Friday, December 3, 2010

Remembering Uncle Artis

This fall, we have been thinking of, honoring and remembering Artis Jones (July 1927-October 2010), the baby brother of my grandmother. He is my great uncle. When I was a child attending St. John the Baptist Catholic School, he helped to sell raffle tickes twice a year. Back then, there were phases during which he took me to school there daily, along with his granddaughter, my cousin LaTongia, and his grandson Lamont, and also took me to school at St. Jude some as a junior and senior. I appreciate all of the ways in which he supported my education. He was a blessing. His family loved him so and will miss him always. God bless.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Art Quilt Featuring Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison (from New Black History Series)

Here is an image of my art quilt featuring Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. This piece is from the "Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris with a Charleston Twist," which includes 33 mixed-media art quilts in my signature art quilting style and adds two new series beyond those featured in Portraits (2008), including a Black History Series, which features both contemporary and historical figures. Among other figures who will be featured are Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Cornel West, Michael Jackson, and Oprah Winfrey. Figures in my political series this time around resonate and overlap with this one, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Rosa Parks, my great aunt Johnnie Rebecca Carr, E.D. Nixon, Condoleezza Rice, Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, and Angela Davis, along with James Baldwin from the Paris series and Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington from the Hollywood Series. Quilts featuring E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr are also at the core of a civil rights series.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Skin We’re In: On Appearing in Lauren Cross's Film "The Skin Quilt Project"

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living soul.”

The Holy Bible, Genesis 2: 7

“And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from
Man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”

The Holy Bible, Genesis 2:22

“Should be immoral or a sin
If it is according to
The skin I’m in”

Cameo, “Skin I’m In”

The creation story describing God's creation of the world that begins the Bible, along with God's sculpting of male and female bodies in all their uniqueness, is also fundamentally about art, positioning Him as the ultimate and foundational artist. And within this narrative, God judged all that He created to be “good.” For me, the Bible story of humankind’s creation reminds me of the beauty of the body; it helps us to recognize the body as God's unique sculpture. As an artist, this story reminds me that the body at one level is art, and helps me to envision it as a canvas. That art is so much affirmed in this spiritual story inspires me as an artist, and as a human being.

I am honored to have been one of the quilt artists featured in Lauren Cross’s new documentary entitled “The Skin Quilt Project,” which is a 2010 selection of the International Black Women’s Film Festival. Congratulations to Lauren Cross! The film draws on black quilters, male and female, to discuss color politics in black communities, hypothesizing that quilting presents an alternative and more inclusive and empowering vision of black identity and has provided black quilters with a unique sense of self esteem, as well as valuable perspective on black culture. By interviewing members of quilting guilds as well as individual quilters in a range of contexts, including art studios, Cross explores the continuing impact of colorism in black communities, which allows this film to make a valuable political statement, including the powerful message that it sends on black bodies and their beauty. The publicity for the film says it all. The quilt is the primary metaphor in Cross's film's iconography for representing the range and diversity of shades of black people's skin and binding them all together. The film is scheduled for screening, along with nine other films, at the International Black Women's Film Festival in Berkeley, California on October 9, 2010. In general, the topic of colorism is a vital site for critical dialogue among black women.

This film suggests that denial persists about the continuing impact of skin color in black communities, whether people experience discrimination for being thought of as "too light" or not light enough. I think it shows very little intelligence and lots of immaturity for people, including black people, to make judgments about the worth and desirability of others purely on the basis of superficial factors such as the skin's shade and its proximity to whiteness. If even now, the logic is that what is closest to white is only “right”-in the sense of that old rhyme-then how far have we come, and how far can we ever go? There continues to be too much schizophrenia in black communities regarding issues of color. Harboring such self-hatred is the equivalent of walking everywhere backward when the natural thing to do would be to walk forward. Whether politics that devalue blackness come from within or without, they are a problem. As the group Cameo reminds us in the lyrics to their powerful song, "Skin I'm In," which are quoted above, there’s something fundamentally wrong, and even sinful, about judging another person on a quality such as their skin color. And I would add that there's something a little insane, too, about obsessing so much over skin complexion. The song by Cameo, which mainly addresses racism, is a reminder that skin does not define us. The bottom line is that all people, from white to black, are beautiful and perfect in the eyes of God, and He loves all of us.

