This public thank you letter is long overdo. Since this picture in 2019, I have seen Ms. Waston on many occasions and said thank you personally but putting it in writing has helped me shape the deepness behind my ‘thanks’.
Dear Ms. Watson,
This letter is about your involvement with the Langston Hughes’ house even though it was for a short period of time in which you (along with friends) made it into a community reading space.
It was in that short time, my interest in Langston Hughes sparked.
At the events, I met many writers such as the children’s book authors, Mr. and Mrs. Lesa Cline- Ransome, who wrote the book, Finding Langston and Mrs. Rita Williams-Garcia, the author behind the creation of the Gaither girls.
Meeting these authors and talking about their work in real time, was very pertinent to me as a teacher and writer. I did not know it then, but my school would soon be forced to relocate and my students would need as much of Langston Hughes and the Gaither girls as they could possibly have.
Last spring when the flowers were beginning to bud in front of the school building, the entire community was hit with terrible news- the school will be relocating. This shocked everyone. We were at our location for over 15 years. This news put everybody in another mode of survival (we were still coping with COVID-19). From the school’s administration to the children, plans had to be made and arrangements had to be set for the future.
As a teacher, one main thought of mine was, if the school remains open, whom can I teach next year that will open up discussions about displacement, gentrification, and Black migration in the U.S?
Because I had been involved in conversations about those very topics at the Langston Hughes House, it was easy for me to think of Hughes’ childhood and migration. I could think of no better person than this writer and renaissance man to teach and open up these tough discussions.
When putting together a syllabus for the school year, Langston Hughes’ children literature was sought after. Finding Langston by Lesa Celine-Ransom which deals with many relevant themes such as death, migration, poverty, Blackness, country living vs. city living and survival, wasn’t hard and it was the first book on their list. Gone Crazy in Alabama, was the last.
The children started Finding Langston at the same time the moving men started to pack the classrooms.
They read about Langston moving from Alabama and imagined they were in Langston’s shoes….The moving men were outside the classroom doors toting things away and they were in the classroom sitting on the floor with their legs crossed imaging they were on grass under the hot Alabama sun. Langston became us and we became him.
Learning about Langston Hughes and remembering the past conversations gave me a solace.
The students begin to bottle up their emotions and try to process what was really going on. Their school building along with their friends and the comfort of common community was all being taken away. Knowing the tough time they were experiencing, I drew from facts of Langston Hughes life and Black Life in general. For the rest of the year, we looked at Jim Crow laws, Brown Vs. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Jacob Lawrence Migration Series, and at the end of the year ended with the Black Panther Party and the 10 point system.
Langston Hughes was a child of the Great Migration. Our parents (my parents at least) were apart of the same migration.
But my students and even myself a part of another type of migration, gentrification. It seems to be the same story, and the same folks.
Thank You Ms. Watson for providing me the tools to have these conversations.
“When Angel was born,” Tree recalled, “he had really bad eczema.” I was standing in Zambo Aroma listening to Tree Alexander speak briefly about his business.
“The doctors gave us some prescriptions which only caused more discomfort. So, I created our eczema care cream and rubbed him down four times a day, and his skin cleared up in six weeks. When the eczema care cream worked for Angel, everybody else wanted some and that started the snowball effect.”
As I stood there, I enjoyed the aroma of the large spacious shop on 3848 White Plains Road in the Bronx. Smells of faint incense, sweet fragrance and woodsy herbs created a sense of tranquility. My eyes wandered throughout the homely lit shop and took in the images of the prominent Black figures.
The popular photo of Victorian era, Ida B. Wells with her natural hair pulled up into a bun is framed and sits on the ledge of a shelf. There’s also photos of Dr. Carver Washington, Dr. Sabi, and Madam C. J. Walker. There are holiday decorations up and as if playing Finding Waldo, there are many mini figurines of Black Santas, standing erect in several corners.
Towards the front of the shop sit two decorative love sofas and a small coffee table. There is a little girl swinging her legs back and forth as she looks down at a tablet. Along the wall are wooden shelves holding all sorts of products: plastic wrapped naturally made soaps, soy candles, sweet smelling scrubs, skin care cream, fabric sprays, and even handmade laundry detergent.
