From Helga Crane to Kara Walker: The African American Female, Artist

Kara Walker. Female. African-American. Artist.

Throughout the Afro Modernist, Black Arts, and the Post Soul periods, the forces of racism and white supremacy perpetuate different levels of repression and class division among African-American communities. Specifically, the literature and artwork of these movements highlight the African-American female’s tumultuous struggle for progress, place, and identity, in a world which continues to marginalize them.

Contemporary African-American artist Kara Walker calls “Blackness…a very loaded subject, a very loaded thing to be—all about forbidden passions and desires, and all about a history that’s still living, very present” (Walker by Sollins 2003).  Walker’s work portrays the weight, or the “load” of that history, of that blackness, through evocative images, which critique both class structure and female repression in black culture. Often satirical in nature, Walker’s work is akin to John Oliver Killens’ book The Cotillion or One Good Bull is Half the Herd. Furthermore, themes of repression and “the repressed artist” in Walker’s work harken back to Nella Larson’s motifs in her Afro Modernist work, Quicksand.

"Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?" by Contemporary African American Artist Kara Walker.

“Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?” Kara Walker. 1997. Watercolor. Colored Pencil. Graphite. On Paper. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

The image above is one of 66 sheets from Walker’s 1997 collection, Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? Walker used watercolor, colored pencil and graphite on notebook paper. The text in the picture is done in a cursive dark reddish-maroon watercolor and reads:

“Or rather Practice the
Art of Repression—
Why? When we so desire to
See, hear, fuck, love Racism
Kind of our National Pastime
Loving to hate what we hate to Love
“Hey! I can be as Self righteous and upstanding as the rest of
But I figure Why Bother—
Why Substitute one set of Stereotypes With Another?”

(Walker 248)

The picture below, which is also painted with reddish-maroon water colors, depicts what Walker captions on the page as “The Black Debutant. Her crossing out of the word “the” in “The Black Debutant” is worth noting as well as her likely intentional misspelling of the word “debutant.” Furthermore, the cartoonish figure’s face is reflective of the iconic discriminatory image of the Golliwog doll. The debutante’s hands seem to be held behind her back with a particular amount of force. However we see no one holding her arms back; whatever force is keeping her limbs tied is invisible. There is nothing else on the rest of the white page. There are no paint blotches—simply Walker’s watercolor cursive and the drawing of the debutant on a stainless white sheet of line-free notebook paper with three hole punches in the left margin.

Much like the way Walker describes blackness as being a “very loaded subject,” one could describe the aforementioned image as “very loaded” to say the least. Walker’s juxtaposition of the Golliwog’d black debutante and her statement about the “The Art of Repression” challenges and calls out the Black Middle Class woman for hiding behind bourgeois societal traditions.

She seems to be questioning their authenticity; by admitting to her own love/hate relationship with Racism, she dares the debutante to look in the mirror and ask herself how she really feels about the centuries of oppression of her people. Walker proposes the impossibility and the hypocrisy of the black middle class woman “rising above” the past by calling it something crafted—the “Art” of repressed anger—when she knows all the society girl really wants to do is “fuck” and “love” the very present problem of Racism. Racism is the lover because it is a constant and much-needed reminder that the past will never be erased. Walker warns female bourgeois culture against “rising above” and “substitute[ing]” the “self-righteous” stereotype for one that could be worse: a pacifist, smiling cartoon of a woman who is not only forgetting her past but also blindly reliving it.

John Oliver Killens’ touch on some of these exact themes in his satirical novel, The Cotillion or One Good Bull is Half the Herd. He also uses Black Bourgeois Society to reveal under-the-radar mechanisms of repression on black women, by black women. In addition, Killens makes clear that the levels of repression on black society women range from repressed anger to repressed sexuality to repressed negritude.

Mrs. Patterson, the head of The Cotillion or the Debutante’s attempts to negate the girls’ negritude saying:

“Your records are pure and white and spotless. There are no black marks on your records. Nothing black at all. Nothing black at all” (Killens 76).

This is the exact “self-righteous” denial of heritage which Walker warns against in her painting. Mrs. Patterson wants the girls to be clean, and pure, and she wrongly associates this with being white. She is giving into assimilation and trying to deny her own people’s oppressed shame and suffering. She wants these young debutantes to do the same.
Furthermore, she wants them to deny their sexuality. She asserts:

“You are all virgins and you must remain white and spotless and virginal until the Grand Cotillion is over” (Killens 76).

Comparing Mrs. Patterson’s notion of purity and whiteness, symbolizing an ignorance or racism to Walker’s casual mention of “fuck[ing]” Racism as a “National Pastime,” reveals what Yoruba’s Ben Ali calls simply “bullshit” which is tearing the black people apart (Killens 140). Ben Ali and Kara Walker would identify with one another on their views.

Another female character in earlier African-American literature is Helga Crane from Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Helga represents black female repression in yet another sense. Helga is often considered by readers to be a repressed artist who is trapped in her Afro Modernist female sphere. She struggles to understand herself and her lack of ability to find peace and place in the world of beauty in which she lives. She never truly discovers why her heart never finds contentment, and is constantly asking herself—“Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place?” (Larsen 69). This intention Larsen’s part helps the reader understand the place of women in the time of Afro Modernism. Being an artist is never an option for Helga because she never has the opportunity to explore that part of herself with intention. The reader gets to see her artistic sensibilities throughout the novel as well as how those sensibilities are crushed by patriarchal structures.

