"A Feast of Scraps"
Glenn Ligon's art, photography and the social history of blackness in America

From the bottom of a vertiginous void, across unmet distance, these photographs come to me: sealed single echoes.
Standing in a bookstore, leafing through the book The Masculine Masquerade,1 I open the pages of Glenn Ligon's photo essay "A Feast of Scraps". Spread out, as if sharing the pages of an album, the photos produce telling juxtapositions. Someone's mementos: family photos, erotic "naughty" snapshots from the subcultural gay '70s: all photos of black people: some, of the bodily exhibition of black men. In seemingly mutually exclusive ways, these photos share the talismanic effects specific to photographic representations. Enshrining such different and, more importantly, discrete elements of life, can all these photos belong to the same person? Can they all be claimed in the same ways?
I feel embarrassed looking at these pictures. What do I, a white boy, find in the cracked black-and-white prints of birthday parties, mothers or sisters dressed up for special occasions, groups of friends posing for memory's sake? These photos belong to someone else. The implication of my glance meeting a luscious dick and a sly, inviting smile is more clear.
But Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" forces the question: Can it be denied that the same fetishes of the loved one are present in each photo, whether of parent, sibling, past lover, friend, or even one the beholder has never touched, never met? Despite the simultaneous injunction against and compulsion to visual representation this assemblage of images invokes, what these photographs contain, and what they assert, in however contingent and fugitive a way, are the lives and loves of people otherwise engulfed by the determining gaze of racism. These are lives that are negated, though imaged, by the cultural imagination of race. These moments of fugitive life are enshrined in "A Feast of Scraps" precisely where the photographs capture, through their impersonal mechanical and chemical processes, what is always absent in imagination: an empirical residue of what undeniably existed, that which has been. The unintentionally detached impressions of bodies and faces are precisely never the ideal body, never fully congruent with the racist idea of blackness — and this disparity increases with displacement in time and social place. What can be recognized in each photograph is proof of intractable existence, despite racism.
Photographs of black Americans might bear the wounds of history more openly than others. In this way, photographic images can embody literal scars of history, in a society interested, as ours is, in exorcising its guilty past as a way of denying its shameful present. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, every artifact of culture is an artifact of barbarism. Every record of black life in America is a record of the impossibility of life in a racist society. With each photograph coming down to us through time comes, in its captivated contingency, a reminder that this is an existence in danger of being revoked. A photographic exposure, arrested in time, presents a precipitate of the historical process. The contingency of the photo becomes an analogue for the contingency of the life. No further, extrinsic information of social-historical context is required. Awareness of this fateful contingency is borne by nothing other than the very fact of physical existence imprinted in the photograph, the physiognomic fact of blackness.2
Glenn Ligon's work is contextualized by other work by black (gay) artists, writers and critics addressing the erotic representation of black men in racist society. In the late 1980s Robert Mapplethorpe's black male nudes became the site for a discussion of the implications of erotic investments in what have been considered white constructions of black men's bodies and sexualities. (Ligon's first photographic work was his contribution to the 1993 Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition, "Notes on the Margins of Robert Mapplethorpe's Black Book.") A "burden of representation" is shouldered by any images of black people, members of a constructed minority in a society continually engaged in the production of "blackness" through pervasive, shifting and mutating typifications, delimiting and accommodating the lives of people who must in the first and last instance remain black.
Kobena Mercer introduced into the discussion of such racialized photographic representation the ideas of ambivalence and split subjectivity, the moment Mercer felt his own blackness to be imaged in the photograph of another black man, sharing the exposure beneath the gaze of the photograph, conflicting with the moment of desire for the photographed subject, Mercer sharing the gaze of the photograph.3 The articulation of this ambivalence was necessary in order to discuss Mercer's own investments in the imagery, and to rescue the lives of the subjects of the photographs, rendered invisible by discussion otherwise guided by Mapplethorpe's masterful "white gaze." Mercer acknowledged a more complicated and implicated investment in stereotypical representations among black viewers and artists than the denunciation of Mapplethorpe's photos had allowed. In the one-page statement accompanying "A Feast of Scraps", Glenn Ligon writes that

