Toni Morrison Taught Me

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019)


Last week was another difficult week. We have experienced so many heavy feelings in the past days. Of these moments, I want to start with a reflection about Toni Morrison.

On Tuesday morning while I was at work, I learned of her passing. A pain grew inside me; I almost cried at my desk. Toni Morrison is a towering figure in literature, in Black Studies, in feminism, in life in general. Many argue that she was the best American author ever. I looked around my desk for signs of shock. After I surmised that I was the only one in that state, I shared the news with those around me. A couple of people stopped and acknowledged the moment for a few seconds.
This experience reminds me of when I learned of Maya Angelou’s passing back in 2014. I was at a workshop of a social justice conference in Chicago. Someone interrupted the session to tell us about her death. Many of us were shaken; several people openly cried. We had lost family. Together we reflected on the many moments where Angelou had shaped our lives. At the time, I felt that I was with people who cared about us, about me.
Morrison’s contributions have shaped my thinking, curatorial praxis, and activism deeply. One chief lesson she has imparted on me – she has made me stronger, more unapologetic about my conviction to center Black people in everything I do. Because of her fierce brilliance, I routinely ask myself: “How can I make this project care for Black folks?” This orientation, which aligns with the praxis of other leading Black women thinkers, such as Audre Lorde, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe, involves representation, however it also operates beyond representation. This deeper liberatory work entails connection, commitment, understanding, love.
Those of us who care about one another create our own spaces of care, remembering, honoring, feeling, community. Toni Morrison taught me that.
She was/is a powerful force.
Rest in Power, Toni Morrison! ❤👊🏿

#ToniMorrison #tonimorrisonallday #beloved #amercy #songofsolomon #sula #careaspraxis #careistheantidotetoviolence #ToniMorrisonFanGirl 💔


August 13, 2019 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

My Oyster Knife Is Love

Zora Neale Hurston-oyster knife

Today I came across this tweet from Chelsea Hodson shared on Twitter:
“Stop worrying about networking & just write a book that feels like a knife.” SmartSelect_20190729-134218_Twitter

It reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston’s reflection from many years before: “I do not weep at the world – I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Also I hear the words of Toni Morrison: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

For those of us who are cultural producers and are also living in the wake of antiBlackness and other oppressive forces, we have to fortify ourselves from the pervasive violence that comes our way. These tides are extensive, multifaceted, and insidious. They show up regularly on the streets, in hospital waiting rooms, social media platforms, curatorial meetings, displays and labels on museum walls, university lecture halls, op-eds by professors and museum directors, news media headlines, and more.
The violence is ongoing comes for us when we fight injustice through our work as scholars and activists, when we breathe.

“Giving talks about my dissertation research on the modes communities and individuals employ to remember lynching violence has helped me understand that many people prefer to remain or claim to be ignorant of the deep ramifications of institutional racism and unequal power relations in this project called “America.” Oftentimes, encountering this resistance coupled with my experiences of navigating the archives of violence has been painful and stultifying. 

Making my way out of this quicksand has involved redirecting my energies and recalibrating/lessening my expectations of other people’s ability and willingness to care. Some of us get it. Some of us care for one another. But many people are committed to ignorance/denial. It suits their self-interest.

This work typically feels lonely. But I know that my research and writing is for the ancestors, It is for those who are doing the work of justice now. It is for those who will lead the work of justice in the tomorrows. It is for those who love.

#goals #disswriting #dissresearch #blackstudies #inthewake #writingfortheancestors #writingasrioting #writingasrighting#writingwithcare #writingascare #blacklove #blackselfcare #squadcare #careaspraxis #careistheantidotetoviolence #wakework #weouthere”*

I’m doing the work of love and sharpening my oyster knife too.

*from my Instagram post July 23, 2019


July 29, 2019 at 3:29 pm Leave a comment

Service Announcement


Several folks think I give talks on inclusion. I don’t.
My ethos involves dismantling the ideology of white supremacy in institutions. This focus is a deeper, structural project. This is where I concentrate my energies.

