Ligon’s painting refers to French writer Jean Genet’s 1986 memoir, Prisoner of Love. “In white America,” Genet writes, “the Blacks are the characters in which history is written. They are the ink that gives the white page a meaning.” Genet, a white man who publicly protested racial inequality and police brutality in the 1960s and ’70s alongside the Black Panther Party, chose these words to speak on behalf of his African American comrades.
Ligon personalizes the text by changing Genet’s outsider designation “they” to “we.” His invocation of a collective “we” may also echo the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Ligon then stenciled the phrase repeatedly with black oil stick, which incrementally clogged the stencil and smudged the painting’s surface. From top to bottom, his words became more and more illegible, gradually collapsing the process of reading into seeing.