Musings

Eating Ice Cream While Black (Or My Life In Wellesley, Mass)

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Let me first say that I’ve been called the n-word before…to my face…shouted along with “Heil Hitler.” It was 1992, and I was sixteen years old, living in Barcelona, Spain. I was a foreigner, and I knew to be especially cautious of skinheads. They wore their racism and xenophobia as badges of honor. I’d run away from them a couple of months prior to that evening because once you spotted them, you knew to take off in the opposite direction. My life in Wellesley hasn’t been about that kind of racism. There are no skinheads. There’s a subtler, more insidious kind of racism experienced over time that most people of color in the United States are accustomed to. There’s a term for it now: microaggressions, the subtle, daily instances of racism that you don’t always see coming and that you cannot easily run away from.

Wellesley is a beautiful, affluent community in suburban Massachusetts. Known, of course, for the all-women’s college, but also for its prestige as an exclusive town of sorts with one of the best school systems in the state. Those are wonderful attributes, but diversity does not make it into their town’s historical records. My husband and I packed up our home in our bucolic town in South Jersey the summer of 2011, and we brought our ragtag family of four to live in faculty housing at Wellesley College. Lots of stress comes with a big move, but I was grateful that I landed a postdoc at the college, which has led to my dream job as an Assistant Professor of Art History.

With that description in mind, imagine a beautiful September New England afternoon just weeks after our arrival. I joined a colleague from the college, an African American woman with two beautiful kids of her own, to take a walk together to a popular ice cream spot in the center of town. We sat with our brood of four on a bench outside when an older white woman approached with pearls firmly clutched (ok, maybe I’m imagining that). In seconds, the woman began fondling the feet of the infant, and then she raised her head curiously to take all six of us in. Flustered, as if she couldn’t believe there could be so many of us—brown-skinned people, that is—sitting before her, she remarked with surprise, “Do all of these children belong to you?” She then placed her hand on my four-year-old daughter’s head, and she said almost admiringly, “I want to see your face.” After repeating herself once more, she forced my child’s head to look upward into her eyes, away from my own. After a few more awkward moments, she walked away. My friend and I stared at each other in disbelief. With nervous laughter, I said aloud, “When did we become the petting zoo?” Shaking our heads, we acknowledged this blatant form of patronizing and humiliating conduct that could sometimes be expected from an older generation. We still knew better than that though. If this account seems innocuous to you, and you are a white reader, please check your white privilege (Check out George Yancy’s opinion piece “Dear White America” from the New York Times. Then read Anna Keglar’s “The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility” to come closer to understanding my position-and yours. When you’re done, pick up Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Get in touch with me directly about a more complete reading list). 

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My son enjoying ice cream in Martha’s Vineyard. Summer 2013. Photo by Nikki A. Greene

Fast forward to July of this year, on the nearly fifth anniversary of our move, a group of Wellesley High School students’ racist and homophobic rants over Facebook Messenger were revealed. The group went as far as to single out two students, an African-American and Mexican-American, enrolled at the school. While this hate speech may have come as a surprise to some white residents, for most people of color, LGBTQ folk, and other underrepresented groups living or working in Wellesley, this warranted a knowing shake of the head, understanding full well that these sort of disturbing, violent stereotypes constitute the underbelly of microaggressions in the town. Whether one is innocently eating ice cream or going to school, there is no armor strong enough to protect you from the painful effects of experiences like these in a conservative community that lacks the racial and economic diversity and education to prevent these incidents from happening.

Residents of Wellesley aren’t the only citizens affected by these actions. Since 1966, Boston parents have been sending their children to the suburbs through the METCO program, a voluntary desegregation program. These brave parents put their even braver children on buses to public schools in places like Wellesley in an effort to offer their children access to the best education possible where their own zip codes do not. While the schools’ academic offerings indeed rank high, much of the social and intellectual work surrounding “multiculturalism” still lags. The few children of color within the school system take on the undue burden of not only educating their classmates (and some teachers), but also facing their own set of microaggressions. Those may include not-so-innocent remarks about their hair texture to teachers’ disproportionately penalization of their behavior, sometimes due to their own unconscious biases. How do I know the affects on the children? My own daughter was bullied in the first grade, and she only found the courage to tell us two years later. In hindsight, we understood why she cried on more than one occasion about wishing to change her skin color.