#MuseumsAreNotNeutral #academiaisnotneutral #lookbeforeyouleap #inthewake #wakework #careaspraxis #careistheantidotetoviolence #artactivism #audrelordeismymentor #idabwellsismymentor

* this post is adapted from my Instagram post July 23, 2019

July 29, 2019 at 2:17 pm Leave a comment

How Writing Matters

“The Race for Theory” by Barbara Christian, Feminist Studies, 1988.

Last December I read Barbara Christian’s excellent “The Race for Theory.” I wish I had known about this essay when I started grad school. It highlights how those who champion academic theory often isolate their writing from the complexities of the everyday. Christian argues that much of this theory reproduces the ills it claims to oppose.

Of the various critical points, I particularly like her discussion of the difference between theorizing and theory. She identifies the ongoing work many people who experience oppression do to survive their conditions as theorizing. Their labor takes many forms that frequently involve narrative.

Academic jargon, which some art historians obscure their thoughts with, has never felt natural or useful to me. In the beginning I wasted time wondering why people wrote in that manner. Even worse, I thought that maybe something was wrong with me because that style seemed so awkward to me. I should have been reading Black feminist thought from the beginning. It would have steered me right.

Understanding writing in relationship to living has been very helpful to me while I write my dissertation. Christian’s perspective is another crucial building block for me as she elucidates a belief I have held for a long time- how I write indicates who I am and what matters to me.

I learned of Christian’s work from the tweets of the Association of Black Women Historians, #ABWH2018, conference.

#barbarachristian #theracefortheory #blackstudies #blackfeminism #womenstudies #blackliterature #blackartsmovement #arthistory #arthistorysyllabus #criticalracearthistory #interdisciplinarystudies #dissreading #disswriting #disslovenotes

[Image description: photo of first page of essay, “The Race for Theory” by Barbara Christian, Feminist Studies, 1988.]

March 21, 2019 at 6:19 am Leave a comment

It Doesn’t Get Easier: Writing about Lynching and Believing Something Else Is Possible


As a descendant of enslaved people, writing about lynching memorials is horrible. Sometimes as I’m writing my notes, I’ll re-read a passage about a lynching and the memory of it hits me again. I’ve read about so much killing and I’ve developed ways of putting much of it out of my mind. I can’t keep all this violence up front and still live my life with some joy. However, the killing is always there, just recessed. When I come back to the telling, it crushes. The pain doesn’t diminish. It changes. But it doesn’t go away. Actually, I think it’s worse when it returns.

Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory perfectly conveys this experience:

Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I do, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.

The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there – you who never was there – if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So […], you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over – over and done with – it’s going to always be there waiting for you.
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
This evil isn’t a sideshow act. I don’t share the horrors I encounter in the archive on social media because context is essential. Also in person, I don’t talk much about what I’ve found. When people ask, “How’s the writing going?,” I quickly assess their knowledge of my dissertation topic before answering. As most of these people don’t study this topic, I usually keep my responses superficial, administrative. It’s just about pages, timelines. We don’t discuss the weight. When this happens, I feel like a liar or at best an undercover agent. I remain quarantined because most of the people I know have no clue of the depths of this disaster and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to know. They haven’t taken on the weight of knowing it. As I’ve mentioned before, even at public events on the topic of lynching, people have told me that they don’t want to hear about lynching. I wish none of it happened. But wishing doesn’t change reality.
I often want to make the writing less painful by avoiding certain things. But I feel a stronger need to be a witness. Performance studies scholar Diana Taylor, among others, has discussed the role of witnessing as ethical engagement. I think she’s right. Being a witness requires commitment and maybe even a soulful engagement.
So I’m going to keep fighting myself to stay with the truth. Here in the writing, I can do the only things that are possible – identify the disaster and modes of care some of us have implemented to honor the dead and protect the living and envision possible better ways to exist.

