Let me set the stage for all you’re about to read so that everyone is clear about why my frustration level is off the charts. I am a 64-year-old African American female artist/activist who has made Dallas my home since 1980. I’ve raised my children to adulthood here. I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears to the arts community here. I have not made my art career here.
Last week was a very trying one for me. In the span of 4 days I experienced more examples of white privilege than I could stomach. Let’s start with the first incident. I decided to take my Paul Quinn College class to see the wonderful Archibald Motley exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum because we’re studying, among other things, The Harlem Renaissance as it relates to the development of “The Black Aesthetic in the Visual Arts”. I arrived earlier than the bus-riding students because I chose to drive my car. As I’m standing in the lobby area waiting for my students, the young white male visitor desk attendant asks can he help me. I tell him that I am waiting for my class to arrive and that we’ll be visiting the Motley exhibit. He asks what I teach and I tell him that it’s a course I developed called the black aesthetic in the visual arts. I guess this didn’t register with him because he then proceeds to try to school me on Archibald Motley and what his work is all about. I let him talk for a few minutes and when he starts to tell me about how similar Motley and Robert Colescott’s work is, I decide to put the skids on his misinformed conversation by first letting him know that Bob Colescott and I knew each other and no, Colescott’s take on the black experience had nothing to do with Motley’s despite what he might think. I then gave him some info on Motley and Colescott that he obviously hadn’t heard in his “docent training”.
Now here’s the thing. When someone tells me they are teaching a class on a particular subject, it never occurs to me that I should try to school them on that subject. I can honestly say that the only time this has happened to me has been with white people trying to prove how much they know about Black culture/subject matter. For some reason, some white people can’t get comfortable with not being in control of a conversation when a Black person is in it. They can’t just accept that they don’t necessarily have all the information needed to hold an intelligent conversation and maybe, just maybe, they should shut up and listen! Annoyance level on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being thoroughly pissed off: 7.
Move on to the weekend and my planned attendance at Theatre 3’s production of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark". I was looking forward to seeing friends Yolonda Williams and Stormi Demerson in Lynn Nottage’s complicated play that explores racism in Hollywood and so much more. I knew that, as is true of most of Nottage’s work, I was in for an interesting afternoon of theater. I went with my bestie/sister Marion Marshall and I have to say the production, although not perfect, was very well done and deserves a more diverse audience than the one we were a part of (maybe 5-6 Blacks and a whole lot of over 60 white folks!)
When the performance was over, we thought we’d grab a bite at the Thai place next door and chat about what we just saw. Well, in walks another cast member Raven Garcia who did a bang-up job in her role so we applauded her as she entered. As we started to chat about the play, a white woman I’m guessing about my age or maybe a few years younger, walks up and exclaims “oh my, you women were just fabulous in that play!” to which I responded “I wasn’t in that play.” Marion’s mouth dropped open and Raven just looked confused. The white woman was visibly embarrassed and moved back to wherever she came from. Raven, who is probably in her 20s looked at us and said, “Oh my God, did that just happen? Is that not what this play is about, our invisibility?” to which Marion and I said practically in unison “Yep, the more things change the more they stay the same!” Here was a white woman who just watched a play about how stereotyped Black actors were in the 30s and 40s and how they struggled with their invisibility in Hollywood and she walks up to 3 Black women only one of who was in the play and the other 2 who look NOTHING like the other Black actors in the play, and says “oh my, you women were just fabulous in that play!” Really lady? You really thought we were the same women you just saw onstage even though there is no resemblance physically? Annoyance level- 9
The next day I look to see how the reviews were for the play and pull up DMN Culture Map’s piece on, yes you guessed it, the only white women in the play and that about did it for me! How do you do an exclusive on a play about a Black woman and not think it makes sense to showcase the star of the play? The excuse can’t be used that it’s because the white woman was a local girl because Yolonda Williams doesn’t get any more local with her 3rd generation Dallas-self! Annoyance level- +10
These experiences would be enough for me to revisit my recurring installation work entitled “I Could Be Angry All the Time If I Think Too Hard” but I still had one more in store. A long-time white visual arts supporter & former gallery owner made her first visit to South Dallas Cultural Center’s gallery this week. She apologized for not coming sooner and wanted to write a piece on the center for her website. She also expressed delight in seeing the young artist whose show was closing, Philmore Peterson, and wanted to write something about him too. In the midst of our conversation, she mentioned that she and a prominent university dean were writing a book on Texas contemporary artists. When I asked who was going to be in it she hesitated and then said “well I’m ashamed to say there are no African American artists in it” to which I said “you’re joking, right?” She went on to explain that she wanted to include Trenton Doyle Hancock but didn’t have anyone else in mind. I rattled off more than a dozen names of prominent Texas Black artists none of whom she knew. I showed her some work done by a few of these artists since my Performing Arts Coordinator and I have collected some work by those who've shown in our Arthello Beck Gallery. I then asked if any Latino artists were included in her list and she named one but said she hadn’t been able to get a return phone call so maybe she needed to pick another one. At this point I said to her “_____ (name withheld to protect the guilty!) I really hope I don’t see another book written on Texas artists that excludes the many black & brown artists making excellent work in our state and just to make sure I will send you a list of artists I know for you to check out their websites.” The email I got in response to mine was not at all encouraging so we’ll see what happens with this upcoming book. Annoyance level- Off the charts!
So I have decided that the only way I’m going to keep myself from having a coronary before I retire from the arts administrative world in Dallas is to keep focused on supporting the many “Vera Starks” in this community and showcasing as many Black artists as I can because truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same…