When I saw Edgar Arceneaux’s installation at the Henry Gallery on the UW campus, the image of Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin came to mind immediately. Before I could digest, wonder or analyze that thought, Donald Trump’s slatted fence popped into my head. There was no way I could have known what I was doing exactly—what did the artist Arceneaux want me to do upon viewing his work? James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom came to mind. No one can read each of the more than 15,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln, but the longtime Gettysburg bookstore employee did not hesitate to tell me McPherson’s book is the best one book there is on the Civil War, the Civil War book with the most truths I have seen.
Then I walked around to the cabin entrance. Suddenly I stopped as I viewed the walls, looking like mirrors, covered with Mylar. Reflections and shadows filled the little space occupied with shelves of books. I was glad no one was behind me, as I must have been standing in one place at least three minutes when I remembered the introduction to the exhibit explains that the inside of the cabin is not a maze “which is designed to disorient,” but a labyrinth that is “circuitous but ultimately leads to a center, and is intended to be a vehicle of spirituality, a meditative journey mapped into the bodily experience.” Arceneaux wants a visitor to get out but simultaneously leave with truths that may be new, truths that contradict what the visitor “knows” about a book, a book of lies, lies that may not have been known at the publication of the book.
Most of the “books” are unread newspapers dipped in black acrylic paint. Despite newspaper editors routinely apologizing for errors that appeared in their papers, many lies are not retracted; other retractions appear buried in the paper though the subject might have been first-page news; still other untruths appear unwittingly. The papers printed thus spread lies.
Emmett Till’s accuser admitting sixty-two years later that Till had not insulted her and she had “no idea they [husband and friends] would harm him;” she wanted not to work in the store. The Groveland Four were accused of a crime in 1949, and then exonerated posthumously in 2017. A rape victim misidentified Steve Titus as the criminal; a year later The Seattle Times investigative reporter Paul Henderson proved the convicted Titus innocent, framed by policeman Ronald Parker who manipulated the timeline of the crime. I remembered the case and Titus’ name, but I was sure he drove a blue Mustang not a Chevette as the fact-check stated. One article says the police officer that fabricated evidence died six months after the case; another said a year later. I remember a quotation one way, but checking shows it somewhat different: a lie can travel around the world before the truth can put on its pants—the quote, or some version of it, is attributed to several persons, and some speakers use halfway around the world and shoes! Some of these lies are intentional; others are not.
Arceneaux takes the adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” to extremes. Legitimate titles lie next to his trumped-up titles. Titles are sometimes obscured by being partially covered, often with crystals of sugar reminiscent of candy some of us love. The content may have been true as far as authors and some readers knew at the time of publication. Titles are partially covered although the literate of a certain age can most likely guess them. Wart Debt and Fart Poverty, or Rene De’Cart rather than Michel Foucault as author of Discourse on Madness may momentarily, at least, startle. One shelf holds a stack of books on Bill Cosby, for instance. Are books written on Cosby before his sexual assault convictions lies? I did not think award-winning “The Cosby Show” reruns should be removed from television. Also present is a set of The Bible Story. John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom and Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness have a place.
The exhibit is Library of BLACK Lies; it makes me think of the many lies so many of us have been told and, worse, believe. Genocide and slavery always come to mind when I think of lies, how they were the norm for such a long time in this country. It took years before I understood “Manifest Destiny” is a huge lie. I wonder how many people in the United States know how many Mexicans were living in what became the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
I can’t help wondering what Nazis were taught. What are Neo-Nazis taught? How can someone say the Holocaust is a lie? What would Lyndon B. Johnson say about his generals and Vietnam? Remember Trump’s comments about the five black and Latino young men accused of raping the jogger in Central Park—and then exonerated? I hear some folks say Sandy Hook never happened. Have you heard Michelle Obama talk about her feelings when Donald Trump so often said Barack Obama was born in Kenya? How many people have been killed, are being killed because of weapons of mass destruction? Who hears the lies? Who believes the lies? Who acts because of the lies? Who suffers because of the lies?
We are born with no prejudices. We learn, sometimes directly, but more often, indirectly. We sometimes knowingly and unknowingly pass the prejudices to others. All of us feel pain, some more than others. Be careful. Know that every person nor every thing trusted and believed in is not necessarily true; regardless of the amount of time you have “known the truth.” It certainly may not be true for all time, says Arceneaux. My friend’s statement at the bottom of each of his emails says, “Half of the facts you read on the Internet are untrue.” –Abraham Lincoln.
Arceneaux is preoccupied with duality, usually truth on one side and lies on the other. Unlike Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Arceneaux’s exhibit, though it leads us to a center, puts us on guard, makes us examine everything, leaves little space for our accepting anything. Lies told to one person or group are invariably on another person or group and, therefore, may be more harmful than the perpetrator could ever imagine or, worse, may be exactly what is wanted. The less information we have, the more precarious our stance. Though the optimist in me hates this, the realist recognizes and acknowledges what Arceneaux’s exhibit says.
Henry Art Gallery at the UW
Mon & Tue: closed. Wed & Fri–Sun: 11am–4pm. Thurs: 11am–9pm. Free admission for Henry members, faculty and staff, students, and children. $10 general admission, $6 Seniors (62+). Free admission Sundays and first Thursday.