Artist and historian Nell Painter wrote this essay to accompany
“I Might Be Next: Jerry Gant & Bryant Lebron,”
an exhibit at the Criminal Justice Gallery,
part of the Paul Robeson Galleries at Rutgers University- Newark.
Watch the State of the Arts story here.
Wonderful things about being black abound, from the physical to the cultural to the social.
Blackness is beautiful in the body, the skin, the vigor that shows in muscle and sinew. (Let us
here praise Serena Williams.) Beauty in the music and the poetry and the art. (Let us here
praise 2Pac and Duke Ellington and Elizabeth Alexander and Kara Walker and Stanley Whitney.)
And the beautifully almost un‐American sense of solidarity.
I want to talk about solidarity, as Bryant Lebron depicts it, and solidarity as Jerry Gant depicts
the sadness when it is missed.
That sense of community—of solidarity, of being connected over time and space and even
clashingly different experiences—distinguishes Americans of African descent from the
mainstream loudly proclaiming its individualism, stony, self‐reliant individualism. But we who
have been so persistently lumped together, discriminated against, even beaten as embodiments
of a group, have long embraced our group identity. Solidarity has been our talisman, our key to
sanity within an insane system of racial denigration. Where would we be without our peers to
reassure us that we were not insane? How to survive as an isolated individual, when
individualism would condemn a single person to insanity. No, individualism does not serve us
when we are mistreated as part of a group. Solidarity has saved the sanity of most of us, even
though legions have fallen victim to racism’s insanity.
In these times, the weekly drumbeat of murder turns solidarity into an endlessly renewed grief,
as a person is killed as each week goes by. We may be personally safe. But our solidarity
connects us, week by week, to each murdered black person. “That could have been me,” we
feel, we say, each time another loses her or his life senselessly. This cruelty stretches back
farther than Bryant Lebron says. In my mid‐twentieth‐century generation, it was the vicious
torture‐murder‐drowning of Emmett Till in 1955. Then it was the three young men in Freedom
Summer of 1964. The Black Panther Party for Self‐Defense began in 1966 to combat anti‐black
police brutality. Each of the urban uprisings of the twentieth‐century began with the fact or
rumor of police brutality. In each instance, we mourn the victims in racial solidarity and in the
knowledge that it could have been me. It could have been me, walking down the street in a
hoodie with Skittles in my hand. It could have been me avoiding the overgrown sidewalk. It
could have been me in the dark stairway or in the street selling loose cigarettes. It even could
have been me inviting the stranger into our prayer meeting. It could have been me changing
lanes without signaling and smoking in my car. Yes. In solidarity, I know it could have been me.
Nell Painter, Newark, New Jersey, July 2015