I’m not sure whether it made the cut, but one of the points that I made in the film as I was interviewed was how important it is for people, including and perhaps especially people of African descent, to remember that we are indeed a people who are “kissed by heaven.” No one with this perspective ever feels a sense of inferiority or inadequacy in the sense described in the film. If anything, one feels special and can embrace and admire the beauty of the human spectrum and wherever one fits in on it. One is more likely to love and value oneself and feel beautiful with this perspective. I’ve never in my life, even as a child, used terms such as “good hair,” never worshipped or had a preference for light skin, and never have felt that light skin is more preferable or more desirable. My art quilts, with human forms classically drawn and sculpted in my foundational felt medium, are meant to show and celebrate a rainbow of faces across the color spectrum in all of their beauty and glory.

The most important thing is how one feels about and thinks of oneself, and how one treats oneself. Because I do in a sense see the body as a canvas, I use my own body as a way to express my creativity. On the surface, I do this through clothes and accessories, as well as through makeup.

I find that investing in the best cosmetics is one of the best things that one can do for one’s skin if one opts to wear makeup, so I always wear Mac cosmetics. My makeup collection, including concealer, powder, mascara, lipsticks, lip and eye liner pencils, blushes, and eye shadows, along with all the Mac makeup brushes on my vanity, contains the basic tools in my personal studio for self-creation and self-invention on a day-to-day basis. I attended poise-charm classes growing up at ages 11 and 14 and have also read many books on makeup, including some of the classics by authors from Beverly Johnson to Cindy Crawford, so knowing the basic principles and tricks of the trade makes putting it on a snap.

One way that I invest time and energy in taking care of myself is by taking good care of my skin. Since I was 25, I have rarely stepped outside without wearing sunscreen, a must for everyone, though it seemed that no amount ever could keep my feet from burning and turning solid bronze in California during the hot summer months! I have also used eye cream nightly since my mid-twenties. Moisturizing, too, is mandatory.

I can’t believe the remarkable transformation that has come about in recent years as a result of giving up the use of all body creams that contain chemicals. Coconut oil is the lotion that I use day to day, and otherwise, whipped shea butter. In addition, I use only natural soaps made of coconut oil and shea butter, and non-aluminum deodorant. My hair shampoos also include these ingredients, and it is important to me that my hair be chemical free. These days, I'm also into good exfoliation. I keep all of these tools under a cream antique wash pitcher and basin on a French wash stand that I call my “Skin Station,” which Cross also photographed when she visited my art studio. A benefit is that natural products such as coconut oil are very cheap (it doubles as an intensive hair conditioner for me), supplies last a long time, and it is a healthier lotion than any I've ever bought at regular grocery stores and drug stores.

To supplement this personal at-home skin care routine, I schedule regular appointments for professional skin treatments. They include a Sothys-based facial from a European esthetician. This facial, which includes a rigorous exfoliation by hand, achieves amazing results and takes two hours. (I used the Decleor system in California as a complement to monthly micro-dermabrasion facials, which led the esthetician to exclaim to me once that “You’re going to have the cleanest skin in Davis!” However, these days, I enjoy getting this old-fashioned hand exfoliation, which works wonders). Most recently, I’ve added a seasonal full-body shea butter exfoliation to my professional skin care routine. I also find regular pedicures to be nurturing to the skin.

