Its mouth hinged open in my direction, the snake was going to lunge at me. I was certain of it.
The snake wasn’t really a snake, but an image of a snake. A glossy image nestled in the pages of my favorite childhood animal magazine. And so the threat wasn’t real, but a representation of the real. Of course there was my nine-year-old anxiety — the heaving chest, the quickened heart beat, the contemplation of running screaming from my bunk bed to the safe haven of my parents’ room — which was all very real.
Fear is very much a perception. A learned, visceral perception. A snake can be in a glass box, in the arms of a zookeeper, or slithering away from me in the grass — my impulse is the same. I cringe; I squirm, I run as far away as I can. When I think of snakes, I think of my enemy darting at me from that glossy magazine spread. The mere thought has me afraid.
Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, the Swedish Minister for Culture who was recently photographed cutting into a cake depicting a caricatured African woman, was also afraid.
The cake she cut into, titled “Painful Cake,” was one of many art installations at an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Artists’ National Organisation. According to Swedish blogger Johan Palme (who provides an intimate portrait of Liljeroth’s motivations), Liljeroth had two choices when she approached the cake — either she could participate in the performance piece by cutting the cake and smiling for the cameras, or she could refuse and become, once again, the culture minister who just doesn’t understand “provocative” art.
Speculation: her fear drove her to do the former. Specifically, her fear of being mocked by the art establishment drove her. It was her fear that made it so easy — or perhaps, so necessary — to cut into the part of the moist, red-velvet cake that represented the genital area of the symbolic Black Woman, an act that has been labeled as racist by many observers.
In the early 19th century, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa was paraded around Britain and France as a pseudo-anthropological, if not artistic, exhibit. Her name was Sarah Baartman. She too had an audience — 19th century white European men, women and children fascinated by her “exotic” proportions, features and, yes again, genitalia. It was reported in many “scientific” documents that Sarah and others belonging to her African ethnic group had “abnormally” large labias.
But, the western fascination with black female sexuality was not born in this moment of Sarah’s exhibition; rather, in this moment it was being re-formed, bolstered and even canonized as a legitimate, even necessary, act — to sexualize and degrade black womanhood.
In the back of the collective spectators’ head there was a fear: what if these people are, in fact, just as human as we are? A Western world still dealing in the slave trade could not afford such a realization. Fear and necessity put Sarah Baartman, naked, on stage for the amusement of white eyes.
In a Youtube interview with Al Jazeera English, Makode Linde, the Afro-Swedish artist who made “Painful Cake,” explains that his intent was to draw attention to the way in which the West talks about female genital mutilation (or circumcision) in the context of stereotyped perceptions of blackness and African-ness. His intent was to question cultural absolutism. His intent was to bring to light our own Western violence against black women.
Here’s what you should do: watch the disturbing video of the event circulating around the internet. Then, replay it and pause the video at 0:05. Here you will see a still of a woman chuckling nervously as she wields a knife coated in red-velvet cake. Here you will see fear — hers, yours, mine.
Now, imagine viewing these images (just like most of the world has this past week) without knowing the artist’s intent, without knowing the context for the event, without knowing why this mostly-white audience is laughing hysterically at this grotesque portrayal of black womanhood. If you care about humanity and racial justice, your response is probably immediate and swift. Your response is coated in fear. We know racism exists, we think we see it here, we fear we see it here. Is this the real image? Or, is this a mere representation of the real image?
Our confusion leaves us even more afraid, more desperate for meaning.
When I was eleven or twelve, I was walking over to my next-door neighbor’s to shoot hoops. There was a row of trees that separated the sides of our front yards. As I crossed under a cluster of branches, I froze. In front of me was a massive, unmoving snake. Once I had gathered myself, I walked backward in slow, even steps; in the same funny way characters backtrack in cartoons.
And then I heard my next-door neighbor: “Hey, what is it?”
I stuttered: “A snake.”
She approached the gap in between the trees, where the snake lay motionless. She inspected it. “It’s dead.” She said it with certainty, and I believed her. She was an expert at these sorts of things.
Slightly relieved, I ran to my garage, found a shovel and returned to the gap between the trees. I lifted the shovel high above the dead snake, ready — no, eager — to mutilate my biggest fear.