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.

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.

Nona Faustine Confronts History through Portraiture

Self-portraiture allows me to respond to those images of people who were put on display as examples of inferiority, politicized black bodies in the early history of photography. Images made long ago and ideas perpetuated even now.

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I document myself in places where the history becomes tangible. Acting like a conduit or receptor, in both protest and solidarity, with people whose names have been forgotten and whose contributions remain unacknowledged. Conjuring past memories embedded in the land. The resulting images are both historical and anti-historical, as they pose questions to which the answers have been violently denied.

The figurative and literal weight of the black female body, the role it plays in Western society, and the canon of art history, reconstructing a narrative of race, memory, and time that delve into, stereotypes, folklore and anthropology, and family lineage. These are meditative reflections of a history Americans have not come to terms with, challenging the duality of what is both visible and invisible.

Frohawk Two Feathers on History and His Participation in Race and Revolution

RACE AND REVOLUTION is an art show that looks at the attitudes of the colonists that shaped the United States. Artist FROHAWK TWO FEATHERS discusses why chose to participate in the show.

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I wanted to participate in this show because it was coming from a place after my own heart. Also, I was impressed by the knowledge and passion of the curator (Katie Fuller) and the location of the inaugural exhibition, Governor’s Island. Having just wrapped up a chapter (3 years) of my historical narrative in New York I wanted to make a piece that kicks off the next chapter of that story and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that. I’m also pleased to exhibit alongside some wonderful artists with practices not unlike my own and show work that is in stark contrast to the “wallpaper du jour” that is ubiquitous these days.

Research is Sexy (and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not)

As you may have realized from my previous posts, I am curating a public art show this summer called RACE AND REVOLUTION that looks at the roots of racism by pairing contemporary artworks with the language of historical documents. Throughout the last couple of weeks I have offered snapshots of the nine artists involved. In weeks to come, you will learn much more about who they are and what inspires their work.

For now I feel it is important to share why I want to do this show, as in why me. The obvious answer is racism affects all of us. If you are not convinced this is true, turn on the news. The rise of Donald Trump is not happening by accident. His supporters have been waiting in the shadows for generations. He has merely given them permission to step out into the light. Second, an innate curiosity has always guided me to read, and read, and read. It’s hard to describe what books and words mean to me. What I can say is if I read a beautifully written or profound passage, a fire is ignited inside of me. I will flip the words over and over in my head, afraid to let them go.

It was a combination of my curiosity and my love of books that led me down the road of reading for social justice. Because I worked at a history museum, I read books about the Civil War. This led me to wonder and then read about the period of RECONSTRUCTION that came after the war. Then I wanted to know what happened after the failed Reconstruction, what we commonly call the Jim Crow era, but what I learned was so much deeper and more painful than what I had known, and the SUPREME COURT was at fault. So my question to myself became if the US Government has continually allowed for systematic oppressions, when did this start and how do we hold it accountable?

Through all of this I came to believe that acts of dominance that Europeans committed when they arrived in North America – acts that they got away with – have created this system of dominance and destruction. I started thinking about how to use historical primary source documents that explicitly state or describe such acts. If the language of the documents is irrefutable it becomes impossible to deny.

It has been both enlightening and deeply upsetting to find such documents in the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, and this process has taught me so much more about the early years of United States. If you are interested in learning more about the books and documents I have found, please comment, and I will share them with you. I am hoping this public art show approaches the discussion of racism in a way that inspires a change of thought. Please help make it a possibility by DONATING HERE.