To Describe a Life by Darby English

A quotation from the French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil is the first thing the reader encounters upon starting chapter one of To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror by Professor Darby English. These words encapsulate the complex questions about self-identity, agency, and force that Darby English addresses in his analysis of the painting ‘Untitled (policeman)’ by artist Kerry James Marshall – whose work has frequently explored the complex effects of the Civil Rights movement on the everyday life of African Americans.

Written in the wake of police killings of unarmed black men and women that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, the following extract – with a new introductory quote from the author – touches on issues of systematic racial injustice and violence perpetrated against black communities by the police, issues that are now being discussed and debated all across the world.

“When it’s like Here we go again, it’s work to stave off easy images. You might need help. From another perspective, from a fellow citizen wary of easy images but intent on gaining insight.

That’s what I’d found in the art I organized this book around: representation – engaged and thoughtful, equally vivid and pensive, hewing closer to reflection than pronouncement. It helped me to see violent policing as an acute expression of the American order of separation in its death throes. Classic in its clarity, trying for a renaissance. Hysterical and untenable. Doomed.”

— Darby English, June 2020

The global wave of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd reminds us that we live in times of continuing racial injustice. Books are uniquely able to help inform public consciousness and understanding. You can read the Association of University Presses Statement on Equity and Anti-Racism here and the President of Yale University’s statement on the killing of George Floyd here.

Darby English is the Carl Darling Buck Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago.

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