Thoughts From a Dark Girl on Robert Pruitt's "Pretty For a Black Girl"
- By Kymberly S. Newberry
Photo: Photograph of Robert Pruitt, Cedric Angeles
Gwendolyn B. Bennett
To a Dark Girl
I love you for your brownness
And the rounded darkness of your breast
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eye-lids rest.
Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk
Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate
Keep all you have of queenliness
Forgetting that you once were slave
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
Several years ago, I remember sitting in the Bing Auditorium of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when art historian and curator Dr. Polly Nooter Roberts overpowered me as she spoke about the Luba People of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and their memory boards, called lukasa.
It was her overall insight into Luba women that captured my attention. According to Roberts, Luba women were the nucleus… the mecca of power. They advised male rulers and were spiritual counselors to kings and ambassadors. Bavidye—spirits that governed the entire Luba world—were only available to women, who were considered spiritual receptacles and magnets for the spirits. Women were the conduits between bavidye and the kings.
Thus, she noted, when observing Luba sculptures of women, we find that they are always depicted gesturing towards their breasts, accentuating the fact that women hold the secrets of Luba history and the Luba kingdom, in their breasts.
In her arresting examination of the inhumane reproductive exploitation of black women under colonial slavery, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan recounts the following:
“Images of female devils included sagging breasts as part of the iconography of danger and monstrosity. The medieval wild woman, whose breasts dragged on the ground when she walked and could be thrown over her shoulder, was believed to disguise herself with youth and beauty in order to enact seductions that would satisfy her obsessed [. . .] craving for the love of mortal men. The shape of her body marked her deviant sexuality and both shape and sexuality evidenced her savagery.”
“By the eighteenth century, English writers rarely used black women’s breasts or behavior for anything but concrete evidence of barbarism in Africa.”
During an artist talk at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, artist Robert Pruitt, discussing his inspirations, asked the question, “How does one really consider your place in the world and your connections to histories that have been denied.? You have to start looking at these African histories and trying to figure out, do you have a place in that… you have to become steeped in those histories. Pruitt stated,
“John Biggers is the artist who started the art program I went to and he had an entire ideology based around matriarchy and how he represented women as really powerful heads of family and culture, and I remember specifically trying to mimic that.”
So, visiting Black Refractions: Highlights From The Studio Museum In Harlem, at the Smith College Museum of Art, the only venue in the Northeast that was fortunate enough to present this landmark exhibition, I stood before Robert Pruitt’s Pretty For a Black Girl (2005) and contemplated his question, how DOES this curious figure seemingly wrapped in two different realities, consider her place in the world, while connected to a history that has forsaken and denied her?
I believe I was drawn to this piece because I’m a pretty dark girl… and I still don’t have the answer.
I suspect that Robert Pruitt and his figure in Pretty For A Black Girl are both still trying to listen and to learn from their ancestral mothers, who were spiritual receptacles… magnets for spirits… and spiritual counselors to kings and ambassadors—mothers who held the secrets of history and kingdoms in their breasts.
KYMBERLY S. NEWBERRY is from Los Angeles, California. A proud Frances Perkins Scholar, she received her B.A. in International Relations from Mount Holyoke College. She is a Ph.D student in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst.
This is second of two blogs on the Black Refractions Gallery. You can read Part One here.