The Nation We Make Together (Part I)

It has taken me two years to write this post. It is the reason this blog was created, but it wasn’t until recently that I found the words and the courage to write it, unapologetically. We’ve had a lot to contemplate, here at the blog, and we’re excited to finally share the conversations we’ve been having to hopefully, as always, inspire thoughtful consideration and critique of the field. In a two-part post (because we know how much you love those), Amanda and I explore what it means or what it could look like when we bring our vulnerabilities into “the institution.”

For me, it all begins with American history, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to be exact. It is what made it so difficult to finally find the words. NMAH was the first museum to welcome me here in D.C. as an intern, to embrace me, and I learned so much in my time there. So this piece is written from place of love, gratitude and appreciation to the many who continue to guide me, and does not take aim to destroy but in hopes to rebuild, together.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin


I am writing this after another verdict, during our country’s Independence Day celebrations, amidst our current political landscape. I am writing because until we come to terms with the psychological and emotional impacts of institutionalized racism on all of us, none of us are free.

Building Houses on National Memory

On a recent trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, I noticed their advertising for the now newly opened exhibition, “The Nation We Build Together.” I have not seen the exhibition since it’s opening June 28th, however I was struck by a few things during this last visit, that culminated in a number of anxieties exemplary of how whiteness constitutes national memory, and undergirds our institutions. On a banner above the south entrance, a collage of faces can be seen—across various ages, races, and eras. It is an obvious attempt at American patriotism, one that says despite our differences we’re all in this together. Among those faces was Emmett Till’s, a story that even in typing his name, it evokes imagery of his face that brings me to tears. See, the problem with national memory—that is fueled by nationalism in its very origins—is that not all of us can exist in it, not in our full humanity at least. Not everyone’s story will make it, in favor of a primary singular narrative.

I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend grad school, sure that my work would best be served in a museum-setting but as many young professionals not exactly sure how and in what ways. I was fortunate that a course my first semester granted me access to NMAH, as it was taught by a curator and held in the Museum once a week. It was my first real exposure to a museum on a national scale. One particular assignment from that course always stayed with me—we were tasked with observing an exhibit: What was the context for the exhibit? Who stopped at the exhibit? How were they discussing the exhibit? I chose the exhibit located on the main lobby floor of NMAH. I had never had the “National Museum” experience being from Chicago, and was fascinated to learn what the experience was like for audiences. It’s a small exhibit along the wall, that pays homage to 1960’s America through popular culture. I observed quickly, in a span of a few hours, that this case was overwhelmingly frequented by older white visitors and in a twist, white families. It was a moment of nostalgia for them to remember JFK, the Beatles, and a few major headlines. It was a moment that caused me to look around, and for the first time ask “where are we?,” as visitors and within the narrative.

The following spring, I interned at NMAH with a curator, who I continue to be grateful to today. She was sure to point my attention to the work that she did to secure certain stories existed within the Museum. It was also during this period that the blog was born.


“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” —Zora Neale Hurston


Decolonize This Place

For people of color, it is at this intersection of feeling and reality, that we repeatedly learn that we are in an overwhelmingly white space. It is at these moments that we come to understand our existence through the prism of whiteness. In a book I am reading,—which I’m sure my Instagram followers are tired of seeing me post—The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture by Kevin Quashie, I am challenged to consider the capaciousness of black humanity that exists beyond equating black life with resistance. For Quashie, and I agree, “These assumptions are noticeable in the ways that blackness serves as an emblem of social ailment and progress.” (Quashie, p. 3) Although, Quashie specifically examines black being, I think aspects of his argument do apply to the collapsable nature of marginalized cultures, accessible only in the ways that they fold into and/or propel white narratives forward.

In NMAH, blackness is legible as a resource and marker of market capitalism that upholds progress in American life and history; a phantom of entrepreneurship and innovation.  In this way, we are left to understand blackness as a problem in either instance. Objects centralize the story, so things are made but we are never truly revealed as to by whom and how these things came to be; without these intersections objects are born out of a function not from people, not from labor, and are condensed into a singular narrative. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a presence in the museum, an exhibition space there as a preview for its coming arrival in 2016, that now stands in for the existence of black life and resiliency secluded from American history despite its clear proximity.

