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?!

Betty - BPII

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.

The Grind: Mama PhD? Yes, I can!

This is a long overdue follow-up to a previous commentary on “Going To Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Really Have It All?).” I managed to spend three weeks in Ethiopia in January teaching African Art and taking in the sights, sounds, and smiles of Addis Ababa. Some of my readers followed my journey via this website and Facebook on my experiences I titled “Notes from Addis.” It was a successful trip, and I am sure that I will return. Being a Mama PhD abroad is only possible through the immeasurable support of my husband who holds down the fort for me during my absences.

My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012.
My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012. Photo by Judith Black.

What many of my readers did not know was that I was also on the job market. The academic job market is no joke. For those outside of higher education, the fact that the entire process from initial application to phone interview to campus interview to rejection/offer can take up to six months. So, in the midst of my world travel, I had the added pleasure/stress of pursuing tenure-track positions across the country. This process required even more days away from home almost as soon as I returned from Africa. In the midst of it all–teaching, parenting, interviewing–I did land a job. If you’ve already taken a look at my title, you know that I managed to land a place on the impressive (and therefore humbling) faculty in the Department of Art at Wellesley College as an Assistant Professor of Art, the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora, specifically. Phew!

What I think many find particularly significant is that I did this with two small children. Due to my previous posts on this website, my little ones were no secret to my potential employers, including Wellesley College. One of my friends commented on how surprised she was that I didn’t just talk about my kids, but that I joyfully marched them around campus in full view of my colleagues (my kids kind of think the campus is an extended playground)! Actually, what she said was, “If it were me, I would have kicked them in the bushes.” Ok, that sounds cruel, but I understood her concern. Kids take up an immense amount of time, critical time to write, research, attend meetings, teach, write some more, especially when you’re trying to land tenure. What can I say? I’m a proud Mama PhD! I learned a long time ago when I decided to have my first child while I was writing my dissertation that academia was going to have to accept me with all of my grown-up responsibilities of raising a family during my childbearing years. On the flip side, I have had to rise to the challenge of accepting the demands of academia with my family in tow.

While many men do take on a lot of the responsibility for child-rearing, women tend to take on the bulk of the work of raising children, especially in academia due to our flexible schedules. Even when it comes to parental leave for the birth of a child, men tend to use the time to advance their research while most women use that time to, you know, take care of her newborn (See “On Parental Leave, Men Have It Easier,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 7, 2005). For any woman struggling to advance a career in academia with a family, it is no secret that the balancing act takes the support of one’s immediate family, extended family, neighbors, friends, near and far to manage. As I juggle the summer schedule, self-imposed deadlines for articles and fall class prep are my motivation in the midst of camp and daycare drop-offs and pickups. Early mornings, late nights, and weekend work-days are the only way to accomplish my goals. Again, the supportive husband pictured above has made this compromise feasible.

My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.
My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.

I lean on my local “village” of neighbors (’cause it takes one to raise a child, right?) who are willing to take care of my kids in a pinch. Other times, I may just whine to my mom on the phone 200 miles away. The knowledge that I have peers and mentors who are also enduring (or who have already survived) similar situations comforts me in the midst of the struggle.

Two recent events this spring highlight a network of women who remind me that I am strong enough and human enough to do what I need/want to do as a Mama PhD. First, one my GFF’s (Grad Friend Forever), Tanya Pohrt, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, defended her dissertation at the University of Delaware. She was the final member of our cohort of five who completed the doctoral program in the Department of Art History. I, along with two other GFF’s, surprised her when she emerged from the room. We each have two kids each. We each have jobs in either academia or museums. We each know the challenges faced to accomplish this tremendous accomplishment. We thought it important to mark the occasion together as fellow Mama PhDs!

The second event was Wellesley College’s 2013 Commencement. My colleagues at Wellesley are extraordinary. Again, I am humbled to join the ranks of the faculty here. I was grateful to take a photo with my fellow female scholars of African descent. Certainly scholars of color face additional stressors due to race and institutional racism in order to not only complete the PhD, but also to thrive in academia. [I’ll save my comments on race perhaps for another post. In the meantime, see the recent publication, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.]

Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.
Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene at Wellesley College. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.

This picture will continue to remind me that there are women who struggle and achieve by my side (single, married, with and without children). I thank all of these women–friends, colleagues, neighbors–who make being a Mama PhD not only possible, but a thrill.

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