Reflections on the phenomenology of whiteness - A Walk to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Baltimore

Issue no4
Aug - Sept 2020

For the last two years, Gerda Paliusyte, a Lithuanian documentary filmmaker, has been researching the cultural impact and long-lasting legacy of the TV series The Wire (2002 – 2008) in relation to American politics today: the ongoing complexity in the relationship between class and race, and the denial of the ontological security for the black population. Paliusyte has considered the rebirth of the popularity of the series in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and the riots that followed, as well as in relation to such spin-off activities as Re-Wired For Change (2011-2015), or Moving Mountains (2007 - ongoing), both social initiatives by the black actors of The Wire.[1] Both organizations have been using a scenario of the series as a tool to help empowering at-risk youth and families in and outside Baltimore.

This article was written as a result of her first research trip to Baltimore to present her theoretical framework at the John Hopkins University and can be seen as a contribution to the ongoing debates about racial oppression, cultural appropriation, agency and representational politics in the Netherlands, including the political stance of Witte de With Art Center in Rotterdam and the ongoing strive to change the name of this institution, as it is named after the colonizer Admiral Witte Corneliszoon de With.

Paliusyte examines here her own agenda and latest research experience in the context of Sara Ahmed's phenomenology of whiteness and Ahmed's discussion of the figure of the stranger. The text can be seen as a meditation on what it means to realize you are a white artist/critic in the present situation of racial oppression.

In May 2017, I got an invitation from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to present my research on the legacy of The Wire – the HBO television series created by David Simon (as head writer and producer), which ran for five seasons between 2002 and 2008.[2] It was going to be my first time in Baltimore – the city that, after the release of the show, became infamous worldwide for its racial segregation, high rate of corruption, drug trade and street murder, as well as its economic decline, which has resulted in unemployment and housing shortages. As time went by, the harsh reality of The Wire's Baltimore became a meter for the social and political development of the actual city. The ongoing comparison has resulted in comments and articles such as ‘Progress is Painfully Uneven: Baltimore, 15 years after The Wire’ in The Guardian (David Smith), which was accompanied by photos and interviews with some of the city’s poorest – mainly the black citizens of its ghettoized areas. Despite knowing how deeply segregated Baltimore is, I unexpectedly found myself in one of those areas on the second day of my research trip, while on my way to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the first wax museum of African American history.

Upon my arrival in Baltimore, a city where black people are two thirds of the city’s population, I was happy to discover the existence of at least a few local cultural institutions that have been built to remember Atlantic slavery through an Afro-American historical perspective – something that I found lacking in Europe during my studies at the University of Amsterdam. What I did not know was that this trip, to the first of the museums on my list, was going to broaden my research with an unexpected turn towards the social context of my own body. Or, to put it differently, that I would be pushed to encounter myself as a stranger whose orientation in space is habitual and a form of inheritance.

What I did not know was that this trip, to the first of the museums on my list, was going to broaden my research with an unexpected turn towards the social context of my own body

Since 1987, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum has been located in its present form on East North Avenue, a street squeezed in-between the ghetto areas of Belair Road and Green Mount Cemetery, two of the most derelict neighbourhoods in the city. As they are close to the financial and touristic districts of Baltimore, they were also only a few blocks away from my Airbnb apartment. And as this happened to be the very first days of my visit to Baltimore, which was itself my first ever visit to a deeply segregated city, it felt natural that I should walk to the museum, which was rather close to my place of stay, instead of driving a car or taking a taxi.

It was a sunny day, and the streets were empty as I walked. A couple of turns from my rented apartment close to Memorial Stadium, in a green, middle-class, residential district, the area started to feel more and more run-down and alienating. People were driving by with their car windows tinted; other people were standing at the corners or sitting on the stairways of houses. While I did not have too much to look at, apart from half-occupied row houses, a few 24-hour tobacco shops protected with grills, and cramped fast food stations, I felt myself being seen, as one of the few lonely pedestrians. Even more troubling was the fact that this feeling was accompanied by an awareness of my own whiteness. Apparently, apart from me, the only other white people in the same area were long-time drug addicts who could hardly keep their balance and struggled to walk around. According to Sarah Ahmed, ‘the very act through which the subject differentiates between others is the moment that the subject comes to inhabit or dwell in the world.’ (Recognizing Strangers, p. 22). Correspondingly, this moment of personally felt difference became a moment in which I established myself not only as a hyper visible body-subject, but also as a stranger for the others. And strangers, in Ahmed’s words, are ‘recognizable precisely insofar as they do not enter into the exchange of capital that transforms spaces into places’. (p. 28) As one might expect, ghetto areas are also areas of inner exchange. And passing by with the purpose of conducting research, I could not really enter them; the purpose of my journey could not conceal my intrusion, which, at the time felt hostile.

