This may not seem like much to other Americans, who constantly move about the country with nothing but restlessness and greed to prod them, but to the Southern black person brought up expecting to be run away from home– because of lack of jobs, money, power, and respect– it was a notion that took root in willing soil. We would fight to stay where we were born and raised and destroy the forces that sought to disinherit us. We would proceed with revolution from our own homes. I thought of my seven brothers and sisters who had already left the South and I wanted to know: Why did they have to leave home to find a better life?
-Alice Walker, In Search of our Mother’s Gardens (1)
I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta
The quote, I’ve included above, perfectly describes how I feel about the South, and to an extent, Atlanta. I’m constantly wondering if the South, with its humidity, racism, and glorification of the Confederacy, is a place where I can make tangible efforts in any field. As large swaths of the city equate progress with gentrification, I see my communities being forced out and wealthier, whiter ones being invited to stay. Grappling with my concurrent and paradoxical desires to leave this place and stay is difficult, but ultimately I’ve realized this struggle is a common narrative amongst Southern black folks.
Finishing my fellowship has left the city flooded in a new—yet unforgiving—light.
I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, my mom spent half her childhood on the westside and the rest of her adult life in the metro area, my grandmother worked over 20 years at Grady Hospital. I’ve flitted back and forth between cities, states, and countries for the past 5 years, and Atlanta has turned into a city I have ancestral ties to but a liminal connection with. For the past couple of years, my favorite place in the city has been the airport—because at least then I can romanticize the city from afar and not deal with its many imperfections. Finishing my fellowship has left the city flooded in a new—yet unforgiving—light. One that marks the importance of cultural memory, and will influence the work I hope to do in the future.
I view cultural heritage, public history, public art as a means by which the public can access history, art, literature and the critiques that accompany it. Furthermore, I believe access to one’s history and culture is integral to building one’s self esteem. During her personal presentation, one fellow highlighted that access to texts related to Native American culture is imperative for empowering Native youth and combating negative stereotypes portrayed by the media. (2) Critical to physical and mental liberation then, is an understanding and acknowledgement of one’s history and the art forms that accompany it. During this fellowship, I’ve realized how spaces such as museums, libraries and other arts related experiences can further empower communities of color.
During the first week of the fellowship we visited the Clark Atlanta Art Museum. The museum is hidden on the second floor of a building also occupied by the admissions and study abroad offices. Unfortunately, the art here is virtually unknown to most of the metropolitan area, although it is filled with some of the most critical African American art from the mid 1900s. Tina Dunkley, the director emeritus highlighted how she stumbled upon a few pieces when the museum was the university library, and from there sprung her mission to make black art more visible on the college’s campus.
Visiting the art museum highlighted that doing what you love—especially if it involves the arts—often means creating the time to pursue your passions.
Visiting the art museum highlighted that doing what you love—especially if it involves the arts—often means creating the time to pursue your passions. I constantly worry about compromising my values in order to create sustainable dreams, and having to work multiple jobs in order to make these a reality. Yet, the work Ms. Dunkley has done has afforded the current director, Dr. Poole, the opportunity to turn the museum into a place where critiques and scholars of black art can have a place to learn. In my future work, I hope to work with or create spaces similar to those at the Clark Atlanta Art Museum, where black artistry is remembered and studied as integral to black historie(s), not an exception to it.
The Art Museum provides communities a fixed space to enjoy and value artistic heritage. Parallel to these spaces are those that are ephemeral, the plays, spoken word events, and dances that require our presence for brief moments but remain with us forever. Audre Lorde stated that “poetry is not a luxury,” that poetry allows us to name the unnamable and validate our experiences outside of western frameworks which privilege ‘facts’ over ‘feelings—as if both cannot exist simultaneously. A poetry event we attended titled “Under My Hood” provided us with such a space, and gave 8 different people a platform to share what was “under [their] hood.” (3) Stepping into the minds of others created a space of vulnerability outside of the intellectual theorizing and rhetoric we used daily during our discussions. I think solidifying our feelings through words and sharing them is essential to preserving our histories. Furthermore, doing so poetically gives us the privilege—or necessity—of creating an environment which centers our emotions instead of hiding them behind rhetoric.