March 5, 2019 at 11:56 am Leave a comment

My Vision for Museums Live via NYFA Interview

Mirielle Clifford of New York Foundation of the Arts kindly asked me to share my vision for museums. In the interview, I discuss Museums Are Not Neutral, the initiative that I co-created with Mike Murawski, the role of social media in my work, the need for deep change in museums, individual action steps, and guidance for those to new to working in museums.
Also, I included a list that mentions many, but not all, of the cultural leaders who inspire me.
Our discussion is now live.

Please check it out,

[In case you just can’t wait, some of my favorite cultural leaders via Twitter/Instagram are:
@dreadscottart @forfreedoms @bisabutler @jamearichmondedwards @legacybros @swoonhq @adamadelphine @knowyourcaribbean @toyinojihodutola @erykahakillmonger @KayleighBinDC @KeonnaHendrick @PorchiaMuseM @gretchjenn @twin_muses @murawski27 @Their_Child @SaywhatNathan @aaprocter @magmidd @elizejackson @afroxmericana @2brwngirls @pjpolicarpio @AprilHathcock @CollardStudies @profgabrielle @ BarbaraRansby @LatinoNetAAM @incluseum @decolonize_this @theblackschool @Museopunks @solidarity_is @drnandico @MsKellyMHayes @prisonculture @MuseumsandRace @DrIbram @museumhue @ncph @consciouspod @SitesConscience @nmaahc @racialimaginary @CCP_org @SmithsonianAPA #1960Now #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson #BlkTwitterstorians #MASSActionmia #slaveryarchive #MuseumsAreNotNeutral]

February 5, 2019 at 12:38 pm Leave a comment

Remembering as Living, as Moving Forward


Last September I discussed my dissertation research of lynching memorial sites and the emotional toll of studying this topic at Artspace New Haven’s “Paying Homage: Soil and Site Summit.” In the conclusion of my presentation, I stressed the importance of recognizing the histories of racial violence as a means to addressing the legacies of those deep wounds. After the event, an African-American woman told me that although she appreciated my talk, she was “raised to keep going, to keep moving forward. The past is not something [she] lives with.”
I just listened. I didn’t argue with her because as an African-American person I understand that desire to erase this pain. It’s hard to be in “the hold.” (If you’ve read Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,* you know what I mean by “the hold”). That desire protects those of us who experience anti-Blackness. But it also obscures reality and makes it impossible to address the ongoing violence. The past lives with us; it lives within us. The past is now.
Maybe I should have said these things. Instead, I took in a deep breath. At that time, I felt that I had already made my case and that she wasn’t speaking with me. She was talking to herself- rationalizing her mode of living. We were in different places.

I often flashback to that moment. It reminds me of the words of poet June Jordan:

“… I got to thinking about how some of us choose to remember, and why, and how: why we do not forget. And I got to thinking about the moral meaning of memory, per se. And what it means to forget, what it means to fail to find and preserve the connection with the dead whose lives you, or I, want or need to honor with our own.”*

I believe the land and our social structures retain memories even if many people prefer to forget or disengage in efforts to “move forward.” I choose to remember, or rather, I need to remember. I need to honor those who came before including those who experienced extreme cruelty. They made me possible. They make envisioning better tomorrows possible.

My presentation “Haunted Futures: Historical Trauma, Our Bodies, & Place” offers an overview of my dissertation, which examines the interplay of race, public memory, historical construction, aesthetics, and ethics in contemporary memorials to lynching violence.

Our panel “Hallowed Ground – Honoring History Through Soil and Site”- Vinnie Bagwell, Don Gathers, La Tanya S. Autry, and Brontë Velez; Moderator: Kenneth Foote.
The recording is available on Vimeo.
[I start at 39:09.
Duration approximately 10 minutes. Link:]

*Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2016.
*June Jordan, Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan, New York: Basic/Civitas Books, 2002, 5.

January 15, 2019 at 4:32 pm Leave a comment

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