To say that stereotypical images of black men are constructed for white pleasure does not mean that the images have nothing to say to black people and that we must throw them out. To do so is not only to deny the ambivalence with which we look at the images but to deny the lives of the men depicted.4

The compulsion to image black people as black superimposes itself upon the practices of representing black people in racist society. The changing historical accouterments of black lives, displaced in time through the photograph, reflect an existence stubbornly resisting racist determination, thus revealing not only the historical contingency of race as a social relation, but also the faces of contingent existence despite and beyond racism. The apparent trans-historical existence of race as a social relation is evinced by historical representations of black people, showing the marks of racism across history. However, as temporally contingent objects, photographs can also reveal the intractable existence of black people across different historical moments, despite the social relations of race. Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" emphatically asserts the existence, in spite of the continuing racist society, that surfaces in photographs of black people, located in the viewer as a moment of longing and desire. The very collection and juxtaposition of these "scraps" of life foregrounds how photographs of black people capture historically contingent determinations of racism, embedded in contingent life. In this sense, these photos reveal less about the lives of the people depicted than about photography. The totalizing determination of race is thrown back upon the viewer as a lingering problem of identifying "blackness" — race as a moment of the perpetual present of ideology — in the lives of those photographed. Ligon writes about the erotic snapshots in "A Feast of Scraps" that

The images are somehow familiar, like portraits of long-dead relatives you never met but in whose faces you can trace the contours of your own. I look closely and I begin to remember.5

There is a unique way meaning is made of photographs, in the personal investments each viewer is invited to bring to them. A photo presents the unidentifiable, cold. And it becomes more inexhaustible the more one names it: Of the photo labeled "Daddy" I am left wondering what is most memorable, what animates its fetish-character for me. Is it the tremendous size of this black man's penis, or his handlebar moustache and silly dress of cowboy hat and soiled "streaker" overcoat, or the buckle-belt around his naked waist, completing the inventory of father-figure fetishes? Or is it his goofy but knowing smile, telling the viewer that he's in on the joke of the photo? Is it his age (40s?) and its marks on his body? Or is it the very questions asked of the photo by its situation in "A Feast of Scraps": When and under what conditions was this picture taken? Next to the family photos: is this someone's "Daddy"? Is this man a porn "model" or was this photo taken by someone the man knew — a trick or boyfriend or domestic partner — for memory's sake? What quality of this photo made it meaningful to the photographer and to its previous owner(s)? And to Ligon? Of whom does this photo remind me, and in what ways?
Meaning occurs only where the viewer can incorporate into the present that lost moment embodied by the photo, articulating the severed parts of the subjectively conscious and the alien, objectively extant given. Photographs of black people in America can mark intrusions of recalcitrant history into the meaning-making moment of the present. This is the paradox of historical images of black Americans: if we cannot deny the existence each so stubbornly asserts, then we must apprehend the images emblematically, and fold their excesses back under the sensible — the racist. "Daddy" becomes a deflated figure indeed if he's only a shameless nigger, guileless victim of racist exploitation or otherwise exhibiting the perverse innocence taken for granted by a certain racist imagination. On the other