Driskell’s trip was made possible by an idiosyncratic bit of legal acrobatics on the part of South Africa’s white authorities. He was officially classified as an “honorary white,” exempting him from the crueler aspects of race laws at the time. This act of involuntary classification, which he met with “revulsion” and “disgust” at the time, was the fulcrum for his keynote.
“Too often we succumb to being named by others without consent,” he stated. “The act of naming someone without their consent or approval leads to their dehumanization.” Naming, he added, is a potent exercise in power. “What if we are called a wrong name?” he asked. “Too often we have become accustomed to being named by others, and often without retort.” He recalled the “enormous history of naming” he had passed through, from being classified “Negro” and “Colored” to, latterly, African and African-American. “I am proud to own all of them.”
Earlier in the day, New York-based theater scholar Awam Amkpa, who helped organize “Black Portraiture[s] III,” described the event as bringing together interested people “to address and redress questions about our states of being.” Quoting author Toni Morrison, he added: “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” The invocation of Morrison was matched by words from Patrick Gaspard, U.S. ambassador to South Africa, who referenced the novelist Ralph Ellison and activist Steve Biko.
Gaspard was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He started his professional career as a campaigner for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid and has held several offices under Barack Obama. Clearly aware of the febrile atmosphere among the visiting Americans, Gaspard wryly joked about whether the U.S. Department of State would sponsor a black portraitures conference in the future. His remark drew a resigned laugh.
But the ambassador’s mood was not cowed by recent events in the U.S. He spoke of the legacies of segregation and racism shared by South Africa and the U.S., echoing Noam Chomsky who, shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential victory, noted “doctrines of white supremacy have had an even more powerful grip on American culture than in South Africa.”