Francis Newton Souza’s Negro in Mourning is a highly expressionistic portrait of the Black Man painted in 1957, a year before the Notting Hill race riots in London. A revelatory work that displays the artist’s acute understanding of racial discrimination. Negro in Mourning is a timeless reflection of the ongoing deadly history of racism.
In honour of her late father, Shelley Souza meditates on the artist's words and art – knowing if he were here, in this watershed moment of Black Lives Matter, he would use the ferocity of his words and lines to capture worldwide protests calling for radical change in policing and racial inequality of Black lives around the world.
I n 1958, I was seven, my father F.N. Souza was thirty-four, we were both young, and we both had brown skin. My father's was dark, my mother’s was fair, I fell in the middle like baby bear. Racial tensions had been simmering in London since the end of the Second World War. African-Caribbeans recruited to rebuild the badly bombed city were seen as Black interlopers coming to steal housing and jobs from people with white skin. When the Notting Hill race riots broke out that summer, I was living with my mother in nearby Holland Villas Road. My parents had separated by then. My father was living in Belsize Park. If the Indians who emigrated to England after Independence had been recruited to rebuild the city instead of working in textile and service industries outside London, would the riots have occurred? Do White people see brown skin differently from black? Is racism all one colour? My father grappled with such questions in his writings and art.
"Although I wasn't involved in any unpleasantness over skin colour and have never been, prejudice is a fact of life. Being born in India I know better. But the black man, the negro, had the worst of it. In fact, it was in London that I became aware of this black-white discrimination. Much of it had to do with sex. It was dangerous for a black man, a negro, to be seen with a white woman!"1
Anti-Blackness2 calls to the urgency of understanding the historical segregation of brown skin and black. It illuminates why it's possible for brown skin to be subject to racism but for black skin to be subject to death. Why the Black man, the Negro, is feared and reviled for his very existence. My father understood these distinctions when he wrote he was subject to prejudice but an observer of black-white discrimination.3 He experienced racism. He witnessed Anti-Black.4 "Negro in Mourning is close to the bone of man because it is about the colour of skin."5 It is an elegiac poem in paint that portrays the Negro's anguish to be seen as fully human – a right that's denied him in life for no other reason than the colour of skin.
I n 1991, a video of Rodney King's beating by Los Angeles police ricocheted around the world. A beating, unabated for fifteen minutes, with side-handle batons that dealt 56 blows to his body and head. It haunted the news cycle for weeks. My father painted Growing Unrest.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote: "The grainy 1990s video of the incident went media-viral, inducing shock and dismay to any viewer. But I wasn’t shocked at all. Based on what I already knew of the world, my first thought was, 'We finally got one of those on tape.' Followed by, 'Maybe justice will be served this time.' Yes, that’s precisely my first thought."6
The Black community waited patiently for the outcome of the trial, confident of a just verdict. A year later on 29 April 1992, the four officers who had beaten King within an inch of his life walked free. Los Angeles erupted in flames. Living in East Hollywood at that time, I was unaware of the verdict as my usual shortcut along Florence Avenue from the I-5 came into view. At that moment, a voice in my head said: stay on the interstate. But for that intuition, I would have driven into the maelstrom of rioters beating Reginald Denny.7 Los Angeles went into a full-blown lockdown.8
I f my father were alive, he'd be tickled (his go-word for delight in things new) to meet Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is both popular and scientific. They'd talk of the cosmos and the colour of skin, how close they both are to heaven and earth.
Like the Call and the Antiphon their voices would weave in and out:
My father would read from his autobiography Words & Lines9: "After observing with wonder the infinite skies as far as possible with naked eyes ... you ask me to fix what I saw as well as what I know of the unknown infinite in writing! ... What I do know of the infinite is merely from popular science, not from scientists. But without being discouraged I go down to my studio and put a dot on a small piece of paper and I say to you: 'Here you are, I have reduced the cosmos to a point. This dot is infinite. Do you see my point?'"
And Neil deGrasse Tyson would respond: "I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the Universe is in us. I look up ... I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There's a level of connectivity. That's really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That's precisely what we are, just by being alive."10
Then my father would say: "When I begin to paint I am wrapped in myself; rapt; unaware of chromium cars and décolleté debutantes, wrapped like a fetus in the womb, only aware that each painting for me is either a milestone or tombstone."11
And Neil deGrasse Tyson would reply: "I hardly ever think about the colour of my skin. It never comes up when contemplating the cosmos. Yet when I exit my front door I’m a crime suspect."12
O n 25 May 2020, a White police officer knelt on the neck of a Black man for 8 minutes 46 seconds. A Black man was lynched in a Minneapolis street for no other reason than the colour of skin. The colour of skin is not just a Negro in Mourning. It's all of us mourning. Anti-Blackness is as close to the bone as it ever was. So much appears to have changed but so little has.
"Ecce Homo," Pontius Pilate told the crowd after Christ had been scourged and crowned with thorns. "Behold the Man." The crowd didn't care. It wanted the Man dead.
In his ninth hour of agony, hanging, nailed to the Cross, Christ felt abandoned by everyone, including God. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? he cried out. "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
Ecce Maurus. "Behold the Black Man." As George Floyd lay dying in agony, his airway crushed under a White man's knee, with his last breaths he gasped: "Mama ... They'll kill me ... I can't breathe."
For my father, F.N. Souza. For his faith in his art, which he never lost, his grit in sticking it out through thick and thin, and his commitment to create the new. It is miraculous thing to follow one's heart to the very end and never regret having done so.
And for All Black Lives. For until we can say, All Black Lives Matter, we cannot say, all lives matter.