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.

#CrossLines: Creating a Culture of Inclusion (Review)

The annual American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference (an experience to be shared in a future post) hosted in DC this year, was accompanied by a number of happenings during the Memorial Day weekend; and the timing is not without significance. CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality was of one of those occurrences in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (formerly the U.S. National Museum) and coordinated through the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). This event occurs at a critical moment, as museums are fervently learning and finding their way through dialogues on race and identity, as they are both influenced by and inform history and culture.

CrossLines (here) was a movement through this dialogue.

Red Carpet entrance into CrossLines at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.

The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building was transformed after a century of transition and over a decade of renovation. The two-day weekend event was free and open to the public beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 28th, to 9 p.m. Sunday, May 29th. The event featured a number of artists, performers, activists, educators, and facilitators across varying mediums and messages (visit the site to learn more about who all was involved). The culture lab was textured by the richness of such exhibits and performances to unfold throughout the day for visitors as they could move around freely or join in on a complimentary tour.

I took my time on Sunday stopping at each exhibit, taking a tour and sitting in on performances throughout the day. I enjoyed what could be both a solitary experience, and as a group when later joining friends. However, I was particularly struck by the wealth of radical tradition and truth that empowered the space, and made for a communal environment among all walks of life, and all of it under the banner of the Smithsonian name bears great importance. Here at BGMB, we have been thinking a lot about the language of “diversity and inclusion” and on greater pathways to intersectional thought and practice within our art and cultural institutions.  Museums, like other institutions and corporations, are grappling with data that proves that their staff and audiences are not diverse enough, however, this information is certainly not new. And the usual quick fix is the diversity hire, or the diversity committee composed of all the people of color or the sole person of color doing all the programming for the “diversity” events.

But, as Kimberlé Crenshaw gives us in “Mapping the Margins” (1989), intersectionality has always been about forces of power upon particular persons in our society. Diversity without this understanding of intersectionality ignores the barriers to the workplace, psychological pressures within, or why certain narratives are not reflective of a universal experience. What made CrossLines successful was that it presented divergent narratives, it was experiential, and did not begin or end in one place. It did not force visitors to come to one conclusion or settle into one story, rather it gave way to various ways of knowing and being that were all welcome in the space. I think it is important to consider how CrossLines can be used to model a culture of inclusion for historical and cultural institutions to follow.

Diverging Narratives

Our work at BGMB is always one that is curious from outside of the traditions of the museum field, and we bring with us our personal experience and academic pursuits. My beliefs in the museum space are not without critiques of geography, language, and ways of learning that vary by community. I followed Adriel (Curator of Digital and Emerging Media, APAC) as he led a group of us to several of the artists’ plots, each with an opportunity to hear from the artists themselves. The geography of the space was arranged just so, so that the distance between transformative stories was lessened. Stories of art, history and culture at the intersections of race, sexuality and citizenship were not secluded from one another.

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On our tour, Adriel led us to a tipi, with a white female dressed in native costume there to welcome us inside (pictured above). She and I locked eyes, and I couldn’t tell if she was uncomfortable or if I was more uncomfortable for her. Inside the tipi we were offered a seat on the floor and to listen. The performance and artistry presented by Gregg Deal was part of his work “The Indian Voice Removal Act 1879 to 2016.” He shared with us the purpose of his work, to show the ways in which native voices are stripped of their power to speak, whether explicitly by his accompanying cultural interpreter who completely disregarded Deal’s words or cloaked in a Washington “Redskins” jersey. However, Deal did not speak with hostility, or target his words toward anyone specifically among us.

This is the part where I tell you I hate tours, always have. I’ve always felt put on the spot, or like everyone was thinking “she already knows this stuff because she’s black and has a better understanding for that reason.” We were a mixed group in terms of age ranges but we were not a rainbow coalition in terms of race of who was sitting inside. However, we all could appreciate that this was a truth within a larger narrative. We all had an opportunity to learn, and for once I did not feel the burden of responsibility was on me, i.e. because I’m black.

Inside the tipi with performance artist Gregg Deal. Art pieces inside.

