Planting Seeds, Finding Roots
Did you miss me?!…Back from Europe and I have so much on my mind––if only I could tip my head and dump it all out––so I apologize now if this post is longwinded. I made an expedition to Germany for 2 weeks to visit a cousin. The only things on my itinerary: see as many museums as possible and explore my surroundings. The rest would come as my trip unfolded. I started my trip in Frankfurt, Germany, where I would be staying in a wonderful hostel in Frankfurt’s Red Light District (yes, that district).
I honestly came to Germany with no expectations other than my general desire to sightsee and be among natives. As far as I was concerned nothing could compete with my love affair with Italy and the melodic language I had been determined to demystify. Maybe it is my current academic interests or new found travel niche (enhanced by #TNDistrict) but Germany has given me so much to reflect on in regards to blackness. The hesitation I have towards Germany is not unlike many people of color around me, who associate the country with a well-known troublesome past, and still perceive it as an unwelcoming territory. I won’t say I have all the answers here, but I will say through the people I’ve met and the moments I shared, I dare to go back.
So to be clear, the cousin that I was went to visit is a full native German citizen. Her mother is German and her father is my uncle. This is important to understand the range of perspectives I encountered in regards to blackness, and to all those who assume she’s an expat. I have had brief conversations with her about race in our young age but find that the question or more so, I am learning, the way I would ask the question about race seemed bothersome, trivial even.
A lot has transpired in the states that has brought black culture and lives to the forefront (re: #BlackLivesMatter, Rachel Dolezal). And, much of the reaction has occurred on Twitter–what has been termed “Black Twitter” (There’s a Wikipedia page!) to be exact. One of my favorite moments to have occurred on Black Twitter was the trending topic #AskRachel. It was a moment in which Black folk were united in our cultural experience, from television, to food and music. A recent hashtag that has garnered a lot of attention has been #GrowingUp______ (you fill in the blank); a hashtag that I first witnessed as #GrowingUpBlack quickly expanded to include a number of ethnic groups (re: Haitian, Jamaican, etc.).
Social media, as it has become more evident, provides a boundless territory to explore ethnicity, and race-making. A hashtag #GrowingUpBlack, which seemed so relevant to me, was only a small speck of the black experience even as it is experienced in America. Even during my amusement of #AskRachel, I wondered, how is it we all come to know these cultural factors of blackness, of being black, as fact. This trip to Europe opened my eyes further to the need for myself and museum practitioners to reconsider the boundaries and fluidity of race and race-making.
It’s difficult having these questions abroad. I didn’t know where to start, whereas in the states we mark the onset of slavery on American soil as a clear indicator of systemic racism. While in Germany I had the pleasure of attending the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK), a three-part modern art museum in Frankfurt. I was most drawn to MMK 3, where they were showcasing Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 finalists, in particular the work of Zanele Muholi highlighting LGBT relationships in South Africa. In was then, as the only black woman perusing this museum, I wondered what does this exhibit mean here. What context travels with this work, and what perceptions shift as a result of its relocation? What does it mean for the German sales clerk in the retail shop, a woman of color, to lock eyes with me? For us to both wonder if there is something shared between us, but to feel worlds apart? To consider the ways in which history is taught and revised world-wide so that our very notions of self are subjective?
I couldn’t ask for a better segway into this post than Amanda’s previous blog post Local Communities, Global Initiatives. Social media is proof that not only are communities of color active in race-making, but are vying for space to exist. We, speaking to my humanities folks here, need to acknowledge their pleas. That means exposing ourselves. And this isn’t just about blackness, that’s just one example.We need, for the sake of the survival of the museums, give greater respect to context as museum practitioners to give our audience the tools to interpret various experiences. To do that we have to be willing to immerse ourselves in the possibilities, put it out there, aid discussion and build from there.
The last thing I want leave you with is…the diaspora is beautiful! There are not many things I love more than seeing shimmering black skin befuddle my imaginations when they part their lips to speak Spanish, French or German. I met people who destabilized my very notions of ethnicity, race, history and heritage. From Sunday Dinner with Jim Haynes to the Black Paris Tour, which I will expand on more in a photo tour, I remembered that we as a human race have so much in common, and so much more to learn about one another and ourselves.