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

 

 

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.
Out of Body Panel
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.

Black Portraitures II: Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art

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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. Such an honor to have known Dr. Deborah Willis, her artistic work and scholarship on photography for so many years. 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, and other sites, executed a seamless conference experience from beginning to end.

Nikki A. Greene and Deborah Willis

Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art with Matthew D. Morrison, Kwami Coleman, and Imani Uzuri was one of my most fulfilling professional panels of my career. Moderated by jazz musician Hank Thomas, the description of our panel is as follows:

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.

Really, when you have a “spare hour,” hear us talk about our passion surrounding music. The whole panel was phenomenal (if I do say so myself). You won’t regret it. My paper “Facing the Music: Radcliffe Bailey, Sun Ra, and the African Diasporic Body” begins around minute 32. A heartfelt THANK YOU to Dr. Therí A. Pickens, who offered her take on our panel in her blog post, “Scholar Fierce: Doing Dilettante as a Scholar.” Dr. Pickens 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. (Girl, thanks, for real!)

C’mon, now. THAT has to convince you to watch. For other recordings from the Black Portraiture{s} II conference, please visit the Black Portraitures website.

My next post will feature photos from BLACKNESS IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: A DARK ROOM ROUNDTABLE at Black Portraitures II.

Even if you don’t have a full hour (and twelve minutes), here is a two-minute video of Imani singing from my perspective on the stage. I had to follow Imani Uzuris singing performance, so it took me a moment to gather myself.  She’s amazing. Enjoy!

FEMINISMS UNBOUND @ MIT – The Dark Room: Race and Gender in the Visual Archive – Feb. 11

The Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies series “Feminisms Unbound” continues at MIT on February 11 featuring members of The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Faculty Seminar: Irene Mata (Wellesley College), Sandy Alexandre (MIT), Marcia Chatelain (Georgetown University), and moderator/co-organizer Kimberly Juanita Brown (Brown University). I’ll talk specifically about Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, the sugar installation at the Domino Factory in Brooklyn from last summer. Join us!

Mammy in waiting
Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety…”(July 2014).  Photo by Nikki A. Greene.
The Dark Room: Race and Gender in the Visual Archive
Wednesday, February 11th: 5:30 – 7:30 PM
Location: The Moore Room, Building 6 Room 321

In the intellectual tributary that is critical race theory, all is connected.  Whether the task is elucidating the gendered trajectory of imperialism and violence in the United States, examining indigenous art forms in Latin America, or probing the interstices of Caribbean cultural production in the 20th century, critical race theorists have always engaged the world of the visual.  Bringing together scholars invested in the work of critical race studies as visual culture offers a unique vantage point through which to imagine the future of visual culture studies. The Dark Room is an interdisciplinary working group of scholars interested in theories of visuality and theories of racial formation.   In this roundtable each feminist scholar will select an image and interpret it in relation to its archive.

 

“Esperanza Spalding, a portrait” by Bo Gehring is Black Gold

Esperanza Spalding is not the kind of celebrity that the public searches for scathing beach shots or rumors of affairs. She’s made her mark on the music industry being the kind of thoughtful, extremely talented singer, songwriter and musician with which we wish the pop charts could be filled. In Bo Gehring’s Esperanza Spalding, a portrait (2014), she’s adorned, but not flashy. There are no tell-tell signs of luxury from the world’s top designers–no Versace gown or Louboutin shoes. Spalding carefully chose her look with sustainable materials and craftsmanship in mind. As the National Portrait Gallery states in its press release of this commissioned video portrait:

For the sitting, Spalding wore jewelry from Red Earth Trading Co. Her skirt is by Tara St. James of Study, a New York-based ethical brand using sustainable materials, and the dress under the skirt is from Tamara Horton of Studio Samuel, a small company that goes to Ethiopia to teach women to sew. The shoes are from What’s More Alive Than You, an Italian company that makes high heels out of old tables.

The architectural foundation of the wooden shoes, the twinkling gold rings, and the metallic layering of those beautiful fabrics present Spalding with the refinement of a woman so self-possessed that she shines.

With this kind of careful intentionality in displaying not only herself but also the work of others (you can literally see the different kinds of stitching used by the seamstresses), how did Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott arrive at this closing sentence in “Esperanza Spalding: Up Close but Not Personal”?

“The camera can’t get any closer, and still it reveals nothing, leaving the viewer feeling a bit cheated, a bit aggressive, and a bit disgusted.”

Cheated? He has a problem with her “celebrity” and resultant ease before Gehring’s camera. Kennicott doesn’t acknowledge that though Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011, she still doesn’t have the kind of recognizability of Justin Beiber, who she beat out for the category that year. So, why would anyone see this portrait as impersonal? If the viewer, in fact, feels “a bit cheated,” that has nothing to do with Bo Gehring’s technique or portrayal of Spalding nor does it have to do with the musician directly. The viewer must check his or her own value placed on celebrity, on a specific kind of self-seeking, attention-grabbing, over-produced sort (i.e. Justin Beiber).

Bo Gehring won the 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery with his video portrait of a furniture worker, Jessica Wichmanwhich featured the sitter in modest clothes, including a slightly soiled jacket. The subject lays relatively stiff and uncomfortably during the scan, thereby offering a much more vulnerable portrayal. What Kennicott neglects to note in comparison to Bo Gehring’s winning portrait is that Spalding, too, is a worker. When you arrive at Spalding’s hands–the first sight of her body beyond her feet–you see short, unmanicured fingernails, the tools of a bassist. Yes, she smiles. She’s responding to the music. Yes, she’s styled. That’s part of her work, too.

Esperanza hands
Bo Gehring, “Esperanza Spalding, a portrait.” Video Still. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 2014.

Aggressive? The portrait of Spalding embodies the very lyrics that she gracefully performs on “Black Gold” that somewhat explains Kennicott’s false description of the artist:

Now maybe no one else has ever told you so
But you’re golden, baby
Black Gold with a diamond soul
Think of all the strength you have in you
From the blood you carry within you
Ancient men, powerful men
Builders of civilization
They’ll be folks hell-bent on putting you down
Don’t get burned
‘Cause not necessarily everyone will know your worth

Disgusted? Many visual artists have addressed directly the ways in which the portrayal of the black female body has been systematically degraded, especially within the art world. I’m thinking here of Faith Ringgolds series of paintings revising the very history of art by inserting herself, her family members, historical figures and other black bodies directly into versions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Most recently, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, engendered disgust for me in how others responded (see Azucar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”). As an art historian, I also think of philosopher and artist Dr. Adrian Piper‘s assertion that there is a “triple negation of the colored woman artist,” a dismissal of her worth just for being “colored,” a woman, and an artist (See Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetics, edited by Lowery Stokes Sims. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, 239–48). Dr. Deborah Willis‘ book and traveling exhibition Posing Beauty in African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2009) offers over 200 photographs of wonderfully diverse representations of the beauty of the black body from vintage ladies’ journal to newspapers. Posing Beauty is only one of many books on photography by Willis that documents and historicizes black folk looking good, “knowing their worth.” Philip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic, did not see his own shortcoming of ascribing to some vague guidelines on how black beauty should be portrayed and appreciated. What should she have looked like? I dare not ask.

When the camera pans on Spalding’s face, did you catch the slight flittering grin and knowing nod? She glows under Gehring’s lens, not just because she’s so used to being in front of the camera and in the public eye, as Kennicott suggests, but rather in concert with the music, she knows intimately the brilliance of the song she chose, Wayne Shorter’s “Tarde” (1974). Yes, Gehring’s camera reveals something, Mr. Kennicott: Spaulding is as radiant as Black Gold.

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