hand, the photos in "A Feast of Scraps" from the Jim Crow era not conforming to safely banal Southern pastoral "colored folks" ethnography affect the pathos of tragedy: these ill-suited darkies are playing at whiteness. Only that history required to authenticate the "black experience" is admitted. The inconclusive and hence insoluble history of America's class struggles — it "weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living" (Marx),6 always threatening to explode the society built on systematic degradation — flickers across the artifactual glyph of the photo, but is effaced under the cipher of lingering color-caste consciousness.
In an exhibition titled Photos & Notes, Ligon presented several photographic installation works that developed out of "A Feast of Scraps", this time including Ligon's own personal family and childhood photos, situating them among '70s-vintage working-class home furniture. For example, the piece "Twin" consists of a trundle bed covered with porn magazines and videocassettes showing black, interracial and gay sex alongside a photo album and copies of popular magazines such as Jet (tucked under the bed is a sign of this childhood's future: a copy of the 1992 issue of Newsweek magazine with a cover photo of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was a contemporary of Ligon, both born in 1960). In such installations the residue of the past captured by the photos evokes the literal detritus of the trash furniture. These merge in the colors of the past shared by the yellowed Polaroids and the garish "Afro"-style upholstery. The upholstery's synthetic fibers and the striated plastic covers of old consumer prints are caught in the amber of uncomfortable memory. There is a pang for the way we used to live called up by the furniture, clothes, hairstyles, the poses of a different time. There is no nostalgia for a lost innocence, though there may be enough reason for that, considering a black child's early baptism into racism connoted by the baby pictures. We look back at our portraits, and we fear for ourselves, vulnerable in that arrested earlier moment of becoming. Ligon asks us to share with him that sense of vulnerability in the viewing of his own childhood, situated among the other pasts imagined in the photos. The contingency of the photos presents a contingency of being, and the experience of alienation from an earlier self. The past is appropriated, and the rupture repressed and resolved, through a continual process of self-identifying in the present. Time does not heal all wounds: rather, the passage of time opens wounds between the present and the past that can be recognized here and there in photographs.
But Ligon's textures of the past cannot evoke the same memories for all viewers. For instance, Ligon's "Twin" bed does not merely embody a totem of individuation, but points to the lie of that self-identity. The roll-away bed beneath its "twin" complicates the shrine to self-hood, and complicates the identification process. The childhood bed shared with the brother, as well as with the photos and magazines, is a class indictment of the bourgeois ideology of discrete individuality. There is the otherness of brotherhood, and the brotherhood of representation, of shared blackness, doppelgängers both in the flesh and in imagination. The "twin" asks the viewer to recognize the loss of self in the other as a function of both identity and desire, the process frozen in the tableau vivant evoked by the doubled bed. The photos — are they masturbatory materials, to be rolled away and hidden from sight? — stand for the absent loved brother, the absent loved self. Equally estranged from the brother of blackness as from the brother of whiteness, Ligon shows both to be imbricated in the fragmented self. This split love object mirroring a split subjectivity has its analogue in the split bed. The two mattresses mirror each other, one filling the emptiness of the other with a host of reflected black male bodies. The bed is a powerful Lacanian mirror: it holds one's self whole-ly. Ligon writes in "A Feast of Scraps" that