Who tells the story? How the story is told? What stories do we tell? These are all important questions to ask of yourself and your cultural institution, and probably seem like an obvious “duh.” But so many history and cultural museums are tethered to the same narratives of race and identity embedded in a Western historical canon. We so often say to our audiences, which then becomes reflective of our staff, “because you are x, you must interested in y.”

APAC could have chosen to wholly spotlight works among Asian and Asian diaspora artists, and rightfully so considering the name of the center and even with the event in May, being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. However what they accomplished with this dynamic group of creatives was an acknowledgement of a range of experiences that do not belong to any one specific set of persons, and not without their historicity or cultural implications, but don’t exclude those other hybrid and hyphenated identities. The moment we are in is expressive of black lives matter, indigeneity, afro-asian and latinx peoples that make up the fabric of our communities. Our personal geographies navigate how we move through those identities as American, as woman, as heterosexual, etc.

The American story is contradictory, conflicting, but just because something is complex, different or new, doesn’t make it negative. It is about creating the space so that there is equal value in the exchange.

Pathways

I wandered throughout CrossLines for quite a bit of time after my tour but I found I spent much of it holding a conversation, inviting someone to sit or reminiscing with the folks around the People’s Kitchen Collective. The quickest way to someone’s history and heritage is across the kitchen table. The People’s Kitchen Collective is a group out of Oakland, California that specializes in diaspora dinners and kitchen remedies.  I was quite cozy among the fruit and veggies that adorned the table, surrounded by beautiful prints and patterns, and shelves dedicated to their food pharmacy (pictured below).

Shelf of remedies in the People’s Kitchen Collective.

The founders explained the process of filling out a prescription (pictured below) for either the flu, a stomach ache or white supremacy; the list goes on. Once the form was completed, you turn in the slip in exchange for another prescription filled out by someone else anonymously. My remedy for the flu paid homage to my grandmother’s hearty homemade chicken soup with rice and veggies and the chicken that stewed for hours. And if I was feeling achy, the tea she would give me with fresh lemon and honey, and the cough drop sunk to the bottom to diffuse in my drink; something so simple suddenly seemed like a science experience. I thought of things I hadn’t remembered in years, and remembered how these simple remedies were filled with the love and the little bit we had, which was always enough.

I completed my form and shared what I wrote, and suddenly felt my story wasn’t special enough, not original enough. I received my prescription and said I would read it when I got home.

Sharing personal remedies at the People’s Kitchen Collective.

A couple days after CrossLines concluded I was cleaning up the piles of memorabilia laid across my room, and there it was. The small brown paper bag with the People’s Kitchen Collective stamped on it. Opening it in my room, I started to tear up. The first thing I read was “Cliché, I know, but…”

Robert, a U.S./3rd generation Jewish immigrant had shared his remedy for fever and sore throat: chicken soup.

In that moment of filling out my prescription I called upon generational memory and cultural practices I didn’t realize were important to me, and was drawn to how that memory took shape in someone else’s life. I think about the work of Kosher/Soul culinary historian Michael Twitty:

Identity cooking isn’t about fusion; rather it’s how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat.

If we think about intersectionality in this way we realize we can’t discount any aspect of one’s experience. Intersectionality does not assume a shared experience (to borrow from Ariana Curtis, Latino Studies curator at the Anacostia Community Museum) but rather we must explore multiple pathways of knowing; they both intersect and diverge.

Moving Forward (and in various directions)

I hold on to these two seemingly disparate installations––Gregg Deal’s performance piece and the People’s Kitchen Collective––from CrossLines because they are exemplary of what I hope for in the future of museums.

During a Memorial Day weekend in our nation’s capital, among the several museums and activities simultaneously occurring on the National Mall, droves of people came into the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, and confronted were with numerous critiques and commentary on politics, patriotism, racism, colonialism…

The Smithsonian could have opted for one singular American story but it chose to tell many, and that’s a true American story.

We often get caught up in who is not coming into our museum in the sense of statistics, but what would the museum look like if we were to consider those who are coming as bringing texture and richness to the stories we already tell? When we set ourselves up for closed minds, we close ourselves to the possibility of greater inclusionary practices. The name of the event, “CrossLines”, is both what we need to do and the directions in which we should follow our work. I often think of art museums as having the flexibility to be nomadic, but what if our historical and cultural institutions were too? What could our pasts tell us that we hadn’t given attention to before? What cultural practices have we overlooked? Museums are only as empowered by the stories they can tell. Those are our stories.

