“Femme Piquee Par Un Serpent” Courtesy of kehindewiley.com

Metaphors Matter, and May Save Lives

“Young, Gifted and Black — How I Long To Know The Truth”

These lyrics were sung by Nina Simone in 1969. And they are no less true today as many Black artists are — still — raising their voices against an unceasing racism in America. They are doing so with sophisticated metaphors that help us see it and feel it.

Kendrick Lamar dropped some truth at this year’s Grammy’s. Light’s up: he’s in chains and his band is behind bars. His six-minute tour de force was a fast-rap anthem of pride with a brilliant sense of theater that included a major bonfire on stage. When the lights went down, he stood as a black silhouette in front of a white Africa with ‘Compton’ identified on the map. Truly an African American.

Just the week before, Beyoncé dropped jaws at the Super Bowl halftime show with “Formation,” a song that mixes her empowerment brand of Black is Beautiful within a modern protest song against racism in America.

Beyoncé In New Orleans

Its political message has roiled some on the conservative right and in turn prompted SNL to make one of the finest pieces of satire in years by using the universal trope of a disaster-movie trailer. The visual metaphors in the music video are searing and beautiful, political and disturbing. Beyoncé’s recasting of Katrina is especially powerful. It ends with Beyoncé on top of an abandoned New Orleans police car as it sinks, and she goes down with it.

I was reminded of a moment in this a performance of “Mississippi Goddam” when halfway through the song, Nina Simone looks directly into the camera and dares us to ignore her plight. After lamenting the death of Medgar Evers, she asks, “Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it?”

Great question.

Nina Simone in Amsterdam


A skillful use of metaphor can cut to the bone of a lived experience, to the very marrow of truth. Artist James Pate takes us there in his series “KKK, Kin Killin’ Kin.” The black and white drawings (a potent medium in itself) depict young Black men in the hood, wearing hoodies, styled as a Ku Klux Klan pointed hood. They wear jewelry, a burning cross, a necklace that spells out KKK. They shoot each other and are often, simultaneously, both victim and perpetrator. Their faces range from dispassion to rage as they have become the “strange fruit” of our society and carry out what the Klan always wanted, to terrorize and kill Black Americans.

“Your History III”

These scenes are often woven with historical images of Blacks exercising non-violent means of civil disobedience. In “Your History III,” we see what is likely a row of Black men sitting at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. They solemnly look at us through time and seem to ask, “Is this what we fought for?”

What if I told you that from 1974 to 2011, 279,384 Black Americans were murdered. That’s an average of 7,982 per year, a higher rate than Americans killed in the Vietnam War. And what if I told you that according to the Bureau of Justice, during that time 94% of those Black homicide victims were killed by other Blacks. These numbers are intellectual abstractions until a metaphor connects them to a universal truth, one we can all feel viscerally.

Until we feel the truth, it doesn’t exist.

James Pate doesn’t address the systemic causes or what he calls ‘the abstract layers of blame beyond his purview.’ He is simply trying to illustrate a truth that will shake us and wake us to the ugly cost of epidemic violence turned inward. As shocking as the images can be, there is a possible outcome even more outrageous — that no one will be outraged enough. That we won’t do anything about it because as Nina Simone laments to a white audience, ‘We don’t see it. We don’t feel it.’ As a white middle-class male, I am unqualified to comment on the experience depicted in these photos. But through the power of this work, I am qualified to care. I was lucky to see “Kin Killin’ Kin” at the Freedom Center in Cincinnati. This is a traveling exhibit and deserves to be seen. So watch for it, see it, and feel it.

“The images will warn and alert us to not repeat this history. As shameful as this topic may be, I need the imagery in these renderings to simply tell the children the truth.” — James Pate, Artist


I also had the privilege this month of visiting the Kehinde Wiley exhibit, “A New Republic,” at the Seattle Art Museum. His approach is much different than the call and response of Simone, Beyoncé, Lamar or Pate. He finds men and women of color on the street and inserts them into poses of the aristocracy and religious elite for the 500 years leading up to the early 20th-century. It creates something we’ve never seen before; the inversion reveals just how systemic our issues of inequality really are. The exhibit runs through May 8th and undoubtedly will be reprised elsewhere for the rest of our lives — such is the scale of its impact and relevance.

“Napoleon Leading The Army Over The Alps.”

In the span of one Black History Month, I heard a Black woman be the most sober voice of her generation in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” James Pate showed me a naked truth I otherwise could not have known. Kehinde Wiley connected me to the nobility of all Black lives. Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar left me with a powerful idea — that the final freedom is to define oneself and not be defined by others. This is the epitome of dignity. These artists make me feel we have a long way to go, but that we are also getting closer to this truth. When natural empathy falls short, metaphors will help us get there.


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