This Lie Was Made for You and Me
The City I and The City II are a pair of paintings by Vincent Valdez. They are a part of the permanent collection of Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art. Both oil paintings are large. The City II is roughly 6 x 7 feet, and The City I is 6 feet tall and 30 feet wide. While that’s about the same height as the Chevy Silverado in the far-right corner, the painting is a staggering ten feet longer than the truck.
It would have been easy to title The City I something like Klan Meeting because most who see the painting will never forget the Ku Klux Klan members that dominate the canvas. However, to have titled the painting in such a way would have missed the point entirely. What the painting calls us to witness is not that white supremacy still exists—I pity the poor soul that needs reminding of such an obvious truth; rather, the painting asks, no, begs us to look past the robes at what is underneath. The shadowy robes of the Klan cast in the painting direct us to do just that.
Including the metal tower on the far left of the canvas, and the red bone hound on the far right, the painting contains 16 triangles. The dog is not really red, though one can feel its Southern redness on the black, white, and gray canvas. Minus the dog, which is an equilateral triangle,—a symbol of balance, if there ever was one—the others are isosceles triangles, a shape that naturally draws the gaze down. In the case of a Klan hood, that pull downward is always interrupted by eyeholes, the place where menace resides.
Peer into the eyeholes of the hoods in this painting and what you will see is what I have seen on more occasions than I could possibly count: hate, disgust, anger, fear, weariness. Weary of what, you wonder? Weariness that I exist at all, to be frank. And make no mistake, I was not unlucky enough to have encountered these glances on some dark hill in the middle of the night on the outskirts of a city—had I done so, I would likely not be here to finish this sentence—but in the supermarket, the movie theater, a college campus, a city park, and many other places. No place in America is safe from this gaze. Not even a church is safe, as the bloody legacy of white supremacy reminds us lest we try to forget.
And just like the men, women, and children in Valdez’s painting who stare at me, the white supremacists who would do so now are also holding smart phones, a beer in their hand, charm bracelets dangling delicately from their wrists, hair with that fresh-from-the-salon wave, while their toddlers wear tiny Nikes and clutch Pikachu dolls. Only, they are not hooded.
Here lies the genius of the painting; on the surface it appears to be concerned with concealment, but in truth the painting is an x-ray that reveals what is underneath the robes.
And therein lies the reason why, to put it simply, I am not the audience for these paintings. I can recognize the looks of my would-be oppressors whether they are wearing a white hood or not, such have they taught me through the contortion of their faces what most of them would prefer to hide. No, these paintings are for those who would consider themselves allies of all people of color, those with the curse, and privilege, of having been born into whiteness.
Never forget that white supremacy is not a rumor of the rural South. It never really was. White supremacists serve on school boards, ride in police cars, shelve books at the library, and bag your groceries “From California to the New York Island, From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters.”
After this painting, I imagine City II might seem like a bit of a letdown to some. It is smaller, contains no people, and seems like an afterthought. On the contrary, I believe the pyramid of garbage in the center of the canvas is a revelation, an image of what we cannot see, what is hidden on the other side of the group of Klan members. The pile of garbage in the center of the canvas is even lit from the right as if by the bright beams of the pickup truck in the first painting. While in the foreground, a barrel of fire smolders. Some torches have been tossed into it as one would do after a nighttime meeting had convened.
This pile of garbage contains mattresses, broken televisions, and oil drums, a collection of items that have in common one important quality: these are things we have made to elevate our level of comfort. They are tools in the same way that slaves were treated as tools.
The garbage is a symbol for the lie of whiteness—and the propaganda of its supremacy—that James Baldwin spelled out in his essay “On Being White …and Other Lies.” Unlike being Polish or being Algerian, being white is a fantasy. If we were honest, we would sing along with Woody Guthrie, “This lie is your lie, this lie is my lie, This lie was made for you and me.”
City II is meant to steady us after experiencing the power of City I by reminding us of that most simple of household chores: take out the trash. Not the people under the robes of the Klan, but the lie of whiteness upon which they have built their strength. We can begin to strip that lie of its power only by refusing to participate in it. One place to start is when you fill out a form that asks for your race—stop bubbling white. Norway, Italy, and other countries do not ask about race/ethnicity in their census. In France and Luxembourg, it is even illegal for the government to do so. I challenge you to bubble Other, instead, and don’t specify what that other is. Or do, and reconnect with your Irish, Italian, French, etc. heritage. The ripple effect of this private, small act of resistance could be tremendous.
This won’t be easy. Rebuke will follow some who have the courage to walk this path. What is at stake is not just the dignity and survival of all people of color, but also every person who would call themselves white. This is a crucial first step to repairing the sick spirit of this country.
This work was selected by guest editor Hasanthika Sirisena.
Tomás Q. Morín is the author of the memoir Let Me Count the Ways, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press, as well as the poetry collections Patient Zero and A Larger Country. He is co-editor with Mari L’Esperance of the anthology, Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, and translator of The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda. He teaches at Rice University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.