Carrie Mae Weems, A Single’s Waltz in Time, 2003. Gelatin silver print, triptych, 20 × 20 in. each. Photograph from the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Carrie Mae Weems.
Weems seems to refer to the women of this third caste in a triptych of images, A Single’s Waltz in Time. Framed within the luxurious interior space of another plantation mansion and once again dressed in calico, Weems dances barefoot with mournful grace. For once, she faces the viewer, then spins around, defiantly commanding the room, and intensifies this gesture of claiming the space by capturing it in the lens of her camera. The parlor was a fraught area in traditional southern society. It bespoke class privilege and was the particular site wherein white women demonstrated their social power over Black bodies.
A ghost figure dances through the parlor at Nottoway Plantation. The mansion was built for the Virginia-born sugar planter John Hampden Randolph, an interloper who installed himself among the wealthiest of New Orleans, intent, after the Louisiana Purchase, on forging a new American identity in the formerly French colonial landscape. In 1857, Randolph engaged Henry Howard, an Irish craftsman who apprenticed with architecture firms in New York and New Orleans to become a leading local architect (and, as such, exemplary of how white labor functioned in the plantation economy). Howard partnered with another immigrant, Albert Diettel, a German mason and engineer, who also worked his way from New York to New Orleans. The two made drawings and plans according to Randolph’s specifications, resulting in a massively proportioned Greek-Revival-Italianate design to compete with John Andrews’s neighboring mansion Belle Grove, completed that same year. Randolph’s highly ornate double parlor, known as “the ballroom,” staged debutante dances and served as the venue for the weddings of his five daughters.5
Is Weems’s barefoot, dancing form the unacknowledged Black Creole mistress, the “chambermaid, the whore” of A Distant View, who now stakes her claim to a place within the house? Here, Weems is suggesting the subtle and not-so-subtle social bondage of the systems of plaçage and enslavement. The “chambermaid, the whore” is specifically she who, by dint of race and class, cannot have social privilege in the public domestic sphere of the parlor. Her exclusion from this social space is made tangible by a structure emphasizing the white supremacist vision of so-called Western cultural superiority. These are architectural spaces of grief where women of African descent inhabit a realm entrapped within the white cultural dream of a life free from toil and care. Wealthy white women do not labor in parlors; they preside. The parlor signifies heavily in southern cultural practices where young white women were celebrated, and introduced to their peers and potential suitors, for example. The parlor is the space of utmost entertainment, where white families showed their wealth and dominion in a space they in fact shared with laboring Black enslaved people. Weems’s period garment places her in the realm of the woman of African descent whose body is constrained and unfree in white-dominated architectural spaces. Her witness figure here portrays both the enslaved woman of African descent and the Creole mistress.6
The dance, in this triptych, is a mournful declaration of freedom, the freedom of a Black female body to move to its own rhythm and desire, to lay claim to the space of the parlor that is a showpiece of white supremacy. The figure in the mantel painting, its head occluded by the sumptuous chandelier, stands blindly. And though that figure cannot see Weems’s dance, Weems nonetheless commandeers the hearth space in the sight line of the camera. The high ceilings and ornate molding convey the building’s impassive neoclassical aesthetic in contrast to the dancer’s expressive posture.
In further photographs, Weems compares the antebellum architectures pristinely preserved in twenty-first-century New Orleans with constructions from other periods in the city’s history. In In the Abyss, she faces a housing project built in the late 1930s as a federally funded response to homelessness and unsanitary Depression-era living conditions. These low-rise brick superblocks were initially intended for whites but were opened up to African Americans after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The hope they signaled for better accommodation dissolved rapidly into the racialized categories of segregation, discrimination, poverty, crime, and neglect, disenfranchising and trapping African Americans once again.7
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