I felt myself being seen, as one of the few lonely pedestrians. Even more troubling was the fact that this feeling was accompanied by an awareness of my own whiteness

Ahmed also writes about communities being established through ways of moving through space. In her view, movement can be as reductionist as it can be creative, as the moving subject knows not only what is dangerous, but also what is common. (p. 31) During my walk, which then seemed endless, I felt that the act of inter-subjection by which I was differentiating myself from the other people in that particular situation – in combination with a new self-awareness of my skin colour and general well-being, and the feeling of unease that all this produced – served to establish me not only as a stranger and outsider, but also formed me into an agent of a community of white and privileged people that, while distant from the world I was entering, felt also new and uncomfortable to me.

At the same time, as I was passing by, this feeling of estrangement translated into a division between myself and my own body, as if my body had become an obstacle to the goal of my walk, and I begin to wish I had left it behind. For Maurice Merleau-Ponty bodies are directed towards actions, they have spatial orientations, while actions bring things to proximity. When the body performs it does not need a command, on the contrary, it disappears behind an action; the performing body is behind an action instead of obstructing it. In his words: ‘I do not need to lead it (the body) towards a movement's completion, it is in contact with it from the start and propels itself towards that end.’ (Phenomenology and Perception, p. 94) In Merleau-Ponty's view this intelligibility of the body is what makes it habitual as long as it is unnoticeable, and is what extends the act as well as the space in which the act takes place. Accordingly, the habitual body is pre-reflexive, in harmony with the intention and the performance of the subject. Thus, instead of seeing the body as an instrument of a subject, we should discuss the subject-body as one. That is to say: the mind is as much sensual as habitual body is being perceptual. Merleau-Ponty's most bold statement is: ‘I am my body’.

Inspired by the concept of Merleau-Ponty’s habitual body, Ahmed discusses institutional whiteness as a form of habitually and inheritance. In her view, white bodies, in contrast to the bodies of people of colour, trail behind, do not feel distractive – these are the bodies that are unnoticeable and that do not face themselves, the bodies that extend space instead of intervening in it, the bodies that shape the contours of spaces and make them habitual (‘The Phenomenology of Whiteness’). According to Ahmed, the awareness of the discomfort of being a non-white body allows for things to move out of the background, to open up space for distraction and difference, while the phenomenology of whiteness allows us to examine institutional habits. In my case, I see Ahmed's phenomenology of whiteness as a perspective that not only leads to the reassessment of my own habitually, but also invites a reconsideration of the idea of institutionalized space as such. The latter observation is closely tied to the goal of my walk – a wax museum dedicated to Atlantic slavery, an institution, reciprocally connected with the rough, mainly black neighbourhoods around it. And although at that time my goal of entering the museum felt contradictory and surreal due to the strangeness and alienation experienced on my way to it, I now see things differently.[3] That is to say, the tension stemming from the relationships between the museum’s subject matter and specificity, my whiteness, and the poverty of the local environment, no longer seems incidental.

According to Ahmed, the awareness of the discomfort of being a non-white body allows for things to move out of the background, to open up space for distraction and difference, while the phenomenology of whiteness allows us to examine institutional habits

The Great Blacks in Wax Museum is an institution whose display is far removed from traditional museology. What started as the personal artistic vision of the sculptor Elmer Martin and his wife Joanne Martin has grown into a permanent display with more than 150 life-size figures of famous African-Americans. The museum in its present form also contains a big installation of a slave ship (inspired by Lieutenant Meynell's abstract watercolour, which was painted aboard a captured Spanish slave ship in 1846) as well as a room dedicated to lynching exhibits, featuring archival material and the wax figures of lynched victims.

In his article about the museum, Marcus Wood describes the style of Martin's sculptures as creating a sense of realism by challenging its conventions. One of the examples he provides to support his argument is the usage of contemporary commercial objects, such as new chains purchased in a hardware store and installed as representations of the chains of slaves. In Wood’s view, this is confronting and educational. He argues that while the more common usage of ‘authentic’, rustic chains fetishizes those objects as such and creates a sense of historical distancing and remoteness from their use value as well as from the physical worlds we inhabit, cheap chains point to their original working function and create a different sense of realism.

Although Wood’s point is debatable, the whole installation of a museum in its technically inaccurate and often violent form creates a hyperreal experience in relation to the crude ghettoized neighbourhood outside its walls. In ‘Travels in Hyper reality’, an essay about an American tour in 1975, Umberto Eco visits many different cultural institutions – among them, wax museums – and criticizes their attempts to improve reality by making it into a hyperreal spectacle for the benefit of their visitors. Eco describes re-inventions of such artistic masterpieces as the Mona Lisa (in wax) or the Venus de Milo (with hands). In the case of the Great Blacks Museum, the effect of hyperrealism is paradoxically alike – the affinity of its raw, surreal installation to its actual neighbourhood not only conceals a clear distinction between the fictional and the real, but also calls for a radical improvement of the reality outside of the museum.

