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.

 

 

Quincy Jones & Those in the Music Room

IMG_1115The younger children did not go everywhere on Campus but one place I let them explore was the Music Room. With names like Quincy Jones, Melody, and Dominic, I had to bring them around the piano and drums.

When we got there, they fell right into their zone. While Quincy Jones was playing the drums the rest of them were banging keys on the  baby grand.

Then they switched.

When I told them it was time to go, they all placed fingers over their mouths, and creeped out of the music room in one straight line.

Then, Dominic stopped and said,  wait, where are the teachers?

Shhh! We can’t disturb the students, another one whispered back!!

Meanwhile, they all looked at me with curious eyes, beginning to wonder about the same thing. I kept my eyes straight and crept them back outside. To which they forgot to ask for the the teachers again.

Mary Mitchell at Fordham University

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Here we are! We are sitting on the steps where I  was given my college diploma a couple of years ago.

Almost the entire after school program, staff and children, left the center to tour Fordham’s lovely campus. The children were E-C-S-T-A-T-I-C.

The older children wanted to know if it was going to be a fun trip and the young kids just wanted to play. I was worried something crazy was going to happen but when we got there, everything worked out for the good.

Two Fordham students (and Mary Mitchell volunteers), Erin and Nia, met us at the main gate.  We split the children into groups by age.

They trekked all over campus. The pool, the library, the church, the cafe, the music room, the basketball court, the baseball field, Eddie’s parade, and finally the dorms.

Every where they went, they were mesmerized by the college life. The students, the band practicing, the ‘big buff guy playing frisbee’ , ‘the girl with the Pumas’, the art on the wall, the grass and trees, the flags, the banners, the lights, the long hallways, the water fountains, the kitchen area, even the bushes.

And, Fordham’s lovely students embraced them.

The older kids walked away saying, I played frisbee with the college students!! The girls are nice, they taught me how to do splits and flips!!

The younger kids walked away saying, I was a whale on the lawn and got to gobble up everything then, I went into the castle and drank water from the water fountain!

I walked away simply exhausted.

At the end of the trip, everyone declared that they wanted to go to college.  Even staff wanted to attend Fordham.

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.