The basis of Quashie’s argument is that blackness or “to be black” is defined through acts of resistance, as a result black subjectivity is restricted to the ways it contributes to public discourse through its expressions. Blackness is expected to and limited by what it can tell us about about race and racism, which is also evident in its absence in the museum. Quashie, therefore, argues for a reexamination of black existence that is attentive to black interiority, that is present as well alongside public acts of resistance. Quashie borrows this definition of interiority from Hortense Spillers (as he should), it is “the inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings of desires, fears, ambitions that shape a human self; it is both a space of wild selffullness, a kind of self-indulgence, and the ‘the locus at which self interrogation takes place.'” (Black, White, and in Color, p. 383 in Quashie, p. 21)

To consistently see ourselves as enslaved or as historical markers of segregation, for example, perpetuates our existence as only knowable in opposition to whiteness. However, Spillers’ point in regards to self interrogation is not only toward the institution but is also applicable to ourselves—the marginalized folk. Our presence has been obscured and erased from our cultural institutions for so long, and through years of trauma, that we’ve similarly come to understand ourselves in this opposition to whiteness. We don’t always recognize the toll this work of representation takes, or the ways by which we stop seeing ourselves for our full humanity in the process. Quashie pushes this argument further in a critique of Du Bois’ concept of “Double Consciousness”:

“In double consciousness, the twoness of black subjectivity does not represent another consciousness,  that is free and wild; instead, the twoness is a kind of pathology, a fractured consciousness that is overdetermined by a public language of black inferiority…In this characterization, agency is limited to resisting public discourse, and the black subject seems to possess no interior worth speaking of.”—Kevin Quashie


It is not enough that we find agency in our oppression. To decolonize the museum we must leave home. And for the institution, how then can museums offer pathways to selfhood for their visitors?

Leaving Home

Conceptualizing this post has been a slow realization for myself. I have stakes in keeping things the way they are, because this feels familiar—this feels normal. However, I’ve been challenged with confronting my own vulnerabilities, which until recent contemplation I was unaware of just how much I feel encouraged to protect the institution despite my work of inclusion. For communities of color, this work looks like us seeing each other and acknowledging the possibilities for social justice and equity in collaborative solidarity work. To do that, I’d have to accept the full range of your humanity that exists in the way that I would like for you to see me. For cultural institutions this looks like abandoning linear progress narratives that arc so as to always have a “happy ending,” or the inclusion of marginalized groups beyond that one particular holiday or specialized program. This self interrogation relieves whiteness, and therefore our institutions, of its perceived neutrality. Whiteness is not the basis of my existence.

This may seem simple or even obvious, but we underestimate the veil of security that nationalism and national memory affords us. Nationalism presents a clarity of self, whereas vulnerability is considered a liability to our survival. (Quashie, p. 77) But how do the stories we tell change the narrative when we consider the potential of our relationships to ourselves and one another in acknowledging our vulnerabilities? Could you see the expansiveness of my humanity? Seeing Emmett Till’s smiling face on a banner amidst other figures in history, knowing the ways in which the horrific events surrounding his life mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, was traumatic, and falls short of the thoughtfulness it’s meant to inspire when the institution fails to provide space for our humanity alongside these stories. In that brief encounter, we are meant to understand him as one destination in our nation’s story. As I mentioned, I have not seen the new exhibition since it opened and to be honest I don’t know if I will. I don’t know if my psyche can handle being jolted between slavery and civil rights narratives. However, here’s to hoping that we also exist somewhere in between.

Leaving home requires that we forego what we think we know—a sense of security wrapped into a tidy narrative. Our trauma is too great for that.



*All views expressed here are my own, and not the opinion of anyone else or institution.

Future of Museums I

The recent election. A new year. A blog two years in the making.

These are all the things that have us thinking about where to go next. We chose to write “Future of Museums” as a two-part post, to give insight from our individual perspectives as they are shaped by academia and museums, and so I look forward to Amanda’s post to follow. Year one was as much about you learning who we are in this field, as it was about us learning about ourselves. We established our voice as an invitation to our audiences to take space in their institutions and we continue to seek ways in which we can hold space for one another.

