It is time to slay:
Slaying Oppression: Inspiration for Black Women
Slay. Just came from seeing an exhibition of Kehinde Wiley in which he uses as inspiration an image from the Book of Judith, an apocryphal text not part of most bibles.
“Chapter 13 1. And when it was grown late, his servants made haste to their lodgings, and Vagao shut the chamber doors, and went his way. 2. And they were all overcharged with wine. 3. And Judith was alone in the chamber. 4. But Holofernes lay on his bed, fast asleep, being exceedingly drunk. 5. And Judith spoke to her maid to stand without before the chamber, and to watch: 6. And Judith stood before the bed praying with tears, and the motion of her lips in silence, 7. Saying: Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, and in this hour look on the works of my hands, that as thou hast promised, thou mayst raise up Jerusalem thy city: and that I may bring to pass that which I have purposed, having a belief that it might be done by thee. 8. And when she had said this, she went to the pillar that was at his bed’s head, and loosed his sword that hung tied upon it. 9. And when she had drawn it out, she took him by the hair of his head, and said: Strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour. 10. And she struck twice upon his neck, and out off his head, and took off his canopy from the pillars, and rolled away his headless body. 11. And after a while she went out, and delivered the head of Holofernes to her maid, and bade her put it into her wallet.”
I love this scripture. She prays, acts courageously, and tells her maid to put the head in her wallet!
So, what we have here is Judith, a widow, cutting the head off of Holofernes, an Assyrian general, who was about to destroy the Jewish people. Many artists have captured this moment in paintings, including Artemisia Gentileschi.
What Kehinde Wiley has done as part of his artistic exploration of images and portraits, is to reappropriate the story from a Black woman’s lens.
He created a depiction in which Judith is Black and the spirit of oppression is not represented by Holofernes – an Assyrian general, but rather a White woman.
It is a powerful moment of contemplation, for us as Black women to imagine ourselves with Biblical power to slay dragons and demons. To slay with our hair and nails done, tatoos and all.
The decision to represent oppression as a White woman is fascinating to me. It is symbolic of course, but empowering to imagine that Black women have the courage and power to slay, the name of the exhibit. As Wiley states, “The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it.”
I often reflect on this question of power in the context of social justice work: Who has it and how do they use it? Often it has been my experience that many people with power do not understand or even acknowledge that they have power, by position, by purpose, by inference, by deference, by title, by longevity, or by inspiration. In failing to acknowledge their power, they fail to use their power for good. Others of course, are acutely aware of their power and wield it like cowards.
What we need is more courageous people, willing to slay. The representation of a White woman’s head is particularly symbolic for me. Symbolically White women have often been seen as signs of purity, or high moral ground, of untouchable values of righteousness, piety. TBlack women have often challenged their fierce loyalty to race and Whiteness over gender. The presence of White women allies raises conflicting and contentious perspectives. Many Black women and women of color will at least a pause for reflection before answering.
White women often symoblically represent American values: a false sense of righteousness and high moral ground, an inaccurate image of who and what America was founded on and continues to perpetuate.
And it is time we slay that image of America, particularly in light of the ongoing racial hatred and shootings in Buffalo against Black Americans, and the shooting of Asian Americans. It’s time we slay the image of America’s purity in light of the killing of innocent children in schools, our high incarceration rate, and our moral failure to reckon with complex issues of abortion, women’s rights, affirmative action, trans-athletes, voting rights and redistricting, pandemic safety and masks, with any level of rationality and compassion.
We need to slay our notions of idealism and reckon with who America really is, and upon what foundation she was founded.
In Dear America, I reflect on our complex history as a nation.
Reflecting on this Memorial Day, we must acknoweldge that we are a nation of violence and brutality. On a day when we remember our wars, it is particularly salient to imagine what it would mean to wage different types of wars:
a war on gun violence
a war on school shootings
a war on white supremacy
a war on hate
a war on efforts to sabotage a woman’s right to make decisions about her body
a war on a failure to reflect on the role of men in the issue of abortion and their power in legislatures to usurp the autonomy of women
a war on the silence of individuals on issues of injustice in classrooms
a war on the prohibition of the accurate teaching of America’s history through projects like the 1619 project
a war on the daily oppression that women of color experience because of their intertwined race and gender status
It is time to Slay.
And as we contemplate slaying the demons of oppression, let us be encouraged by the subject in Kehinde’s painting. An “everyday” Black woman Triesha Lowe – from Brooklyn. Created in 2012, Judith and Holofernes is from Wiley’s first series of paintings to feature female subjects. Wiley uses “street casting” to find his models — walking city streets and asking ordinary people if they would pose for a portrait. He met the model for this painting, Treisha Lowe, at Fulton Mall, a pedestrian shopping street in downtown Brooklyn.
What my takeaway from this painting is that anyone can slay, including Black women.
It is time to slay.
“The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.”