Another professional routine I use to care for my skin is an organic soy body wax every few weeks, including eyebrows, underarms, full leg, and a Brazilian. This is a purifying process that I savor. No longer using harsh depilatories or razors has changed my life and is another crucial way in which I’ve gotten away from chemicals and respected the body’s normal rhythms and cycles. Waxing has the added benefit of being another vehicle for body exfoliation and adds to its softness and smoothness. And even when I have a little leg stubble, I feel beautiful and never sweat it or feel self conscious, because I can accept, love, and appreciate myself as a total woman. This organic soy waxing ritual is refreshing and especially makes me feel pampered when I step into the salon during the cold winter months in Ithaca. Books such as Molly Aldrich's "How to Get the Perfect Brazilian Wax" and "Brazilian Sexy: Secrets to Living a Gorgeous and Confident Life" by Janea Padilha of the J. Sisters (who invented this art) are excellent and indispensable resources on the art of Brazilian waxing. And like Brazilian women, I savor spending time on some Saturdays for my processes of self-care, which I enjoy and to which I am deeply committed. My body waxing process also takes two hours. My regular appointments to care for my skin-professional facials, seasonal body exfoliations, organic soy body waxing-are so worth it.

I haven't felt like this since 2000, when I had an excellent massage therapist who made house calls. Once a month, for over a year, until I left California for Baltimore, she'd bring a massage table, oils, music and candles up to my high rise apartment at Capitol Towers in downtown Sacramento and spend an hour giving me a full-body massage. It was a time for me to wind down and shut down. I found the process to be thoroughly relaxing. I first met her and got her card at a "Pamper Party" coordinated by a couple of black women in the city, where six or seven black beauty professionals in the area who specialized in diverse areas were invited to the home of one of them to showcase their techniques for all of the guests, who were mainly newer Sacramento residents. This party helped to build their clientele and to help settle newcomers. Techniques included Sisterlocks (we also screened and discussed a related video), manicures, body massage, makeup artistry, etc. At that point, I was an assistant professor in the third year on my job and invested in home-based massage as a result of attending this party. In addition, hiring housekeeping and having a standing weekly hair appointment were other primary investments for me during that period. In California, I visited some great spas over my ten years living there, including some of the best for black skin care, and still order products from one of them.

Different geographies can literally create different versions of us. I loved the version that emerged from my first 18 years in Alabama, and feel that it is the "truest" so far. (This is not surprising. Very few places can compete with the South in fashioning femininity/womanhood). The ones in Atlanta, Georgia and Durham, North Carolina I liked, well, not so much. In California, I went through many phases, good and bad, but think I became the best version of myself there around age 29. I like the version of myself emerging here in Ithaca and feel that is very true to form. Now I look more like I did originally, before I ever left Alabama, like the adult version of the self I was at 18. I've said that "California made me a better Southerner." I think New York has made me an even better and more perfect one, in part by reminding me of all the things that are unique and exceptional about being a woman raised in the South and whose values were shaped there.

At 39, I feel fine. I don't know what the fuss and fear of turning 40 are about. I certainly do not feel that way. I feel more beautiful and radiant than I've felt in years, feel I am my best and most beautiful woman yet, inside and out, and feel twice as good and confident about myself as I have ever felt in my life.

Really, the soul and the spirit, and not even the body, are the ultimate canvases of life, and they are the elements that mainly matter to God. We often use expressions such as "feeling comfortable in our own skin.“ Yet, this is one feature that does not need to be overly emphasized, and certainly, not romanticized. I will never forget, for example, how uncomfortable I felt when I had a hives outbreak that came from an allergic reaction to a meal I’d eaten at a restaurant in summer 2008, which only intensified with the allergic reaction I had to over-the-counter medication I had tried to use to treat it. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life. I ended up in the emergency room where I was treated with antibiotics.