the images of men were pressed up against me and against each other; we were all in a jumble. I couldn't tell where my body ended and another's began.7

The identity and representability of "blackness" in racist society threatens to overwhelm the actual lives of black people. In Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon discussed the ways the development of the self is crippled by over-determining racist identification. Fanon's question remains: how can an identity determined from without and, as such, constituted as other to oneself — blackness — at the same time remain autonomous and preserve its non-identical selfhood despite that constitutive, other-ing self-alienation? This is the process of identification that is objectified in Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" and Photos & Notes. (And I would oppose such critical objectification to the notion of a gesture of "difference within difference," of being both "black" and "gay," that has been attributed to Ligon's work.8 Do "blacks" — not to say "gays" — assert difference?)
Ligon's most widely known works are his post-abstract expressionistic paintings, ranging in scale from intimate easel-sized paintings to anthropomorphic door-sized paintings, in which Ligon used plastic stencils to render text on canvases, paper, or directly on walls (or doors). These paintings incorporate various texts on "race," from James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston to Jean Genet and Richard Pryor. When not playing in the graphics of black and white, the paintings engage the haptic chromatic effects of color-field painting, as in works by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Ligon's word paintings embody a dialectic of two formal impulses: reducing the appropriated texts to graphical artifacts, thus dissolving language; and, conversely, enacting an ambiguous constitution of identity through discourse and rhetoric. The stenciled words, serially repeated, function to trace both the physical, bodily act of marking that identifies the labor of the artist, and the externally constructed, given social-material delineations of that marking and of that identity. Through layered accretion, the avalanche of characters, and the devolution of the repeated act, the muddying of the mark, the constitutive delimitations are dissolved as such, leaving only the mark of marking, having seemingly collapsed in upon itself. The stenciled language, being constitutive, is impossible to opt out of. One is confronted in these works with physical monuments to the endlessly reiterated act, a Sisyphean task mimicking the whole relentless social project of producing "race." In this abject mimesis, the reifying mark ad nauseam of the self-reproducing rhetoric of race, Ligon's work becomes a confrontation with and protest against that inexorable process, ad absurdum. The dream of a deracinated self, purged of race, negatively reflected in the black pigment given endlessly to the white surface, becomes a nightmare of perpetual damnation.9 This is the purgatory of the abandoned social project of overthrowing "race," reduced to the individual vibrations of rationalized irrationality, the construct left intact.
Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" and Photos & Notes are radically free of such material marks of the artist's labor. The constitutive moment that Ligon's word paintings locate in language and discursive imagination can be found here in the viewing of the photographs that forms their subjectivity. However, Ligon's work is not the bare dialogue of subject and object — viewer and photograph — but another level mediating the viewing of the artist-subject's dialogue with its object, these photos. It is still Ligon's dialogue with blackness that is objectified, through the critical reification of the shared racial imagination, implicating both viewer and artist. (As in Mapplethorpe's ambiguously or ironically aestheticized black male nudes, the context of artistic exhibition of the images is presented as being coterminous with racist society, and is thus problematized: to this extent Ligon's work is "post-modernist.") The presentation of the photographs as non-identical objects — history-weathered artifacts — throws into relief the very act of their collection and juxtaposition, their identification with one another, their passing from prior owners and disparate origins in social history through the artist to the viewer. Their formal congruence in Ligon's presentation produces a shared identity of blackness, and it is shown to be an uncomfortable identity, violating the mute innocence of the photographic objects in the same way it violates that of their represented subjects, regarded as they are by the compulsively identifying — racist — consciousness of artist and viewer alike.
Language does appear here and there, in tidy typed captions on tiny slivers of paper, like that found in personal memos or diary jottings: they are notes to oneself. But they speak more than the artist's voice. Through these captions a small voice peers out and comments upon the shared experience of artist and viewer looking at the photographs, and it is a lark-like voice, the same lark that dances from one iteration to the next in Ligon's word paintings, playing in and around language, aware of its own complicity. In these captions, the lark's wry irreverence tells us it is not safe in the larger world, that these photos are unsafe under this gaze. The captions are like the ironic utterances of a doomed prisoner under interrogation — is it a guilty voice? The lark's voice is as vulnerable — and evanescent — as the disarmingly naked bodies in the erotic photos and the private moments in the family photos, snatched from the jaws of the racist world.
In the artist's studio, I stood over a table covered with the photographic raw materials for "A Feast of Scraps" and Photos & Notes. Some of the photographs had already made their way into the installations or photo essay; others waited behind the plastic covers of photo album pages, or bound within the pages of bygone erotic serials. Buried under a pile of bodies, faces and penises — each sealed within an unfocused blur, a poor registration of cheap reproduction, or within the amber of a different time — and curling like some of the prints, a shred of paper read: "I got played." — How much these words spoke for every one of the fragile moments whose trace was left in the photos.
Are the erotic photos of black men, circulated according to stereotyped fascinations, a confirmation of James Baldwin's "you took the best, so why not take the rest?"10 Or was the mote "I got played," nestling with Ligon's own smiling face in a high-school studio portrait, the assertion of an otherwise mute resistance, through sheer thing-hood, that the photos continue to enact?
Roland Barthes's various explorations of photography were motivated by his struggle to identify what impelled his return to certain photographs.11 Barthes pointed to the ways photographs contained for him something not quite possible to articulate, an "excess" of signification specific to photographic representation. He accounted for this excess, variously, as "photographic non-signification," a "non-coded iconic message," a "signifier without a signified," and a "third" or "obtuse" meaning. In Camera Lucida, Barthes located this effect in the "punctum" of a photograph, a detail that seized his attention beyond and at odds with the photo's ostensible representational functions. Ligon, in "A Feast of Scraps", writes of aspects of the photographic representations of black men beyond the sum of their apparent uses, the deployment of white fantasies of blackness, that

