tosses a coin in the air while displaying a look of smug satisfaction? Has he purchased a black infant or sold one? And what of the picture in which a black boy threatens a black infant with sharp objects while an adult (also black) applauds? Pictures like these break down the familiar opposition between masters and slaves, suggesting that the victims of this system may have also routinely victimized each other. The Keys to the Coop, one of Walker's signature images, shows a running girl tearing the head off a (presumably stolen) chicken while twirling a key ring. Racist caricature or jailbreak? In Walker’s hands it could be both. Efforts like this place Walker squarely in a tradition of black rebellion that first took shape in the ‘20s with the Harlem Renaissance, and then picked up speed in years following WWII when negative stereotypes were upended and reclaimed by black artists. One example that springs to mind is Charlie Parker, the Bebop saxophonist who is the subject of two new biographies. He took the nickname Yardbird (later amended to Bird) in reference to his own gustatory preferences. Likewise, Herbie Hancock, during the civil rights era, wrote a funky tune called Watermelon Man that became a hit in 1962. He, too, knew well what he was doing, as did a prior (and subsequent) generation of jazz, soul and R&B musicians who embraced themes and titles that explicitly referenced blackness and black culture. The trend reached something of a peak in 1986 when the hip-hop group N.W.A. appropriated the ‘N’ word and turned into a weapon against those who would use it against them. Walker, like her closest counterparts, Carrie Mae Weems and Adrian Piper, does something similar, albeit in a less confrontational manner.
Her remake of the lavishly subtitled Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War: Contemporary Accounts and Illustrations from the Greatest Magazine of the Time attempts to insert into history, the presence of those who, for the most part, were purged from it. Published in 1866, the original contains 836 large-scale pages – the vast majority of which contain no visual reference to slavery or to persons of color, the cause over which that war was supposedly fought. The anthology’s editors described their aims: “We have undertaken to write the History of the Great Conspiracy which finally culminated in the Great Rebellion of the United States. Our task was commenced during the agony of the great struggle, when no man could foretell its issue. We purposed at the outset to narrate events just as they occurred; to speak of living men as impartially as though they were dead; to praise no man unduly because he strove for the right, to malign no man because he strove for the wrong; to anticipate, as far as we might, the sure verdict of after ages upon events."