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.

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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

What Many “Diversity in Museums” Articles Ignore: Structural Racism

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On the porch with my copy of the “State of Black Museums,” August 2018 issue of The Public Historian, the journal of the National Council of Public History

The current trend in journalism and certain museum circles to put forward the idea that the dearth of racial diversity in curatorial roles in U.S. “museums” stems from a lack of qualified candidates ignores the fact that culturally-specific museums have long histories of training, hiring, and exhibiting art and culture of Black people and other people of color. The constant erasure of their work is purposeful. It obscures the entrenchment of structural racism in so-called “mainstream” museums.

To create equitable centers, it’s essential to know the histories of museums across sectors and to study how racism and anti-racism measures have operated in this country. The August 2018 issue of The Public Historian, the journal of the National Council of Public History, is another important resource for grasping a deeper understanding of the state of the museum field. Knowledge is power. Huge thanks to the organizers of the Association of African American Museums conference, #AAAM2018, for this gift to conference attendees.

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Student dancers and musicians greet AAM2018 conference attendees as we arrive at Hampton University Museum to honor its 150 years of cultural leadership. August 10, 2018, Hampton, Virginia.

As we recognized the 40th anniversary of the Association of African American Museums organization at this year’s conference, we also celebrated the 150th anniversity of Hampton University Museum. Black museums have been around for a long time! Their origins relate to this nation’s disenfranchisement of people of African descent. These centers should be models for leaders of traditionally white museums who include increasing diversity of staff and visitors as institutional goals. A reframing that acknowledges structural racism might lead to tackling systemic issues.

The August 2018 issue “State of Black Museums” is available online for free for a limited time.
I’ll add it to my Social Justice & Museums Resource List.  We need a record of the record.

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August 13, 2018 at 2:55 pm Leave a comment

Working through Oppression: Language as a Tool

 

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Vintage postcard features formerly enslaved woman standing at the New Orleans site where enslavers sold her. (Collection of author.)

Slaves. Fugitives. Runaways. Slave mistress.
Masters. Slave owners. Slave holders. Slave traders. Overseers. Plantations …

 

Our books, learning, teaching and imagination are steeped in limited frameworks. These terms reinforce the culture of dehumanization. Yet they often remain central and unchallenged forces in our lexicon.

Recently I followed a scholarly discussion via Twitter that highlights the trouble of this convention. Several historians reflected on their processes for finding words that better contextualize the truth of slavery. They also mentioned resistance they’ve encountered from editors who find their alternate expressions cumbersome.

On several occasions I’ve experienced opposition when I didn’t generalize oppression. The intransgience of some academics, museum professionals, and publishers can trip up, or even repel, those who are just entering these fields.  It is disheartening. However, it is not surprising. Ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism are foundational in these domains. Fortunately, some scholars, curators, educators, artists, students, designers, and others continue pushing at oppressive frameworks. We need to know who they are, how they work, and what they’ve created. We need to imagine what can we build together.

I’ve archived my favorite moments from the online discussion on Wakelet – The Afterlife of Slavery: Language & Ethics.”

 

 

 

July 19, 2018 at 10:11 pm Leave a comment

Your neutral is not our neutral

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“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

My blog post about the myth of neutrality in libraries, archives and museums. This post is from a First Nationsperspective

I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by…

View original post 958 more words

February 23, 2018 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

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