Glenn Ligon’s 1988 work Untitled (I Am a Man), a replica of the sign carried by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, is a prime example of his appropriative strategy. Not an original sign itself, nor an identical reproduction of one, Ligon’s painting is rather an appropriation of the sign, so that the words “I Am a Man” simultaneously exist in three separate but related contexts: the original historical context in which the message emerged, the context in which Ligon rendered that message, and the context in which a viewer apprehends the message. Indeed, Ligon sought to show in Untitled (I Am a Man) the “changing notions of what it means to carry a sign that says ‘I Am a Man’”—a kinetic discourse that, for him, is represented in part by the cracks on the painting’s surface. “The piece was made using oil paint and enamel paint mixed together, and that’s not a good combination,” Ligon has explained. “The minute I made the painting it started to crack, and given the subject matter, I thought that was interesting.”
Memphis 1968 is remembered as the place and year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, but the reason the civil rights leader came to Memphis—the sanitation strike—is less often recalled. On February 1st of that year, two black sanitation workers were accidentally killed when they were sucked into the compactor of a garbage truck. The tragedy underscored the inequity of the sanitation business, which was run by whites but carried out by an almost exclusively black workforce under vile, discriminatory conditions. As historian Michael K. Honey writes: “Hauling garbage was the kind of work the city assigned to blacks only." The men’s deaths were the proverbial last straw: eleven days later, on Lincoln’s birthday, some 1300 workers went on strike. The message they held aloft for the next two months—“I Am a Man”—responded as much to longstanding discourse that marginalized black people as less than human as it did to daily put-downs of “boy” from white supervisors. “‘I Am a Man’ meant freedom,” one sanitation worker recalled. “All we wanted was some decent working conditions, and a decent salary. And be treated like men, not like boys.”
One has to wonder, of course, which men were excluded from this effort to attain “freedom,” given that in 1968, one year before Stonewall, queer men of color certainly faced a double bind of delimited manhood—and this historical tension surely informed Ligon’s appropriation of the slogan in 1988. Indeed, the historical moment of the making of Untitled (I Am a Man) was suffused with its own tensions around queerness, not least because of the AIDS crisis and the rise of the Christian right, which found easy targets in “gay art.” (Ligon’s first professional exhibition was a 1989 group show—the same year a Mapplethorpe solo show was famously cancelled at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. due to conservative outcry.) Ligon’s painting, then, highlights racial, gender, and sexual oppression—and the intersectional work performed by these fields of power—in two separate historical moments.
Furthermore, Ligon’s appropriated, reworked image excavates the historical centrality of queerness—of twinned homoeroticism and homophobia—to racial oppression at large. Eric Lott identifies this dialectic as the basis of minstrelsy, and also as a chief reason for the failure of “a possible interracial labor alliance” in the nineteenth century—a failure whose implications lingered long into the twentieth century. (Memphis’s political leaders, after all, refused to recognize the sanitation workers as members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the standoff only ended when the city finally conceded such recognition.) To my eyes, the specter of this dialectic, of this lost promise, haunts the Ligon painting. The work’s formal elements even record this fissure: oil and enamel mixed together results in surface cracks.
But what I also see in Untitled (I Am a Man) are the cracks, as it were, in today’s historical moment, in which the presence and power of a black man in the White House has spurred thinly veiled racialized opposition in the form of the tea party movement and persistent questions about a putatively missing birth certificate. Interestingly enough, the Obamas, perhaps in a gesture to their pathbreaking role, picked a Ligon to adorn their private quarters. A part of the same series that includes the Hurston quotations, Black Like Me No. 2 (1992) foregrounds a line from John Howard Griffin’s 1961 memoir Black Like Me, about the white author’s experience of darkening his skin and traveling the South as a “black” person. “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence,” the canvas reads—a lesson about how flimsy the notion of racial essentialism, and a politics based on it, is.