Pride Month and Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx

—Amber Jamilla Musser

Last week I waited for an hour to go inside a warehouse and see Kara Walker’s new art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The line stretched several blocks to see a woman posed like a sphinx with a headscarf. She is rendered in white sugar, so she is grainy to the touch and fine powder falls around her. She looks regal and impassive, staring past her minions—small brown candy boys carrying baskets, fruit, or other objects, who melt slowly into the ground around them.

While Walker is known for her fierce engagement with history, race, and sexuality, you might be asking what this has to do with pride? Though it may be coincidence that Walker’s installation is up during Pride Month, I want to ask what it would mean to think about these projects as overlapping.

Both Pride Parades and Walker’s installation involve bodies—bodies on display, bodies watching other bodies, waiting bodies, nudity. One might even be tempted to say that both are celebrations. Walker’s installation, always controversial, honors many things including the pain and suffering of plantation slavery and the labor of the Domino workers. Pride parades, begun to mark the Stonewall riots, honor LGBT struggles for inclusion and rights. In theory, pride parades offer a way for LGBT people to live in their identities freely by dancing in the streets as they are cheered on by their brethren.

There are differences, however. In Walker’s installation black female sexuality is at once revered and enclosed, animal and human, and the emotions one sees or feels upon encountering the marvelous sugar baby are amplified by the production of distance. A Subtlety is a spectacle; the black boys are spectacles; we gaze upon them and their eyes do not meet ours. In contrast, Pride parades mobilize bodies and invite participation.

These different spaces and conjured embodiments remind us that the gap between these worlds is not just a matter of adding adjectives, but of seeing how history and bodies meet. Pride parades aim to turn historic shame into pride. Walker’s installation, enclosed in a building whose walls ooze history and sugar, asks us to recall pain and shame by making us confront regality. Though people of color are not necessarily estranged from mainstream pride celebrations, the gulf between these displays helps to articulate what happens when we imagine sexuality as liberatory while forgetting that for some it is still embedded in a difficult and complex history. As my forthcoming book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, argues this is not a question of merely taking different intersecting identities (black queer female) into account, but asking how celebrating one set of values—pride—threatens to eclipse our ability to understand other experiences, where powerlessness cannot necessarily be overcome with a parade.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (forthcoming in September 2014 from NYU Press).

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