Essays

The Black Shape Slumped in a Chair

Kerry James Marshall and the Taliesin murders

Aisha Sabatini Sloan
Illustration of fluid black shapes and chairs by Laura Padilla Castellanos
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

In a youtube tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin home Taliesin, pronounced “Tally-ESS-in,” a guide named Keiran Murphy explains that the architect “broke the box of architecture” when he built the estate. As she makes her way to the porte-cochère, the revamped carport, I am disturbed by the sight of a black shape slumped in a chair. The chair has been taped off—it’s clear no one is allowed to sit there.

After watching the scene several times to wonder at the shape—a stuffed animal, maybe, or a discarded sweatshirt—I decide that it is probably a fur. But it has the vibe of a ghost, of the shadow of history—the slumped, deflated haint of America’s past. Especially when you consider what Keiran Murphy has not said about the house over the course of this tour.

The author William R. Drennan describes Taliesin’s loggia as “a stunning place, bordered on one side by a massive flower garden in full bloom and anchored at one end by a bubbling fountain and at the other by a stand of fine oaks.” On August 15, 1914, a Black servant named Julian Carlton chased a young white girl named Martha across the loggia and cleaved her skull with a hatchet.

Julian Carlton also killed the little girl’s brother and her mother, Mamah, who was Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress, in addition to several men who worked on the property. Witnesses say that one of these men, Emil Brodelle, had recently called Carlton “a Black son of a bitch.” Wright was out of town at the time of the massacre. After attacking several people with his hatchet, Carlton poured gasoline on the floor, put a match to the cascading sheet of it, and set the property on fire.


i only know about all this
because I have been looking at the paintings of Kerry James Marshall, in search of prisms. I have been thinking about the craft of writing while Black, and want to find a way to describe the impulse I have to refract—deflect?—(white) readers at the same time that I am trying to invite them in. Kerry James Marshall’s work has this quality about it. It both invites and deflects.

In search of literal prisms in his work, I reacquaint myself with a favorite of his paintings, 7am Sunday Morning. It’s an ordinary street scene involving, on the right-hand side, a giant blue hexagram, five small black hexagrams, diamonds of foggy light, an orange hexagram, and a faint yellow one—it’s like a soap bubble has floated past your eye, exploding half of the painting into shards of light.

I encounter his painting The Actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton Taliesin Murderer of Frank Lloyd Wright Family. This painting is a prism of sorts.

In the only existing photograph of Julian Carlton, who may have been from Barbados, or perhaps from Alabama, a young-seeming Black man in a collared shirt looks down and to the left of the frame. Instead of painting Julian Carlton, Kerry James Marshall invents a fictional actor to play the historical figure. This man, with light reflecting like two stars on either side of his coal-black forehead, looks down and to the left. He looks to the extreme left, not afraid to lean into the role. We are asked to project things on top of the figure, and inside the figure—stories, unseen others.


onli
ne, I find three men named Hezekiah Washington, all of them Black. One is a recently deceased man from Charleston, South Carolina. His beautiful big eyes gaze straight into the camera. The image of him, like that of Julian Carlton, is small and a bit blurred. Another Hezekiah Washington is a high school basketball player, No. 22 on a team in Wichita, Kansas; I watch him for a while as he runs up and down the court in his video highlight reel. The third is a twenty-one-year-old actor from San Antonio, Texas. He has a very sweet smile, a beard, and a sparse mustache. He looks toward the bottom left of the frame. According to his acting and modeling profile, he is hoping to find roles in feature films, theater, documentary films, and reality TV.

The website does not specify the admission rate for ghosts.

I have been playing a film in my head ever since I found these three Hezekiah Washingtons.

In this imagined film, or maybe it’s a reality TV show, the actor Hezekiah and the basketball player Hezekiah sign up for a tour at Taliesin. Probably the “complete Taliesin experience,” at ninety- five dollars, or ninety for students, seniors, and military. Both Hezekiah Washingtons calmly walk through the tour in character as Julian Carlton. The late Hezekiah Washington comes along as well to haunt the tour in his own way. The website does not specify the admission rate for ghosts.

