Thursday, December 18, 2014

Race in America Through the Eyes of Youtube

A very interesting video installation. Exhibiting American opinions on race and blackness a few seconds at a time. Wish I could see the entire thing.

For more on this installation please see this LA Times article After Ferguson: U.S. museums need to show a work by Natalie Bookchin

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reblog: Joint Statement From Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson

This statement was to important to not pass on. Please Read! Reblogged from the amazing blog Cabinet of Curiosities.

"The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?
Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge.University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizationsare contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.
Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.
We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines. Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.” We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. "...

Continue reading here:

It is time I made ready for what is to come

I have been slower than I intended in blogging as of late because I am working on some very important applications. After the exhaustion of completing my master's degree finally began to wear off I knew I needed to move on to the next step, but something kept stopping me. I was tired of not making much money, tired of used furniture, budgeting, living paycheck-to-paycheck and watching the majority of my friends back home making big money and moving into gorgeous condos and large homes. I thought now is the time to make money. Then current events and frustrating interactions put a hold on that $$$quest and spun me back to my original goal.



See, first there was Trayvon Martin. Then after his story hit the news there was the slow accumulation of other names. Men, women and children who were killed before and after him. Their deaths were no longer individual events that only their families or local communities cared about. A movement was growing. Their stories became a collective narrative of state sanctioned violence in a polarized country that was still unable to honestly handle interracial conversations about slavery. Which "ended" almost 150 years ago. When the verdict came back and Darren Wilson went home without an indictment, I was not surprised. When Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer, I was not surprised. When that officer was not charged I was not surprised. And then suddenly I was staring at my laptop at an ever lengthening list of the dead and I was enraged. I could not write a summary of how my slavery workshops went. I could not answer any of the docents post-it note questions about how to handle a racist cousin, or was George Washington kind, or how do you explain to a black 8 year old that yes the house you work in is a memorial to a man who special ordered a little girl from Africa 200 years ago and funded a stinking, swaying ocean going dungeon that killed more than half of its prisoners. I Could Not! I could not write anything that was not an outpouring of my anger. 

My first slavery workshop last month went so well. I gave the briefest most basic history of slavery I possibly could without skipping some necessary information. Then we got the questions rolling and had a wonderful conversation. Then I hosted the second workshop for more than twice as many people. I had been told to cut the general history and instead discuss the history of slavery in Rhode Island followed by an extended period of discussion time. My time ended up being cut down even further thanks to parking issues and announcements. But how do you have an informed conversation on a topic you know little about. Without the general history I had a difficult time during the second workshop reading the room and figuring out a baseline of knowledge. We had an interesting discussion but I received some very frustrating questions and comments that told me A) the workshop was a bandaid, B) further education was needed and C) there needs to be more diversity among docents and staff. I will address C in a separate post. I was so incredibly frustrated after that second workshop. I had to do something. When I am upset and stressed out I have to do something that feels constructive or my brain will refuse to shut down and allow me to sleep at night.

Soon after that second workshop Darren Wilson went home backed by a supportive local white community and with his pockets lined with donations from people around the country who believe he shot a good for nothing thug. And then there was Eric Garner. And then there was Tamir Rice. And my empathy sensors broke down for a few days. I felt helpless. I have four wonderful intelligent nephews. What will happen to them. One is a tall healthy looking 16 year old with autism. He is so quick and has an amazing memory and spelling skills and comes from a loving family. But will his awkward social skills get him killed one day? Will his crime be looking menacing when he is actually scared or threatening when he is just confused? Will he walk forward so that he can hear better when he should back up? Sometimes he goes out wondering around. He got hit by a car last year while lost in his own neighborhood. He was so terrified. What if someone said he had attacked their car? What if the police had seen him walking and tried to question him. He may not have reacted the way a non-autistic kid reacts. I can't continue these thoughts because it breaks my heart.

I have been thinking about my nephews and nieces, my friends who just gave birth to black sons, my own desire for children, the workshop discussions and all of the poorly handled race conversations I have witnessed over the last few years. I have to do something. I've tried marching. I've tried letter writing. I have tried arguing. But my life's mission is to educate. Sharing knowledge and passing down stories. There is a movement stirring and I cannot sit here numb to it all. There is a part for everyone to play. Mine is to continue studying, teaching and engaging average Americans in difficult but necessary histories.