The truth is that God’s people are made in all shapes and sizes and live amazing, courageous and beautiful lives under a range of circumstances. I prefer to remember the power of heaven’s kiss and to keep the focus on the things that matter and make the difference in a life lived well.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Highlights from Reception, Film Screening, Talk and Exhibition As "Cultural Envoy" at U.S. Ambassador's Residence in Paris, January 2009

Essay copied below appears in the journal TransAtlantica: American Studies Journal, 1/2009: Homage to Michel Fabre, as part of a forum on "Un Patchwork de Cultures"

Link to version in journal issue and forum on "Un Patchwork de Cultures"

Binding Nations through Art Quilts and a Visit to the U.S. Embassy in Paris as a Cultural Envoy

Riché Richardson

In the spring of 2008 when Géraldine Chouard, who was helping to coordinate the landmark exhibition in France entitled “Un Patchwork de Cultures,” mentioned the U.S. Embassy in Paris’s interest in inviting me to the city to share some of my quilts as a part of this exhibition and to be a “Cultural Envoy,” I was honored and excited by the possibility. The opportunity to return to Paris under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy, which officially materialized through a grant from the U.S. Department of State as part of its Speaker Series, allowed me to see Paris from a different and wholly new perspective from the one I had on my first trip to the city in 2007. I experienced a lot of support at the U.S. Embassy and deeply appreciate all that the Cultural Affairs Office did to make this visit so memorable and successful. I benefited from spending time throughout the week dialoging with Sophie Nadeau, Lora Berg, Jennifer Bullock, and Randiane Peccoud, among others, and they helped to enrich my perspective on global affairs. For instance, I was inspired by Lora Berg’s commitment to promoting the use of diverse languages within institutional settings on websites to help encourage international exchanges. These dialogues were especially enriching against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential inauguration in the United States.

2On this recent visit, I had accommodations at the Hotel du Pantheon in view of Mairie du 5e (fifth district), the exhibition site, and the Pantheon, which are a block up from the Luxembourg Gardens. I usually began my days with breakfast at one of the neighborhood cafés before reporting to the Embassy. All of the events in which I participated, including talks with three groups of high school students and three groups of college students, several gallery talks and film screenings, as well as my talk, film screening and reception at the Ambassador’s Residence (during the tenure of Craig Stapleton), along with a workshop on diversity at the U.S. Embassy, were deeply enriching and inspiring. These experiences have strongly impacted my missions in teaching and art and reinforced my commitments to making a difference as a citizen. They have expanded my knowledge of French culture, along with its history, and a range of social and political concerns, from contexts such as the academy to the banlieue.

3I was deeply honored to have had five of my art quilts, including two from my Paris series (Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir), two from my family series, and one from my political series (Barack Obama), featured at the Mairie du 5e among the work of such talented quilters in the U.S. That toile fabrics are incorporated into some of these extraordinary works, which highlight figures from George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, helps to embody the intercontinental connections to which the exhibition itself stands as a tribute. I was particularly moved by works such as the “Bad News Quilt,” which incorporates paper news articles about the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, along with others such as “Walk the Walk Fleur de Lys,” which is a reminder of the rich heritage of Louisiana. This exhibition is quite remarkable in its conception and vision, and is a valuable teaching tool for American and French classrooms alike. I used an image of “Let Freedom Ring,” a quilt with blocks featuring Phillis Wheatley and the Liberty Bell, in the lesson on Phillis Wheatley this semester here at Cornell University where I am now a professor, alongside a copy of the frontispiece from her 1773 book of poetry.

4Both my quilts of Josephine Baker and Simone de Beauvoir were completed in time to mark their centennials in 2006 and 2008, respectively. My quilt of Josephine Baker presents a larger than life image of her more focused on performance and singing than the body itself, reminding us of the beauty and dignity of the body. The quilt of Simone de Beauvoir celebrates her intellectual legacy and the thought, energy, passion and commitment of her intellectual journey. Both quilts present their subjects in the prime of their lives to reflect their deep and lasting legacies, and their place in our collective history and memories. The baby quilt featuring my mother and uncle is from my family series and reminds us of the beauty and dignity that existed among blacks in the U.S. South even during the pre-civil rights era. As I explained to audiences on several occasions, the word “Always” in the background of my quilt honoring Barack Obama’s inauguration reflects my view of him as a leader and respect for him as a person from whom I hope to learn for years to come, and as the kind of man whom I also want any children I ever have to know about. On this visit, I was also very much honoring in my own way the 2008 centenary of the African American and Southern writer Richard Wright and remembering his family and all of the celebrations of his life and legacy in Paris the year before.