Many of the images I'm looking at replay these stereotypes, yet as I try to put them aside I find I can't. A look, a face, a body, keeps bringing me back to them.12

What Barthes called the semiotic excess of photography might become, in photographs of black people, an analogue for existence in excess of racist determination. In Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" this becomes a formal gesture embodied by each photo, individually couched in the stereotypical, placed in a series of photos with the sole common denominator of blackness. The work of art asks that each photo be seen equivalently, but this throws into relief the request that each photo makes to be seen differently. The non-identity of the photographic object appeals to a non-identity of the subject, as each photo unfolds its palimpsest layers of historically sedimented or accreted signification and meaning differently with each viewing.
Barthes discussed how in photography, apart from other forms of signification, that

the code of connotation [is] apparently neither "natural" nor "artificial" but historical, or perhaps one should say "cultural" . . . the link between signifier and signified — i.e., strictly speaking, the signification — remains if not unmotivated, at least entirely historical.13

What is captured by the photograph is not merely an irreducible moment of the "here and then" (Camera Lucida) — a past moment presented again by the photograph — but the viewer's historical relationship to that past in the meaning-making moment of the present in ideology:

Hence we cannot say that modern man projects into his reading of the photograph certain characterial or "eternal" feelings and values, i.e., infra- or trans-historical feelings and values, unless we make it clear that signification is always elaborated by a specific history and society. . . . Thanks to its code of connotation, the reading of the photograph is therefore always historical.14

Benjamin identified that moment of photography that distinguishes it from other forms of representation, its revelation of history:

Immerse yourself in such a picture long enough and you will recognize how alive the contradictions are, here too: the most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such as a painted picture can never again have for us. No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully placed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.15

In this way, photography holds a unique position in the relation of history and ideology. It is an impersonal, mechanically and chemically contingent moment in time and space that confronts present subjectivity in ideology and the apparent logic of social history that the present appropriates to itself. Present subjectivity confronts the effects of a formal motivation that can be attributed only to the photographic representational apparatus, a camera obscura in the past. Capturing isolated, frozen moments inaccessible to lived experience, photographs throw down the gauntlet of history, through the insistence of the small moments they encapsulate — they can be erased but not denied. Conversely, what Barthes called the social "domestication" of photographs threatens to turn them instead into the opposite: monstrous tautologies. Photographs can serve as terrible empirical evidence of a timeless status quo: this is the way it has been — always — this is the way it is going to be. But the cure for ideology is the intrusion of history: the fleeting recognition of that fugitive moment captured in a photograph of the way it was, proof of what has been lost.
Glenn Ligon and I discussed his process of collecting the photographs and incorporating them into "A Feast of Scraps" and Photos & Notes. Looking through a pile of photographs on his studio table, I was able to experience the sense of searching through boxes of photos at New York's Gay Treasures thrift resale shop, going through the personal memorabilia of those who had died. And I was touched by a terrible realization of evanescence: the fleeting lives of the people depicted in the photos, and the absent amorous glances still charging the faded surfaces.
If, according to Barthes, the basic gesture of a photograph is "Look!" (at what is depicted), then the basic gesture of Ligon's "Feast of Scraps" is "Look at these photographs!" Ligon's work pointed me to a shared recognition of that experience Barthes called the "pangs of love . . . stirred by certain photographs:"

In each of them, inescapably, I passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die.16

