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New book 'Redaction' humanizes redacted lawsuits through portraits and poems

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

I am holding in my hands a copy of a cloth-bound, coffee-table-sized book that its creators say is meant to be torn apart the way that, as a kid, you might have ripped full pages out of a magazine to hang them on the wall of your bedroom. The book is "Redaction." It's a collaboration between poet and activist Reginald Dwayne Betts and artist Titus Kaphar. Inside these pages, Kaphar etches searing portraits, and they're paired with poems written by Betts that are based on redacted lawsuits. Betts, who is also an attorney, saw an opportunity in those words.

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: So what I decided I wanted to do was turn it into a poem. And I wanted to use redaction as a tool of revelation, as a tool to say something meaningful about what's there that you aren't noticing.

SUMMERS: Betts and Kaphar's project first exhibited at MoMA PS1 back in 2019. But I wanted to know how they came to work together. And it turns out it started as a blind introduction at a dinner party.

TITUS KAPHAR: And it was one of those dinner parties where, you know - I don't know what your experience is like, but my experience is like living here, sometimes people are like, I have this friend that you really need to meet. And my first thought is, they're Black, right? It's 'cause you - it's 'cause they're Black. Like, we're both Black, so you want us to meet. And I was like, I don't want to go through this situation at another party. But I show up, and I start talking to this dude, and, like, within minutes, we are arguing with one another, going at it about Ta-Nehisi Coates' book "Between The World And Me." And we are definitely coming from different positions. We disregard basically everybody else at that dinner party. And the entire time, we just chop it up and argued this whole time about that book. After that engagement, I just felt like any brother that I can spend this long arguing with and still dap it up after at the end, yeah, we're going to be friends for a long time.

SUMMERS: This exhibition exposes harsh truths about incarceration. I asked Betts and Kaphar what it was like to blend their two distinct mediums for this project into book form. Here's Dwayne Betts.

BETTS: You know, I'm a writer, and my medium of choice is the book. And I think it made sense for us to create a book together partially because - and I think Titus'll talk more about this, but this is this historic notion of, like, really dynamic writers partnering with visual artists. But for me, it was partly because a lot of my folks couldn't go to MoMA. They couldn't go to PS1, and they couldn't come out here in New Haven to see this work that we created. And so I thought - well, you know, I was like, yo, we should do a book. And we feel like - and you'll see, we say, this is the third exhibit of "Redaction." This might be the only time - I'm probably being arrogant by saying this - might not even be true. But I think this probably is the only time in history where somebody said this book is an art exhibit, and when you pick this up, you are going to see an art show that otherwise you wouldn't be able to access. I like to think that life is teeming on every page of this work. You know, I think about our moms coming to MoMA and just...

KAPHAR: (Laughter).

BETTS: You should have seen them. You know, it was like...

SUMMERS: What was that like?

KAPHAR: When our mothers together showed up at the MoMA and saw, you know, their baby boys, like, doing this show, it was, you know, one of the proudest moments for me. They chopped it up. They really enjoyed each other. And we decided to start recording conversations with our mothers talking about their son's work. Dwayne's mother reviewed my work, and my mother reviewed Dwayne's work.

BETTS: Although it's kind of unfair, though, you know, 'cause they like, I don't know. Dwayne curses a lot. And you can't really...

(LAUGHTER)

BETTS: But you can't really curse with colors, though, you know?

KAPHAR: Oh, yes, you can. Oh, yes, you can.

BETTS: We got to teach them that so that they got another vocabulary.

KAPHAR: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: I want to talk now about an example that starts on page 151, "Redaction Three." When I look at it initially, the first words I see are the city of Ferguson and all of these thick black lines that obscure a great deal of the text. And I'm wondering if, Dwayne, I could ask you to start by just reading for us what we see there.

BETTS: (Reading) In Missouri v. The City of Ferguson - the plaintiffs - people - jailed by the city - the city kept a human - in its jail - the person - pleaded - poverty - held - indefinitely - threatened - abused - left to languish - frightened - family members could - buy their freedom.

SUMMERS: Titus, talk about this from your perspective.

KAPHAR: I remember us taking the image of this boy and taking the images - the image of this older man and thinking about the imaginary relationship that could potentially exist between these two people - or, as Dwayne said, the reality of ourselves as Black men in this world, as young men and what we look like and represent to the world and what we look like and represent as older men - put those two things together on top of each other, and you collapse time.

And so I just want to pause a second just to recognize what Dwayne read here. Every time we go through this experience where he reads one of these pieces, I feel profoundly honored to be a part of this collaboration. What it takes to be able to take a legal document that is full of jargon and language and break it down to what is the experience of the soul is not an easy thing to do.

SUMMERS: It feels to me that it represents not just a telling of stories of people who have lived through incarceration and who have been involved in the system, it also feels like a call to action and a statement that the system does not have to look like - and the experience of it does not have to feel like what it does. So I'd like to ask both of you - and, Titus, I'll start with you - what do you hope people come away with after experiencing this third exhibition of your work?

KAPHAR: I don't know that I look at it that way. I want you to feel. It doesn't matter to me what you feel. I think if, as artists, we can somehow get people to feel, that's a powerful gesture in itself. You don't have to like what we do. So I'm more interested in what people come back and tell me that they did feel. What was your experience? I feel like at that point, once I finish the work, once we finish a work, once we put it in the world, then it's our obligation to be listeners and to hear what folks have to tell us about what their experience of the work was.

SUMMERS: Dwayne, what about you?

BETTS: These poems that I wrote particularly for this book, they were me trying to find an occasion to capture what it means to be beautiful, to capture what it means to be loved and to capture what it means to fixate on that. And I think when you read the poems and when you look at the images, you see that it runs the gamut. And it doesn't just run the gamut of the Black experience in America. It runs the gamut of the American experience in America. Like, every poem - every poem, I find myself meditating on moments that bring joy, even if the backdrop of that joy is suffering. I want people who hold this in their hands to walk away with that.

SUMMERS: Reginald Dwayne Betts and Titus Kaphar are the creators of "Redaction." Thank you so much for talking to us today.

KAPHAR: Thank you.

BETTS: Oh, this was dope. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.