Dismantling the Power of Systemic Racism—Symbolically and Literally

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Paul Rucker collects historical artifacts of racism, which influences his art.  (All images by Ryan Stevenson, except  bio photo, which is a screen shot from from Paul Rucker’s TED Talk.)


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Paul Rucker is a visual artist, composer, and musician who often combines media, integrating live performance, sound, original compositions, and visual art. His work is the product of a rich interactive process, through which he investigates community impacts, human rights issues, historical research, and basic human emotions surrounding particular subject matter. Much of his current work focuses on the Prison Industrial Complex and the many issues accompanying incarceration in its relationship to slavery. He has presented performances and visual art exhibitions across the country and has collaborated with educational institutions to address the issue of mass incarceration. Presentations have taken place in schools, active prisons and also inactive prisons such as Alcatraz.

His largest installation to date, REWIND, garnered praise from Baltimore Magazine, which awarded Paul “Best Artist 2015.” Additionally, REWIND received “Best Solo Show 2015” and “#1 Art Show of 2015” from Baltimore City Paper, reviews by The Huffington Post, Artnet News, Washington Post, The Root, and The Real News Network.  Rucker has received numerous grants, awards, and residencies for visual art and music. He is a 2012 Creative Capital Grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 and 2018 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) Fund Grantee for performance. In 2015 he received a prestigious Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant as well as the Mary Sawyer Baker Award. In 2016 Paul received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship and the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, for which he is the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American Culture.

Residencies include MacDowell Colony, Blue Mountain Center, Ucross Foundation, Art OMI, Banff Centre, Pilchuck Glass School, Rauschenberg Residency, Joan Mitchell Residency, Hemera Artist Retreat, Air Serembe, Creative Alliance, and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy.  In 2013-2015, he was the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Artist in Residence and Research Fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

He was most recently awarded a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2018 TED Fellowship, and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation and Artist Trust.

Rucker’s work is currently featured at the new Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University in its inaugural exhibition, Declaration.

Paul Rucker is an iCubed Visiting Arts Fellow embedded at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University.  

From Paul Rucker’s TED Talk, which gained 250,000 views within 24 hours of being posted this June. 

I collect objects. I collect branding irons that were used to mark slaves as property. I collect shackles for adults and restraints for adults as well as children. I collect lynching postcards. Yes, they depict lynchings. They also depict the massive crowds that attended these lynchings, and they are postcards that were also used for correspondence. I collect pro-slavery books that portray black people as criminals or as animals without souls.

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I brought you something today. This is a ship’s branding iron. It was used to mark slaves. Well, they actually were not slaves when they were marked. They were in Africa. But they were marked with an “S” to designate that they were going to be slaves when they were brought to the US and when they were brought to Europe.



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Another object or image that captured my imagination when I was younger was a Klan robe. Growing up in South Carolina, I would see Ku Klux Klan rallies occasionally, actually more than occasionally, and the memories of those events never really left my mind. And I didn’t really do anything with that imagery until 25 years later. A few years ago, I started researching the Klan, the three distinct waves of the Klan, the second one in particular. The second wave of the Klan had more than five million active members, which was five percent of the population at the time, which was also the population of New York City at the time. The Klan robe factory in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia was so busy it became a 24-hour factory to keep up with orders. They kept 20,000 robes on hand at all time to keep up with the demand. As a collector of artifacts and as an artist, I really wanted a Klan robe to be part of my collection, because artifacts and objects tell stories, but I really couldn’t find one that was really good quality. What is a black man to do in America when he can’t find the quality Klan robe that he’s looking for?


So I had no other choice. I decided I was going to make the best quality Klan robes in America. These are not your traditional Klan robes you would see at any KKK rally. I used kente cloth, I used camouflage, spandex, burlap, silks, satins and different patterns. I make them for different age groups; I make them for young kids as well as toddlers. I even made one for an infant.

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After making so many robes, I realized that the policies the Klan had in place or wanted to have in place a hundred years ago are in place today. We have segregated schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and it’s not the people wearing hoods that are keeping these policies in place. My work is about the long-term impact of slavery. We’re not just dealing with the residue of systemic racism. It’s the basis of every single thing we do. Again we have intentionally segregated neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. We have voter suppression. We have disproportionate representation of minorities incarcerated. We have environmental racism. We have police brutality.

I brought you a few things today. The stealth aspect of racism is part of its power. When you’re discriminated against, you can’t always prove you’re being discriminated against. Racism has the power to hide, and when it hides, it’s kept safe because it blends in. I created this robe to illustrate that.

The basis of capitalism in America is slavery. Slaves were the capital in capitalism. The first Grand Wizard in 1868, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was a Confederate soldier and a millionaire slave trader. The wealth that was created from chattel slavery—that’s slaves as property—would boggle the mind. Cotton sales alone in 1860 equalled 200 million dollars. That would equal five billion dollars today. A lot of that wealth can be seen today through generational wealth. Oh, I forgot the other crops as well. You have indigo, rice and tobacco.

In 2015, I made one robe a week for the entire year. After making 75 robes, I had an epiphany. I have a realization that white supremacy is there, but the biggest force of white supremacy is not the KKK, it’s the normalization of systemic racism. There was something else I realized. The robes had no more power over me at all. But if we as a people collectively look at these objects— branding irons, shackles, robes—and realize that they are part of our history, we can find a way to where they have no more power over us. If we look at systemic racism and acknowledge that it’s sown into the very fabric of who we are as a country, then we can actually do something about the intentional segregation in our schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. But then and only then can we actually address and confront this legacy of slavery and dismantle this ugly legacy of slavery.

Thank you very much.