Sunday, February 3, 2013

150 years, 50 years, 16 years- All Markers for Me

February 2013 marks the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington, and the 16th Anniversary of my commitment to the leadership of South Dallas Cultural Center. Each one of these moments have great significance for me for a variety of reasons. Naturally, the Emancipation Proclamation represents the official freeing of my ancestors from a life of bondage and the start of a new mindset for some African Americans. I say some because I know the physical freedom from slavery was not necessarily accompanied by the mental freedom from this centuries long state of being. I consider myself one of the lucky ones who grew up with grandparents who were race people: translation-they were proud to be Black and made it a point to make their children aware of our greatness. I make this observation because it took me a while to realize that every Black person didn't have this foundation and therefore some often thought I was crazy because I never saw any reason to think I was inferior to anyone given my solid understanding of how African people made this world a culturally rich one. I was also fortunate to come from people who believed in activism and its necessity for making change in this hypocritical country. I was on a picket line most of my childhood fighting for one right or another and thought that's just what one does when things are not as they should be. I wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy when I was 12 taking him to task for flirting with world annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis (yes my mom kept a copy because she was so proud!) The interesting thing about that letter was I was pissed because he was scaring my little sisters with all the talk of nuclear war and I wasn't having anybody mess with my sisters, not my 'hood peers or the President! In 1963 when I went to the March on Washington with my brothers and parents, I felt incredibly empowered by the masses of people who attended with me and although I remember the speeches and the music, what impressed me most was this sense of camaraderie and purpose I felt all around me. This was the first time I understood how the masses can make a difference when they organize. So the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington has a special significance for me that goes beyond the amassing of over 300,000 people on The Mall in our nation's capitol; it was a defining moment in my maturity as an adult because it set me on a path from which I have yet to waver; the path to self empowerment through collective engagement. Combine the strong family foundation with this sense of empowerment and essentially you have a young woman who can't be beat down! So not surprisingly, in 1967 when I matriculated at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) as the only Black female on campus (and there were only 2 Black males and I didn't care for either!) I quickly figured out that I was in for a real battle as far as my work went since there were no Black professors and no Black peers to share my concerns, insecurities, complaints with. Growing up in Philadelphia where I attended a great high school, had super-duper art lessons at Fleischer Memorial Art School and had plenty of exposure to professional African American artists at Wharton Centre where my Dad worked, I was not prepared for the attack on my every notion of what good art was. I had no idea that nothing coming out of the African American experience was considered worthy of examination in art history. I also had no idea that by 2 Black peers had no idea who Elizabeth Catlett, Paul Keene, John Queen, Benjamin Britt, Augusta Savage, Richmond Barthe, Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones (and the list goes on and on) were. What I was sure of is that I needed to get the hell out of that school since nothing about it had my aesthetic development's best interests at heart! My transfer to Tyler School of Fine Arts outside Philly was the best move I ever made artistically speaking. It wasn't so much that I encountered a bunch of African American peers, but the atmosphere was much less resistant to me being me. The irony is RISD had a Black man as one of its founders, the great New England painter Edward Bannister, but you would never know it given the dearth of African presence there. But be that as it may, I found a more congenial environment at Tyler and went on to earn my BFA there. Perhaps I should have stayed at RISD in preparation for the next phase of my art education because the decision to pursue a MFA came with a unique set of challenges. No one warned me that getting a terminal degree in any subject area automatically thrust you into hostile territory! Daring to break into the "good ole boy" world of sculpture was taboo for any woman but for a Black woman, it was suicidal! I didn't know this until I asked the head of the Sculpture Department at Tyler to write a letter of recommendation for me and he actually asked me why I was applying to graduate school since I was probably just going to drop out to get married. He said I was taking some deserving males place and for what? Well, after threatening to report him for discrimination, I got my letter written by my favorite sculpture professor, the late Italo Scanga, and headed off to what would prove to be a special kind of art hell! Let me just say that my University of Wisconsin experience was one of the worst in my educational life. Were it not for the fact that I met two incredible women, Dr. Freida High Tesfagiorgis and Dr. Roslyn Adele Walker (neither of who were Drs. yet) I might have dropped out and said screw the whole deal! But as is so true of the sisterhood, these women helped me understand that I had a duty to see this horror through and I thank them for that realization. So let me fast forward to my 16th Anniversary marker because I will be writing more specifically about my tenure in the arts administration world in subsequent posts. The previous markers led me to the decision I made in 1997 when I was approached by Margie Reese, then Director of the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, to take over the South Dallas Cultural Center. I had vowed never to return to government arts administration after leaving the City of Dallas Division of Cultural Affairs in 1986. This is why you never say never when it comes to what you will and will not do with your life! I accepted the offer for one reason and that was I had over the course of my hiatus from government come to some realizations i.e. I was through with beating my head up against a wall of resistance to the idea of cultural equity on the part of Dallas arts institutions and was now ready to use all my knowledge and skills to uplift my own African community and the Center could provide that platform. I had seen what a well organized and administered cultural facility could do for a neighborhood when I worked in Connecticut and took classes at the Artists Collective in Hartford. Dollie & Jackie McLean created an oasis in the middle of chaos for kids and adults, giving them a strong dose of their culture the best medicine to combat gang violence, teen pregnancy and a host of other societal ills. My own rootedness in Black culture made for the perfect marriage of me and a cultural center in the heart of South Dallas. I saw my new mission as one that would educate the children. If the adults were interested, they'd have something exceptional to engage in as well, but I didn't particularly care if they did or not. Get young minds thinking they can do anything they choose and they become unstoppable! So 16 years ago I said "yes" to developing a cultural institution that tells the truth and shames the Devil as the old folks would say! I've made my last hoorah in arts administration the task of creating a long lasting institution that celebrates the African contribution to world culture with no apologies for its focused agenda. I've spent 16 years working with primarily South Dallas children, youth and their families, empowering them to dream big and aim high because 150 years ago when their ancestors were liberated, they vowed to thrive in this country against all odds and 50 years ago when we marched on Washington, we did so with these same children and youth in mind. A luta continua...

No comments: