Black Women: Power and Grace

Deborah Willis

Ms. Willis and I at a Herman Leonard photo event

In 2009, right before I graduated college,  I remember sitting in my photography class, annoyed. I was bored. The class seemed to be similar to my music classes where I saw myself and my people very little in the material we covered. I had began to trick myself in thinking we would come next in the syllabus. But, if that time came, it came quick.

My only solace was the library where I educated myself. One day I came across Black: A Celebration of Culture by Deborah Willis. I was sitting in Rose Hill’s library on the floor in a criss crossed position with a couple of books with images by black photographers. As someone who is always concerned about how I carry myself in public, I knew no one was going to walk into the aisle, so I stretched out my body and opened the book.

After flipping the pages back and forth, I looked for more work by Willis and checked the books out. I brought the books to my professor with the intention of simply talking about the images. However, I never imagined how I was going to start the conversation. I did not know how to ask him straight forward if we could jut talk about African American photographers and their work. So, what I said, came out childish and sounded like I just happened to find anything.

Look what I found in the library.

He smiled at me. I did not know if he understood what I was trying to say but his response surprised me.

Lystria, this is work by Deborah Willis. She’s coming to campus today.

Really?

Yes.

I stuck around for the event and when I arrived the room was packed. It was hard to find a seat. I stood by the door.

As she spoke about her work and the power of images, I imagined what it would be like to take up this important job of photographing my community. I hung on to her words of inspirations.

After the discussion, I introduced myself. I spoke to her about some of my wildest goals (of traveling America and taking pictures of Black people) and simple dreams (of taking pictures of people in the Bronx). I remember her soft response. Just do it. Just do it. She kept telling me. Start small.  Keep practicing. Then she told me her testimonies and how she started projects.

When we were about to part, she said, this is my last copy but I want to give it to you. And she took out her new book (at the time) Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs  and signed it for me.

I was extremely shocked. I thanked and hugged her tightly.

Now, as I look back over my experiences at Fordham. Those four hard years of coming to terms with myself as a black woman in the world and still grieving the loss of my mother. I am so grateful for all the people God allowed to be kind to me. The small gestures of kindness was what made me feel invincible. That feeling of I can live in this world and be happy. 

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Photographer Russell Frederick

That feeling was what I felt when I went to Kamoinge’s event, Celebrating the Grace of Black Women, three months ago. Only this time, I did not engage in much conversation but mingled and watched.

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Photographer Terrance Jennings

 

I knew a few faces in the crowed space. Okay, only four faces! Friend and Photographer, Terrence Jennings, Deborah Willis and of course my two sisters (who don’t count…) However, I was excited to place faces with names like Jamel Shabazz whose books I also came to enjoy. He asked me if I was a Hebrew Israelite….I think it was because of the hat I wore. I also placed a face with Jules Allen, the photographer whose work I studied after I graduated. His Hats series was what inspired me to start the Hats or Hats Not chapter of my blog.

Later I looked up the meaning of Kamoinge on their website.

“Kamoinge exists as a forum of African-American photographers, to view and critique each other’s work in an honest and understanding atmosphere, to nurture and challenge each other to attain the highest creative level. The name comes from the Kituyu language of Kenya, and means a group of people acting together… The intention [of Kamoinge] was to help make up for the absence of works by African American artists, so history could not say we did not exist.”

Something about reading their history and intentions mixed with knowing my own personal history of why I enjoy taking pictures and being at their event titled, The Black Women: Power and Grace, made the significance of my attendance even more vital for myself.

I always seek self representation. When Black women are represented as leaders (whether on a small or large scale) this reinforces, for me, the lessons I’ve learned as a child. Those lessons of positivity and determination. The same sense of self-fulfillment and happiness I felt when I was in college I felt at the event (but on a difference scale) And, now as I sit and write about it three months later, I realize that it was needful for me to attend The Black Women: Grace and Power.

 

 

At the University of Buenos Aries

An excerpt from my Journal Entry

19 June 2014

After we left La Boca we traveled to San Tamo which was a rich neighborhood in the late 1800’s. As war and sickness hit the neighborhood, the rich moved out and the poor moved in. This gave the immigrants and poor workers a chance to move elsewhere. Tango was created around this time and surprisingly to me, it was a dance between two men and later on women joined the scene.

I also learned the correct phase of the house we stayed in- It’s called a chorizo- casa choriza, which means sausage house. I am not sure exactly why though.

When the tour was done with Simon, we went to the University of Buenos Aries to listen to two more lectures.

The first lecture was by Lea Geler titled: Black Journalism in the White Nation: Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th Century.

Geler studies included looking  through the press of Argentina during the late 19th Century (1880’s). Dr. Anderson told us this was something exceptionally well to do considering how old documents are kept in Argentina, especially Afro-Argentines documents. Geler was able to write her paper surrounding what she found in these documents. I enjoyed her lecture because she gave actual quotes from this time period about what the black of Argentina thought about their social status.  Geler found that the press being the fourth largest press in the world, was linked to progress and used for social change.

Unsurprisingly, the Afro-Argentine press did not spark interest for the outside community and they mostly wrote about themselves. The journalist thought it was their job to bring social change in their community and called for change. The term barbarianism was used as something to rid them of and they blamed social inequalities on individuals within the community.  This mentality that the journalist were carrying reminds me of Marcus Garvey and his attitude toward the black community. He not only wanted all to return back to Africa but he called for a changed in the blacks mien. He wanted them to change their way of life and spoke mainly about their social life. I found it disturbing that they would use a term like barbarianism on themselves. They, like Garvey, blamed themselves for poverty and lack of success. All of this is included in the press!

