The Black woman in the photo with the nose ring and sea-shell necklace knows something about herself. The Black man behind her, in the gas mask and black shades, knows it too. His head slightly tilted back, her upper body leaning into fabulousness. These are Black people basking in the obvious fact of their irreplaceability.
And there it is again, in another Byron Merritt photo: this one of three young Black men sitting on the steps outside a mural on the boarded-up Apple Store. The Black man in the middle, with his severe expression, and fiery eyes, is not alone. He’s with his boys, and together they emanate knowledge of their innate somebodyness. The photo reminds me of those friends in our lives who assure us, simply by sitting beside us in silence, that we don’t have to be anything other than we are to matter.
But when it comes to Black people’s lives mattering in America, there is the issue of proof. White people needed to see George Floyd beg for his life with their own eyes. And when they saw this individual, whose life had intrinsic value, be killed because he was black, their eyes opened, at least for a time, to a reality their whiteness allowed them to ignore.
I am here at Perspectives, a new exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, running through November 13. It features the work of six photographers of color who captured, with overwhelming emotional intensity, Portland’s response to George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020.
It is Wednesday morning. I am acutely aware that the only other people here are a nice white family. The children aren’t speaking. In fact, they’re behaving eerily well for their age. They seem genuinely intrigued as they look up at the photos. What are these well-behaved white children feeling? Why do I want to tell them what I’m feeling?
Perspectives feels as unique as the lives it is mourning.
The large prints along the walls aren’t framed, and they feel like windows into a city-wide grief space. Through these soundless windows, pain and indignation beam in from the past like light falling on the floorboards of memory. It makes a place in my chest warm.
The two well-behaved white children notice I am already teary-eyed. What are they seeing?
Walking hurriedly across the space, I observe the intentionality of its layout. The outer walls alternate between sets of black and white and color photos, an arrangement that brings the chaos the space contains into a visual equilibrium. In the center of the room, a few couches, sectioned off by walls, provide a quiet space for reflection. But I can’t go in there. Not yet. The parents of the well-behaved white children are there. Whispering.
It may be in my head, but I think these well-behaved white children are definitely understanding and tracking how hard it is for me to look at these photos. They politely look away when I see them seeing me. So I start walking around in weird patterns, trying to escape their examination.
The exhibit now becomes a spinning panorama of perspectives.
First, I see Peace Flowers, by Mariah Harris. The red, white and yellow petals of strewn flowers on a sunlit peace sign on the concrete don’t let me forget: Death is at the center of all this commotion.
I round the corner and see Joseph Blake’s drone footage, which looks down at the massive crowds in the streets of Portland. Is this the perspective of the dead, drifting from this life to the next? Did George Floyd get to see how we mourned him?
This hurts. Keep walking.
Black Power, by Daveed Jacobo. I see a young Black woman looking over a crowd, with her fist in the air. But I’m struck by the young Black woman sitting on the far left of the frame, eyes regally closed. She’s holding the microphone away from her mouth because she’s tired of screaming into it. She’s leading Portland through an intolerable present toward the future, but it costs her something every night.
It hurts. Keep moving. Turn the corner.
Jive, by Emery Barnes, catches my eye. In it, a Black man dances on the roof of a car. The angularity of the telephone wires in the background plays against the crooked silhouette of his body. The photo expresses a kind of Black power, which is often misread simply as resilience, which, sure. But more specifically, it’s an old, almost shamanic receptivity to life and death. The man can dance like that, at times like that, because he’s opening himself up to the pain.
So now I’m randomly walking around this room, because a warm quiet grief light amasses in my chest if I look at any one photo for too long.
But finally, I take a deep breath and plant my feet in front of Tears for Breonna.
The well-behaved white children, and their parents, are all standing behind me.
Apparently, we are now looking at this photo as a group. The photo shows a crying white woman chanting Breonna Taylor’s name.
I promise myself, I will not cry in front of this nice white family.
Tears for Breonna challenges my cynicism about this city. After all, Portlanders roll their eyes and complain about Portland being performative so often that pointing out Portland’s performativity has actually become part of the performance. It’s as if, paradoxically, the extent to which Portlanders know they’re full of shit is the exact extent to which they really don’t know.
But this crying white person’s eyes express the gone foreverness of Breonna Taylor’s individual life. There is an undeniable depth of sincerity in the photo, even though I still feel the distance between our lives.
It is the same distance between me and the white family standing behind me.
I see this distance in the eyes of the Black people in Linneas Boland-Godbey’s portraits: These people aren’t surprised to hear about police killing Black people. You can see it in their eyes. They never needed proof.
At this point in this exhibit. I am not okay.
I turn around, splitting the sea of the endearing white family without making eye contact, and head toward the couches in the middle of the room. Refuge.
The inner space’s walls are filled with old photos of mostly anonymous Black friends and families. Spatially, Perspectives places the past at the center of things. The rest of the exhibit radiates out of it, like the outer rings of a tree encircle the heartwood. These tiny photos feel like they belonged to someone who treasured them. The exhibit thus creates this strange contrast of a fraught public future enclosing a peaceful private past. And as I stand in that past, the Black people in it glow with irrefutable mattering.
I look them in their eyes and don’t want them to die.
The longer I stand in this past, the more it seems like a fountainhead out of which beautiful Black individuals are born incessantly into the future, and destroyed there, but never ultimately destroyed. Our friendships, our joys, our romances, our intrinsic value, for example, can never be destroyed.
Okay, now I’m crying.
The white family with well-behaved children is leaving the exhibit. I wish I’d turned to them, while we were together, and asked what they were feeling. Maybe next time.
Please go see this exhibit. If it’s too much and you need to look away, look away. If you need to cry, do that. It’s okay.
That’s just your body remembering that Black lives matter.