It was the day before Thanksgiving and the shop buzzed with Tree’s family members. Besides the little girl, Tree’s sons sat nearby playing video games and Tree’s father, Darryl, who was visiting from the city of Chicago, walked about putting smiles on people faces.
Tree Alexander, who is a parent of 5, and a social worker by profession, went to school for cosmetology. However, it was only when his son, Angel, was born that his dream of soap making as a profession began to flourish.
“Business is really good,” Tree says with a smile on his face.”We started this business without a funder, investor or loan. We used all of our pocket change.”
Tree spoke while pulling soap samples out of a jar and stuffing them into a clear plastic bag that held my previously purchased soy candles. He gave me bits and pieces of his story as a business owner and as a Black American.
“I stood outside of this building when it was empty and sold soap on the weekends to save up enough money to get into this space.
Just like Ida B. Wells, Tree traveled, investing in his art before settling down in a new city as a Social Worker.
“I moved to New York when I was 19 and after spending all my money trying to become a broadway star, I practiced social work for ten years. After I brought my first property and the kids started to come, I decided I wanted to work for myself….and this is what I always wanted to do…”
I don’t own the property but that is my next step.”
“Currently, We are doing very well. We have orders from up and down the east cost. We get a lot of business from Georgia and North Carolina. In addition, a lot of my products are made with ingredients from CSA’s and Black owned farms. We get shipments every day from Connecticut and New Jersey.”
Sitting on the counter are flyers of community activities that take place at the store. I take a card for a book club and this reminds Tree of the other side of his business.
“In addition to skincare, we host, paint and sips, book clubs, and Zumba classes. There was no way I was going to start a business and not include the community!”
Tree looks at the soaps sitting on the shelf and put more gifts in my bag.
“This is a gift.” He says while wrapping it. “It’s a wild oats soap. The bar is made with olive oil, oatmeal and activated charcoal…. It’s a very conscience business I want to provide. Our mission is to provide health, healing and education…Not only are our products naturally made but all of our soaps have quotes or affirmations on the labels.”
I pick up the soap bar I purchased, Naja Warrior bar, It reads: Purify and stimulate the conscious mind, memory, and mental performance.
“The Naga Warrior bar tells the story of the African civilizations which are found in South East Asia. These communities are connected to the foundation of Buddhism. They historically traveled on the monsoons between Africa and Asia. This is our most popular soap.” Naga bar which goes for $10.00 a bar on their website.
“Ourlavender deodorant talks about the American southern route, which was like a trade route for Black people.” When asked who did the writing, Tree acknowledged his team. “Carlton, my partner, is the writer, he makes everything possible virtually, he does all the websites and social media and I am in the kitchen”.
Showing his generosity, he adds more soaps to the bag.
Tree, “I think that’s enough now,” I said laughing.
“Well, just in case you have friends!” He responds.
While Tree does most of his business in the northeast; his humble beginnings started in the Ida B. Wells projects in Chicago.
Tree was born in the heart of Chicago, in Brownsville. The town named for the people who lived there. The same town Harlem Renaissance writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes wrote about in their poems.
Tree lit up while talking about the history of his hometown. “Brownsville is in the south side of Chicago and runs directly into the Ida B. Wells projects and that’s where the clubs were back in the day. That’s where you went shopping and went to church! Aretha Franklin’s father was associated with that area so you know, the churches were packed! All kinds of stuff happened there!
As a child, Tree’s father taught him about his roots in Chicago through family stories and Black literature. He was exposed to writers like George Schuyler, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.
“I read Black no More in the 6th grade. I would never forget that story. I now, reread the stories my dad had me read as a kid, I always find something new.”
When I mentioned that I’ll look up the books on Amazon, he offered to lend me his books pulling them out of his library.
He continued, “I love my city. I would definitely go back to do business and networking. But I don’t think I would go back to live. Brownsville is a lost neighborhood now. Most of the stores are closed and boarded-up. It almost looks like other lost American cities. It’s rough. It’s not the same as it was before.”
His father, walked into the shop and stopped by the counter to join the conversation.
