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.

Selma to Montgomery and Voters’ Rights

Yesterday I drove from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama the same route taken by men, women, and children who were protesting for the right to vote in 1965. edmund-pettus-bridge

The Edmund Pettus bridge was the most pivotal point of all three of the 1965 marches: the first ended in police violence so extreme that day is now referred to as “Bloody Sunday”. The second march also ended abruptly at the bridge because the police – once again – threatened violence. By the third march, LBJ offered support via the National Guard, who were waiting on the far side of the bridge. The marchers walked fifty miles in four days, stopping at campsites along the way. By the time they reached the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong!

Though Martin Luther King, Jr, who led the second and third march, was not allowed on the steps or inside of the Capitol Building, the point was made; people wanted and deserved the right to vote, a right that had initially been granted in 1870, through the passage of the 15th Amendment.

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Two protesters were murdered. Many more were beaten. And this country is still trying to instill bogus restrictions on voting rights.

This summer, while working at Race and Revolution on Governors Island, when the upcoming election was hot on everyone’s mind, three men came to visit the exhibition. Another man was in the space exploring on his own. At some point the four men began talking to each other, and the subject of voters’ rights came up. One of the men had strong memories of how terrified and intimidated African American people were by the act of registering to vote and then voting. As I listened to these men share memories and experiences, I reflected on how I have approached the privilege of voting. I had been negligent in the past not considering how so many people had fought and died for the right to vote and why having the right to vote was so terrifying to those who hold power, and, therefore, so important to respect.

The Election of 2016 has been contentious, to say the least. But what, to me, was the most upsetting is how many people thought that withholding their vote was an act of rebellion against the candidates and the Government. How is it rebellious to not have a voice – or to take away your own voice?

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.

Nona Faustine: An Artist’s Duty. . .

I asked Ms. Faustine what role she thinks an artist has in society – especially in these tense times.

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Good question, it’s one that we are still discussing, each generation has to answer that for themselves. I’m from the Nina Simone school of thought she put it so eloquently and beautifully. “An artist’s duty to which as far as I’m concerned is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptures, poets, musicians; it’s their choice but I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty, at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate when everyday is a matter of survival. I don’t think you can help but be involved… I don’t think you have a choice how can you be an artist and not reflect the times. That to me is the definition of an artist.”

Nona Faustine: History and the Black Body

Nona Faustine’s piece Like a Pregnant Corpse the Ship Expelled Her into the Patriarchy symbolizes slave ships arriving on Brooklyn’s shores, a story rarely told. Here she writes about art being reflective of history: whose stories continue to be left out?

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Whose bodies matter and why and by that I mean who is being most represented and seen, whose stories are being told over and over again? Through whose eyes are we looking at history and what does that mean? How does photography reflect the history of the black body and what is that history? What is my place within that? How do you make interpretations of the world with what you’ve been given? As Americans who are we really? How did we get to this place and time? The fallout from all of that history still haunts us, its impact dominates and in many cases dictates our lives. 

Nona Faustine: Racism is . . .

Nona Faustine marches up the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, built on top of what was part of the African Burial Ground, in New York City; this photo is titled Over My Dead Body.

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Racism in the United States is a cancer that has infected every segment of our culture and society for too long. Institutionally and structurally operating on all levels and highly adaptive, you see its devastating effects on a daily basis. To be fully proficient it demands that a large segment of our society denies its existence and denies, at least publicly, that they are indoctrinated, that the disparities and inequalities we see in our society are simply due to some lack of accountability, ambition, and inferiority, in one’s self or group of people that it affects. You wonder if there will ever come a day in this country when racism won’t be so prevalent. What is most distressing is the thought of how one’s life as an African American with Native blood would be different if racism didn’t exist.

 

Nona Faustine on History, Memory, and Trauma

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The opportunity to explore little known aspects of the role of Africans and Native people in the Revolution, it’s absolutely dynamic! At this time in my creative work explores history and memory and trauma. American History is so much more than what we have been taught in school and that is such a tragedy to me, particularly the contributions and sacrifices of African and Native people whom without there would be no America. We need desperately to change that.