Why has this overall treatment persisted, or in some instances become worse, in Wellesley and elsewhere in suburban Boston since desegregation efforts began in the sixties? An African-American student at Wellesley High, who spoke anonymously to the Boston Globe about the hate speech, put her finger on one of the central problems:

It’s very possible to go through Wellesley Public Schools from pre-K through graduation and not even interact with a person of color. Not even on purpose — just because of the numbers game…And when you hit 18 and you’ve never interacted with a person of color, it’s very difficult to avoid being a little biased, or a little sheltered, or a little ignorant.

If we were to stay in Wellesley for the long haul, a very unlikely probability, what would be the impact for my children to never encounter an educator of color in their classrooms and scarcely in the administration and for thirteen years? What is the potential psychological damage of facing years and years of microaggressions in the classroom, on the playground, or in ice cream parlors? I am especially leery of this prospect considering that when my six-year-old son grows into an adolescent that he is no longer seen as an adorable, energetic playmate, but rather as a menace to society. This is a fear every black mother possesses; we’ve witnessed the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and far too many others, suffer through the same fear, only theirs were realized.

On July 28, World of Wellesley, a diversity group, organized a “Gathering of Peace”(#WellesleyStandsUnited), in concert with faith and secular organizations. Around 75 attendees sang together and supported each other as individuals shared personal accounts of their experiences as parents, students, and citizens and offered suggestions for future actions and steps toward healing. After each testimony, the group that stood in a circle of unity recited, “We see you. We hear you. We are grateful for you.” Though we still await the next steps by the school administration and police department to these verbal assaults, it was a promising demonstration of what can be possible in Wellesley to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.

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My daughter and her friend make signs for the Gathering of Peace. July 28, 2016. Photo by Nikki A. Greene

Ultimately, I want my children to feel safe not only on our block, where we are surrounded by a diverse group of loving, openhearted, and open-minded Wellesley College faculty and their families. Ultimately, I want my kids to thrive in whatever space they occupy in order to stand confidently in the brown skin they are in. In the meantime, we are taking off to Martha’s Vineyard this week, one last getaway before school starts. The Vineyard, the town of Oak Bluffs especially, has historically been a vacation refuge for black families to fellowship while swimming on the beach, strolling on the sidewalk, and, yes, even while eating ice cream. There, we all walk with our backs a little straighter, heartened to see families like our own, families who have faced their own set of microaggressions in their hometowns. Our time will overlap with President Obama and his family again this year. I certainly wouldn’t mind my children turning their faces upwards to meet their eyes.

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Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard. Summer 2014. Photo by Martha McNamara

 

 

Concerning the Spiritual in Art: Lecture at the Tang on April 14

Thursday, 4/14 at 7:30 p.m.

Nikki A. Greene, Ph.D.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art: The Substance of Abstraction

On abstraction, music and painting in the works of Moe Brooker, Beauford Delaney & Alma Thomas.

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Nikki A. Greene before Alma Thomas, Wind, Sunshine and Flowers, 1968. Photo by Jean Egger for the Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, 2016.

Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College

The exhibition Alma Thomas is currently on view at the Tang Teaching Museum and is curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of the Tang Museum and Lauren Haynes, Associate Curator, Permanent Collection at the Studio Museum, New York. 

Alma Thomas remains at the Tang until June 5. The show opens at theStudio Museum in Harlem on July 14.

Please join us!

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Black Portraitures II: Revisited @ NYU | Feb. 19 & 20

Black Portraitures II: Revisited is already sold out!

That speaks volumes to the importance of this series of conferences spearheaded by Dr. Deborah Willis. To say that the Black Portraiture{s} II Conference that took place in Florence, Italy (May 28-31) was phenomenal does not quite capture the artistic and intellectual vibrancy–chemistry really–of the dynamic scholars and artists that gathered there. Dr. Willis is the University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She and her wonderful team of staff members from NYU, Harvard University, the Studio Museum in Harlem, among other institutions, executed a seamless conference experience from beginning to end.

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What an honor to be able to present again in New York on a fantastic panel of scholar-performers!  Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art with Matthew D. Morrison, Kwami Colemanand Imani Uzuri, moderated by jazz musician Hank Thomas, was one of my most fulfilling professional panels of my career.  Our panel this weekend will offer some new points of engagement for our audience with Jeff Rabhan of the Clive Davis Institute at NYU as our moderator.
Get yourself on the wait-list. We hope you can make it. The conference will also be broadcasted live. Be sure to keep on Twitter with #BlackPortraitures. For the full schedule, see: Black Portraiture[s] Program – Feb 19-20
A heartfelt THANK YOU to Dr. Therí A. Pickens, who offered her take on our previous panel in her blog post, “Scholar Fierce: Doing Dilettante as a Scholar.” Dr. Pickens’s gracious remarks include:

During this panel, I felt like I learned some pretty basic stuff about jazz (how to listen), black figures in classical music, and how to read art (whether sung or materially crafted). In those moments, worlds opened up. I don’t want to overstate the case by saying that the earth moved. However, the tectonic plates of knowledge I have (which tend to move slowly) quaked and changed the terrain of my knowledge… just a bit. 

C’mon, now. THAT has to convince you to check us out!

Out of Body: Composing Blackness Through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art. 

February 20 at 9:30 a.m.-11 a.m:  NYU’s School of Law, Vanderbilt Hall, Tishman Auditorium. 40 Washington Square South, New York.

By listening to and engaging sonic histories and performances of blackness, this panel seeks to complement/complicate visual representations of blackness in Western art, as we consider how sound is articulated from, outside of, and onto (black) bodies through art, music, and performance. (Dis)Embodied acts of improvising and composing (of sound and identity), the “spirit” of sound, and the politics of (black) sound’s reception and circulation, will be themes that run throughout this panel.
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Kwami Coleman, Nikki A. Greene, Imani Uzuri, Matthew D. Morrison, and moderator Hank Thomas. Black Portraitures II Conference, May 30, 2015. Photo by Deborah Jack.

María Magdalena Campos Pons: “Habla La Madre” | #CAA2016

LIVE (at the Guggenheim): María Magdalena Campos Pons, Carrie Mae Weems and Black Feminist Performance

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María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Performing “Habla La Madre” at the Guggenheim on April 27, 2014. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.

Nikki A. Greene | Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora | Wellesley College

Panel: Performance as Portraiture

Wednesday, February 3, 2016, 9:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

The 104th College Art Association Conference, Washington, DC
Chairs: Dorothy Moss, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution & Jamie L. Smith, CONNERSMITH Gallery
Mariott Wardman Park Hotel, Wshington 1, Exhibition Level

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All photos by Nikki A. Greene

María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Carrie Mae Weems, originally from Cuba and the United States, respectively, have thrived internationally creating works of art that examine African diasporic identity using the physicality of their own bodies as process, subject, and object, literally and figuratively. On April 27, 2014, María Magdalena Campos-Pons processed through the lobby and onto the ramps leading to the second floor galleries of the Guggenheim Museum of New York, shouting incantations among hundreds of visitors, costumed in a startlingly white, hooped dress that mimicked the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building. Eight female attendants and an Afro-Cuban band sang and played along. In celebration of the exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, the performance took place during Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Past Tense/Future Perfect, a weekend of programs of artist talks, dance, music, and theater.
This paper will examine how Campos-Pons performance “Habla La Madre” offered on that Sunday afternoon her Afro-Cuban body as a site of/for “Africa” and “womanhood” in harmony with Weems—and in dissonance with the museum space—serving to complicate performance art as portraiture within the African Diaspora. Stuart Hall defined the circular relationship of people of African descent to the continent as they return physically, intellectually, and/or spiritually as having to do with “what Africa has become in the New World, what we have made of ‘Africa’: ‘Africa’ as we re-tell it through politics, memory and desire.” Campos-Pons’ insertion within the Guggenheim stands as an exemplary performative portrait of a black feminist artist that is at once present and absent, still and in motion, familiar and foreign, historical and contemporary. By engaging (and interrupting) an “Africa” that thrives vis-à-vis Cuba and the United States through the artist’s own metonymic presence—in the museum/as the museum—in concert with the self-portraits and performances by Carrie Mae Weems concurrently on exhibition, Campos-Pons distinctly reveals how the portrait of an African diasporic body acts as a site of difference, rupture, fantasy, and indeed, self, in ways not traditionally available in feminist art history.

