Subtitles X

Malcom X Boulevard, Harlem, NY


Letter from Mecca by Malcom X

April, 1964

Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.

I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca. I have made my seven circuits around the Ka'ba, led by a young Mutawaf named Muhammad. I drank water from the well of the Zam Zam. I ran seven times back and forth between the hills of Mt. Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. I have prayed in the ancient city of Mina, and I have prayed on Mt. Arafat.

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.

America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered 'white'--but the 'white' attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.

You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)--while praying to the same God--with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions in the deeds of the 'white' Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.

We were truly all the same (brothers)--because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.

I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man--and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their 'differences' in color.

With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called 'Christian' white American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem. Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster--the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventually destroyed the Germans themselves.

Each hour here in the Holy Land enables me to have greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white. The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities--he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites. But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth--the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.

Never have I been so highly honored. Never have I been made to feel more humble and unworthy. Who would believe the blessings that have been heaped upon an American Negro? A few nights ago, a man who would be called in America a 'white' man, a United Nations diplomat, an ambassador, a companion of kings, gave me his hotel suite, his bed. ... Never would I have even thought of dreaming that I would ever be a recipient of such honors--honors that in America would be bestowed upon a King--not a Negro.

All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all the Worlds.


El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

(Malcolm X)


The house Negro lived in the house next his master.

He dressed good, he ate good, what the master left him.

If master got sick, he'd say, "what's the matter? We sick!" This is thinking of the house Negro.

He loved his master, He loved his master. Better than the master loved himself.

If master said, "we got anice house," you say, "yeah, got anice house".

Master's house caught on fire, the house Negro would put the blaze out.

He If another slave said: "let's run away, separate from his cruel master."

He said, "Why ? What's better than what we got here?"

"When asked myself 'Am I a house negro or a field negro?' I was lost for an answer because I have wasted my life thinking I was the master … What about you?

Ayman Yossri Daydban has been using TV screenshots with subtitles in his work for a number of years now. It started out as a pastime. Trying to get over a broken relationship and profoundly depressed about the mundane success of his artistic practice, the artist locked himself up in his room and watched TV for months on end. Ayman Yossri doesn't speak English, so he watched the movies with subtitles. The frequent dissonance between the text and image shook him out of his torpor and planted the seed for his Subtitles series.

In the gap between the image and the subtitle the artist found a medium to express himself. The subtitles, dissociated from the movie they're used in, can acquire a host of different meanings. The censor cannot reasonably prohibit a screenshot of a movie that everybody is allowed to see. But in a society constrained by censorship people will tend to interpret the subtitles creatively.

In the Abeed al Manazil series the artist is not primarily concerned with the history of American slavery or the Black Panthers, chances are that in an international setting Abeed al Manazil will be taken more literally, as an indictment of collaboration by the oppressed in return for small favors by the oppressor – the main favor bestowed being ascendancy over the other oppressed. This is evil in its most petty variant: that of the coward that prefers to collaborate and thus improve his social status temporarily by participating in the oppression of his peers.

Malcolm X's original speech about the 'house negro' was met with a lot of derisive laughter. Scorn is an instrument the oppressed can use to assert their moral superiority over their oppressor. Denzel Washington's interpretation of Malcolm X's mercurial character is however tellingly sanctimonious, and no laughter accompanies this excerpt of the movie. Here we see historiography at work: to commemorate the success of the Afro-American emancipation struggle, Spike Lee erects with his film a monument as bland as a victory arch.

Abeed al Manazil takes the Hollywood interpretation of Malcolm X's speech and continues the alchemical process. First the Arabic subtitles add a layer of innuendo certainly unintended by the Arab distributor; then the artist isolates a few screenshots from their narrative context, returning the poignancy to Malcolm X's original statement – found now only in Arabic – while the glib face of the actor, the non-descript setting and the impersonal interviewer (the impurities) are separated in the background. The image and the original text now stand at complete odds to each other. Finally the curator takes this nugget of gold against its leaden background and places it in front of a new audience.

The dynamics of oppression and identification with the oppressor exist in every society. This is what makes the 'House Negro' speech so easy to understand. In the long term, as we know from our history books and Hollywood, the collaborator is on the wrong end of history: he will be vilified, leaving a despicable legacy within the collective memory of the community he betrays. But in the moment of oppression we tend to rationalize the existence of evil and to justify our collaboration with it. It's the sensible thing to do, like everyone else.

This is what Ayman Yossri achieves with Abeed al Manazil: he rescues the original power of Malcolm X's statement from the gloss of smug righteousness that tries to emasculate it. He doesn't ask whether you are, fifty years later, on the right side of the black empowerment movement; but whether you are, right here and right now, acting as a house negro or as a field negro?"

(Text written for the exhibition 'Aftermath' curated by Basak Senova for Akbank, Istanbul)

For more information look at: Ayman Yossri Daydban - Abeed al Manazil / the "House Negro"

ARTIST: Ayman Yossri Daydban