The store, everyone I knew went to as a child to get new shoes is going out of business…actually, by this time, it has went out of business. (They are moving to the West Indies).
This is the store I was able to let my imagination run wild and my mom didn’t stop it. When it came time for me to get a new pair of shoes, I said no to the mary janes every other little girl wore and no to the cute little shoes with the tiny heel that every little girl who thought they were grown said “an absolute yes” too. I wandered around Payless and fell in love with the cutest tap dancing shoes!
Mom, I want these shoes.
Girl, those are tap dancing shoes!
You see these silver heels?
Depending on how your feet is positioned, you make a tapping sound.
Really? Can I try them on?
Yes. Of course. But if you decide to get them, just know you are going to wear them to school and church. I’m not buying you another pair of shoes.
Yes, Ma’ma. Can I try them on… now??
Lystria, listen, if you get these shoes, you are NOT getting another pair of shoes.
I don’t want another pair of shoes. I want these. All my life.
May we have these shoes in a size 4 please?
That was the best day of my life. We walked out of Payless with tap dancing shoes. It was a feeling I would never forget. Even when I got my first pair of Jordans, I wasn’t this happy. I tapped every where I went. And the ribbon. The ribbon! That Ribbon! The ribbon that made sure the shoes stayed on my feet was the most beautiful ribbon in the world. It was better than any shoe string and definitely better than tying sneakers.
I eventually got in trouble for walking too much. Ms. Fitz thought I was getting off on the wrong foot…whatever that meant. My teacher’s request for me to sit down got out of hand. And, behind my back, calls were being made home.
I tap-walked to the windows to check on the cars below.
I tap-walked to pick up my pencil that just kept dropping on the floor. It was hard to explain why it wouldn’t stay in the well of my desk…
And I had no problem walking in the line. For my tapping was calming and it was good to know that no other person in the whole school had on tapping shoes at that moment.
When my Mom reminded me that I had to stay in my seat. I begin to ask to go to the bathroom. Which created a huge problem for the first year teacher.
Ms. Hurley, I think you daughter has a problem. Maybe a bladder problem. She asks to go to the bathroom every half-hour.
This was a great conversation for little me in the second grade. You see, I didn’t know anything about a bladder or me having one or even mine having a problem. However, when my teacher was done talking to my mom this time, My mom smiled a smiled at me that made my imagination disappear.
My child doesn’t have a bladder problem. I know what kind of problem she has and it will end soon.
As we walked out of the school, I forgot about my mom’s smile and said bye to my best friends, Emily and Tina. Seeing Emily in her Mary Janes made me remember that I had to use the bathroom.
Mom, can I use the bathroom?
Yes, go ahead child.
She watched me hop and skip down the hall. Tapping past Emily and Tina pretty slowly. Watching them look at my shoes in wonder. I tapped right into the bathroom. I saw Evan at the fountain and told him the good news about my bladder.
Ms. Fitz told my mom that I have a bladder problem.
What does that mean?
It means that starting tomorrow, I can go to the bathroom anytime I want.
Yeah, right. You will get into big trouble.
No…I won’t. Ms. Fitz said so.
That night when I got home, I was super obedient and nothing was said about my bladder problem. Mom must have forgotten. I was afraid to bring it up just in case it really did mean something like a spanking. So, I asked my older sisters what a bladder problem may mean.
It means you don’t know how to hold your pee.
Hold my pee?
It’s what old people have. When they have to go to the bathroom, they just go, on themselves.
Ohhh. That’s what Ms. Fitz told Mom I have.
Which you don’t!
Yes, I do!!
Whatever, Lystria. I’m trying to read.
That night I went to bed and could not wait for school the next morning.
I stayed in my seat the entire time. When it was time for us to line up for lunch, while the teacher was at her desk doing teacher stuff, I whispered to my classmate.
Who dares me to leave without asking Ms. Fitz?
This created a huge excitement in the room. So much so that if it was a bet I would have gotten so much money. The goodie-two shoes in the front of the line were exasperated.
Looking to get the teacher’s attention, Bossy-Boots then screamed, Lystria! Get back in line!
And the boys, they were thrilled to see me practice the art of insubordination… an art they knew too well, dared me even more.
By this time, I was by the door with kids all around me. The goodie- two shoes in the front of me trying to block me from getting my foot out the door and all the other orginal kids stood behind me.
I dare you. Thomas said.
Me too. Tyrell chimed in.
I ran out the room down the hall to the bathroom to take care of my badder problem among a chorus of second graders shouting for Ms. Fitz.
And that was the end of my problems. And even the end of my tap dancing shoes.
When I got home, my dad was there to take me to get new sneakers.
You ever saw a drunk person and felt something for them? Maybe shame or sadness? Was that person ever in your company? Maybe a friend or a family member? I’ve seen drunk people and felt certain ways but never been attached to in anyway to them until today.
