Two Weeks at Tuskegee: Or Wow! This country is in a lot of pain

This has been a tough couple of weeks. Last summer, when a certain upcoming election was still wearing heavily on my mind, I decided I needed to better understand how the United States has, historically, created an “other”, that group of people who becomes the scapegoat in times of economic or physical turbulence. Where better to go than Tuskegee University, which holds the largest archives of lynchings in the United States? So here I am, at the end of a two-week research residency in Alabama, researching racial terrorism.

After 9/11 Newsweek published a title story “Why They Hate Us”. At they time I was teaching high school English. This cover photo and title so enraged me, so disgusted me by how irresponsible and inflammatory it was that I immediately bought a copy.

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The image and its heading became a teaching tool for my persuasive writing unit: How does this magazine encourage xenophobia and Islamophobia? What responsibility do news sources have to present a perspective that does not incite fear and misunderstanding? Etc, etc.  As I was researching newspaper sources on historical acts of domestic terrorism these past two weeks, these same questions occurred to me. How has media and how does media contribute to the perception of “other” as something to be feared and something to blame?

I spent time these past couple of weeks reading newspaper articles about lynchings written between 1899-1938, and counting the number of times the word “Negro” was used in place of “man”, “woman”, “person”, or “child”. In one article a young man was presented to the newspaper’s audience only as “negro” and “prisoner”. Might I add that the teenager in the story had not yet been found guilty of anything? Seldom was the person stated by his or her gender. Sometimes the word “boy” replaced “negro”, but these were rare occurrences.

Satire, an expressive tool I usually love, became a weapon when Northern papers reported on lynchings. I wonder if it is ever appropriate to use irony when addressing something so violent, toxic, and painful. Also, I am reminded of how satire used during the Election 2016 cycle wound up alienating voters who were wary of the political establishment. Could the same have been true during the years lynchings reached their peak?

Senator Bilbo from Mississippi said during the 1938 filibuster over the Anti-lynching Law that was being proposed“Take out the 12,000,000 negroes and there will be a job for every white boy and every white girl.”

Why, in this country, does it constantly become one against the other? And how is this “other” determined? Why in a country that raises a torch in the spirit of Independence is it so terrifying to be a non-white male? Why, whenever someone challenges our thinking around the creation of “other” is there such a violent, repulsive backlash? Most importantly how can we learn to remain open to differences and things that challenge our perspectives and understandings of the world around us. Different is not wrong. Different has no judgment. It is just different.

I Saw a Noose Today.

I’m in Alabama researching for the next chapter of Race and Revolution, an art exhibition that explores patterns of systemic racism by pairing historical documents with contemporary artworks. Since the election of 2016 the focus will be on how this country creates an “other” through which we can channel all of our fears and scapegoat, leading to acts of terrorism and, in some cases, murder. Murder that has a twinge of justice backing it is called lynching. Lynching can take the form of hanging and burning and is sometimes done through shooting.

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Tuskegee University, founded by Booker T. Washington on July 4, 1881, has the most comprehensive data on lynchings in the United States, so I am in Alabama. The map above is from the Tuskegee archives, but it only covers thirty years of lynching history, the time period that was consider the pinnacle of lynching related deaths. The noose mentioned in the heading is on display in one of the record rooms, where lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative were looking through documents to support their Community Remembrance Project.

The noose was donated by a grand nephew or cousin – I was too busy trying not to cry to be paying much attention. It was made with three different parts to it. A bull whip had been used for the loop that goes around the neck. The archivist explained that the the man who was lynched was first whipped. There was normal rope, about 1/2″ thick, that was used to wrap around the tree. The third part of the noose was a flat rope; I was told there are three blood stains on it. This portion of the noose was used to wrap and display the body. There is no way to paint this picture that isn’t going to make the stomach turn and the eyes well up. It was a disgusting display that was used for a disgusting act. Yet, it happened. And it happens.

So my question today, and pretty much everyday since I started this research, is how do we come to meet these stories that expose the darkest depths of humanity to learn from them and to find places of compassion? The archivist at Tuskegee told me that doing this work will make me a better person. I am here. Let’s see what unfolds.

Tic-Toc: Opening Day is a Week Away!

My-oh-my, installation for Race and Revolution begins tomorrow morning at early o’clock! With all of these preparations underway (packing, getting permits, taking inventory – sort of, training interns, the artists of Race and Revolution have been starting revolutions of their own!

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But before I get into the artists who participated at the DNC, I want to thank Ron Shelton of HIGH ART FRIDAYS for featuring Race and Revolution on his online arts magazine. The article features a piece gilf! created for Truth and Power, an art exhibition just outside of the DNC that focused on the social and political woes in the U.S. Gilf! made a provocative work of art called . . . and counting that is both beautiful and tragic. She has written the names of all men, women, and children killed by police in 2016, 620 . . . and counting, on toe tags tied to satiny white ribbon that sway as if breathing.

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Michelle Angela Ortiz also kicked some Democratic Convention butt as she marched with Juntos outside of the DNC to protest the ICE building in Philly. ICE is where undocumented immigrants are jaile- I mean detained until the country decides what to do with them. She painted twelve portraits of people who have been or are being detained. Their stories are written on the backs of the portrait, making it a double-sided mural that could be turned around to give face and voice to these invisible men, women, and children.

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Jen Painter was on assignment for day two of the DNC. She had the exciting task of photographing Patrick Kennedy, who was there with Like-Minded, an organization that creates opportunity and awareness for people suffering from mental illness. Jen’s work always addresses community, in all of its messy and passionate iterations. This community organization is challenging the status quo on how mental illness is treated (or not treated) in the United States.