Christopher Cutrone
January, 1996 and April, 2003
Acknowledgments:
This essay was written at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in January, 1996. It was revised for presentation at "The Racialized Body: Race as Lived and Theorized," the 10th Annual University of Chicago Minority Graduate Student Association Eyes on the Mosaic Conference, April 26, 2003. Thanks to Stephanie Karamitsos, Spencer Leonard, Glenn Ligon, Margaret R. Olin, Zollie Pete, the Max Protetch Gallery in New York City, and Reginald Shepherd.
Notes:
1. Andrew Perchuk and Helaine Posner, eds., The Masculine Masquerade (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).
2. The phrase "the fact of blackness" refers, in the argument of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (trans. Charles Lam Markmann, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967), to the role of an intractable physiognomy of negritude, distinguishing Fanon's thesis on the social relation of blackness from Jean-Paul Sartre's thesis on the Jewish question Anti-Semite and Jew (New York: Grove Press, 1960), which Fanon admired and after which his book followed. Fanon emphasized the specific register of visibility in anti-black racism, but he knew that this was not entirely unique to the black question in the history of racism in modern civilization. The immediate context for Fanon's work on the social significance of racism was, of course, the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. — Walter Benjamin wrote about the "great sadness" permeating a childhood photograph of Franz Kafka that the identification with the vanquished of history, the boy's "ardent 'wish to become a Red Indian,'" "may have consumed" it ("Franz Kafka," in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, 119). Benjamin wrote this in 1934, ten years after Kafka's death from tuberculosis, and one year after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany that might have sealed the young Kafka's doom anyway (Kafka's biography is peopled with family members, friends and colleagues who found their ends in the concentration camps). Knowledge of social-historical circumstance might subsist in the significance of Kafka's photo, but this is perhaps less immediate to present subjectivity than it might have been to Benjamin at the moment of eruption of the most convulsive spasm of European racism.
3. Kobena Mercer, "Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary," in Bad Object-Choices, eds., How Do I Look? (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991).
4. Glenn Ligon, "A Feast of Scraps," in The Masculine Masquerade, 89.
5. Ligon, "Feast of Scraps," 89.
6. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 15.
7. Ligon, "Feast of Scraps," 89.
8. Roberta Smith, "Art in Review," The New York Times, November 3, 1995.
9. E.g., "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background" and "Why must we be the ink that gives the white page a meaning?"
10. James Baldwin, Another Country (New York: 1962), after Billie Holiday's "All of Me."
11. Roland Barthes, "The Photographic Message" (1961), "The Rhetoric of the Image" (1964) and "The Third Meaning" (1970), in The Responsibility of Forms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); and Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
12. Ligon, "Feast of Scraps," 89.
13. Roland Barthes, "The Photographic Message," 16.
14. Ibid.
15. Walter Benjamin, "A Small History of Photography" (1931), in One Way Street (London: New Left Books, 1979), 243.
16. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 116.
Conference paper abstract:
To say that stereotypical images of black men are constructed for white pleasure does not mean that the images have nothing to say to black people and that we must throw them out. To do so is not only to deny the ambivalence with which we look at the images but to deny the lives of the men depicted.
— Glenn Ligon, "A Feast of Scraps"
The black gay visual artist Glenn Ligon's photographic works "A Feast of Scraps" and Photos & Notes (1995) exhibit photographic mementos, photos for memory's sake, of various black Americans spanning a period from the 1930s and '40s to the '60s and '70s: childhood and family studio portraits and snapshots from birthday parties, holidays and other private and public occasions, alongside "naughty" pictures and amateur pornography-like photos of black men from the subcultural gay '70s (collected from sales of personal memorabilia of those who had died of AIDS) in jarring and telling juxtapositions. Ligon's work situates such disparate photographic representations of black people in equal importance and (social and historical) distance, regardless of their sources and empirical relationship to the artist or viewer. Because these photographic documents have been removed from their original socio-historical contexts through a deliberate process of de- and re-contextualization performed by their collection and presentation in Ligon's work, and through emphasizing certain effects specific to photographic representations providing evidence of (what has been termed in Fanon's critical race theory) an irreducible physiognomic "fact of blackness," Ligon's work presents images of black people as they would form constellations in their specific, precisely totemic or fetishistic "racial" character: such representations of black people as such are revealed in their ambivalent but emblematic relation to the social history of the production of the racial identity of "blackness" in America. Protesting and struggling against the hasty closures of social history and on behalf of demands of forgotten pasts and all too ephemeral suggestions for emergent transcendence in the present, Ligon's work explores the tensions arising from certain continuities and discontinuities in the invidious yet powerful and formative historical and present social imagination of black-white "racial" difference in America, attempting to make visible and help keep open possibilities for its abolition.