Then, in a flash, I knew what to write. Frida painted this incredible portrait of Eva Frederick in 1931. It's incredible because she captures Eva's beauty, composure, and strong gaze. It's incredible because it conveys Eva's humanity. Most depictions of people of African descent in the history of Western art or in the popular media were of slaves, racist caricatures, or the "noble savage." Eva is none of these "types." She is a real person; however, aside from her name and where she's from, seen in the inscription above her head, we know nothing about this woman. Interestingly, Eva was from New York, just like Eric Garner.
Her lack of a personal history is a metaphor for me of America's racist history. Just as the slaves were torn from their cultures and families, Eva Frederick's personal history has been lost. Recovering her history has proved quite a challenge. Thus far, I've found very little. She is still only a face with a name and place of origin. I wish I knew what Frida was thinking about when she painted Eva's portrait. Did she know her very well? Did Frida consciously strive to capture Eva's essence in an attempt to combat racist stereotypes?
When we don't see other people as human beings, we can turn them into caricatures, enemies, evil, etc. African Americans, as well as many other ethnic groups, have been reduced to stereotypes within Western culture. People of African descent were feared as primitive savages. Brutal lynchings in the history of the United States attest to the level of fear that whites have felt in the presence of black men. Lynchings were used to enforce laws and unwritten rules of conduct, but I think fear fueled the horrific violence. I also think fear fuels the violence in the numerous cases of black men being killed by white officers. Eric Garner's senseless death is an obvious example because we have video footage of a group of white men tackling Garner to the ground and using a choke hold on him, which cut off his air supply. Why did these officers feel the need to tackle him to the ground with such violence? He was accused of selling cigarettes. He was unarmed. When he told them over and over that he couldn't breathe, why didn't one of the officers say to let go of the choke hold? Why? I would answer: fear, fueled by racist hatred.
President Obama said in an interview on BET television on December 8th that "We can't equate what's happening now to what was happening fifty years ago." I take issue with the President's statement because I think the prevalence of violence aimed against African American men by white police officers is steeped in our racist history. We can connect what is happening now to what was happening fifty years ago and one hundred and fifty years ago. In fact, we can connect it back to the founding of this country and the institution of slavery. I understand that President Obama wants to reassure people that "things are getting better," but I think it's great that people are taking to the streets for peaceful protests because in this day and age, black men should not be dying at the hands of white police officers due to racist fears.
Progress, as President Obama said, happens in steps. Well, let's hope the power of the people brings about progress in leaps and bounds, not steps. In the 1930s, when Frida made her portrait of Eva Frederick, anti-lynching advocates, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, championed for anti-lynching laws. The Costigan-Wagner bill was drafted, which would have required local authorities to protect prisoners from lynchings, but President Roosevelt never signed it. It would take another ten to fifteen years for the first successful federal prosecution of a lyncher. We don't want to wait 10-15 years to see progress in the police departments. Hopefully, with people voicing their outrage and keeping the pressure on, progress will come much sooner.
Frida would want to see people of all races and classes unite to make change happen because "Black Lives Matter!"
"When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that is a problem, and it's my job as president to help solve it." President Obama, please live up to your word!
© Celia S. Stahr 2014