5This was a very busy trip with long, busy and stimulating days that usually began at the U.S Embassy, sometimes with the required trip through security, or just to meet up with the driver who would be responsible for the day’s transportation to different events. Indeed, this trip gave me a more panoramic and complex view of the landscape of Paris than I’d had before, and I was especially inspired and motivated by the several opportunities that I had to dialogue with students at institutions in the banlieues. These encounters left me with a deep appreciation for the bright students whom I encountered, and a longing to become fluent in French so that I would be able to return to the city at some point for even closer dialogues with Paris youth. It left me with a desire to work to help the effort to bring about change for those who feel marginalized and excluded from French society.

6The first event was a visit to Collège Martin Luther King in Villiers-le-Bel in Eastern Paris. There, I gave a talk to high school students entitled “Art in Education and My Education as an Artist.” It highlighted the role of art in helping to sustain the health and well being of a democracy, the difference that art literacy can make in helping to set foundations for a lifetime of learning, and the importance of students making a commitment to examine local art resources in places like the Louvre. I also discussed the utility of art in my own teaching, and art as a gateway to the humanities. In the rich q&a that followed, students showed excitement about Barack Obama and asked a range of questions. I was impressed that an exhibition of life-size military figures made by students, in the form of cardboard cutouts, was on display in the school’s lobby entitled “14-18/2008: les colonies dans la Grande Guerre,” which the principal Christiane Tyburn gave me a tour of after the talk, along with a gift of the accompanying catalog. The high school also plans to share with me a picture of a mural that will soon be painted on the school building. The translation was provided by Jennifer Bullock and Mrs. Tyburn. As the day ended, I got a reminder of the simple pleasures and adventures in life through the fact that some boys stuck around after school just so they could see us drive off in the Embassy car. This was also a reminder of how removed some citizens may feel from the center of culture in Paris.

7At the U.S. Embassy, where on entering I saw pictures of President George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and Dick Cheney, I gave a talk that addressed the public response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the impact of the U.S. South on race and gender politics in the 2008 presidential election. The talk led to a broader dialogue with the newly formed diversity group at the U.S. Embassy, which is concerned about addressing issues of diversity for over 1000 employees. The dialogue, which was held in one of the dining rooms, set off a revealing and productive debate among the diversity group, whose members differed widely in perspectives. This event was coordinated by the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy, Randiane Peccoud.

8I was delighted to offer a brief talk at the exhibition site with a group of girls and one boy from Théodore Monard Vocational High School from Noisy-le-Sec, “On the Legacy of Rosa Parks, St. Jude Educational Institute and the Youth Mission in Montgomery.” I discussed St. Jude Educational Institute of the “City of St. Jude” in Montgomery, which I attended, the campus’s role as a camping place in the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965, and its hospital as a haven for blacks in Montgomery during the era of segregation, and as the backbone for expanding the black Catholic community in Montgomery. Their teachers expressed appreciation that several students who do not ordinarily participate or talk in class were so open in the dialogue with me. Géraldine Chouard provided the translation.

9At the exhibition opening reception in Paris with local and Embassy officials that over 200 guests attended, I made remarks on my quilts featured in the exhibition with the translation provided by Géraldine Chouard, who gave a tour of the exhibition and made extensive remarks on my quilts and the 25 quilts featured in the travel exhibition. I particularly valued the stories that some of the guests at this event took me aside to tell in relation to my Josephine Baker quilt, such as that of a couple who attended the last concert of Josephine Baker in 1975, and a woman among the French quilters who told of a customer whose mother had made costumes for Josephine Baker, and who once attended a costume fitting for her years ago during her childhood, feeling that Baker’s was “the most beautiful body she had ever seen.” For me, another highlight of this reception was meeting Ernest Doo Koo, an artist from the Ivory Coast who had visited and admired the exhibition the day before, and returned to the reception for an introduction.

10The focal point of my trip was a visit to the Ambassador’s Residence on January 14, 2009, where I gave a brief talk entitled “Reflections on Montgomery’s Modernism, the Civil Rights Movement and the Paths to a New Southern Art in the U.S.,” and three of my quilts were shown (Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir, and “JoAnn and Junior Man”). Géraldine Chouard and Anne Crémieux’s short film on my art, “A Portrait of the Artist,” was presented by them and screened after cocktails. I understand that this was the last official public event sponsored during Ambassador Craig Stapleton’s term prior to his family’s return to the U.S. My talk began with an emphasis on my own belief that “for its health and livelihood, a democratic society should help to actualize and develop the artistic gifts of its citizens, whether that means supporting community and grassroots initiatives or building institutions that can help to catalyze individual and collective art projects,” noted the centrality of art to how I have lived the truth in the American dream, and acknowledged the connections of my own art project to a background in the U.S. South.

11I mainly drew on my own grandmother’s experience as a teen in the National Youth Administration inaugurated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and her later experiences migrating to Pensacola, Florida with my grandfather and working on a job in the Navy Yard, to show how opening up such opportunities as the NYA to black youth in Montgomery who had been shut out of the system by segregation made a difference in her life and prepared her to help support the project of American democracy later on. These points were important to me to emphasize, for instance, in thinking about a similar sense of exclusion from French citizenship and opportunities that many minority youth feel in the suburbs of Paris, frustrations that were highlighted on a global scale during the unrest in 2005. Anne Crémieux provided a simultaneous translation during my talk. This event was also significant in that it marked the first time that all involved in the film attended a screening of it together, including the filmmakers Géraldine Chouard and Anne Crémieux, Patricia A. Turner, who provided scholarly commentary in the film, and Diane de Obaldia, a former Chanel model and owner of Le Rouvray, a quilting store in Paris. I enjoyed seeing more of the beauty of the Ambassador’s Residence on the brief tour that those in our core group were given shortly after arriving, along with a book on the residence. Over 120 guests attended this event.

12Anne also coordinated one of the events for me the following day, a visit to Université Paris 10, Nanterre where I gave a brief talk on quilt work, appliqué, and the process of making the film prior to a film screening and q&a with her students in African American history and a U.S. politics research group. Here, we also discussed the role of art in teaching and issues such as balancing artistic and academic life. This session was also attended by Patricia A. Turner, who discusses my quilt work in her book Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters. Later that evening, I met with the Société d’Etudes Nord-Américaines (SENA) for a dialogue based on my book, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta and a talk entitled “Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From the Myth of Uncle Tom and the ‘Bad Negro’ to the Jena Six.” My talk situated my project in relation to contemporary issues such as the Jena Six and the continuing phenomenon of nationalizing and globalizing Southern ideologies as well as the region’s major movements. It was wonderful that a dialogue continued over dinner with a range of French scholars who work on the United States, including the phenomenal Catherine Pouzoulet. We mainly discussed academic labor issues in France.

13The last full day of my trip began with a meeting with Pont-Blanc Raconte and France Patchwork Paris where I offered remarks on quilts to a group of women present for a workshop on quilt-making.

