Dismantling the Master’s House: The Color Curtain Dinner
EATON HOTEL | SEPTEMBER 29, 2018
The Color Curtain Project dinner at the Eaton Hotel, Washington D.C., September 29, 2018. Image courtesy of Combing Cotton Co.
The invitation to the Color Curtain Project’s inaugural dinner featured a photograph of the Jakarta, Indonesia airport in 1955, with a crowd of bodies standing on an airfield festooned with flags unfurling into agitated, electric air. The scene pictured calls to mind the sight African-American author Richard Wright likely encountered when he landed in Jakarta that year alongside reporters from France, Iraq, India, and Japan to attend the first conference of twenty-nine Asian and African countries scheduled to convene in Bandung between April 18th and 24th. Organized by Burma, Ceylon (contemporary Sri Lanka), India, Indonesia, and Pakistan, the conference aimed to address the intertwined threats of neo-colonialism and racism confronting these countries, many of which were newly independent from colonial rule.
Through interviews and personal reflections, Wright’s book-length report on the conference, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, offers case studies in internalized racial shame and fraught relations to the West played out politically and, more specifically, in the arena of the global economy. In rejoinder to the overwhelming fear of neo-colonial subjection, stemming from the commercial dependence of prior colonies, Wright advocated for an ambitious agenda of economic assistance on the part of the United States and other Western countries, with the intent of industrializing the newly independent nations for economic competition on a global scale. Wright regarded the drive towards capital as an essential and unifying force between Asian and African nations of diverse religious and political ideologies—nations which had little in common beyond a historical relationship to the West. Rallying around this tenuous accord, the Bandung conference issued a final communiqué proposing a policy of economic and cultural cooperation in an early experiment by some of the same world leaders who would later form the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.
Borrowing its name from Wright’s book, and its spirit from Bandung, The Color Curtain Project invites individuals of Afro- and Asian-American identities from diverse personal and professional backgrounds to confront the systemic racism and inequality of opportunity that persist more than sixty years later within the particular microcosm of the United States. Their first event was convened by a diverse group organizers, including artist and book-maker Tammy Nguyen of Passenger Pigeon Press, entrepreneur Seda Nak, community organizer Adriel Luis, nuclear analyst Lovely Umayam, social entrepreneur and writer Desiree Venn Frederic, patent policy analyst Aerica Shimizu Banks, and chef Erik Bruner Yang. We gathered the evening of September 29 at the Eaton Hotel in Washington D.C. to share food, wine, and conversation on social justice in light of our Asian and African American identities—an event equal parts state dinner, artist book, and community action.
Images of the artist book designed and produced by Tammy Nguyen of Passenger Pigeon Press in conjunction with The Color Curtain Project dinner, September 2018.
Minutely choreographed, the meal was interwoven with speeches, food, and text, charted through the gold-and-cream colored pages of an artist book presented to each invited guest. Printed and conceived by Tammy Nguyen, the book situated each of the meal’s three courses geographically and historically, drawing both upon the context of the 1955 conference and the landscape of the United States capital. Flavored to flow from Chinese 5 Spice, to Mambo Sauce, to Ketchup, the foods served themselves offered a study in diasporic identity that compellingly ended with the quintessential “American” condiment that in fact traces its roots to kê-tsiap, a Hokkien fermented sauce.
Seated to dinner at a single long table, I opened my book to an image of the theater in which the Bandung Conference took place. Turning the first chapter’s pages with a tangy spice on my tongue, I encountered a printed collage of newspaper clippings from 1955, Wright’s handwritten reflections on the diplomatic proceedings, and sketched portraits of the conference’s delegates overlaid with irregular rectangles of reflective golden foil. Layering to the point of illegibility—and occasionally printed backwards, so that they could only be read through their reflection in the gold leaf on the opposing page—this amalgam of images and text amounted to a willful ambiguity that mirrored the irresolute diplomatic maneuvering and situational alliances of convenience that animated the original conference.
Entering the book’s second chapter while eating Mambo Sauce, a dressing particular to the D.C. African-American community, we encountered double-folded sheets paired questions composed by Wright in The Color Curtain and pages of text taken from a class-action lawsuit filed against Washington D.C. for gentrification after the city chose to sponsor Creative Action Agenda, a creative capital campaign intended to reframe the District, “as a 'top-tier' creative city” targeted to attract affluent residents and consumers. Invited by community organizer Adriel Luis to wield a small golden knife enclosed in our books, we tore open these doubled sheets in messy, uncomfortable cuts to find photos taken during protests of this development. The final page of the chapter folds out to a map of the waters between the East China and Philippine Seas, a two-dimensional topography plastered with gold and red flowers. Again with my knife, I scratch at these gold surfaces to reveal phrases ranging from “Chocolate City” to “Survival,” from “Formosa” to “Freedom.” Rather than categorically correlating gentrification with imperial rule, this chapter more speculatively observes the dangerous interplay of identity, site, and capital. The final pages of the book reproduce Article D, the final communiqué of the Bandung conference, miniature facsimiles of Wright’s working text for The Color Curtain, and an essay penned by Color Curtain organizer Lovely Umayam. Her essay, titled after Article D, “The Problems of Dependent People,” narrates Umayam’s family’s immigration to the United States and her own complicated understanding of aspiration and the “American Dream.”
Although intricately designed, the evening was equally and more significantly animated by conversations between individuals who might otherwise never encounter each other, from government officials to artists, architects to analysts. Now in 2018, as then in 1955, we were brought together less by shared identity and more by a shared sense of the oppression of racialized bodies; all of us regularly asked by our fellow Americans, “Where are you from?” which only illustrates their assumption that the answer is “not here.”
Re-presenting the stakes of the conference through a contemporary critical lens, the book’s formal play and the tone of the organizers’ speeches troubled the already uncertain resolutions of 1955, foremost the adoption of a Westernized industrial and intellectual complex. As stated by Umayam during the course of our meal, “while politically free, [these nations] were held to a standard set by their colonizers: to be considered developed, modern, or evolved required following certain norms and expectations that aligned with those in power.” Audre Lorde writes that the demand that the unrepresented educate those in power is “an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” The question implicit in the dinner was how community-building may allow us to escape, or at least, tamper with, Western ideology while operating under the United States’ systems of industry, economy, education, and politics. The radical implications of this question will not take root after just one dinner or even several; and while the gathering was joyful, the question of its aftermath lingers with the uncomfortable malaise of uncertain next steps. If the Bandung Conference ultimately realized itself in the Non-Aligned Movement of 1961, how may we contextualize the solidarity realized by The Color Curtain Project within our particularly Afro- and Asian-American identities?
 Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), 113.
NICOLE KAACK is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.