Shortly after completing a course in post-colonial modern art at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, I find myself increasingly confronted by billboards around my Oakland, neighborhood for what purports to be the “Biggest Sale Ever.” Perhaps they’re just now popping up. Perhaps I’m just now noticing them. I normally ignore billboards, but these refuse to be ignored, partially because of what seems like strategic and frequent placement around freeway and mass transit routes and at intersections that I tend to pass regularly; but mostly because of the image. What seems like the entire left-most third of these billboards is filled with a massive head-and-shoulders photograph of a white woman screaming hysterically, or it might be more accurate to say screaming “orgasmically”--purportedly on encountering the “Biggest Sale Ever.”
Once again, normally, I would simply chuckle, shake my head, genuflect, murmur a devout “God bless America,” and let it pass. But like I said, these billboards seem to be popping up everywhere. Maybe the store is launching a major promotion. The real reason that I just can’t let it pass is that the slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is still reverberating in my head. The streets upon which I am encountering this billboard are also streets that I associate with that slogan, which is perhaps why the “whiteness” of this screaming woman seems to stand out so sharply. Like the “White Fang” and “Black Tooth” dog puppets in the old Soupy Sales television show, I find myself asking no one in particular, “What do we mean by that?”
I went to the store’s website and found the “Biggest Sale Ever” tagline, but with an innocuous image of a cavorting family. I also noticed online that the store appears to have no locations in Oakland, so the billboards are no doubt placed to catch the eyes of commuters passing through Oakland to neighborhoods that have such stores. I don’t mention the name of the store here because what I’m really reflecting on is what that piece of art (commercial art granted, but still art) says to me—both in the streets where I encounter the billboards, and in the still reverberating context of “Black Lives Matter.”
Having grown up in the second half of the twentieth century with the constant racial lampooning of radio, television and film, my first sort-of serious thought concerning this image was bitterly cynical: “Okay, real funny. So she’s just run into the biggest Negro she’s ever seen, real funny, ha, ha, ha.” As gross as that may sound now, the Hollywood film industry literally grew out of such portrayals, and not just for comedies. The second sort-of serious consideration, a bit more up-to-date, is that she’s screaming hysterically because “Black-Lives-Matter” protestors have interrupted her shopping trip to the mall during, you guessed it, the “Biggest Sale Ever.” The third and serious-to-the-point-of-wincing consideration was that the importation of enslaved Africans to the Americas may have been the “Biggest Sale Ever.” Shortly after that came the realization that led me to write this blog post: everything I’ve said so far essentially seems to fit, for me anyway, under the perhaps excessively cynical banner of “So what else is new?”
What struck me over all of the above-stated considerations was the power of the image. A human being is screaming with such intensity that it is impossible to definitively associate the facial expression with joy, fear, anger, or grief. The ethnicity or gender or perhaps even the age of that human being is ultimately irrelevant. What if the text next to that image in these streets were to scream: “Life Matters!” instead of “Biggest Sale Ever.”? What if the human hearts behind the resources for that sort of advertising felt overpoweringly moved to pepper the nation with billboards screaming hysterically that “It’s time to start investing in schools instead of prisons!” “It’s time to start investing in community healing instead of community surveillance!” “It’s time to start investing in peace instead of war, both at home and abroad!”?
That’s it. That’s the whole blog post. I needed to get that out of my system. Underneath my bitterly cynical analyses is a deep sadness. It seems as if such intensity of expression, so powerfully broadcast, should somehow move human hearts. Right! I know. It’s a billboard, just an advertisement. Get over it. Yeah, I know how to do that part, and am about to do just that.
But first, just like the artist who created that billboard image, I’ve got an image to create and share here as well. It’s an image of sadness lurking behind that screaming image that conveys a sense of loss, loss of something intangible that perhaps never existed but seems as if it should have existed, even if it didn’t. Underneath that sadness, however, lies a hope or perhaps an unshakeable faith that what seems to have been lost does exist and just needs to wake up. If the goodhearted woman in that image manages to scream loud enough, maybe we will all wake up and start screaming for healing, not just for ourselves but for everyone—for every individual, family, and community across the entire globe—screaming with the level of intensity expressed in that image, with a level of intensity that actually moves us to bring about the "biggest healing ever," because that will be the only way to make things quiet enough for any of us to get any rest.
That’s why I wrote this. Now that I’ve figured out why she’s screaming like that and have shared my new found sense of understanding, I’m over it. Have a good day. Life matters.