I guess I’m curious to know how the guide would react. Would she notice? Or would she ignore it, like the weird shape on the chair, or the massacre in the room? Would she keep talking about how tickled she is that the 150-year-old Chinese carpet was cut to fit the room?


i know next to nothing
about prisms. According to Britannica.com, a prism is “useful for analyzing and reflecting light.” When I think about the prism in the context of an essay, the “light” is the reader’s gaze.

The definition continues: “An ordinary triangular prism can separate white light into its constituent colors, called a spectrum.” Marshall’s art does this. It admits the (white) gaze in, and fractures it.

Though his work sells for many millions of dollars, Marshall drives—or drove, according to a 2016 New York Times profile—a beige Toyota minivan “whose better days were well behind it.”

In an essay, Marshall declares an intention for his work that transcends financial success: “As the Japanese asserted, oitsuke, closing the distance, and oikose, overtaking white folks, thereby weakening white dominance, is the challenge we face.”


in mastry, a monograph about Kerry James Marshall’s work, opposite the Julian Carlton painting is a painting of Nat Turner. Marshall has featured Turner holding an ax. His left shoulder is pushed toward the viewer, and the bedroom behind him is bluish, as though moonlit. The room is in shambles. A door with a gash in the center has been knocked off of its hinges. A white head—according to the title, that of Turner’s master—has been placed, apart from its body, on a lacy, bloodied pillow.

In his essay “Mickalene’s Harem,” Marshall quotes author John Hailman, who recounts that Thomas Jefferson’s first memory was of “being carried on a pillow by a servant (slave).” Marshall writes, “That floating sensation he must have felt had to have been intoxicating. The slaves he inherited, and those he purchased, would keep him afloat until his dying day.”

In an interview, Marshall explains of the painting Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master, “You could show it in the act of beheading. I mean, you could do that. But that gets beside the point in a way.” He continues, “What I want is something that allows for a little more reflection on the totality of the event, not just an incident within the event.”

William R. Drennan notes that after the murders at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs “became markedly (and understandably) more insular, more labyrinthine, even more fortress-like.”


frank lloyd wright was born
in 1867. As a child, Taliesin was his favorite place to visit. The tour guide at Taliesin explains that his Welsh grandparents “settled” the land.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the United States government began to force Indigenous peoples to give up their claim to land in southern Wisconsin in 1804. A series of four “treaties,” all called “Prairie du Chien,” demarcated intertribal borders and forced various tribes—including the Council of Three Fires, Ho-Chunk, Sac and Fox, Sioux, Omaha, Menominee, Iowa, Otoe, and Missouria—to cede their land to the United States.

Taliesin was destroyed by fire twice. Both times Wright rebuilt it. He would use the same limestone from the former iteration of the home, which took on a red hue after being exposed to flame.

Not long before the murders, Frank Lloyd Wright looked out the window at Taliesin and watched a bolt of lightning kill his most expensive cow.

A Welsh poet by the name Taliesin once wrote, “I have been a tear in the air.”


i first saw an exhibition
of Kerry James Marshall’s work during the summer of 2017 in Los Angeles. A group of us were on the way home from Reykjavik. In Iceland we had driven from one waterfall to the next, where we stood next to hundreds of other people taking the same picture.

One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous works is a house called Fallingwater. The house, as you might imagine, is perched above a waterfall.

We are asked to complete the image, or at least to worry its edges, to feel unnerved by the specter of what he is or is not holding.

The tour guide at Taliesin tells a story about how Fallingwater came to be designed almost accidentally. Wright had not yet drawn up a blueprint when his client called to tell him that he was on his way over to his studio at Taliesin. Wright assembled his team to sketch something quickly, and the client loved it. The rest is history. This story is supposed to be, I think, a tale of genius in action.