“Brownsville?!” He shouted in a teasing manner. “What you know about Brownsville?” Where you from?” His father asked me, making me laugh.
“I am from the Bronx.”
“Where is your family from?”
“My mother is from Gloucester, Virgina which is-“
“Oh, don’t tell me. I’m from Hampton Roads too! I know about Hampton and Norfolk. I was in the service down there! I was at Langley – you know the movie Hidden Figures? about the Black sister with the math? I was at Langley Hampton and I ate at that same cafeteria Taraji ate at in the film!”
Tree’s Father spoke fast and comical while sharing his very serious story about being a Black man in the service. His son looked on and smiled.
“I can’t believe you had your son reading Richard Wright when he was in the 6th grade sir!” I said when I could squeeze a line in. “I can’t even read Richard Wright without shivering now!”
He took a breath and in a serious, teaching tone replied, “Well, It’s important. Every Black boy needs to know about Bigger Thomas. They need to know that eventually you get caught for your dirt. That image needs to be embedded in their minds.”
Perhaps its true images that are embedded into Tree’s mind which are still carrying him today.
Sometimes images of pain and dispair can help create images of health and hope.
No doubt, fundamentally, Tree’s images are connected to his roots which enable him, as a practicing cosmetologist, to use his psychology skills as a community builder. I am almost certain these Images are connected to Brownsville, Bigger and the Bronx which helps him persevere as a business man.
Perhaps those images seem like one large piece work of art – moving, yet still- and even though it can be difficult at times to pull apart Ida from Chicago or separate nostalgia from the future, bringing them all together is what matters because its the root of the mixture that creates the Zambo Aroma.
God bless their hearts. They come into the third grade innocent. Taking everything at face value.
I never answer that question, because I never thought I liked Charlie Brown. I just think it’s a good tool to use to teach third graders about race in America.
Before school starts, I use my Amazon points to purchase classroom items such as posters, stickers, door décor, awards, window stickers and a new grade book -all decorated with Peanuts characters.
There is a huge welcome poster that hangs above the cozy classroom library. It’s the first poster the children see when they walk in. It says welcome in huge red letters, and features every Charlie Brown character-except Franklin.
There is a poster at the front of the room that states “In a good conversation, one person talks while the other listens,” and there you see Charlie Brown in a good conversation…
There is a Snoopy poster. It has a yellow backdrop and it reminds the children how to be a perfect friend. Lucy has a poster. Linus has a poster. There are posters with the whole gang- except Franklin. As a matter of fact, I can count on one hand how many posters Franklin is in…
So I ask the children to create a poster for Franklin.
As the year goes by the children mature. The calendar at the front of the room finally has a picture of Franklin…
Around this time they are introduced to my Charlie Brown library.
I built the library by searching on eBay and Etsy for Charlie Brown memorabilia. I came across a set of old Charlie Brown books. They are so old the children have to ask special permission to read them and they MUST handle the books with care.
The ones who love to read try to keep them. Before they leave for the summer, I have to search their desks to make sure each one is returned.
During the year, I watch them silently read. It warms my heart to see them understand the humor from the Peanuts characters. Once they start to laugh and enjoy the content, I begin to ask them questions about the images and where they see themselves.
I then pull out the Charlie Brown dictionary- which always amazes them. (It amazed me too!) I add it to our classroom set of dictionaries. As time passes and they learn to define words and use them, I allow them to search the Charlie Brown dictionary.
As the year continues, the class grows older. The students are not new to third grade. They are fully third graders now.
Then one day, someone asks a question about identity – this always happens…someone is always curious about his or her self– and the class begins to argue and no one can come to a consensus. They turn to me and I turn to the dictionaries that they learned to trust and ask them if they ever looked up the words black or white. What do they think it means in a dictionary such as this one? I pull down the Charlie Brown dictionary.
The classroom is usually silent. Everyone thinking.
Then I flip the pages to white.
And read: White is the color of snow. Ducks have white feathers. The sheets on my bed are white. Marshmallows are white.