Education is the greatest armor in the war for the American dream. It is time I made ready.

My favorite Moment of Zen

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Slavery Problem: A Good Master

Is there such thing as a good or kind master? 

I have been considering this question for sometime. What do you think? I posed this question during both of my slavery workshops for the Rhode Island Historical Society's docents. One man compared it to the question of whether someone can truly be a "benevolent dictator." Isn't a master a dictator whose kingdom is his home, or his farm or his plantation. During slavery that dictatorial power stretched beyond the reaches of the land he/she owned and follows the master wherever they went within a slave society. That power also followed them into the "free territory". Perhaps it may have been challenged but there would have almost always been someone to reinforce the master's power over the enslaved.

To truly examine this question we need to first break it down.

  • What does it mean to be a slave master?
  • What does it mean to be good?
As you consider these questions, please enjoy a brief clip from one of my favorite YouTube series, Ask A Slave.

I'll be back later in the week with my take. Until then please comment or tweet to me @their_child

Update Dec 19th

Add caption

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Slavery Problem Or the Problem with Slavery: A Walking Tour

RIHS docent leading a walking tour of College Hill

A couple of months ago I took the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Women’s History walking tour of historic Benefit Street in Providence. I ended up being the only person to show up for the tour. Instead of canceling it, a very friendly and knowledgeable docent and I set off up the hill. As we walked she pointed out various points of interest and enthusiastically explained their importance. In between sites she asked a few get-to-know-you questions and found out that I had just finished grad school at Brown, was from out of state, and was interested in African American history, slavery and cemeteries. What began as a tour of sites connected to some of the many notable women of College Hill eventually evolved into a much larger tour that led us off College Hill, through St. John's Episcopal Church cemetery, through the Athenaeum and past the local preservation society's office.

It was an incredibly serendipitous walk. There is nothing better than having an enthusiastic teacher and my guide was full of facts and interesting stories. She was so knowledgeable of local history that she eventually customized our walk to some of my particular interests. That included leading me to the picturesque St. John's Church Cemetery. Even though it was way off the usual tour it gave us a chance to briefly discuss and examine an aspect of Providence’s history of slavery. There among the graves of 19th century Providence Episcopalian elites lies a selection of their favored enslaved servants. She rattled off a few facts she remembered and pointed out graves of interest. This was a history that she was not particularly versed in but she believed it would be a site that I would appreciate. She was correct! Our conversation turned from the usual, well rehearsed and researched details of popular Providence tourist sites to a history she, as an older Rhode Island raised white woman, was not too comfortable discussing. I appreciated that too. Slavery is a difficult topic for many people to handle. She made the effort to push past her natural discomfort and in the end we both gained a lot from the experience.

As we walked back to the John Brown House she confided that she sometimes gave tours where she had to talk about slavery. Sometimes she wanted to avoid or rush through that part of the tour. Her hesitation seemed to stem from both guilt and fear. She was not the only docent who had been having a difficult time talking about slavery. She wanted to do better but, she was not sure how. Also, the history of slavery in and of itself was not always the problem. She and several others had experienced negative reactions coming from visitors when they did discuss slavery and felt attacked by other visitors when they did not. The history of the John Brown House and other historic sites important to Rhode Island’s tourist industry, like pretty much every historic site in America, is tied to a fraught, and often intentionally invisible history. Slavery is not always the issue, but there are often stories that house managers, docents and boards continue to keep under wraps. Perhaps that is for a reason. Who wants to host their fantasy wedding in a mansion where an enslaved 7 year old was kept like a pet of her enslaver and forced to sleep in a stifling windowless attic until her death? And even then she was buried at her enslaver’s feet. Who wants to bring their grandchild to visit the home of a man who was at least partially responsible for the imprisonment of 196 innocent young men, young women and small children? Will the tour be easier or harder if you reveal that of the 196 incarcerated people 109 died of starvation, suicide, illness or murder before they could be auctioned off to the highest bidder thousands of miles from anyone or anyplace they had ever known? How should a docent explain that story?

These are difficult histories to tell. But they are necessary.
Over the coming weeks I will explore the many issues faced by historic house staff and docents as they attempt to deal with their site’s history of slavery. Each post will start off with a question I received from a local docent.

From Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum Exhibition for the Maryland Historical Society

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Plantains and Cultural Politics

I headed to Puerto Rico last week hoping to learn more about the island's enslaved ancestry and instead learned a great lesson about the complicated nature of representation in the colonial and post colonial context.
First of all for anyone who doesn't know, Puerto Rico is a US territory. Puerto Ricans are US citizens and they (and we American/main-landers) can travel back and forth with as little as a drivers license or other government issued ID. That is because back in the mid to late 1800's America decided that now that it was no longer a British colony it was time to assert it's new found power on the world stage by colonizing someone else. The new government did not have to look very far. American military commanders and pro-slavery robber barons, starting under Lincoln, wanted control of the islands of the Antillies because of their militarily and economically strategic positions. PR was a gateway to the riches of Latin America, an excellent military outpost, and thanks to slave and forced labor- a pretty excellent wealth generator. The Spanish-American war ensued but in the end Haiti wrestled their independence from all of the colonial powers; Cuba and the Dominican Republic were eventually granted their independence from Spain; and Puerto Rico became an American colony.
Even though PR is now considered a part of America, it is not an official state and its representatives can speak but cannot vote in congress. Kind of like Washington, DC. Their historically disempowered voice in their own affairs has had a huge impact on the country. Even though they are no longer a colony it certainly seems like they are. PR is still a very colonial country (American is better - English is better - Whiter/more European is better). Every where I went in San Juan, and in some of the larger cities, I found myself confused about whether I was actually in PR or the US. My cell phone worked, most people spoke english, the mall had everything from Forever 21 to Jc Penney to Church's Chicken (how dare they import such an awful franchise!) The little strip malls along the highways were just as full of American brands. The prices were comparable even though the wages are lower on the island. American businesses crowded out local venders even in some of the mountain villages. Why was there a Pep Boys in every town?

So I eventually found myself intrigued by and exploring the post/current colonial narrative through the lens of public and institutionalized.

Art Commentary:
The banana like fruit called the plantain is informally considered the national fruit. It popped up in every museum and in street art and was used frequently as a representative of Puerto Rican Culture. The two pieces below are both title Our Daily Bread. The first one was created in 1905 and is considered a masterwork by one of PR's earliest native born artists. Below is a modern artist's reinvention of the image. Plantains are meant to represent the island's poor, rural, more primitive elements (native Taino/indian and/or African roots) while also speaking to a sense of local independence and power (production power, landowning independent peasants).
Artist Ramon Frade's Our Daily Bread
Artist Ramon Frade's Our Daily Bread 1905
Victor Vazquez's "Our Daily Bread" 2009. This image was every where in the art museums and book stores I visited
More plantain art
Fine art in the public space. Below are several images I photographed on a long barrier in a San Juan neighborhood. It was curated by two local art teachers and each piece was created by one of their students. Each references Puerto Rican culture or history.

One thing I did not get a chance to photograph due to time constraints, exhaustion and the incredibly short battery life of my phone, was a guerrilla style street art exhibition. While walking to find a grocery store in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood in San Juan, I noted a space where a building had been nocked down. The small lot consisted of three concrete walls belonging to other rundown buildings. Upon entering the ragged weed covered lot I realized that all three walls were decorated with art. Each piece was given a clearly designated space and each one appeared to have been created by a different artist. Some pieces were spray pained on, others involved stenciling and others were hand painted. I was blown away. They had everything but labels and a docent. I tried to go back to the space on my last day in PR to get pictures but we ran out of time searching for it and decided it was best not to miss our flight home.
If you go to PR in the future definitely check out:
1 Museo de Arte de Ponce
2 The Puerto Rican Gallery of art in San Juan
3 Museo de la Masacre de Ponce - all about a massacre of unarmed Puerto Rican citizens on Palm Sunday by an American led police force. Small but fascinating museum.
And for fun you must go to Vieques and sit on a deserted beach.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ships of Bondage Exhibition

Last year I worked on my first real exhibition for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. We installed it at the Center for Public Humanities Carriage House Gallery in the spring of 2013. It was a such a success that a curator from the Iziko Slave Lodge in Capetown South Africa invited us to reinstall it in one of their gallery spaces. I was invited to go along and help with the installation. That is a big story unto itself that I still need to write about. There is so much to say about my experiences working on this wonderful exhibition. For now I wanted to share the mini catalog for the South African version of the exhibition.