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.]

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

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

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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

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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, http://current.nyfa.org/post/182477085283/creative-careers-tools-for-creative-activism

[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

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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.

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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: https://vimeo.com/294844499.]

*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

“For the Good Times”

ReformOrRevolution-presentation-ElonU-4-2018This image is from a presentation I delivered last April at Elon University. I think it’s a great sign for all the public engagement activities I’ve been involved in last year. I am thankful for all the invitations I received to speak at museums, universities, conferences, high schools, and other community forums. Also, thank you to everyone who has supported our #MuseumsAreNotNeutral initiative; contributed to or shared my Social Justice and Museums Resource List; supported #artofblackdissent, or recommended me for an opportunity.

You have buoyed my spirit many times. Last year I had moments when I felt overwhelmed and deeply disappointed. But I couldn’t stay down because people, many who only know of me through these digital spaces, reached out with notes of gratitude. Those messages remind me of my blessings. I’m honored. 🙏🏿

In this new year I’m looking forward to learning more and collaborating more for justice.

(And yes, I’m a serious Al Green fan!)

[Artwork: (from top right) Elizabeth Catlett, My Right is a Future of Equality with Other Americans; Xaviera Simmons, Rupture (Edition Two); Badlands, Unlimited, The New No’s; close-up of Museums Are Not Neutral t-shirt, logo by Mike Murawski]

 

January 2, 2019 at 7:43 pm Leave a comment

‘Tis the Season for Exhibitions

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Happy Holidays!

As the year winds down, I’m making my list of exhibitions I’d love to experience before they go:

  • “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. It’s on through January 6th, https://t.co/k6PtzPG860

December 5, 2018 at 8:04 pm 1 comment

Writing Through Historical Trauma: Finding Lifelines

“And, there is risk in the archival encounter. Confronting sources that show only terror and violence are a danger to the researcher who sees her own ancestors in these accounts. To sit with these sources requires the capacity to hold and inhabit deep wells of pain and horror. One must persist for years in this “mortuary” of records to bring otherwise invisible lives to historical representation in a way that challenges the reproduction of invisibility and commodification. This process of historicization demands strategies to manage the emotional response one has to such brutality in order to persist with these subjects-to be willing to take up and sit with this aspect of human degradation and to find meaning. […] To spend time in this temporal and geographical space is to risk emotional strength. It obliterates the possibility of objectivity. It is an exercise in endurance.”
– Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive

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A few weeks ago, a friend suggested that I keep a bowl of salt in my writing area to absorb the harmful energies that come with keeping myself immersed in historical trauma. She is an artist and re-connects regularly with her roots by traveling to West Africa.

As a descendant of enslaved people, I wish I had known about certain resources before I began my dissertation research on memorials to lynching violence.

My academic sources included many historical accounts of lynchings. I’ve read about so much killing. Sometimes I communicated with the authors. I recall meeting three white male historians who couldn’t understand why anyone would feel overwhelmed by this topic.
I’ve often sat alone in my office or in library special collection rooms examining lots of vile images.

Typically, these interactions have not involved care.

In academia there’s a tendency to pretend all history should be engaged the same way. Yet the violence of historical trauma is ongoing. We are living it today. When I started this journey, I had no idea how intensely I would feel the pain and horror. It is generally a lonely study because most people are not aware of the complexity of the topic and many do not want to feel it. They don’t want to know.

I hadn’t encountered perspectives from Black scholars about their personal responses to researching the afterlives of slavery or their strategies for managing the dismal nature of the research while simultaneously living with the reality of ongoing state-sanctioned anti-black violence.

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At the close of 2015, I found a lifeline. I read Courtney Baker’s then newly published Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death. Through this book, I met someone who knows what it means to put herself, her Black self, in this work. Earlier this year, I came across several more books by Black women scholars that negotiate slavery’s afterlives through a praxis of care. I’ve learned that this orientation is a tradition of Black feminism.
These books resuscitate me. They make it possible for me to continue, to attempt to make sense of something that is beyond sense.
They make it possible for me to envision my writing also as a form of care for myself and others.

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A strong beginning for one’s soul and mind:

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, 2007

Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, 1997

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake On Blackness and Being, 2016

Courtney Baker, Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death, 2015

Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, 2016

Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, 2001

September 18, 2018 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

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