John E. Dowell’s Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past

I think after this year, I am going to always remember the year, 1619.

Cotton as a symbol: “This is a memorial to those who died right out there in the fields and were buried in unmarked graves, and its a warning to us not to forget what came before.” ~ John E. Dowell


This is the quote I read on the wall when I walked up to the second floor in the African American Museum of Philadelphia.

I read the quote then stared at the artist’s name, John E. Dowell.

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Next, I read his inspiration behind his art. “In August of 2011, I started having dreams of my grandmother…I felt she was directing me to cotton. I found a…farmer (located in Savannah, Ga) who helped me navigate my first experience with cotton…photographing first and second day cotton flowers, as well as ‘ “Perfect cotton” ‘ …was beautiful but treacherous…I cried at the thought of it, bringing back memories of my grandmother from so long ago.”


I immediately thought I was going to view work about cotton growing in the south. I took a glace at the synopsis on the wall, reading but not really reading. Eager to view Dowell’s work, I turned the corner. That’s when, the exhibition took an unexpected turn.

“Stacy, these pictures look like they were taken in New York”. Stacy was already at the third panel and just like me, moving slowly. We both were silent.

Then after awhile, Stacy responded, They were taken in New York. All of them.

I was stunned. A bit shocked. But the history settled with me. Somewhere in my memory, I knew that New York wasn’t exempt from the brutal slave trade. But, a massive slave market?  I went back to the synopsis and reread everything slowly. Even the title, Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past.

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Then, I thought about my family. Dowell’s grandma had picked cotton. But who in my family picked? Was it my great- grands or my great- great grands?And thinking about who could have picked cotton meant I had also started to think about who survived in my family. From 1619 till now. Who survived the ships? Who survived the fields?  Who escaped lynching? The stories, they are missing.

Stacy and I viewed each photograph and read each caption. We got excited when we recognized a place or landmark. In no way did we think we were going to learn about the history of our city while visiting the city of Brotherly Love. Dowell made it close to home for us.

We walked down the corridor and turned. There we saw a little shrine set up  to honor the ancestors. Black and white photographs were placed there. Not too far away sat a wooden bowl filled with cotton to be picked.


When I picked up a bunch, I found I could only pick less then a handful. My fingers got red and the seeds were still intertwined into the cotton.

Next, we viewed more photographs and read how scary it is to get lost on a cotton field. Set up in the middle of the room was a maze. Stacy went first and I followed. It is nothing compared to the thought of getting lost on a field, but the maze was unnerving enough for one to completely understand.

Before Stacy and I arrived at the museum, we hurried to the bus station. There we met a Black lady who charged us for our tickets.

Can we get a discount? We asked her, smiling.

If I could, I would ladies. Seriously.

Can we get a discount for being black? I asked, smiling. Stacy and I busted out laughing.

She smiled then in a matter-of-fact voice responded,  when you woke up this morning, that was your discount. To be black and surviving in this world is a miracle. Count your blessings.

Amen was all we could say. 1619. And still counting.


At the Jazz Museum



Stacy and I had flashbacks when we came across Herman Leonard’s photo exhibit. We saw the exhibit a couple of years ago at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City

There was a table with poems and illustrations created by elementary students in New Orleans. It gave me some ideas for my own classroom…