The Black Gaze: Conversations on Danish Colonialism, Race and the Virgin Islands

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The following excerpts are from Part II of “Conversations on Danish Colonialism, Race and the Virgin Islands,” in which Trinidadian-American writer Lesley-Ann Brown, who lives in Denmark, and St. Croix artist La Vaughn Belle continue their conversation on Danish society, colonialism, and race. See the full transcript of their fascinating conversation at the St. Croix Source.

La Vaughn Belle and I are at the Danish Architecture Centre, where there are ample rooms and resources for the resident artists. Whenever I visit places such as this in Denmark, I’m always pleasantly surprised, at not only how aesthetically pleasing these state-sponsored arts spaces are, but how functional and privileged they are. [. . .]

I spoke with Belle about her experience visiting arts and cultural institutions in Denmark. She said that what she noticed most was a jarring perspective on colonialism that she encountered in many places.

“I was shocked when I went into the Danish National Museum and they had this mini exhibit in the lobby talking about what is ‘historically correct,’” Belle said. “And there was this candy, that were African masks that people would consume – and I’m looking and I ask, ‘This is a joke?’ And a woman there replies ‘No’. I ask, ‘Is it old?’ and she says, ‘No, it was discontinued in 2014.’” [See note on licorice masks below.]

“I had such a profound level of sadness. I could not imagine what it would feel like to live in a society where people are eating African heads.”

When I visited the museum later, I didn’t see the infamous licorice candy that was only discontinued a couple of years ago but I am familiar with them. Although the candy is gone, I can recall the debate and the reluctance that many had to discontinue it. What I did find, however, was a small room of artifacts where the only evidence of “Blackness” on display were the Sambo-like dolls that were given to Danish children to play with. [. . .]

“I had another person tell me about an April fool’s joke this year. It claimed that behind the $25 million check that the U.S. had given to Denmark for the U.S. Virgin Islands, someone had written, ‘But you can buy it back in 100 years at the same price.’ Now, it was a joke, it was irony, it was satire, but apparently it got into the collective consciousness in Denmark. I’ve had more than one person tell me about this. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, I heard we could buy you guys back.’” [. . .]

As I walk through the museum on the second floor, I start to think about the way many of us of African descent perceive the world, and how this perspective is often erased, silenced and buried—much like in the exhibition at the Danish National Museum. I thought about whiteness and how so much of what is accepted as universal artwork was not made with me, Belle or other black people in mind.

I realized that so much of Belle’s experience, and to a larger extent, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ experience, is about how silenced the black experience is, how seldom Denmark, and by extent, whiteness, bothers to ask about experiences outside of what is considered to be the norm. That norm was, of course, birthed from colonialism. [. . .]

For full conversation, see http://stcroixsource.com/content/news/local-news/2016/12/24/black-gaze-part-ii-conversations-danish-colonialism-race-and-virg

Note: The licorice African masks mentioned in the article above were really supposed to be “multicultural” figures—representing Asian, Native American and African cultures—in the Haribo “Skipper Mix.” German-based candy-maker Haribo halted production on the licorice “Skipper Mix” after Swedish customers complained of its racist contents. “According to the New Straits Times, customers in Sweden began complaining after Twitter users posted pictures of the Asian, Native American and African caricatures contained within the ‘Skipper Mix.’”

[For image of licorice African masks above, and related article, see http://www.rawstory.com/2014/01/haribo-stops-making-liquorice-candy-shaped-like-african-masks-after-racism-complaint/.]

 

 

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