For the full video of the performance, see Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Performances – “Habla La Madre” | guggenheim.org

Black Portraitures II: BLACK GIRL MAGIC

Black Portraitures II Conference in Florence, Italy provided the beautiful surroundings, amazing fellowship and excellent scholarship that made for a perfect formula for BLACK GIRL MAGIC. You’ve seen this hashtag: #BlackGirlMagic. You may have also come across #CarefreeBlackGirl (In fact, I think I’m raising one):

These hashtags have come to mean much more in the last year. The #SayHerName movement encourages us all to remember the cis and trans black women who have been killed during altercations with the police or while in police custody, especially in the wake of the possible suicide of Sandra Bland while in a jail cell in Texas. We need to recognize women cross the country who continue to work within social, cultural, political and academic programs, movements, and institutions in order to advance black people across the country and around the world. This is my small tribute to those women I met or reunited with in Florence.

Deborah Willis was the driving force behind the Black Portraitures II conference along with a hardworking team of collaborators from New York University, Harvard University, the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others. Dr. Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Dr. Willis has worked throughout her entire career to highlight and celebrate the creativity, talent, and beauty of African Americans, primarily (though not exclusively) in photography. Because of her and the wonderful conference staff members, BLACK GIRL MAGIC was palpable throughout our time in Florence.

Dr. Deborah Willis and Dr. Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures Reception at La Villa Pietra.
Dr. Deborah Willis and Dr. Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures II Reception at Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy.

As a photographer, curator, historian and documentarian, her commitment to the arts is unequal to most academics today. Her numerous books include Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the PresentOut [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty; Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers – 1840 to the Present; Let Your Motto be Resistance – African American Portraits; Family History Memory: Photographs by Deborah Willis; VANDERZEE: The Portraits of James VanDerZee; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic History with Carla Williams; Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery with Barbara Krauthamer; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles a NAACP Image Award Winner). Most recently, inspired by Deborah Willis’s book Reflections in Black, Thomas Allen Harris’s film Through a Lens Darkly premiered at Sundance in 2014 (and is now available on Netflix).

THANK YOU, Deborah Willis, for bringing us together so that we can continue to do “the work.” You’re an incomparable mentor and inspiration to so many of us.

Chirlane I. McCray, 1st lady of NYC and Wellesley graduate with Nikki A. Greene
Chirlane I. McCray, 1st lady of NYC and Wellesley graduate with Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures II Reception at Villa La Pietra.

There were too many wonderful scholars, artists, students, and art aficionados on hand to name them all (there was so much fangirling going on). I was particularly thrilled to meet Chirlane McCray, New York City’s First Lady (and Wellesley College grad ’76), Spelman College’s new president and art historian, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, art historian and curator Dr. Kellie Jones, feminist scholar Michele Wallace, and writer Michaela Angela Davis. All of my Dark Room Faculty Seminar sisters made the time spent there that much more enjoyable, of course. And there were so many magical moments…

We occasionally owned the streets of Florence. Right, Jasmine E. Johnson?!

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There was a paper on BETTY DAVIS by De Angela Duff! Thanks for the shout out for my “Feminist Funk Power” article during your presentation!

We got to “whip our hair back and forth” when we needed to (Autumn Womack!):

When we heard Imani Uzuri sing on stage during the Out of Body panel on music, we were moved:

We also learned that magic can exist anywhere, even in a hair pick (Thanks, Ebony Coletu!)

Ultimately, all we needed to do was just stand around and see all of the beauty, talent, and intelligence that inhabited the spaces of the Odeon Theater and Villa La Pietra in Florence. As a result, WE WERE ALL BLACK PORTRAITS worthy to behold.

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