As always drop us a comment and share with us on social media @2brwngirls. Thoughts?

Painting Black Flesh into History

The first thing people do is pull out their phones or their cameras, without actually checking or asking first. So I feel like I’m on display. And it actually cheapens what I’ve been doing  because they’re not getting the real story…

David Ibata is a copyist at the National Gallery of Art. For 4 years he’s been attending the museum’s copyist program in which artists are permitted to illustrate classical works of art within the collection, an occupation not largely filled by Black artists. Museum Visitors are then able to witness as these works are redone. This experience is of course filled with awe of the artistic ability and its likeness to the original work of art, but David’s work is met with curiosity, confusion and contempt.

Exercising artistic license, he began to paint the figures with black flesh tones.

So what was happening was people were complaining to the guards… The security guards are black, they’re just statues. They see a guy like me and they’re like, “thank you.”

As we say in American Studies, “Lets unpack that.” The invisibility of African Americans as staff within the museum is not a new phenomenon, but the conversation is not complete without speaking to the large proportion of African Americans as security or in food services. Statues, that in this scenario, come to life in service to white patrons.

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A conversation over coffee––from art to museums, movies to black culture, gentrification to police brutality––collided into the crux of our discussion: the hyperspecialization of difference. With the coming of the new Smithsonian entity on the horizon, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it is something to consider. Believe you me, I am waiting in excitement for the reveal of what I think will be an amazing contribution to black history and culture. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the need for such dedicated spaces is reconstitution of our place outside of the American story in some sense. It is to exist outside of the realms of “normalcy,” that the prefix “hyper” draws attention. Despite the good work being done to reassert the narratives of minorities, that of Native Indians, LGBTQ, disability and so forth, within these spaces as an appreciation simultaneously reaffirms their locality on the periphery. So when it comes to the work of David Ibata who merely dips his brush and with incredible ability, ‘reimagines’ classical paintings, he often confounds many of the guest. And I am apprehensive to use the term “reimagine” because in some sense he is making black bodies visible  which isn’t an untruth although it’s often accompanied by a suspension of belief. It would be akin to having a black James Bond or the backlash that came with the latest version of “Annie” starring Quvenzhané Wallis. The ways in which black folk, and other marginalized groups, are expected without question to be able to relate to the mainstream, but films with majority black actors and actresses, for example, become niche; ineligible to wider audiences and incapable of relating to broader experiences.

David and I discussed the above image in detail, and I don’t think there is a better scene of what is the simultaneous erasure and disruption that is black skin. David, despite being at the forefront of the photo, is not the focus. And the high contrast of the photo renders him almost invisible. As he marks one of the figures in the painting with black skin, an onlooker, a white female, observes the painting in utter bafflement. Meanwhile, a rendition of the biblical tale of Daniel in the lions den ironically gestures to them both in the background. Never mind that Daniel, a story set in Africa despite how media chooses to depict Egypt (re: the film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), is unquestionably  illustrated as white. Thankfully, David has been able to have what I like to call “teachable” moments, in which there are people who engage with his work, find inspiration and open themselves up to the possibilities of blackness.

After Eric Gardner died. After Mike Brown Died. I kept thinking to myself how is the museum going to respond to that. Nobody did anything…

Going to art shows was like business as usual. We’re at war right now, so painting the black skin was a way to exorcise the demons.

All of these frustrations, negotiations, and tensions, illuminate through the black flesh tones in David Ibata’s work. Don’t ask why he’s painting them black but begin to wonder why they weren’t there before. Consider what it means to be surrounded by whiteness and then be asked to reconfigure them as they are with so many options to do so. To rarely have the opportunity to paint blackness as royalty and in dignity, and not because they did not exist but that history is told by the winners. That to just imagine them in the narrative is a disruption of time.

There was a moment in the midst of our discussion in which David and I spoke about time-travel, the ways in which art galleries especially beckon us to imagine a different time period. It is a moment I am sure we each have had; to want to time hop to another era just to see what it was like. But our imaginations were halted by the realization of comedian Louis CK’s words.

“Black folk can’t f–– with time.”

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