The reader first begins to see the artist in Helga by the way she naturally looks at the world’s brightness and patterns and colors. In other words, Helga has a very strong aesthetic sense. She doesn’t just watch the sun rise. She watches:

“the feeble sun creeping over the ship’s great green funnels with sickly light; watching the purply gray sky change to opal, to gold, to pale blue” (Larsen 48).

Ironically, Helga is able to spot an artist when she sees Herr Olsen:

“An artist, Helga decided at once, taking in the broad streaming tie. But how affected! How theatrical!” (Larsen 52) but admittedly, “the man however, interested her” (Larsen 52).

Maybe this is because they have this sensibility in common; after all, the saying goes: it takes one to know one. Helga crane just doesn’t know her own artist self. This is a result of repression of identity, and it stems from everyone telling Helga Crane who she is and who she should be, whether that be the one who “must have bright things to set off the color of [her] lovely brown skin” or the one who “must make an impression,” Helga Crane can simply never just be herself (Larsen 50).

Kara Walker’s perspective on all art in general reflects Helga’s situation perfectly:

“Most pieces have to do with exchanges of power, attempts to steal power away from others” (Walker by Sollins 2003).

This is true of Helga’s repressed life. She is constantly being objectified, tossed around, and told what to do. No matter how hard she tries, she is always, in some way, robbed of her power.
Similarly to Helga, for a time, Yoruba, from The Cotillion also feels robbed of her power, especially by her bourgeois mother and the The Cotillion instructor, Mrs. Patterson. She feels she is unable to make her own choices about her identity. She feels ungrounded while unsteadily and artificially bouncing between Black Society with her mother, and Black and Beautiful with her lover.

Kara Walker illuminates this same feeling of “fakey” in another one of her drawings from Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?

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“Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?” Kara Walker. 1997. Watercolor. Colored Pencil. Graphite. On Paper. Collection Walker Art Center. Minneapolis.

The image above is also done with watercolor and colored pencil and graphite on notebook paper. However this notebook paper has lines. The lines are black. In dark blue watercolor, Walker has written the following text:

“On the other hand
Maybe—unlike Bailey, I’m Dissing
My ANCESTORS (Daily) and Should
Repent –But My experience—My
Integrated experience
never had close ties with its
Roots AND I Know That any attempt
On my Part to Discover those
Links to The Past would Be forced
and fakey
(Thus the Ambivalent attitude)
no Spirits Rising No
Old family Photos
No “Black art aesthetic”

Following the text in blue are the words:

“THE RACE TRAITOR a Memoir IN WORDS & Pictures”

(Walker 249)

in the same maroon color as the debutante painting. Amidst the text in blue, “RACE TRAITOR” is seen to have been added later on by a symbolic arrow symbol. Between the words “those” and “Links” is a blotted out word, followed by “Links to the past would” and a blotted out word beneath the next word in the phrase, “Be.” There is a paint splotch to the left of the phrase, “no Spirits” and following, between the words “No” and “’Black.” Between “art” and “aesthetic” there is also a paint splotch.

Finally, there is, at the bottom of the page, beneath the red text, “RACE TRAITOR a Memoir IN WORDS & Pictures,” a painting in blue watercolor. The painting is of three children. The one farthest to the left’s arms are tied and he is sitting down. He is black. To the right of this child is a young black girl who could not be more than 5 years old. She is naked. She is kicking the black boy who is to the left on the page. She has one arm out towards his forehead as if she is about to shove him down. Wrapped around the lower half of this little girl’s torso is a cloth which is being pulled by the mouth of a young white boy on all fours. He is fully clothed.

The piece reveals another level of honesty on the part of Walker. It brings up a similar paranoia and search for place that exists for both Helga and Yoruba. Walker is questioning her identity and the legitimacy of her blackness. Because she has been raised in suburbia and raised in what seems like (based on the text in the painting) an environment without an emphasis on reflection on the past, she feels as if she is less black, or some kind of “race traitor.” This is the same way Helga’s black identity feels muddled in Denmark, and Yoruba’s black identity feels cut down by her mother. Walker feels removed and chronically whitened, which can be inferred to be the alternate race during whatever time she fully became a “traitor.”

While Yoruba feels the Patterson’s home is fake in its attempt to be high society, with all the “cold and unpleasant…plastic,” Kara Walker’s work professes a fear that her actual authentic middle class upbringing will somehow make her negritude phony (Killens 71).

On the surface, Walker’s work might seem to be a kind of resignation to her professed frequent “ambivalent attitude,” but the breadth and body of Walker’s work reflect great progress for the African-American female community. Instead of focusing on Uphold[ing] Your Men, as so many artists did in the Black Arts Movement, Kara Walker brings to light what it will take for women to uphold themselves. Through her art, she challenges women, to come to terms, for better or worse, with their own identity first.

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Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion, Or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2002. Print.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, 2010. Print.

Sollins, Susan. “Kara Walker.” Art 21: Art in the 21st Century. PBS Home Video Dist. 2003. Television. Transcript.

Walker, Kara Elizabeth., Philippe Vergne, and Sander L. Gilman. “Part Three. Artworks. Foldout 2: Do You Like Creme in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk?” Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007. N. pag. Print.

Lawrence, Carolyn Mims. Uphold Your Men. 1971.