Greetings LQP People!
Since the opening of the exhibition of Her Name was Laura Nelson: The Lynch Quilts Project at Central Library here in Indianapolis, IN things have been on a roller coaster ride of extremes and at time careening into absurdity. In the first few days of the news article hitting the public, immediately followed-up by a news broadcast, the story danced across the Internet to cities far and wide. Finding a home in unusual enclaves from bloggers to opinion pieces to many on-line news outlets such as USA Today, NBC.com and various markets associated with the Gannett and NBC media companies. It even ended up airing on MSNBC news in the morning AND several southern city papers ran the article. In the first couple of days, more than a 1,000 people visited the website and that number has remained a strong 25 or more new visits each day every since.
But despite all the accolades, this work comes with a price. Lately I have been reminded of Father Michael Pfleger's banner hanging at St. Sabina Catholic Church located on the Southside of Chicago. This predominately African American congregation is headed by one bad a** human rights, civil rights priest. And the banner, "Discipleship Costs. Are you ready?" has had more meaning and understanding now than at any other time in my presentation of the quilt.
In the last week alone, I have been kissed by an old man, cursed out (nicely if one can be) by an old woman that really looked like she wanted to spit on me, taught a class about lynching and gave two tours at the library to interested groups. However, of all the things that I have encountered recently, the most offensive required me to pass a modern version of the brown paper bag test. But this time it had a crazy twist.
For those of you not in the know, many years ago, affluent African American circles strove to keep their numbers "light, bright and damn near white" as an old cultural adage goes. As such, individuals trying to gain access to organizations, fraternities and sororities, churches, and all manners of elite black society would be put to a brown paper bag, comb test or pencil test.
In you were darker than a paper bag you were too dark to be welcomed. If your hair was not straight enough to glide through a small toothed comb without catching, then the strength of mother Africa was too tight in your coils. Or, they pulled out a ruler to measure how straight your nose was compared to the ideal European beauty. Too broad and you are out!
In the words of famous comedian Paul Mooney in discussing his native Louisiana, "If you're brown stick around; If you're light you're all right; If you are black you better step back!" Or, Spike Lee's satiric take on this issue in his 1988 film School Daze. Many would argue that some of these racial codes and preferences still persist in today's society. In fact looking at the media images we can see strong proof of these "white is right" thinking patterns. And while we still have a long way to go, there is also evidence that there is push back against these ideologies.
As for my case, I was asked to discuss the project with a group of Anti-Racists. I guess in their eyes I was not angry enough and my consistent discussion of the needs and necessity to heal from this history, pointing to the need to examine how this history fits within the context of the wider human struggle against oppression was too much. I was asked to then explain my sexual history. They demanded to know if I had ever slept with a white man.
I'll tell you I am usually quick on my feet, but this one threw me for a loop and all I could say at the moment was I was offended and would not answer that question. I was even more dismayed to then hear the commentator begin to quote psychologist about how our private lives impact what we'll do and think in public about groups of people.
Yes, I agree. But I guess in their worldview one's spiritual practices could never be at the root of understanding how one lives their life and operates in the world. Or, how one's personal journey towards healing these wounds around racism could be impactful. No, the only thing that seems to count is who one chooses to screw.
This exchange seethed in my mind for days. Not only was I pissed that I didn't have a snappy comeback, it took me a long time to figure out EXACTLY what offended me about it beyond the question being irrelevant and inappropriate. Then it dawned on me. What I found most appalling and sad is less that the question was asked, but that the host of the show would allow his efforts to combat racism to be reduced to what amounts to a racial paper bag test. A test designed not to see if you looked too African, but satiate the notion of "Are you black enough?" What was even more unfortunate is that the host clearly accepts this line of questioning as a necessary and positive forum, thus (in my eyes) reducing his credibility as a positive force and outlet for anti-racism efforts. Later, I received emails from the audience who also found the question offensive.
So instead of the paper bag test, we now have the "Screw Test." Designed to test one's racial and cultural pride and acceptability, commitment to communal healing and anti-racism? If that is the test case by those that are reportedly the activists, then Divine help us all. We have clearly gone off the deep end.
In other news, throughout this exhibition I have been confronted again and again with why this history? Why now? Can't you just let it go? That's in the past. I think it is naive to think this is in the past. Or, if we just forget about it and ignore it, the racists among will let it go. Add to this in the same time frame, the recent controversy surrounding the rapper Lil' Wayne's use of Emmett Till in lyrics that many deemed offensive.
