Weems presented her lecture “A History of Violence—Heave” at Emory University’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium in 2019 where she also discussed her struggle as a woman of so many identities. I sat three rows from the first, keenly aware of my heartbeat in my ears. Ahead of me, Weems strode onto the stage like a rockstar in sensible gray and black. If you asked me to recite direct quotations from Weems’ speech, I would unfortunately disappoint. Invigorated by her presence, her choice of dress, the humble, ardent air of her, her likeness to my mom, and every other formidable black woman I know, I quickly lost track of her words but now feel well-acquainted with the mannerisms of her, with her attitude. I could tell you how her tone never meets hostile, how her hands dance to the sound of speech. My conversation with Weems sits in my memory bank as a blur, but my senses still recall her soft voice and calloused hands. After delivering an exasperated slew of compliments and niceties, Weems replied “Thank you.” Devoid of pandering or condescension, her simple expression of gratitude conveyed the graciousness I recognize in all black women.
Carrie Mae Weems birthed The Kitchen Table series in 1989. I first experienced Weems’ photography as a junior in high school. My perception of life was just expanding to accommodate art and creation. A chance encounter with Weems’ work occurred in art class and our relationship quickly blossomed into full-fledged devotion.
I recognized The Kitchen Table Series without having ever really utilized my own childhood kitchen table. I remember it in a distant way, always present but never included. My family avoided the dining room entirely unless for special occasions or one of my mother’s famed dinner parties. Nevertheless, Weems’ collection invokes a sense of jamais vu to myself and the general black collective. The series sees and reflects a narrative with too many voices to count by effectively rendering scenes shared amongst a multi-faceted people. Weems’ work feels representative of the elusive solidarity or like physical manifestations of the phrase, I feel you. Despite sizable discrepancies between black relations, Weems captures black familial dynamics, black social norms, black matrimony, and black relationships throughout her work but specifically in The Kitchen Table Series.
Weems’ work feels representative of the elusive solidarity or like physical manifestations of the phrase, I feel you.
Weems depicts how a congregation in shared space plays a role within black familial dynamics. Likewise, Weems encapsulates the simultaneous lack of access to emotion and excess emotion prevalent in black social circles. Centuries of muffling our oppression so as not to appear ungrateful or aggressive lead to an evolutionary predisposition to emotional inhibition. Therefore, socialization remains a joyous hardship to navigate. In Weems’ series, persuasive positions of the black body represent how body language influences our social skills and specific brand of matrimony. In Weems’ images of her self and a male colleague posed as her husband, I hear phrases like I could kill you and I could love you more than myself in the drape of an arm over a head, in the dark figure in the background, with a side angle of the eyes. Black people have mastered a completely unique way of relationship-ing—of holding space and time with another person or persons, of absolute exposure of the self to another. I bear witness to this truth in my own relationships with the black people around me—family, friends, and mentors—who tirelessly labor through a society unavailable to leave us room.
Photos courtesy of AC Coquillas and carriemaeweems.net.