But the smug I-woke-up-like-this vibe of it, the unnamed team of helpers, brings another thought to mind: What if Julian Carlton could have been not a servant but an architect?


the most immediately prismatic thing
about Marshall’s approach to painting is how he builds up the chromatic understory of black skin. In an interview, he explains, “If you looked at the palette I was using you’d think, ‘Well, that’s black, black and black next to each other.’ And they don’t look so different. But when I use them in a painting next to each other, the differences become more apparent. Because the iron oxide black is inherently red. And if you stack that on top of carbon black, it obviously looks red. Or I’ll mix in cobalt blue, a chrome oxide green, an earth tone like raw umber or yellow umber.” He builds a kind of black prism. The white gaze confronts the black body in his paintings, and the very notion of black is split by this chromatic range.


in 1831
, when Frank Lloyd Wright’s father was six years old, Nat Turner, an enslaved man, collected an arsenal of weapons and convinced seventy other Black men to carry out a massacre in Virginia. Sixty whites were killed. Various online sources are eager to mention how many Blacks also died that day—one website highlights this part in red, as if to say to anyone inspired by Turner’s actions, “Don’t get any ideas.” This speaks to a very old white fear, one that may explain why so many acts of political violence enacted by Black people in America seem to have been excluded from history curricula.

Turner eluded capture for six weeks in the forest.

On May 11, 2021, one of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings sold at a Christie’s auction for $7.5 million. It is called Nat-Shango (Thunder). In it a figure we may assume to be Nat Turner stands with two axes in hand. An eerie moon burns white-blue behind him. A number of yellowed white female faces are collaged around him like a swarm of bees.

According to a website called windows2universe.org, Shango is an orisha, the Yoruba deity of thunder and lightning, fourth king of the Oyo Empire. When his throne was challenged, he escaped to the forest and eventually hanged himself from a tree. It was imagined that he set fire to the earth. He is often depicted holding a double ax. I’ve been told that each orisha represents a complex god-force, split into separate rays of light for the purpose of human comprehension.


in her tour of taliesin
, the guide points out that the windows bring in “indirect light.” She indicates a window in the corner, snuggled close to the ceiling like it’s trying to hide from the rest of the room. Light must come at you from an odd angle through this opening.

It reminds me of how I was taught as a child to set things on fire using a mirror, angling it just so. Which reminds me of the way we are taught to “see” an eclipse—by putting a piece of paper with a tiny pinhole up to the sky, creating a crescent of sun on the ground.

In August 2017, the same year I saw the work of Kerry James Marshall in a museum in Los Angeles, there was a total eclipse. The astrologer Chani Nicholas explained the significance of the occasion as follows: “What eclipses do is they create a shadow. And so if we think symbolically of shadow, then we think of the fact that we all have a shadow side.…The shadow of this quote unquote Great American Eclipse is falling across the midsection of America, revealing also the shadow side of America itself.” The last time there was a total eclipse of this kind, Nicholas writes, Bill Clinton was impeached. The time before that, someone tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan. A total eclipse occurred not long after the Taliesin massacre, in August 1914, the same summer World War I began.

In 1831, Nat Turner witnessed a solar eclipse, inspiring him to prepare for his own August massacre.

Kerry James Marshall made a collage early in his career: The Archeologist’s Dream: Fossil Prints of Early Man Awash in Moonlight. He has long depicted scenes in which a seer’s eyes have adjusted to the dark.

Maybe it’s not the moon that lights his bluey paintings of Nat Turner but the sun’s shadow.


in marshall’s painting
of Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton, Washington’s hands are held open in his lap, as though he’s suffering from arthritis. Or as though he is holding an invisible object. An imaginary hatchet, perhaps.

In this way, the actor splits off from his character. The space in his hands points to the fact of performance. We are asked to complete the image, or at least to worry its edges, to feel unnerved by the specter of what he is or is not holding.

We are looking at a man who is pretending to be a murderer, and his empty, oddly open hands force the viewer to keep separating the image from the history it refers to—to conjure a figure, or a realm, separate from what we’re seeing, and superimpose that on what’s in front of us.