In 1955 Emmett Till was a 14 year old child from Chicago that went to visit relatives for the summer in Mississippi. While at the local corner store he made a comment or whistled (accounts differ) to the white owner's wife. A few nights later he was dragged from his bed, severely beaten, had his eye gouged out and was finally shot in the head. His body was then weighed down in the river with a 70 lb. cotton gin. The culprits were known and acquitted of the crime, only to later admit in an interview they committed these acts. Double jeopardy laws prevented them from being prosecuted a second time around.
I wonder if Lil' Wayne would have created those lyrics if he understood the gravity of this history. Or, if he had viewed Emmett Till's life and death in the same light as that of Trayvon Martin? While the circumstances were different for each crime, the same social climate that devalues the lives of black boys is still paramount today as it was 57 years ago. The resulting public backlash and outcry is proof positive of not only the basic lack of understanding and education around the history of lynching, but also the continued pain and healing that is needed in our communities.
I've had a woman yell that it was disrespectful. That she hated it. That she was disgusted and ashamed a black woman had done this. That Jewish people would never allow the display of photos of the holocaust!
I explained that like the Jewish people we must never forget the atrocities committed upon these shores against our own people. That didn't she realize Holocaust Memorials were prevalent throughout the landscape and the discussion of this history a part of our contemporary modality? Wasn't that necessary as well for the examination of racial oppression in our country?
She was livid. I kept my cool and used as soothing and caring a voice I could muster while under attack. I could read between the lines and understood what she was really saying, even if she didn't. After about 5 minutes of fussing at me she eventually said, "How could you do this? Every time I try to get way, people like you remind me of the shame, the pain, the embarrassment of it all." That looking at this was like someone was constantly picking at a scab making her wounds bleed. I said I understood, but that I felt that true healing of this wound must occur from the inside out and it would only happen once we had examined this history. I explained that for some people they are relieved to see what they have longed carried and hidden be put on display. That it was a release and relief to no longer carry this inside and I hoped she would be able to see it as a positive action . . . eventually. Her response was, "only house niggas would feel that way." (News flash! Hint, hint. Arrow pointing at the bullseye! That's you, LASHAWNDA CROWE STORM, in case you didn't know!
I asked why she feels ashamed of this history. We had not committed these atrocities. That wasn't it necessary to embrace them to ensure the generations that come after know their history? She lamented it's the parents fault if they do not know; my kids know. I said I agreed and then explained the encounters I have had over the years with the complete ignorance of the history, the recent Lil' Wayne issues. She was pissed even further and said he was crazy we shouldn't listen to him. I said that's the problem, lots of kids and young adults do listen to him and we have to combat this type of ignorance head on. At that point she waived her hand in my face to dismiss me.
But despite this and the roller coaster of bipolar mood swings I experience on my weekly trips to the library, swinging from wanting to hide to standing tall with conviction, there has been great support. I have had the honor and privilege to receive emails and letters from people who are thankful that this story it is told. That they feel empowered and relieved by all this. I've had people suggest new options for exhibiting the work to better support the community. One of the librarians has even contributed 2 blocks for Quilt IV. Over the next few editions, I'll share some of the letters and emails I have received - the good, the bad, the ugly and the real ugly.
Again, thank you all for your continued support. This would not be possible without you!
With the utmost gratitude,
See more information and articles about the history of the Emmett Till murder in the Monthly Resources section.
This month I would like to post some of the responses received at the Meet the Artist Exhibition here in Indianapolis.
"I was intrigued by the way the quilt outlined Laura Nelson and made her appear to be 3 dimensional. The thread outlines her person in a way that made her real and in the moment. The way the thread outlines her hairline, her hands, the creases of her dress, her feet and the hangman’s rope that draped around her neck. The way the thread outlines her back resembles and reminds me of how racism was the fabric of her life.
She and her family were not able to go where they pleased; indicated by the stitches in her feet. They were not able to be who they wanted to be; indicated by the stitches around her head. She was raped; indicated by the stitches around her dress. She had to work for someone else; indicated by the stitches around her hands. The injustice in all parts of her life is indicated by the stitches surrounding the hangman’s noose around her neck. Interestingly the rope that she was hung from was longer than her body. These stitches outlined a human being from the most intricate features of her hair to the vastness of her body. What I found intriguing as well was her wedding ring… a symbol of love; it was not stitched out."
I would definitely like to hear from others out there. So, please contribute your thoughts, photos and art. You can respond to this newsletter or email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.