14Afterwards, Cultural Affairs Officer Lora Berg worked around our tight schedule and arranged for me to attend the gallery talk by Cedric Smith for the opening of his exhibition at a new gallery focusing on African American artists in the city, for she wanted me to meet him and see his work. Later that afternoon at Suger High School in Saint-Denis, I discussed the history of Rosa Parks and my encounter with civil rights history at St. Jude Educational Institute. When I emphasized the utility of placing Barack Obama in the larger continuum of black American leadership, spanning from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and back to figures such as Frederick Douglass, students—in this case black males—asked who Frederick Douglass was; they had never heard of him. This was a reminder that we cannot take for granted that students, including those of African and Caribbean descent, will have a sense of history in the United States. The course instructor, Aurélie Gigot, made extensive notes on the board as I lectured and the session was rich and engaging. I found the session to be so absorbing and my passions as a teacher so intensified that I lost all sense of time as one question and one topic led to another, but I finally had to end it because the Embassy driver was waiting to take me on to Bondy. This encounter has inspired me to do a black history art quilt series and has also made me all the more determined to do more teaching at the grassroots level.

15My final event was a trip to Bondy to the office of the Bondy Blog. I was interviewed on site in juxtaposition with the Obama quilt and asked numerous questions, including whether Obama would be able to live up to his campaign promises, whether he would be seriously committed to issues of foreign policy, how Americans were responding to the election, whether I thought Obama’s popularity mainly had to do with disappointment with the administration of President George W. Bush, and whether Obama and Hillary Clinton would be able to put aside their old rivalries and effectively work together. My responses were translated by Randiane Peccoud from the U.S. Embassy. Later, nineteen bloggers from Bondy arrived to screen “A Portrait of the Artist” and asked me questions of their own for several hours, including whether I thought an Obama was possible in France given the nation’s specific issues related to race and identity. My comments were translated by Randiane Peccoud and Sophie Nadeau from the Cultural Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy, who coordinated the event.

16I had so much savored my first trip to Paris in 2007, including the experience of working with Géraldine and Anne Cremieux, and the adventures we’d had in the city in places such as Montmartre, the Simone de Beauvoir bridge, and the St. Germain-des-Prés area as they made a short film to accompany my upcoming art quilt exhibition at Montgomery’s Rosa Parks Museum Gallery and Library entitled “A Portrait of the Artist.” I could not have ever imagined that some works from it would intersect with a project as phenomenal as “Un Patchwork de Cultures,” and, for a few days, become a part of such an important and rich national exhibition of quilts. From beginning to end, my two trips have fulfilled so many of the dreams I’d long had about Paris, dreams that had kept me motivated and inspired as I lived in California and worked as a university professor and also made art.

Exhibition Opening and Reception in Paris for National Touring Quilt Exhibition "Un Patchwork De Cultures" at Mairie du 5e, January 2009

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Not Dr. King’s Promised Land

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"The Ties That Bind: JFK, MLK, RFK," 2004

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly. Psalm 1

I made the art quilt above to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement so identified with my hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I made it to honor him alongside the other leaders in the nation such as President John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy with whom he is often identified, who also had great vision on issues related to social justice and made sacrifices. It reflects my belief in the potential use of art to help promote democracy and civic engagement. In so much of the iconography of the 1960s, they emerged as a symbolic brotherhood. The 2008 film about my art, A Portrait of the Artist, also spends some time meditating on the important legacies of these unforgettable men, and the image of my art quilt that features them is positioned at the forefront of my first two print card series.

It is astonishing that the Tea Party movement would attempt to hijack and appropriate the message of the March on Washington led by Dr. King in 1963 claiming concern for civil rights. That this movement, under the leadership of Glenn Beck, would promote this message on a day like today-exactly forty-seven years after Dr. King led his historic March on Washington; exactly two years after Barack Obama received the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency; exactly five years after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf area; and exactly fifty-five years after the brutal murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi-is deeply unsettling. The platform for today’s march seems especially ironic when considering that many conservative agendas have helped to weaken or reverse the major civil rights gains that were achieved through legislation such as the ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and have attacked affirmative action and promoted other reactionary policies that have led to widespread black economic and social dispossession.

