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!
This piece is in the New York Historical Society and is done by Nari Ward (b. 1963). He used the shoelaces of students and museum goers.
Ward used the first three words of the U.S. Constitution as the focus of his work to make the viewer think about reasons the Constitution was written, who was it written for? Who are We? Who are the People?
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.
(image taken from: https://dos.myflorida.com/cultural/programs/florida-artists-hall-of-fame/augusta-savage/)
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”.
(image from https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/tag/augusta-savage/https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/tag/augusta-savage/)
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.
At first I thought Betye Saar didn’t have much to offer. I had heard of her… but who was she really? If I would have known, I would have visited her exhibition before the last day. But, hey, at least I made it! And, I finally met the work- the Wash Boards. The mammy’s revolutionized.
My Grandma cleaned. That’s how she made her living. She cleaned homes. She smiled a lot. She was a kind person, her clients said. But, she was also scorn. She was also taken advantage of. She was given the shorter end of the stick. Not a life of sweetness at all. That’s whom I thought of mostly, Grandma.
I never used a washboard. I am almost willing to bet that my mom did. Maybe around her house as a child. She’s not here for me to ask her. There was one in my house while growing up. It was a musical instrument to me. Mom had purchased a white washing machine that we all loved. So, we played with the washing board, until we forgot about it.
The washing board suggest the memories of the African American women who did cleaning for others and their life style. Their characteristics that came with it. “They had a certain cleanliness about them”…mentioned Saar in her editorial…. and that, they did, Ms. Saar. There are some of those women who are still around.
When I am around my aunts, church mothers and Grandma. I am all of a sudden conscience of my white tee and I would beg my brother not to wear ripped jeans- they look extremely out of place around them. I am conscience of the white blouse I have and cherish but messed up in the washing machine. Knowing of them, makes me always want rid my closet of old, stain clothes. And of the stylish ripped Old Navy jacket.
I take a step back and witness the art on the walls. The walls are of the color of water. The lights are dim. The wash boards hang on the walls evenly. Using a washing board starts the process of metamorphosis. Your body turning into a machine. There is nothing even about using a washing board. Your arms move up and down, your hands back and forth, your back is bent, and your legs are steady. Steady. Stead…Steady. Steady. Stead…Steady. Trying to keep the washing on the off beat…its still a rhythm. Even your neck is steady. And the pain, it comes steady, too. When the rhythm is over it adds to the blues.
I came across the white dress in the corner. The baby’s christening gown. A beautiful dress. But, adorned with racial slurs sitting atop is a child’s photo. It’s the slurs that await her. The slurs that can’t seem to be washed out of the dress, no matter how big the washing board, because they can’t be washed out of the tongue of society.
I came across another assemblage. The ironing board. Another board. This time requiring one to stand and press. Within the board are the slaves who were forced to aboard the ship, 1619. Boards. There is a chained iron and behind the ironing board is a sheet that was just pressed. And, ingrained into the sheet in small letters, but there for the world to see are the frightening letters KKK.
Blacks cleaned their sheets too?
I wonder if Saar ever thought about extending this idea of boards? With all that is currently going on in black communities, we can take a step back and look at the homes the wash boards are found. Look at the boarded up windows and wooden doors of these homes or shacks. Those who could barely keep a roof over their heads. I think of Grandma again. That’s what happened to her home.