Finally, (unlike Garvey) they thought new comers, like immigrants, improved the community and all were welcome. This was the thought throughout the entire state of Argentina and they were not keen to the idea of their children going to different schools in the state since schools were free in the first place. Till this day, (from what I’ve been told) their children (Afro-Argentine’s) still receive the short end of the stick within the education system.

The second Lecture was by Nicolas Fernandez Bravo and titled: Race and Ethnicity at the “Interior” of the nation: uses and abuses of the Cabescita Negra in comtemporary Santiago Dell Estero.

Now, the Cabecita Negra is an idea that is being challenged and has been changed. His article was based around social identities within history.

First cabecita negra was a term referring to those who worked in the fields then it became racial slang used by upper and middle class Argentines. Then in the 1940’s, the term became associated with people who were Peronist.

Till this day, the term cabecita negra is a term that casts people out insead of inviting them in. It implies not being enough of something –whether white enough or lacking that true European origin.

Next, we saw some art by Ricardo Santoro …I later saw the same art at the Museum.

This is when the history and all that is going on in Argentina gets really confusing. I never thought a nation would be more caught up in the image of the country more than America! Identify and politics intertwine in a way that becomes confusing that I would not be surprised if the Afro-Argentines are sometimes confused on why the other would or wouldn’t mistreat them. Argentina’s own government is so worried about its image and statistical qualification, that they are putting down their own and destroying themselves in the process. No matter how far she (Argentina) tries to get away from herself, she will always see her true image looking back at her in many colors.

At the end of the lecture, I asked a question about ethnic mixture- Who, really, are the Afro-Argentines? Who are the Blacks? Who’s African and who is Indian? Well, if this doesn’t get any more confusing, not all of them are cabecitas negras but they all are claiming rights to what? I don’t know. Maybe to their county. This shows how race in Argentina is not just white against the negro. There is no race problem alone, it’s always race and class that is the problem.

Commencement 109 & New Meaning

 

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I am a believer in numbers and I pay attention to blessings and omens.

I listen to speeches given by great men and women.

I may not know what things mean as they are happening but as life goes on,

the puzzle pieces connect smoothly.

On the 24th of May this year I graduated from The College of New Rochelle with my Masters of Science in Education.

The commencement speaker was ABC news anchor, Robin Roberts. The same person I met at Fordham University in 2009  a few months before I graduated from there. Listening to the same person give a speech during important moments in my life, meant something to me and still means something even though I am not exactly sure.

Never forget the feeling that you are feeling right now,she told the 109th graduation class.  The auditorium was quite but I could feel excitement in my bones. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t cry. I kept thinking about my parents and the many roads I’ve traveled and still was traveling.

She continued, Proximity is power, you can wish, hope and pray all you want but you have to put yourself in the position to go forward…Put yourself in the position for good things to happen to you…dream big and focus small. She found ways to weave her personal testimony throughout her speech allowing the graduates and their families to connect to her even though she was high on a pedestal. She spoke of her parents and the hard road they had to travel growing up in an unkind south.

When fear knocks and it will, let faith answer the door! Never question or doubt God’s plans for you, even when you can’t see his hand. 

She concluded her speech and was given her honoree degree.

The graduates were given their degrees.

All went home with new meaning.

 

 

Azeria, Lilly and Jeremiah

Hall of Science

 

This is my second time taking out them. I had to do an assignment for class at the Hall of Science and didn’t want to go alone. Well, Azeria and Jeremiah made sure I knew I wasn’t alone. I had to keep them occupied all day. Even walking up and down the steps I had them counting and adding. Every time I let them be, they would result to arguing and getting into mischief.

Our day was fun and exciting. We took three trains coming and going to the museum. When we got there, we ate and started out our tour. They bothered me about taking them outside to the museum’s children’s golf court. When we got out there, it was all bliss for Jeremiah but Azeria could care less about golf after she saw how hard it was to get that ball into the hole. We probably spent one hour out there.

After playing outside, we went to see the 3-D show the museum offered. It was titled Grand Canyon Adventure at Risk. I enjoyed it the most. I didn’t have to do much to keep them occupied. Azeria fell asleep. I kind of had an idea she would. Jeremiah however was very interested and was asking questions. Because he kept talking, he never fell asleep. Which lead to another argument between them.

The show brought to my attention that the earth was losing water and it’s population was only getting larger. It also made me feel like visiting the Colorado River…a little, cause water is one thing I don’t do.

Joi posting her Sign

Joi posts her Sign

 

They learned that dog poop is bad, not because it stinks and it’s easy to step in but it also because it isn’t good for the trees and the plants.

While we were putting the sign up, they looked around for people walking their dogs.

They not only posted signs, but also talked with dog owners asking them to clean up after their dogs.

Keep Calm and Be Healthy

Saturday, October 19, 2013 the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center hosted a community health walk around the neighborhood and Crotona Park.

It started 9:30 in the morning, supplying the supporters with a light breakfast and ended at 12 noon with a delicious lunch.

Even though it was staged as a health walk, it was more than that. It was a community gathering and information session.  Before we set out to walk, the director of the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, Heidi Hynes, welcomed the sponsoring organizations that came to support the Mary Mitchell:

  • Mothers on the Move
  • University Neighborhood Housing Program
  • the POINT
  • Concourse House
  • Mt. Hope Housing Co.
  • Isis Community Circle
  • Bronx Health Reach
  • Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition
  • Montefiore CATCH Program
  • BLK Projek
  • Fordham University Dorothy Day Center
  • Groundswell
  • La Familia Verde
  • Green Worker Cooperatives
  • DPHO
  • TANIMA Dance

Together as a community we marched around the neighborhood chanting songs and holding signs promoting fair economy,physical activity, access to fresh food,  school health, good housing, a clean environment and individual wellness.

Health Walk