by Georgia S. McDade
When I saw Edgar Arceneaux’s installation — a large, wooden structure on display at Henry Art Gallery on University of Washington campus through June 2 — Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin came to mind immediately. Before I could digest, wonder, or analyze that thought, Donald Trump’s slatted fence came to mind.
There was no way I could have known I was doing exactly what artist Arceneaux wanted me to do upon viewing this work titled “Library of Black Lies.” James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom came to mind, the book which a Gettysburg bookstore employee did not hesitate to describe as the best book there is on the Civil War, the Civil War book with the most truths I have seen.
I walked around to the Arceneaux’s cabin entrance. Suddenly I stopped as I viewed the walls, looking like mirrors, covered with Mylar. Reflections and shadows filled the little space occupied with shelves of books. I’m glad no one was behind me; I must have been standing in one place at least three minutes when I remembered the introduction to the exhibit explains that the inside of the cabin is not a maze “which is designed to disorient,’ but a labyrinth that is “circuitous but ultimately leads to a center, and is intended to be a vehicle of spirituality, a meditative journey mapped into the bodily experience.”
Arceneaux wants a visitor to get out but simultaneously leave with truths that may be new, truths that contradict what the visitor “knows” about a book, a book of lies, lies that may not have been known at the publication of the book. Are you confused? I hope not, but the path to truth here can be confusing.
Most of the “books” in the cabin are unread newspapers dipped in black acrylic paint. Despite newspaper editors routinely apologizing for errors that appeared in their papers, many lies don’t get retracted; other retractions appear buried in the paper though the subject might have been first-page news; still other untruths appear unwittingly. The papers printed thus spread lies. Emmett Till’s accuser admitting 62 years later that Till had not insulted her and she had “no idea they [husband and friends] would harm him”; she wanted not to work in the store. The Groveland Four were accused of a crime in 1949 but exonerated posthumously in 2017. A rape victim misidentified Steve Titus as the criminal; a year later Seattle Times investigative reporter Paul Henderson proved the convicted Titus innocent, framed by policeman Ronald Parker who manipulated the timeline of the crime. I remembered the case, Titus’ name, but I was sure he drove a blue Mustang not a Chevette as the fact-check stated. One article says the policeman who fabricated evidence died six months after the case; another said a year later. I remember a quotation one way, but checking shows it somewhat different: a lie can travel around the world before the truth can put on its pants — the quote, or some version of it, is attributed to several persons, and some speakers use “halfway around the world” and “shoes”! Some of these lies are intentional; others are not. All of this I thought and saw before I could read the title of one book in the exhibit!
Arceneaux takes the adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover” to extremes. Legitimate titles lie next to his trumped-up titles. Titles are sometimes obscured by being partially covered, often with crystals of sugar reminiscent of candy some of us love. The content may have been true as far as authors and some readers knew at the time of publication. Titles are partially covered although the literate of a certain age can most likely guess them. Wart Debt and Fart Poverty, or Rene De’Cart rather than Michel Foucault as author of Discourse on Madness may momentarily, at least, startle. One shelf holds a stack of books on Bill Cosby, for instance. Are books written on Cosby before his sexual assault convictions lies? I don’t think award-winning “The Cosby Show” reruns should have been removed from television. Also present is a set of The Bible Story. John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom and Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness have a place.
The exhibit makes me think of the many lies so many of us have been told and, worse, believe. Genocide and slavery always come to mind when I think of lies, how they were the norm for such a long time in this country. It took years before I understood “Manifest Destiny” is a huge lie, although the subject was always taught by black teachers in all-black schools. I wonder how many people in the United States know how many Mexicans were living in what became the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.
I can’t help wondering what Nazis were taught. What are Neo-Nazis taught? How can someone say the Holocaust is a lie? What would Lyndon B. Johnson say about his generals and Vietnam? What did the generals tell Johnson? Remember Trump’s comments about the five black and Latino young men accused of raping the jogger in Central Park — and then exonerated?
Some folks say the Holocaust and Sandy Hook never happened. Have you heard Michelle Obama talk about her feelings when Donald Trump so often said Barack Obama was born in Kenya? How many people have been killed, are being killed because of weapons of mass destruction? How many suffer today as a result of that lie? Who hears the lies? Who believes the lies? Who acts because of the lies? Who suffers because of the lies?
We are born with no prejudices. We learn — sometimes directly but often indirectly. We sometimes knowingly and unknowingly pass the prejudices to others. All of us suffer, some more than others. Be careful. Know that every person nor everything trusted, believed is not necessarily true regardless of the amount of time you have “known the truth.” It certainly may not be true for all time, says Arceneaux. My friend’s statement at the bottom of each of his emails reads, “‘Half of the facts you read on the Internet are untrue.’ – Abraham Lincoln”
Arceneaux is preoccupied with duality, usually truth on one side and lies on the other. Unlike Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Arceneaux’s exhibit, though it leads us to a center, puts us on guard, makes us examine everything, leaves little space for our accepting anything. Lies told to one person or group are invariably on another person or group and, therefore, may be more harmful than the perpetrator could ever imagine or, worse, may be exactly what is wanted. The less information, the more precarious our stance. Though the optimist in me hates this, the realist recognizes and acknowledges what Arceneaux’s exhibit says.
I grew up hearing black lies are the worst lie — a white lie and a pink lie are much less worse, almost negligible. Are the black lies huge or lies told to black people? Or are the lies on black people? How many lies do you recognize? When did you learn differently? Have you passed along some of these lies? Do you return to correct them?
Make a point of getting to Henry Art Gallery for this display.
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The Henry Art Gallery is open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is closed Monday and Tuesday.
Featured Image: Edgar Arceneaux (U.S., born 1972). Library of Black Lies. 2016 .Wood, mirrored glass, mylar, newspaper, hard-bound books, sugar crystals, lighting fixtures, audio component. Courtesy of the artist. [installation view in EdgarArceneaux: Library of Black Lies, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. 2018]. (Photo: Mark Woods, courtesy of the Henry.)