Turner responds, “What do you think holy vengeance is supposed to look like?”

In a class that I’m teaching right now about the architecture of the essay, a student took us to a concrete building covered in windows to show us an example of Brutalism—or something close to it. We wonder at the contrast between the stained, heavy concrete and the glass reflecting the trees that surround it. We are trying to think about ways that an essay might refract. What would it look like to write in such a way that the page takes on the surface of a mirror?


when I was a child
I had what my parents called a “die, honky” expression. When I mentioned this to two different people recently, they responded with a notably blank expression, something like “dead honky” or “honky playing dead.” A reaction empty of reactivity.

Because my father was a photographer, and I grew tired of being photographed, hundreds of photographs of me as a child feature a look akin to the “die, honky” look. To this day, when my wife raises a camera to take a picture of me, she inevitably starts laughing. Even when I think I’m smiling, my features have gone rogue. My smile shirks the camera’s gaze, morphing into something else entirely.

On a playful day, I might explain this by saying that I am a Leo and an introvert. I am drawn to the spotlight, but I want to be invisible.

On a less playful day, I might think about my First Communion portrait, in which I am scowling, and in which my curly hair has been carefully combed and placed into a ponytail. It was around this age that I noticed that some white people would hate me no matter what I did with my hair. Which is to say, maybe I was reflecting something.

In a play by Nathan Alan Davis called Nat Turner in Jerusalem, a white man asks Nat Turner, “What do you think you will get by staring at me that way?”


in his book about
the Taliesin murders, William R. Drennan writes that Julian Carlton took “his pipe out of his pocket and clamped its stem in his white teeth.” When white people point out how white Black people’s teeth are, they seem to be suspended in a moment of discovering the fact of blackness. “Look at the contrast!”

In 1981, Kerry James Marshall made a painting called Portrait of the Artist and a Vacuum. In this painting, on the orange wall behind an unplugged yellow vacuum is another painting, this one of a black figure in a black suit against a black background, flatly rendered. The painting has a minstrel vibe; the man smiles cartoonishly. His eyes are crooked. He is missing a tooth.

And it strikes me, as I write this, that the painting anticipates the living room that it may find itself in. It acts as a mirror to the clean, neatly vacuumed house of its eventual owner. The “artist,” reduced to a shadow of himself, smiles out from the wall, smirking at the living room he hangs in before anyone else can smirk back. “Look at my teeth!” he is saying.

In the play Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Nat Turner startles his prison guard by laughing. The guard asks, “Have I made a joke?”

“My mother had the whitest, whitest teeth,” Turner says. And then, by way of explanation, “The moon was just reminding me.”

It’s a celestial in-joke, another exchange between Turner and the universe. Like the eclipse.


the confession of julian carlton’s wife
, Gertrude, is written in what some believe to be two distinct voices. This implies that someone imposed their own voice onto the original text, translating her manner of speaking into or out of a Black vernacular that was either authentic to or imposed on her.

In Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Turner is confused when he discovers that Thomas, the man who has come to take his confession, will own the copyright to it. “Of course, who else?” Thomas says. “I’m the one who put the confession together.”

Thomas is most disturbed by the fact that children were killed during the massacre. Turner responds, “What do you think holy vengeance is supposed to look like?”

A friend points out that in Gary Edwards and John Mason’s Black Gods: Ori.sa Studies in the New World, Shango is described as “the Wrath of God.”


it is difficult to find information
about Julian Carlton’s life. For this reason, I am a bit more excited than perhaps I should be when I find a self-published novel called Julian Carlton: I Am Not Just Another George! by a white woman named Ethel Cook-Wilson. She claims to have written the book because she felt that Julian Carlton deserved a backstory.

She creates a fictional Julian Carlton who grew up without a father in Barbados. “Every time he thought about his father’s absence… a sick wave of hatred washed over him.” I can feel it coming before it occurs: there is going to be an act of violence against an animal. The fictionalized Julian goes on to kill a goat that belongs to a white man.

