Task Boy to Cultured White colored Person. I was conditioned by my art work history professors to believe that only the task of white people mattered. I engaged a mainstream art universe – museums, galleries, collectors, and publishers – that viewed artists of color as sentimental or irrelevant at most effective, but more regularly as inept and boring. I eventually accepted these racist myths, even as I continued to are in the projects.
But I likewise experienced another awakening: I learned how to see.
My mentors in fine art background were rigorous and demanding, teaching me to visually analyze paintings and photographs, both to understand their aesthetics also to grasp their underlying cultural meaning. I was qualified to “deconstruct” images, to judge the methods they advanced plans or manipulated or motivated audiences. But my teachers were oblivious to artists and photographers of color and do the job about race, a insufficiency I inherited from them.
Yet my personal roots tugged at me as I started to miss the ardor and conviction of my personal youth. The art universe that once seemed glamorous and exciting right now was insufferable in its everyday and deeply ingrained bigotry, elitism and allegiance to wealth. I picked up literature by intellectuals ignored by my professors – brilliant race writers, like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon, who were deconstructing the universe years prior to the scholars I had been assigned to read in university. I engaged new co-workers and researched latest artists. And I began doing projects about race, relearning how to see and comprehend it through pictures.
In the summer of 2012, after a quarter century of publishing articles and books and curating exhibitions that reconciled the insights of my personal formal education with those of my entire life, I started writing Race Stories. I believe of it as a learning experience, for me and the reader, fostering the racial and visible literacy denied me by my teachers.
My relationship with the art work world remains tenuous. While some issues have changed – art background has become more inclusive, for example, and a few artists of color have grown to be superstars – the situation of racism persists. Lately, I attended a dinner in an expensive restaurant celebrating a friend’s New York museum retrospective, and the scene was common and dispiriting: A sea of affluent white people dressed in black.
Nowadays, I rarely go to events just like this. Within their segregation, they provide me back to the contentious lunchroom where, as a bewildered teenager, I pushed beyond the imposed limitations of my race. However in situations such as this dinner, there is no “black aspect” to which I can retreat, no haven that even remotely resembles the life span I resided or the main one I live now.
In the slideshow above, the author selects and writes about a few of his favorite photographs explored in the Race Stories series.
Maurice Berger is a study professor and the principle curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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