A few days after my trip to the museum, I presented my research to an all-white audience at the Johns Hopkins University and was asked about my first impression of Baltimore. After briefly mentioning the experience of alienation on my way to the Great Blacks in Wax, the students in the auditorium smiled and nodded. After the presentation, one of the students, a young female Austrian researcher who had come to Johns Hopkins on an exchange program half a year ago, invited me for a coffee. While exchanging our impressions of Baltimore and our research interests, she briefly mentioned my decision to visit The Great Blacks in Wax Museum on Wax on foot, admitting that she ‘made the same mistake’. In her view, taking a stroll to go there was plainly naïve, since, in her words, it is ‘just too dangerous for white rich people like us’. It happens often in a discussion that someone implies a presumably shared identity with you. It also happens that you feel like rejecting those shared grounds, but you lack a constructive argument. And while I felt that a share of white guilt (or pride?) was the opposite of what I was seeking for, at the same time it took me a while to find out what exactly I was trying to excavate out of this research experience, and how it might be related to a striving for empathy between me as a subject-body and others, the inhabitants of the run-down streets of The Wire.

Now, in retrospect, I remember accepting the invitation to present my research at the Johns Hopkins University not only because it was a chance to actually share my work within the American context, but also in order to step beyond the representation of the series. Instead of being a distant spectator of the series, with my arrival in Baltimore I was hoping to (at least partly) step inside of a frame of the longevity of The Wire, its lasting agency, and the conditions under which this is possible. Finally, I was hoping that encounters and meetings during my trip would not only expand my views on this question, but also challenge my own preconceptions on Baltimore.

My point of view in thinking of race as a narrative has been mostly directed towards others

While during my theoretical research at the Amsterdam University I was aware of my position as a white European, I never encountered my whiteness as a spatial orientation, nor was I planning to include this perspective in my research. Part of my research has been concerned with The Wire's representation of racial tensions in the United States, and I have been trying to unveil the schemes of domination, but my point of view in thinking of race as a narrative has been mostly directed towards others. After confronting my own position and the questions that followed, I do not see myself thinking of it in terms of guilt or burden – that would give all too much attention to me as a subject-body, creating an enclosed, claustrophobic space. I would also refuse to use such abstract divisions as us (‘the white rich’, et cetera) and them –­ a form of comforting identity politics that expands the separations between different groups instead of confronting them. I think the understanding of your body as a privileged one should lead to the understanding through introspection of your own habitual world as well as an examination of your role in the habitual world of the others. According to Ahmed: ‘It is by showing how we are stuck, by attending to what is habitual and routine in the world, that we can keep open the possibility of habit changes, without using that possibility to displace our attention to the present and without simply wishing for new tricks.’

I think the understanding of your body as a privileged one should lead to the understanding through introspection of your own habitual world as well as an examination of your role in the habitual world of the others

While Ahmed concludes her thoughts on the phenomenology of whiteness by proposing to practice it when dismantling the schemes of domination from an experience of a black subject, in my case I saw it as a productive way of discussing my own body and its habitual orientation – the way my body, the body of a white researcher, a stranger on its way to a museum dedicated to African-American pride in the context of the traumas of African-American history. Thus, the usage of Ahmed's white phenomenology might be used to grasp structures of domination through the eyes of both the dominant and the dominated.

Gerda Paliusyte worked together with editor Will Pollard on the first draft of this text. 

[1] I am referring here to the massive protests that took place in Baltimore in 2015 in response to the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died after being arrested by the Baltimore police. His sudden death was caused by the numerous injuries he sustained during the arrest and provoked a massive reaction in connection with the other highly publicized incidents of racism and police brutality throughout the country in the same year.

[2] The show premiered on June 2, 2002, and ended on March 9, 2008, comprising sixty episodes over five seasons.

[3] The habit of seeing how cultural institutions inevitably gentrify the areas by making them ‘tourist friendly’ is something often taken for granted.

Works Cited:

Ahmed, Sarah. "A Phenomenology Of Whiteness". SAGE., vol. 8, no. 2, 2007, pp. 149-168.

Ahmed, Sarah. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality., London: Routledge, 2001.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperrerality. Mariner Books, 1990.

Wood, Marcus. "Slavery, Memory, and Museum Display in Baltimore: The Great Blacks in Wax and the Reginald F. Lewis". Curator., vo.52, no. 2. 2009, pp. 147-167.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2020