Saturday, May 29, 2021

When a Card Isn’t Just a Card: A Lesson in a Lexicon of Racism

I am fascinated by playing cards and their symbolism. I recently felt inspired to make a painting with a woman playing cards with us, the viewer, and at the same time doling out our fate. A real woman, and a quasi-super-natural element of fate at the same time.

©lesliepetersonsapp Queen of Diamonds
But which card? Obviously, a Queen. Which suit? Which suit would pack the most amount of symbolic punch?
I started to research the four card suits and any symbolic meanings that might be associated with them. I was especially enjoying The Queen of Spades. In cartomancy she is supposed to represent a woman who is intelligent and strategic. She is also featured in a book by Pushkin and an opera by Tchaikovsky. Sometimes she is called The Black Madonna, Black Maria, or The Black Lady, and is considered a powerful, “unlucky” card. In Hearts and Old Maid, she has the power to end the game. There is a variant of Seven Card Stud Poker where she is featured called “The Bitch”. In Pinochle she and The Jack of Diamonds make a significant hand, boding doom for one’s opponent. I thought she would be the perfect candidate for this femme fatale, this goddess of chaos I was dreaming up. I was even considering making a companion piece called The Jack of Diamonds.

But my curiosity led me on an unexpected journey.

Way back in 1998 I saw the movie Bulworth. In it there is a scene where the main character, played by Warren Beatty, says to an audience full of African Americans “Let’s call a spade a spade” and the crowd erupted with indignation. Ever since then I have passively wondered about that and I thought now was the time to look up the phrase. 

It turns out it has evolved into a racial slur. 

The evolution of the phrase is fascinating. It used to mean “call it like it is”. It comes from an ancient Greek saying "to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough."  Which is in itself a sexual double entendre- get it? Figs? Troughs? (Never mind. It seems like everything back then was a sexual double entendre.) 

In an evolution that I only vaguely understand, the phrase was translated from Greek to Latin, from Latin to English. Note that during this time the term “spade” was still referring to gardens and gardening tools. 

During the Harlem Renaissance it started to be used by Black authors to refer to “Blackness” and also to playing cards. Terms like “Black as the ace of spades” started to be used (possibly an expression of “colorism” in the Black community). But then, like so many things, it got appropriated by white authors and evolved into a derogatory term. 

So, what about my new main character as The Queen of Spades? Well, it gets worse. The term “queen of spades” has evolved (or devolved) even further to refer to white women who fetishize Black men. I don’t mean date or marry or love a Black man, I mean sexually fetishize Black men, often in company with their white male partners. This is dual objectification; of the Black man, and of the white woman. It is a particularly ugly form of racism.

Out of my ignorance, I almost walked face first into a racially charged image. 

Imagine that. Imagine I had not seen Bulworth all those years ago, had not remembered the term, had not decided to search Wikipedia for the phrase, had not done an additional google search specifically about The Queen of Spades. I would have made a piece of art featuring a sexy, very white woman, (white because I was thinking about the white of the playing card and wanting the painting to have echoes of that) and called it The Queen of Spades. What is doubly alarming is that I had been musing about completing that Pinochle hand by painting The Jack of Diamonds, and arbitrarily creating him as a Black man. 

All completely unaware. 

I have gone through my life submerged in whiteness and white culture, to the extent to where there is a racial slur, I might not even know about it or see it for what it is. 

Some people might say that I am being overly precious, too “PC” or too “sensitive”. Furthermore, it might be said that many people don’t know about this particular racial slur, so why would it matter? But one of the values I hold is to be respectful of all people as much as possible. In order to do that, I need to learn about when I might be doing or saying something that is racist, because racism does harm. Period. It is important because even if I don’t intend to be racist, it doesn’t mean I haven’t caused racial harm. 

Not only that, my audience is wide and varied, and I want everyone who interacts with my art to be able to relate to it- or at least not feel disrespected or hurt. 

So, it was a simple matter of rethinking my metaphors. Away from the stormy waters of the suit of spades and toward the equally intriguing subjects of Love and Money. Love with The Queen of Hearts, and money with the heartless Queen of Diamonds. In fact, I turned it to my advantage by creating an engaging online poll in my social media communities, asking my fans to vote on which suit, hearts or diamonds would best represent my newest femme fatale. The Queen of Hearts got a good showing, The Queen of Diamonds was the undisputed winner. 

So, The Queen of Diamonds, she is.

To read a good article about the evolution of these terms, visit Code Switch from NPR

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