I walked down the steps of the train station and opened up Sula by Toni Morrison. I had planned to walk and read all the way to my destination. However, I didn’t walk one block before I saw a stream of blood flowing down a set of freshly painted steps.
There, almost leveled with all looking down was a dead dog. A lot of blood was running down the stoop and a crowd formed around the dog. People watched in silence as a man covered his body with white sheets.
I kept walking and was about to open up Toni Morrison again when one lady jogged up behind me crying hysterically.
‘They killed my dog! They killed my dog!!”
No one stopped her and as I kept walking I wondered who they was. I watched her and how others around her responded, she was greeted by cautious stares. She kept a fast pace and pretty soon I saw only her head in the distance. I was now curious about this dog and the situation.
I completed my assignment then caught the bus back to the site. My camera now hanging around my neck and fewer people there, I begin to inquire immediately.
‘What happened?’ I asked, while snapping pictures.
‘She got ran over by a PC Richards Truck.’ The same man who covered the dog with a sheet was speaking. He was standing over the dog, worried and seemingly upset.
‘Yeah, she got ran over and now I want to return her to the earth. I called 311 and they told me to put it in a black garbage bag and the city’ll come and pick it up. That’s not the way to bury her! I want to do it the right way and return her to the earth. Maybe I can bury her near the water.
‘You mean, down there on that land?
‘Yeah, I want to but I don’t know who to ask.
‘I think I can help. I know someone who knows someone who runs that land.
‘You can help me? Thank you so much! Everyone else is just watching me. Let me call my wife, she ran up the block. I don’t know what she’s doing. Can you give me the person’s number who can help me?
‘I don’t have their number but I can walk there and see if anyone is there and ask.
‘Thank you so much!!
I returned after speaking with one who was affiliated with the land and soon the dog was picked up and carried down to be buried.
Now, this wasn’t no little dog. It was a big dog that was dead for sometime now. Her fluids were now running and the blood was still coming from her side. The burial grounds wasn’t far but when carrying dead weight, anything can seem extremely far away.
I begin to worry about Mr. Jerry and how far he could actually go.
We walked about 20 steps and reached a pile of trash waiting to be picked up by the sanitation department. Someone had threw out a huge cooler and all he saw was a box with wheels.
He carefully put his dog in there, his hands now filthy with the sludge from the body. He was not a happy man, but kept going. Perspiring now, he looked at the cooler and cursed it. For even though it had wheels, it was missing its handle. He looked around for ideas. While looking, a lady with two children came out and watched in horror as he pushed down Shannon’s head.
No words came out of their mouths.
The little boy looked at me with questions in his eyes. I begin to feel connected to Shannon and Mr. Jerry. I felt the need to say something as they refused to move.
‘It was ran over by a car and now we are taking it to be buried.’
‘She was ran over by a truck.’ Mr. Jerry corrected me while rubbing the dog’s head.
‘Oh.’ They little boy said. But the grandma now became suspicious. She pushed the little children along. At the same time, a group of happy teens approached. I prepared myself for their reaction.
They were laughing and stopped to look inside the cooler right before he closed it. They all saw Shannon’s head. And their last laugh was followed by an eerie silence. Their gait changed into a slow pace and after a couple of feet behind us, they stopped to watch. This time, I was too busy wondering how we were going to cross the bustling street. It was rush hour and he was moving too slow to cross with Shannon inside a heavy cooler.
He began pushing the cooler in a absurd way down the block. His lanky body completely bent over. It was best to jay walk instead of going all the way to the cross walk.
We then came across young people smoking hookah outside a shop.
He stopped to ask them if they had a hand truck. They were having too much fun to care what this 50ish older man was saying and brushed him off. He got impatient and walked inside the shop. I watched the lady shake her head no and then they begin to argue.
A little girl and boy were standing near watching the entire show.
She shook her head and smiled. None of them understand him! Only my father can help him. She said matter- of – factually.
Well, maybe you can go get your father? I asked her.
I can, but he’s not used to talking to strangers! She said while getting up.
She ran to a man who was on the phone and begged him for his attention. Mr. Jerry came out of the shop and looked around desperately. The man on the phone looked at Mr. Jerry but no one said said anything. Then I told the entire story again. This time the hookah crowd along with some older folks and the children, listened to me.
They all looked at the blue Rubbermaid cooler.
Then her father spoke up. ‘Only the supper. No -‘
He searched for the correct word.
‘You mean, you don’t have access to the hand-truck?
‘Yes!’ He then looked at Mr. Jerry and said, ‘I don’t have access to the hand-truck’.
Mr. Jerry walked to the cooler and stood there in the street. Thinking.
‘Well, Mr. Jerry. We aren’t that far away. We have less then a block to go’
‘Yes! But this is dead weight! She’s not a feather! I need a hand-truck! This cooler is no good! Its worse than carrying her!
