What do we mean by blackness? A surface level observation suggests that we define blackness by pigmentation — quite literally, that the degree of melanin in your skin dictates your African diasporic identity. A deeper inquiry poses the idea that we can track blackness in some other more meaningful way. In Kerry James Marshall’s 2009 Untitled, Marshall extends an answer: blackness is colorful, chaotic, and varied; it cannot be explained by a single broad stroke.
Untitled, a grand acrylic composition, features a seated black woman posing with a large palette and a paintbrush in hand. Behind her remains an unfinished canvas painting of her self-portrait. In the portrait, her dark surroundings are reimagined with bright and colorful tones. Strokes of her black hair are painted in a vibrant red. With this stark contrast between the subject and her self- portrait, Marshall contends that the woman has the authority to define herself. In typical fashion, Marshall champions this woman as “unequivocally, emphatically black.” She paints her own blackness: prismatic and defiant.
Kerry James Marshall, Untitled
In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay, How It Feels to Be Colored Me, Hurston asserts a view of her blackness contrary to that of the times. She declares that she’s not “tragically colored,” and “there is no great sorrow damned up in [her] soul, nor lurking behind [her] eyes.” Her blackness is only tragic when placed in the context of white oppression — but that oppression does not define her identity. In fact, Hurston goes so far as to proclaim the “cosmic Zora,” who “[belongs] to no race nor time.” Marshall’s black protagonist and the cosmic Zora share a powerful characteristic of self-definition — they choose to imagine themselves in their truest forms rather than in the context of their oppressors.
Ralph Ellison illustrates the absurdity of defining blackness in the white man’s terms as he deems himself an “invisible man.” Whites reject his existence as a real human being; as such, they relegate him to invisibility in this dream world. Sections of the self-portrait in Untitled remain uncolored — and in a sense, invisible. By assigning the black woman the agency to color in her own portrait, Marshall usurps the state of invisibility in which Ellison and the black women exist.
Marshall’s decision to cast a woman as the painting’s hero suggests the importance of gender identity in addition to racial identity here. The black woman faces societal pressure to conform to predesignated identity not only from the white man, but also from the black man. As the black feminist bell hooks said, “If any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency.” Just as the woman in Untitled colors in her own blackness, she too imagines her own womanhood.
Perhaps by leaving this piece untitled, Marshall compels the viewer to ponder who exactly the black woman is. I find my eyes darting around the perimeter of the cryptic painting, searching for clues. The dark hue of her black skin directly opposes her luminous white gown. Her piercing gaze and confident pose reveal a woman with no doubts about her existence. She inspires one to do the same.