All the talk in the Tea Party about taking back “their country” and turning this nation back to God, as if He would ever leave or forsake it or anyone, reflects a nativist ideology and an unsettling if unspoken belief that Obama’s election and presidency do not reflect the character of this nation or the will of God. These views are rooted in the view of citizenship, presidentialism and America itself as being definitionally "white," a view that goes back to the founding days of this nation as a republic in the late 18th century. And yet, one must ask some of the members of this self-righteous movement who spew this talk if God is at all present at their demonstrations in the racist posters that depict this president as Hitler, naked, and with bones through his nose? Is God present in Glenn Beck's remark that being under this president's administration is like being under the kind in the film "Planet of the Apes?" Let me guess. In this fantasy, he is made over and reborn in the warrior role of Charlton Heston. Olaudah Equiano is a man who has also been subjected to his share of discrediting in our time. (I stand firm in believing that this campaign that argues that he was born in South Carolina and not West Africa, would also of necessity make him a liar, even about his dear mother, and a blasphemer, if we consider the heartfelt and deeply moving passages of his narrative that relate to her in a later chapter). Equiano referred to such types as “nominal Christians.“

The efforts of the Tea Party to discredit the president and portray him as incompetent remind me of the ideological investments of Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman and the 1915 film based on it by D.W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation, which portrayed whites in the Reconstruction era as being tyrannized by a black majority that had gained voting rights, seized control of Congress in South Carolina, and threatened the nation with the possibility of what they feared most: “Negro rule.” The black politicians in this film are portrayed as incompetent, unscrupulous, and inept, and as lustful and rapacious. The film romanticizes the Klan and this organization becomes the answer to preventing the development of an interracial democracy in Dixon’s version of the post-bellum U.S. and helps to restore national unity and the division between North and South brought on by the Civil War.

Elements of the Tea Party movement are disturbing on some levels to the extent that aspects of its ideology recast the panic about black leadership in this nation that has long existed, and that is evident in these popular works. America is still America and even the Tea Party members are safe with a black man, Barack Obama, as president. It is sad that some of them refuse to believe that he is capable of working in their interests or capable of representing them, no matter what he says or does, because of the color of his skin. One would think that the earth had floated off its axis or that the sky was falling from the panic that some people are revealing because he is in office. And there are far too many Chicken Littles out there all too willing to help fan the flames of propaganda these days. This kind of intolerance and hatred will not help this nation. If we are truly in any danger, this movement, at least so far, has lacked the vision to help save it and if anything, has perpetuated divisions.

The black participation is not alone evidence that the movement opposes racism. Blacks internalize racism, and sometimes take sides against themselves. The Tea Party’s invocation of the belief in a “colorblind” and “postracial” America to attempt to claim commonality with Dr. King also rings hollow. These concepts have most frequently been mobilized to obstruct the recognition of persisting racism in this nation and have worked against the interests of people of color. The Tea Party investment in them suggests all the more that its view of Dr. King is superficial. Dr. King's movement on the capitol was about tackling persisting poverty. Dr. King believed in social justice. To oppose the concept of "social justice," to the point of not even wanting to hear the word mentioned, is to reject one of the basic values in which Dr. King believed. It was bad enough to have neoconservatives trope his words and his message so banally in the attacks on affirmative action, and to see it casually mentioned in the titles of books with reactionary messages that were in clear opposition to the legacy of civil rights. I never imagined that the distortions would go as far as what happened today. This really takes the cake. Today, if anyone feels like the sky is falling or like the planet is rotating off its axis, it's certainly not Glenn Beck. It's me, and other people like me. It is crucial to have space for dissent in the U.S. public sphere, and to protect First Amendment rights. Glenn Beck’s promised land is not King’s promised land. Let freedom ring, but ring true.