Can the white gaze discern, or conceptualize, a Black ghost?

This reminds me of the film Beatriz at Dinner, in which Salma Hayek’s character wakes to find that a nasty neighbor has slit the throat of her beloved goat. She is later invited to dinner with her extremely wealthy employer, where another of their guests, played by John Lithgow, turns out to be responsible for building a hotel over the village in Mexico where she grew up. Beatriz gets Lithgow’s character alone and kills him with a letter opener. But this turns out to be a fantasy. I am always dismayed by the ending of the film: Beatriz walks into the ocean, toward, it would seem, her own self-inflicted drowning.

Mike White, who wrote the screenplay for Beatriz at Dinner, recently came out with a TV series called The White Lotus, which takes place at a fancy Hawaiian resort. We come to find that the resort displaced the family of a young Indigenous Hawaiian man who now works there as a waiter. Plot spoiler: the young man attempts to avenge this fact by stealing two bracelets to pay for a lawyer to sue the resort. After several episodes of carefully developed interpersonal and historical tension, the show flails in a number of unsatisfying directions. The young Hawaiian man goes to prison off-screen, while a young white man rides into the sunset on a boat with some other Indigenous Hawaiians. I believe we are supposed to be happy for the white kid.

I wonder how the show would have been received if it had ended with a scene similar to the one I walked out of in Parasite, or the one toward the end of Claire Denis’s White Material, with a shocking massacre of the rich people we’ve been taught to like and hate in equal measure.

Both The White Lotus and Beatriz at Dinner are the products of a nation that excludes from our high school curriculum the stories of Black and Indigenous women and men standing with bloodied axes over the disembodied heads of our colonizers.

In the play Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Turner tells the prison guard to take his family to the ocean. The guard says, “You’re telling me/ To take my family into the ocean. / And just walk into it. / And never come back.”


after killing three people
, Julian Carlton served lunch to a roomful of white men who worked at the house. William R. Drennan wonders, “Was he still wearing his crisp white jacket? Was it spattered with blood?” He continues, “If so, none of the men noticed. It is unlikely that they were used to taking much notice of the black servant, anyway.”

Kerry James Marshall’s painting Vignette 19 recently sold for $18.5 million at Sotheby’s, “the second highest price at auction for a work by a living African American artist.” In a photograph of the painting on the auction block, it is flanked by two men, one white, one Black. Both are wearing crisp white jackets.

In a way, the photo feels like its own Kerry James Marshall painting: this photograph of a Black man next to a Kerry James Marshall painting, wearing a crisp white jacket that is not spattered with blood.

Historically, many Black men have stood on auction blocks in America.


although she never mentions the massacres
in her tour of Taliesin, the guide does touch on it in a section of her personal website. She writes, “You would think that my history of working at Taliesin—in a place where the woman’s head was ‘cleft in two,’ and so on and so forth—would engender an overwhelmingly creepy feeling at Taliesin, but it does not (at least, not to me).” She goes on: “But I do feel deep, quiet sadness if I go to Mamah’s grave.…Some years I’ve made a point of going there on August 15 when the sun is setting, the mist is rising, and the frogs are singing. The physicality of it goes deep in the bones.” Even though she is looking the history of the house directly in the face, the brutality of the murders feels excised; the undercurrent of rage and revolt is tucked underneath the carpet. We are gazing out the window again.

Others have seen ghosts at Taliesin, their experiences reported on multiple Wisconsin ghost-sighting websites. Mamah is said to haunt the cottage behind the main house, a white woman dressed in white.

If a ghost is, by nature, white, is a Black ghost even possible? Or maybe what I mean to ask is, can the white gaze discern, or conceptualize, a Black ghost?

Kerry James Marshall seems to be asking a similar question.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, the book-length essay Borealis, and, with her father, the image and text collaboration Captioning the Archives. She teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. @aishasabslo
Originally published:
March 1, 2022

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