Next I turn the pages to black and read,
Franklin is Charlie Brown’s little black friend. He is talking to Charlie Brown on the telephone. Black is a color. Black is also another word for Negro, a person with dark skin. The words in this book are black.
The next thing that usually happens is a series of questions. Questions about what is in books and what images we accept without questions.
One year, the conversation happened after a trip to the New York Historical Society. The children were stunned to see a white educator – rather than a black one- teaching them about slavery in New York. They stood, uncertain, and couldn’t answer her questions. When we returned to the classroom, they expressed their discomfort with having a white educator telling them about their history.
Why did you feel uncomfortable? I asked.
Because, what was her ancestors doing when my ancestors were slaves? one little boy said quietly.
What do you think they were doing and why didn’t you ask her that?
A bossy girl at the front of the room replied, Because, that’s rude Ms. Hurley!
Why is that rude? Weren’t you uncomfortable? Was it okay for her to make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin? I’m not telling you to be rude. I am telling you to think. Think about your history and your stories and who is telling them and who will tell them if you don’t learn who you are.
Another year the conversation happened after singing the Black National Anthem. That was two years ago, when Trevor Noah and Roy Wood Jr. celebrated Franklin’s 50th year on the Daily Show. That was the same year the children learned the word stereotype.
Last year COVID happened right when the children started having the conversations. I thought, How can I introduce ‘race in America’ without the setting of the classroom? America quickly answered that question for me. Instead of discussing Franklin and Charlie Brown we cried about Floyd and Michael Brown, Jr.
Yearly, I attend book events. Especially children and young adult book events. One evening, I attended an event at the New School without doing my research. I just showed up to listen to the different authors and illustrators read from their stories.
I sat in the back and kept my eye on the time. It was a weekday and I had work the next morning.
That night Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell were given the National Book Award for Young People Literature.
That night, I was completely mesmerized by Joh Lewis’ speech. His voice coming over the podium was so strong. I’ve been to many book events but this one by far was the first one that brought me to a special place. The voice said church, family, country, past, present, future. In a way it even said me.. I sat upright and looked at the program again.
Is that John Lewis? The one who marched with King?
To sit in his presence at that moment in time was a gem.
When he finished speaking, the entire house stood up and clapped and clapped.
I didn’t even know he was sharing his story via graphic novels.
After the event, he stood around shaking hands and speaking to the book lovers. Everyone stood around outside talking in the autumn breeze. Of course, the man of the hour was John Lewis. Young people listened to him and revenced him.
Thank You, I said to him before he signed my book and then again afterwards.
I’m grateful God allowed me time and space to share my gratitude with the Civil Rights leader while he was alive. Even if all I could think of saying was, Thank You.
My curiosity about the history of Route 66 was sparked by my third grade students.
During the lessons, I could not answer many of their questions; therefore, I conducted a lot of research before and after each lesson.
I was grateful when I came across Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey which was/is a great resource….and I want to say, the only one for children covering this topic.
(I find that sometimes when teaching the history of my people, not a lot of material is out there and if it is, it’s not for children. Which most times, is okay with me because I think children should be told the same story adults are told. Especially when these children are black and brown children who are taught to have a double conscience…)
So, for lessons about Route 66, YouTube came in handy. They watched Candancy Taylor’s documentary on Route 66 and I was blown away by what they understood about a time period that came before them (and their parents)!
Are blacks allowed to travel on Route 66 today? What’s redlining? What happened to Route 66? How does a road disappear? So, there are absolutely no businesses there now?? What happened to the black people? Do you think Nat King Cole took Route 66?
Without Taylor’s research I don’t think I would have been able to answer most of their questions so efficiently.
After the year ended, I had forgotten about the videos and Taylor’s research. Then, one day in January, I received an email from the Schomburg inviting me to Taylor’s book signing.
Of course, I didn’t turn down a chance to meet the author and buy her book. Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America was finally on the shelves. I told the now fourth graders about her success, to which they were jealous they couldn’t attend ( but couldn’t wait to see that book was signed to them)!!
I called a couple of my friends who I knew would appreciate the topic and we met at the Schomburg to listen to Taylor speak about her research.
I was already familiar with some information, since I had watched her on YouTube so many times before. Nonetheless, hearing her speak in person meant a lot to me.