Preparations Underway!

Race and Revolution opens in less than two weeks! This week my interns and I helped artist Ann Lewis (gilf!) prep her art piece that will hang over the stairs in the gallery. She is using this opportunity to create awareness around police shootings.

Ann’s piece will be at the Democratic national Convention before it makes its way back to NYC for Race and Revolution’s opening on August 3rd.

She is writing the names and their cause of death for each and every victim. Her research process has been fastidious; through her work I have learned so much about the statistics of police-initiated violence in the United States. We are losing a lot of men at the hands of the police, some guilty but many not guilty.

A House Divided

I called Paul Ryan yesterday and left him a voicemail pleading for the GOP to listen to the people and to get their heads out of their asses and their money grubbing hands out of their pockets. “A house divided cannot stand.” So the Democrats have chosen to sit.

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Talwst, 2012

The Other Half of the Declaration of Independence

As the crowdfunding campaign for RACE AND REVOLUTION winds down, I have been reflecting on the steps I’ve taken to put this show together.

I have been teaching in a history museum for close to seven years, and before that I taught high school English, so I’ve read the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. It’s considered the most important document in American history; therefore, it’s pretty much required reading for students in the United States at some point during their schooling. And yet, I find myself in the very uncomfortable position of needing to confess that, until recently, I had only read the preamble, the one that states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and goes on to talk about Life, Liberty, and Happiness. After the Preamble is a very long list of grievances, addressed to King George, III, that condemn the King for being a colonizer. He taxed the colonies; he assigned a standing army to the colonies, and the colonists had to house the soldiers. He enforces the laws from England, as opposed to allowing the colonists to establish their own.

But what draws my attention, these days, as I prepare for this art show about the roots of racism in American history is that very last grievance: the one we never get to because, well, there are a lot of grievances. It reads:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

These “Indian Savages”are also being colonized by the British AND the Patriots! That is one problem I have with this document. Another is where Thomas Jefferson writes, that commit “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” This seems too convenient because it neglects to mention the cruelty with which the British and the Patriots sacrificed Native men, women, and children, mercilessly. The other problem I have is that the word “men” in the Preamble excludes most of the people living in and around the colonies. It excludes Native peoples, Africans, African Americans, women. This becomes evident when Jefferson refers to Native men as “savages”, as if a savage is a different kind of being all together.

Does this mean our nation’s declaration was one of exclusion? Does this mean that the founding fathers meant for this country to evolve without honoring all of its inhabitants? These questions have been spinning in my head for the last several years. I don’t have an answer, nor do I want to force my point of view. The objective here is to offer another perspective by showing the actual words that were used to establish and fight for this new Democracy. By pairing this language with contemporary artworks and exhibiting both to the public, I am hoping, we the people, can at least explore these different points of view and establish a new understand of how the past plays out in the present.

 

How We Remember: Putting History in its Place

Who remembers the stories you learned in your American history classes?

Who were the good guys? And the bad guys? (And, yes, they were most often men.)

Why do you think historical memory creates such distinct sides, as if we’re cheering for a sports team and not the events that make up the shaping of this nation?

Though I have realized how skewed history could be, it wasn’t until I started researching for the public art show RACE AND REVOLUTION that I realized how incredibly complicated it is. The art show will use historical documents from the American Revolution to show parallels between racism during the time the United States was being shaped with racism today because there is a lot of overlap between violence and disenfranchisement then and today.

My realization has become (and it’s still a work in progress) that the American Revolution isn’t about dates and battles. It is about individuals trying to get what they think is rightfully theirs – freedom, independence, land, agency. No matter the individual, this is why the war was fought, and this is why the war included Native Americans – fighting on both sides – and free and enslaved African Americans – fighting on both sides. In fact, history is kind of like reality TV: the public sees the individuals and what happens through the eyes of the producers and directors.

The banner photo is of a Mohawk named Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), a man who history has revered as a brave Mohawk chief who fought on the side of the British. More thorough research has taught me that he was only revered by the British, not by his Mohawk peers.

As preparations for this summer’s art exhibition continue, I will talk a bit more about the research, but what I really want to know is what you all think about the way history is written and what that has to do with the roles individuals play out in society today.

 

Time is Running Out . . .

Folks, I am not going to beat around the bush. RACE AND REVOLUTION, a public art show to be held on Governors Island that explores the roots of racism, needs additional funding. There is one week left to raise money through crowdfunding. Please CONTRIBUTE HERE, and then read on to learn more about the show.

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Nine artists will respond to historical documents written by this nation’s founding leaders. George Washington, John Adams, General John Sullivan, and General Thomas Sumter excluded Native and African American peoples from fighting in the American Revolution based on a supposed lack of worth. As the war dragged on, they had to rethink their strategies and beef up the army. They did so by adding Native Americans and both free and enslaved African Americans to the Continental Army.

These race-based agendas have trickled through American history. They have manifested themselves in acts of police violence, in legislation that excludes populations, in voting restrictions, in racist language spoken by presidential candidates.

Nine artists, all of who have been featured in this blog and who you will earn more about in the coming weeks, are creating works to show how they, as people living in the United States, have been impacted by racism. Their works will show a connection between racism today and racism in the time of the American Revolution, a war that was fought to guarantee independence from oppressors.

Starting next week, I will be focusing on the work of each artist, so that you may learn why he or she wanted to be involved in Race and Revolution. We may also get to see sneak peeks at what they are creating! Stay tuned, and share this post!