‘Mr. Jerry, do you still want to bury her?
‘Okay, rest when you need too. Lets rest every 20 steps.’
He picked up the burdensome box while I counted. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. He placed it down at 10.
‘You doing good Mr. Jerry. You made it almost to 15.
This was the first time he smiled. He didn’t even smile when I told him he could bury his dog on the land. ‘You should be my wife. You encourage me to keep going. Every time I try to do something with that lady, it goes wrong. I was the one who introduced her to Shannon. It’s my dog. She don’t understand, I feel too. This is my dog.’
I listened to him and when he finished, asked him if he was ready to go another 10 or maybe 5? He picked up the dead weight and went 20 steps took a break and went another 20. We had made it to the next cross walk.
I congratulated him.
‘You look like my niece. The same complexion and everything.
‘Where are you from?”
‘My family lives out there. We travel back and forth to the south.’
‘The Carolina’s -North and South, Georgia, Alabama. When he was done, the light changed.
‘You think you can make it across the street? I wouldn’t want you to get tired in the street.
I know. I know. You go ahead. You a youngin.
So, I crossed and waited. When I turned around, he was cursing out a young boy on a bike who had cut him off while he was crossing. He put the casket down and took a break. When he caught up with me, he asked me if I heard what he said to the boy. When I told him I did, he apologized. Then we kept walking. We finally made it to the block of the burial. We had a couple of steps to go. I was so proud of him I clapped my hands and he couldn’t help smiling but at the same time told ‘Don’t yay me! Don’t yay me!’
We need to go past the dumpsters.
No, it’s not that far, we need to just go past the first bus stop.
He sat down on the cooler and took another break. I ain’t no spring chicken! You a youngin! I need to rest. I walked to the man’s property and told him about Mr. Jerry and how close he was. He got a wheelbarrow and rolled it out to meet him. He went a little faster when he saw Mr. Jerry lugging the heavy load down the road.
The gentlemen shook hands and immediately one could tell Mr. Jerry was under the influence. Mr. Jerry was now pushing a wheel barrow. Which he agreed was easier but he was very cross. I smiled and kept the air cool but then it all changed when we met the first bus stop and I was indeed wrong. We needed to go past the dumpsters.
He put the barrow down to say how I lied to him about the dumpsters and in the midst of that, the owner of the land asked him if he wanted to throw his dog in the dumpster which really ticked him off.
No!! I want to bury it! That’s why I came all the way here. This is dead weight. Yes, I have a wheel barrow but now I have to do some shoveling! And, I said it was past the dumpsters! I am old. I am 57 years old! Did you read my hat?! It’s true!! I am old-school. What? You want to dig? You want to push?!
No one said anything and the gentleman walked away. I told Mr. Jerry how sorry I was. I thought he was speaking about the other dumpsters on the other side of the property. I asked him if he’ll forgive me and he told me I was just being religious and picked up the wheel barrow again. I walked ahead of him and waited.
He got ticked off once again when he saw a lady holding her phone to her face. He assumed she was recording him and after she said no, he then cursed her out, just in case she was.
He’s not okay. The owner said to me.
Yeah, he was drinking. I agreed. But didn’t know if that was a reason not to help someone.
Finally, he reached the property and the owner now was a bit worried. Mr. Jerry put his barrow down again and said he was scooping out the land. The owner stood by his word and did not turn him away even though his behavior got aggressive. He was told of the spot in which to bury Shannon.
This time I was my turn to speak.
Well, I think my job here is done. I am glad you two met and the the men agreed I could leave.
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.
Remembering Slavery in New York: A Special Installation
In February I visited the New York Historical Society, a place that is becoming my second home.
At the entrance were a couple of wire sculptures. They were empty looking. Sculptures one would see and not really see.
The posting told me what the sculptures represented.
In the 17th Century, the Dutch West India Company brought over enslaved Africans to the island of Mannahatta (the term used for Manhattan by local Native Americans) to begin the work of building a settlement. Many ships followed and a city took shaped as their requirement was to cut down and rid the space of trees and stones. In its place they built public buildings.
Each of these wire sculptures commemorates the first enslaved Africans brought to New Amsterdam in the 1620’s…The brutal system survived in the United States until 1865, when it was finally destroyed by the Union victory and the thirteenth Amendment. 2019 seems like a fitting time to stop and remember. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to our shores.
The sculptures by Derrick Fraser are thought provoking and made of only wire. They are sturdy and strong yet airy and made with wire. Fraser used this medium in memory of the fundamentals of the slave. Sturdy, strong people yet bent and out of shape. Bent until thrown in unmarked graves. Their bones are still buried without tombs and markings near the places they worked. It’s like their spirits are still there lingering, airy, sturdy and strong.