I remember when we began, what a shock it was for me to realize how many of us were actually in the trenches doing the work. So much of this became visible via Twitter, and later, Instagram. The digital has been a large part of our foundation and activism. The geography of who we are and what we can do has evolved to reflect the digital landscape. Part of our mission early on, was in how our platform can aid in being a bridge, lessening the excuse by institutions that we are “hard to find” and increasing the visibility of our collective missions.

In 2016, my inbox would indicate that our community of activists were amped and ready to do something to push the work of intersectionality and inclusion forward. However, as I was getting invited to do a number of things, I realized there was no synergy among these groups. Everyone was starting a new collective of this thing or another but again, we weren’t talking to each other. Much like my frustration with institutions, we were scrambling at threads rather than looking at the whole tapestry. Just as our approach to institutions entails an understanding of racism and oppression that is critical of white hegemony and colonialism; our activism too must be critical of the local and the global encroachment of anti-blackness. Otherwise we are digging a hole in the sand without the proper tools or foresight.

We must be more prudent and adamant in the coming years as the humanities and arts grow under threat. So this post is not only a call to action but a request. We want to work with you, collaborate with you, and brainstorm collectively. Let’s call on each other from this side of the pond to the other, to bridge our visions of community and intersectionality.

I envision a future of museums that is global in its pursuits for social justice.



(photo credit: @thebazaarbohemian via Instagram)


The Language of Diversity and Inclusion (Part 1)

Amanda and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) conference in Cleveland this month. We were invited as part of a young thought leaders session on diversity and inclusion. Our presentations were a moment to think through the language of diversity, and how we foresee the move toward intersectionality in the field.

I’ve been working through my own frustration with the over-saturation of the terms ‘diversity and inclusion’, intersectionality, and community that are often without the depth of meaning that allow for us to put them into real action.

RAR AAMD PPT-2 Extract 3.001


From its inception has been overly relied upon to do the work of changing our perceptions and the place of people of color within our institutions. A textbook dictionary definition of the root word diverse states, “showing a great deal of variety; very different.” ‘Diversity’ initiatives in this way are shortsighted. The cliche of diversity becomes a burden on people of color that only requires the appearance of change. (i.e. the diversity committee, comprised of all the folks that are “diverse,” diversity does not mean black and brown people, etc.)


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The problem with diversity is it’s uncomfortable, and not in the way doing the work of shifting our paradigms for ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives should be. ‘Intersectionality’, as it has been taken up, has become a way to bundle up difference with a bow. Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar, gave us this term in her critical essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” in 1989. Knowing the disciplinary origin of this term is important because intersectionality has always been about systems of power and privilege that are enforced upon particular persons in our society. (i.e. doing the work of inclusion should be difficult. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong.)

RAR AAMD PPT-2 Extract.001


But as language travels so does meaning, and instead we’ve settled on a definition that sanitizes difference so to not have to critically examine the consequences of power on those differences. Diversity in this ways does not inquire into how to deal with difference but contains it. If we, in museums, are to do the work of intersectionality, we must examine our privilege and power; and it starts with putting meaning into practice. It is how we come to find and know our community.

RAR AAMD PPT-2 Extract 2.001

It is easy to settle for the community that looks like you, and that you can assume you know; rather than to ask the questions that would cause you to confront your own ignorance. Communities are ever changing, and for that we should never settle.

(Thank you again to AAMD for having us for their centennial conference convening.)

Women in the Archives Resource List

Women, Archives & Self-Preservation

Please see the list below of women, primarily women of color, in the archives. We see this list as inclusive of diverse voices and critical perspectives to center marginalized voices. These are narratives not often included or highlighted in the history texts, and therefore are not part of the historical canon. We also want to acknowledge contemporary archives, to preserve the now, that are not without historical precedent. We will continue to add to this list. This list was compiled in collaboration with Museum Hue. Join us for our March 15 #Huesday Twitter chat, “Women, Archives & Self-Preservation.”

The Artist or the Developer, Which Came First?

Cities change and art changes with them.