One of my favorite stories she tells is the one of her step-father Ron (which is at the beginning of the book) and how the project brought them closer. When she started the project, he opened up to her about what he had been through as a black man traveling through America. After he passed, she found the courage and grace to continue her research. This story resonates with me for many personal reasons. It makes me think of the sacrifices of my parents and grand-parents and the stories they took to the grave with them (or shared) about what they experienced. Likewise, it also resonates with me because of social reasons. It reminds me of the many historians who dedicated their life to documenting and researching topics that are out of the ordinary.
The night of the book signing we didn’t mind waiting over a hour (Ishita waited till the last minute to pick up a copy) to get our books signed.
When I met Ms. Taylor, she was extremely kind and patient. She listened to my story about my students and told me she is also writing a book for children (thank God!).
I joined Dr. Anderson and her students on a trip to Calabar, Brazil. We visited a community center that teaches children and adults how to speak English.
Before we left the U.S., Dr. Anderson collected books and magazines (with black characters). With the help from close friends and parents, I was able to donate many books and magazines.
The students in Brazil were very grateful for the material.
The young man, Vinicius, (who is photographed above) who started the program was very humble and giving. He shared with us his inspiring story on how he started the program. ‘I did not have a lot when I started, he stated, I only had a notebook and a pen. But I kept going until it begin to grow.’ It was encouraging to see how dedicated he was to helping others in in community. “I started this center when I was 16 years old. I wanted to teach others how to speak English because here, if you know English, you can go far. I had a scholarship to learn English and it changed my life and I wanted the same of others”.
After a meet and greet with Vinicius and his co-workers, we got to meet some of the students. Vinicius had us stand in two circles. Standing on the inside was Dr. Anderson and her students and on the outside was Vinicius and his students. Every time he said, ‘switch!’ we spoke to a new person. I learned words in Portuguese so fast. All of us kept laughing and talking.
A photo with Dr. Hall (center), author of Wake: The Hidden History of Women- Led Slave Revolts and other Nerdy Thursday attendees
My first nerdy Thursday happened by chance.
I was leaving the New York Historical Society when stopped by a young gentleman who asked me if I was attending the Black Gotham event.
I had no idea what Black Gotham was but became totally interested in it particularly because while we spoke, I saw young black people climbing the granite steps with amazing energy. They were greeting one another and the young man with smiles, hugs and hand shakes.
What’s Black Gotham?
‘We get together and talk about history- black history. It was started by my friend Kamau Ware who was asked by a student after giving a tour in Manhattan, ‘”What about the Black People?” He found he could not answer that question and started his own research about the history of enslaved Africans in New York. Before you knew it, he had started his own walking tours focusing mainly on people of color. Are you coming?’
I would love too!
That night was amazing. I met beautiful people who enjoyed eating cheese, sipping wine and simply talking about black history…..and it happened in one of my favorite places, the New York Historical Society!
In the rafters, above us, a young musician strummed melodies from her violin as attendees arrived and networked. I met educators and other historians. The young man who sat beside me, Chris, told me about his trip to France and how he saw an exhibition about Emmitt Till in the museum there. You think we tell our history? He said, try reading about our history in a different county and language, it’s worse!
That night, the focus was on Dr. Hall’s forthcoming (at that time) book, Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts.
Mr. Ware started the event with a call and response, telling us that he wasn’t there to talk to us but with us. He wanted to hear our voices as well. This got the crowd going and before long, the silence and nervous chatter was exchanged for hearty laughter and delightful repartee.
When Dr. Hall told us about her research on the history of slave ships and asked the crowd who -did we think – started the most insurrections, of course we thought the men. When she told us actually, the women were the ones revolting, the sisters in the room snapped their fingers while shouting ‘Talk about it, talk- about -it!”
The event ended with a question and answer and Dr. Hall showed us documents that she gathered while researching the topic. Some documents she traveled to England for. She pulled up pictures of the slave catchers journals and told us how to read the very difficult writing. She told us how hard it was to research something that not too many people was interested in. And, how she filled in the empty spaces in the book.
