Ligon, Baldwin, and a Redeemed History

It is a proverbial sunny day in Southern California, and I’m walking down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. I gaze up at the looming statues outside of the formidable building that houses the Marciano Art Foundation’s eclectic assortment of galleries. Formerly a Scottish Rite Masonic Temple (MAF Building), the building boasts an aura of historical significance. Adjacent to the collection of statues, and decorated in gold, the words “Liberty”, “Equality”, “Fraternity”, and “Devotion” gleam high on the side of the edifice. The fusion of contemporary elegance and structural rigidity promise a unique experience.

This isn’t my first visit to the MAF, but I enter with eager anticipation. Signs indicate the first floor gallery is closed for reinstallation, so I venture up to the third level. A blinking installation of the word “AMERICA” greets me. Painted in black with warm light creating a halo-like glow around the installation, the word “AMERICA” is presented twice. At first appearance, the two versions of “AMERICA” seem to mirror one another, however, the bottom display is “America" written backwards. This double effect of an upside down and backwards America dipped in black echoes themes present in the other displayed works in the gallery. 

Glenn Ligon - Double America (II) (2014)

Words continue to inform my experience as I discover the importance of text in the work of Black American artist, Glenn Ligon. In this particular show, Ligon’s art demonstrates prolonged thought on the expressions of renowned wordsmith, James Baldwin. Expounding on the idea of word as art, Ligon displays seventeen large prints of Baldwin’s masterful essay, “Stranger in the Village”. According to the gallery synopsis, Ligon housed a copy of one of Baldwin’s books in his studio. The oil stains and black paint seeping through the pages of the printed essay give evidence of its frequent use. The scale of the prints makes me want to step back in order to fully take in the display, however, the smears of accumulated paint and oil draw me closer. 

Glenn Ligon’s  Stranger  series

Initially, it is tempting to fall into my habit of skimming a document for brief clues on its context. However, Baldwin’s words are captivating, catapulting me into his world as a black American living in a tiny town in Switzerland. His story is haunting, a past echo of a present reality for Black men today. Understatedly, the words of black men are too often obscured, their stories forgotten, erased, or twisted to fit within prevailing paradigms of whiteness. As a black woman, this grieves me. I lament over the loss of silenced wisdom, decades of stories not only forgotten, but entirely erased. Whose voice is missing from my history? Whose absent story would help to complete my fragmented understanding of early Black America? As I fall into Baldwin’s words, his voice meets a deep longing to hear the tales of my forebears. 

Glenn Ligon 1

A sort of mental tracking takes place as I read the enlarged pages, and within this is the power of Ligon’s art. The blobs of black that obscure sections of the story force me to hold the words in mind as I piece together what details I can gather. For readers, this has the effect of elevating Baldwin’s words, magnifying their worth. As a result, his story gains a level of importance not immediately granted to the average black man situated within the social reality of the United States. It is Ligon’s presentation of Baldwin’s essay that allows the text to enter into its inherent worthiness of the reader’s attention.

I spend elongated minutes in front of each of the seventeen prints, engulfed in the story and curious about the notes scribbled in the margins. Smudges from Ligon’s stains sit within Baldwin’s text, pulling at the edges of a generational awareness of lingering injustices against Black America. Indeed, Baldwin’s tale eventually leads to commentary on the erased history of early generations of Black Americans. He writes, “the American Negro slave […] is unique among the black men of the world in that his past was taken from him, almost literally, at one blow. […] I am told that there are Haitians able to trace their ancestry back to African kings, but any American Negro wishing to go back so far will find his journey through time abruptly arrested by the signature on the bill of sale which served as the entrance paper for his ancestor.” (Baldwin, 169)

While Baldwin details the impossibility of Black Americans knowing the fullness of their past, Ligon keeps this troubled past alive in the present. It is in linking present with past, and past with the antiquated, that a new social memory is formed. The loss of collective memory, while irreplaceable, is not irredeemable. Ligon has upcycled what he wishes to commemorate, and this commemoration provides an answer to Baldwin’s assessment of the lapse of collective memory in the Black American consciousness. 

The last page of Ligon’s copy of “Stranger in the Village” is torn, creating a void I yearn to have filled. This missing corner, much like the missing pieces of my heritage, is taunting. Nonetheless, I am grateful for Glenn Ligon’s work, because he has introduced me to an element of my literary and social inheritance I was previously unaware of. The repurposing of an insightful tale of a black man’s reality as he stands between two differing worlds of whiteness has brought me further into the complexities of this black/white/yellow/red entanglement. Baldwin’s words stick to me, refusing to release me back into unconsciousness.