I had actually meant to write this post some time ago. I had returned from a trip in Philadelphia in which I took a mural tour with the Mural Arts program for their “A Love Letter for You” train tour, a series of murals done by renown artist Stephen Powers that can be seen from street-level and rooftops. We got on the city metro and would get off at various stops to get a closer look at some of the works. The program prides itself on rallying street artists as part of the anti-graffiti initiative in the 80’s due to the graffiti “crisis” and instead commission them to do artwork and participate in programmatic initiatives throughout the city. See their website for more about what they do.

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I tend to cringe at these sorts of programs as I am well aware of the ways in which street art is co-opted by city and development interests to capitalize on what was once an organic form of artistic expression by local residents that is then sanitized for the purposes of branding and attracting visitors. I intentionally don’t use the term “authentic” in place of “organic,” which has a long tenuous history in regards to cultural heritage, as it is a term often wielded by city officials and developers to accomplish means of revitalization that primarily privileges gentrifiers.

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On Sunday, we were honored to be able to sit among artists, creatives, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens for a Gather On event hosted by Nomad Yard Collectiv at 411 New York Ave NE to discuss these very concepts. The small business incubator is up against the city, and their struggle speaks to a larger one occurring in many cities.

Nomad Yard Collectiv is a homey, vintage shop unlike any other I have frequented housed in the historic Union Arts building, one of the last artist communities of its kind in the city. The site holds space for visual artists, musicians, poets, and entrepreneurs who have all formed a constituency, an ecosystem. It wasn’t until February 1st at city hall when I sat in on a public hearing, that I realized the threat this ecosystem is under to be destroyed. See our open letter to the city here.

The Union Arts building was purchased by developers who intend to transform the space into a “boutique” hotel, along with the other hotels that will occupy New York Avenue in that area. The location is adjacent to Union Market. The area is being carved out to make space for gentrifiers who the city and developers claim want to see art.

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It really is a home of sorts, and I don’t have to say that for the purposes of this post. It’s impossible to spend less than 15 minutes in this shared arts space, whether it’s perusing vintage fashions, finding an archive of history or poetry, or simply chatting with the ladies who are always there to welcome you at the door. And my favorite aspect, the amount of Black girl magic in this space from owner Desiree Venn Frederic (the other DVF). It’s just that rare to find a business of this caliber and magnitude in the city owned by a young black entrepreneur.

My fear is that we, museum professional and other culture workers who capitalize in various respects on the production of artists, don’t realize the severity of what is occurring in our cities that is not just the problem of the artist versus the developers. We are witnessing the dwindling of space and care for those who are easily marginalized, and further pushed into the periphery. This is a housing issue. This is a humanities issue. This is an economic issue. If we really want social justice in museums we must protect the artists, whose craft gives us reason to be curators and educators. We are not naive to the almighty dollar or the inevitability of change but we have a duty to steer change toward a future that we all can aspire.

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It is why we continue to say, “We are here. We’ve always been here.” Being silenced does not mean we are not there.

Please join us tonight at Judiciary Square to hold space and show support. Sign up for the Union Arts DC email listserv.



The Empty Seat Beside You

It is of no surprise that inclusion and diversity are hot topics, or that my inbox has been flooded with CFPs for conferences on the subject of revolution, protest, and social justice. #BlackLivesMatter has shaken up the Twitterverse and caused various institutions and disciplines to reevaluate modes of access to the field and the viability of  people of color.

Recently, the monthly #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson chat concerned itself with the use of diversity and inclusion as a theme for conferences or for individual sessions. Continue…

MuseumNext Indianapolis 2015

The 2-day conference collaborated around strategies toward inclusivity and the responsibility of the museum as a learning environment to deepen its engagement. So what do we learn by being inclusive?

The 2-day conference collaborated around strategies toward inclusivity and the responsibility of the museum as a learning environment to deepen its engagement. So what do we learn by being inclusive?

Ravon Takes the Windy City

I’m back from Chicago! Finally settled in and ready to share some photos from my trip. I recently purchased a Nikon D7000 (#TeamNikon!) and this was my first time using it! Disclaimer: I am not a photographer but hope to continue to improve, and of course bring those skills to the blog. So here’s a quick rundown of the 9 sites I made it to in THREE days (yes, it is possible). Also, check out my think piece for this week summarizing my travel experience. All photos from this experience and all other BGMB excursions can be found on our Instagram and in full on Flickr. Everything here is just a quick highlight of what I saw and captivated me most!