Deana Lawson’s Kingdom of Restored Glory. By Zadie Smith / The New Yorker

Deana Lawson. “Nikki’s Kitchen” (2015). The New Yorker.

Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.

“Imagine a goddess. Envision a queen. Her skin is dark, her hair is black. Anointed with Jergens lotion, she possesses a spectacular beauty. Around her lovely wrist winds a simple silver band, like two rivers meeting at a delta. Her curves are ideal, her eyes narrowed and severe; the fingers of her right hand signal an army, prepared to follow wherever she leads. Is this the goddess of fertility? Of wisdom? War? No doubt she’s divine—we have only to look at her to see that. Yet what is a goddess doing here, before these thin net curtains? What relation can she possibly have to that cheap metal radiator, the chipped baseboards, the wonky plastic blinds? Where is her kingdom, her palace, her worshippers? Has there been some kind of mistake?

Examining Deana Lawson’s “Sharon” (2007), a black viewer may find the confusion of her earliest days reënacted. Before you’d heard of slavery and colonialism, of capitalism and subjection, of islands and mainlands, of cities and ghettos, when all you had to orient yourself was what was visually available to you; that is, what was in front of your eyes. And what a strange sight confronts the black child! The world seems upside down and back to front. For your own eyes tell you that your people, like all people, are marvellous. That they are—like all human beings—beautiful, creative, godlike. Yet, as a child, you couldn’t find many of your gods on the television or in books; they were rarely rendered in oil, encountered on the cinema screen or in the pages of your children’s Bible. Sometimes, in old reruns, you might spot people painted up, supposedly to look like your gods—with their skin blackened and their lips huge and red—but the wise black child pushed such toxic, secondary images to the back of her mind. Instead, she placed her trust in reality. But here, too, she found her gods walking the neighborhood unnoticed and unworshipped. Many of them appeared to occupy lowly positions on a ladder whose existence she was only just beginning to discern. There were, for example, many low-wage gods behind the counters at the fast-food joints, and mostly gods seemed to shine shoes and clean floors, and too many menial tasks altogether appeared to fall only to them. Passing the newsstand, she might receive her first discomforting glimpse of the fact that the jail cells were disproportionately filled with gods, while in the corridors of power they rarely set a foot. Only every now and then did something make sense: a god was recognized. There’s little Michael Jackson and grand Toni Morrison, and, look, that’s James Baldwin growing old in France, and beautiful Carl Lewis, faster than Hermes himself. The kinds of gods so great even the blind can see them. But back at street level? Too many gods barely getting by, or crowded into substandard schools and crumbling high-rise towers, or harassed by police intent on clearing Olympus of every deity we have. And, for a long, innocent moment, everything about this arrangement will seem surreal to the black child, distorted, like a message that has somehow been garbled in the delivery. Then language arrives, and with language history, and with history the Fall.”

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