When in history, documents are missing and important information, I leave it just like that, she said, I don’t fill in parts with my imagination.
When one person asked Dr. Hall- What about the white people or anyone who don’t believe you are telling the truth- or want to argue with you about your research, her body jotted up and very sternly replied, I’m not writing this history for them! It’s for us! It’s about time we write our own history for ourselves!
At the Cooper Union with (left to right) Nana Adusei- Poku, Dr. Theresa Leininger- Miller, and Wendy N. E. Ikemoto.
This past May, I had the pleasure of attending The Cooper Union’s celebration of Augusta Savage. While listening to educators give their views and share historical information about the Renaissance artist, I compared their information to what I already knew.
For instance, while I knew she grew up poor in the south, I was unaware about her socioeconomic status while she lived in the north and how much hurt her status inflicted upon the success of her career.
I first learned about Savage while visiting my sister in Jacksonville last summer. She took me to the Ritz museum and the administrator there, Adonnica, taught me about the Floridian native. Ever since then, I’ve been interested in her life and work.
Those on the panel at The Cooper Union were: Dr. Theresa Leininger- Miller (author of New Negro Artist in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Lights 1922-1934), Wendy N. E. Ikemoto ( an associate curator of American art at the New York Historical Society) and Nana Adusei- Poku (an instructor in the school of Art at Cooper Union).
Ikemoto, the first speaker, spoke in depth about the current exhibition at the New York Historical Society, Augusta Savage Renaissance Women (which I saw afterwards…). She began by explaining the term, Renaissance Women:
I think the phrase renaissance women really gets to the core concept of the exhibition in two ways, first it speaks to the centrality of Augusta Savage and to the great early 20th century flourishing of African American arts that we know of today as the Harlem Renaissance. So, even though Savage is little known today, she was one of the great movers and shakers of the art world in her day. And second,…Renaissance Women speaks to Savages role as a….polymath…someone who is not just an artist but also an educator and activist.
Ikemoto continued by telling us about Savages’ difficult time at Cooper Union as a black woman in 1923, during the Jim Crow era, and how she was set on a ‘racial based arts activism path’ her entire life, fighting for her position in the art world and at the same time being committed to those in her community.
Savage did not try to communicate or dictate a certain style to her students but rather [tried] to communicate a commitment to racial uplift , a commitment to self-definition, a commitment to agency in the representation of ones own self and ones own community…
Augusta Savage left her family in Florida to follow her dream as a sculptor and settled in Harlem, New York. Most times, she survived on will and determination; the same spirit used mostly by our ancestors to keep going. Even though she was an unsupported practicing artist, she did all she could to give back to the community by teaching at the Harlem Community’s Art Studio and even opening an Art Salon. Despite the lack of resources, she reached many artist such as Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, and Norman Lewis. I gather that she sculpted a spirit of charity within the community, by volunteering her talent and time.
I truly believe that one of the amazing human qualities she possessed was the willingness to humbly share the talent she was born with, with the community. She once said, “I created nothing really beautiful…really lasting, but if I could inspire one of the youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess then my monument would be in their work”.
In the middle of Ikemoto’s speech, the Youtube version of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing was played to speak about Savages harp piece also titled Lift Every Voice and Sing.
I felt playing the song was very fitting and timely. Secretly, I hoped Ikemoto would say ‘all rise for the national anthem’ and desired for her to play the entire song. I believe that move would have drove the point home about how Savage worked to uplift her community. It would have encompassed that true unapologetic voice and spirit about what it may have meant to be an artist who was black, female and also considered poor at that time.
When asked why she named the Piece, Lift Every Voice, her response was ‘people need to know we have an anthem’. This was year 1939. The anthem was just written in 1900 (next year it’s 100 years old!) and probably a lot of people had a lot to say about us owning the song as our anthem. It sounds like she was making a point to both African Americans and White Americans alike.
What I believe is Savage did not live a life of fear but took chances to please her own artistic desire. For example, her father did not condone sculpting in his house so she would practice her craft outside of him knowing. As a child, many times she was terribly punished. Yet, that did not stop her desire to sculpt. As if finding acceptance in her own home wasn’t hard enough, she had to go through hurdles to be accepted in the art world. Ikemoto told us about the scholarships she was turned down from because of the color of her skin.