However, my experiences with sites of cultural heritage during the fellowship were not all encouraging. Visiting the Atlanta History Museum reminded me that these spaces can also be used to erase the narratives of the oppressed. One exhibition titled, “Native Lands: Indians and Georgia,” skimmed over the genocide and expulsion of Native Americans in the South, and instead privileged a narrative that focused on the ‘relationships’ between European settlers and indigenous communities. The ways European settlers often tricked Native communities into giving away their lands was never mentioned. Our trip to Stone Mountain Park had the same effect, as the Confederate Flag is heralded as a relic as opposed to a symbol of white supremacy. While uncomfortable and hegemonic, the Atlanta History Center and Stone Mountain Park reified how historical erasure can have tangible effects, and that these spaces need to be held to rigorous standards of accountability.
“The criminal justice system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to.”
My time as a John Lewis Fellow has also pushed me to seriously consider the law as another venue to pursue human rights work in my communities. When meeting with the Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, something she said struck me: “the criminal justice system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to.” (2) I’ve known this for a long time, but hearing it aloud made me consider how lawyers are implicated in an unjust—but perfectly working—system, and have the power to change it. I’m starting to believe—or acknowledge—that legal frameworks can be used to challenge the United States’ oppressive and discriminatory criminal justice system.
Benevidez was frank with us, cautioned us against fetishizing human rights work, getting caught up with titles and loosing focus of what truly matters—the work.
Specifically, Tiffany Roberts Esq, a criminal defense attorney in the Atlanta area, and Nora Benevidez Esq, a civil and human rights lawyer were amazing examples of women of color doing the work most important to them. Roberts showed us a video of The Mandate by Black Lives Matter Atlanta, an organized civil disobedience that was not only a beautiful example of black solidarity, but highlighted the importance of having lawyers on the side of activists. Benevidez was frank with us, cautioned us against fetishizing human rights work, getting caught up with titles and loosing focus of what truly matters—the work. She emphasized her personal mission of cultivating empathy while interacting with her clients, as opposed to the dehumanizing interactions she saw between other defense attorneys and their clients. Both women made the law seem like a perfect method—alongside many—which I could use to challenge hegemony and support those organizing for liberation.
Being in the heart of the city has inspired and challenged me to place learning and empathetic listening at the forefront of whatever lies next.
At present, I am still inarticulate in regards to what restorative justice means for my work, or how to apply a restorative approach to my future work with conscientiousness and accountability. A panel we attended which placed the leaders of the Atlanta Student Movement in conversation with the writers of the New Appeal for Human Rights assuaged some of my fears. When asked to define restorative justice, Lonnie King—a critical organizer of the sit ins executed by the Atlanta Student Movement during the 1960s—questioned whether “there was anything to restore” for black people fighting for their rights in the 1960s. He recalled that the decades before were terrifying, and eradicating segregationist laws was main focal point of his organizing efforts, not restoring anything from the past. Since then, I’ve considered if the work I’m interested in could instead restore some of the cultural and political dignity necessary for black liberation, as opposed to restoring systems of the past.
My time as a John Lewis Fellow has reinforced my love for museums, the arts, and spaces of learning and reflection. It has also pushed me to consider the ways the law can be used as a tool to protect and create immediate change in individual people’s lives. While I hope to work in spaces centered around art and memory, I am heavily considering the ways the law can be used as a tool for liberation in the most concrete of ways. Overall, being in the heart of the city has inspired and challenged me to place learning and empathetic listening at the forefront of whatever lies next.
- Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Print.
- Heritage Cycle. Digital Image. Cultivating Culture. WordPress, 5 April 2013. Web. 27 July 2017 Accessed.
- Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, Calif: Ten Speed Press, 2007. Print. 36-39