In closing, Ikemoto, informed us about the current goals of museums – apparently, they are working hard to diversify their collections and to develop more inclusive exhibitions. So, the New York Historical Society has developed an initiative called the Equality and Justice for All Initiative, committing exhibition space to the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
Hearing this gave me hope. Maybe one day something of mine would be on display at a museum?! It also was very satisfying. I thought, now I should not have to struggle so much when looking for artist my color. For years I visited museums and galleries and found very little that perked my interest.
The next speaker, Adusei- Poku, spoke about Savages literary works. Which I did not know she was also a writer!
Adusei- Poku wrote her speech through rhetorical questions that she posed to the audience. The questions were based on the absence of melancholy surrounding Savage and her contemporaries in relationship to black culture.
She explained the term race women; which ( in the words of Brittney Cooper) are women who enter public racial leadership roles beyond the church in the decades after Reconstruction. They explicitly fashion for themselves a public duty to serve their people with diligent and careful intellectual work and attention to providing intellectual character of the race.
I listed some of questions Adusei-Poku posed which I think were very relevant not only for Savage but for students of color everywhere who contribute to a society that rejects them on some level.
How did [Savage] experience Cooper Union as the only black female student among white peers and teachers? How did she feel when she had to apply for funding and received a scholarship the last minute because her family wasn’t wealthy…?
I am curious what impelled Savage and her contemporaries to push on despite the world around them constantly pulling them down. One of the most popular stories that circulate about Savage is after she submitted the 16-foot sculpture of Lift Every Voice for the 1939 World Fair, it was dismantled under the notion that there was no where to place it and no way to fully care for it. I can’t imagine staying up for hours and creating what Adusei-Poku described as ‘a piece that represents the lifting of the self out of subjugation towards heaven, towards a presence that allows black subjects to be human’ and to later see it destroyed. All we have now are photos of the 16- foot sculpture.
Adusei-Poku continued her questions, was Savage present when the bulldozers rolled over her work? What does it mean to show an enlarge version of the photograph of her in front of her sculpture and not to talk about the ways in which sexism and racism affected her?
For America not to have interest in Savage’s work, for me is no grand surprise. For America to now be interested in her work, also is no grant surprise. In addition to Adusei- Poku, I want to know if there are writings to answer these types of questions? Are there newspaper coverage or magazine interviews stating how Savage dealt with such a loss? Savage’s work wasn’t the only work destroyed there, did anyone care about the artist? Whose work was saved?
Savage, I know, was a fighter and did fight for her work but was against forces with power and money. If you visit the New York Historical Society, you would see what they could find of her work and also letters between herself and a friend of hers, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the institutions that dismissed her. It’s a testament to how African Americans for ages have been struggling to exist in a county that their ancestors built.
The last speaker was Dr. Theresa Leininger- Miller (author of New Negro Artist in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Lights 1922-1934). She shared with the community, the most historical facts about Savage’s life. Savage was made more of a human being in her stories and she spoke as if she understood Savage’s aspirations.
Listening, I learned about Savage’s piece, Gamin, which made her famous and enabled her to study in Europe. I found the meaning of Gamin very interesting and wondered why a Harlem Renaissance artist would want to show this part of her community. I thought Harlem Renaissance artist main focus was to show case the uplift of their community? Gamin, on the other hand, shows the community as is. It was Gamin that sent her across the ocean to study in Europe and it’s also now her most represented piece. I think it’s Gamin that also represented her community.
Dr. Leininger-Miller told us about her personal life. She married at 15 and began a life long journey of marriages and child deaths. It seems as if she married three times and in each matrimony dealt with death. One marriage was even abusive. The one that gave her the last name we know her by, Savage.
In closing, it was very meaningful to listen to a lecture about Augusta Savage who was a very educated person. She produced each piece of work with meaning and care. She worked with what she had and gave a lot to a world that tried to break her spirit and determination. Yet, she grabbed on to life’s intangible dreams and molded the impossibles and intangibles into possibles and tangibles.