I don’t recall a time in my life when I didn’t feel drawn to the arts. From the moment I was able, I used to write long winding stories about princesses and witches and draw pages and pages of nonsensical doodles. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who were always supportive of my childhood enthusiasm, even though they did try to steer me toward more financially sound pursuits. My father, a dark-skinned stern man from the west African coast, and my mother an effervescent high yellow black woman from the south endeavored to raise well-rounded children and build a comfortable middle-class life for them. In the 90’s when black success was modeled on sitcoms like Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Moesha success and stability meant big houses, busy children, and good schools. But where I grew up in suburban Wisconsin and Indiana that didn’t mean a diverse cast of characters, it meant being in close proximity to almost exclusive whiteness. So my entire childhood we lived in majority-white neighborhoods, my siblings and I went to majority-white schools, where we were taught by majority-white teachers a majority white curriculum.
The first art museum I remember going to was on an elementary class trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum. For years after you couldn’t tell me that it wasn’t the most beautiful place in the world. Its stately white architectural wings fixed to the exterior gave it the look of a spaceship and inside, the massive white and concrete atrium looked like a cathedral from an alien planet. I remember being awed, it was so quiet, this cavernous white building. With 341,000 sq ft and 25,000 works of art, each gallery, each corner offered another image or object that I had never seen before, things I had never even conceived. The sculptures, the paintings, the architecture, I was enamored. I was at home. We can’t have been there for longer than a few hours but to me, it felt like a lifetime. I only recall seeing one image of a black woman throughout the entire museum that day. Toward the end in one of the last galleries we toured, there was a medium-sized photograph of a seated golden brown woman reclining slightly with her legs propped up on a table in front of her. Her face was turned confidently toward the camera and she was topless; her modest breasts and brown nipples on full display. I remember being embarrassed that the only image of a black woman I saw that day was one who was naked.
The Milwaukee Art Museum was the first museum I fell for. A white building, full of white art. But the first piece of art I fell in love with would come much later. I saw Pablo Picasso’s Guernica when I was a senior in high school. The brutal painting was featured in a documentary about Spanish art and even though it was projected on a bumpy white wall it still tore right through me. Simply put, I was awestruck by how much there was to digest in the massive work, the pain of the artist, the horrors of war, the beauty of the mural, the anguish of its inhabitants. And it was in that moment I decided on a career in the arts. Like most decisions made by 17-year-olds, I did what felt right without much consideration for how it would actually happen. But in 2007 I enrolled in a mid-sized, mid-ranked, university in the midwest. There, in cornfields of Indiana, I majored in public history and double minored in art history and Spanish.
Through no intentional effort of my own, my art education was centered on the deeply held western belief that only white men create masterpieces. It was acknowledged that other people make other art, and those subjects were offered as electives, but what was core curriculum was white-centered. The intent is hard to gauge, I can’t with any certainty say that my college was deliberately whitewashing art history. But what I can say is that I took from my classes an understanding that white men were the only ones capable of making the kind of beauty that transcends generations. As I studied I continued to obsess over the likes of Picasso and Sargent, and Bellows, white men who painted white subjects. And I paid no mind to artists who looked like me. And thus I was drawn to white institutions because I perceived them to have the credentials that other institutions did not. Subconsciously, (and I would be lying if I didn’t say consciously in some cases) I understood that proximity to whiteness inherently meant value.
After I graduated I spent the next decade attempting to fit in at white institutions. And at every turn, I struggled. I was often the only black person on staff or the only person of color in leadership. Microaggressions are always a possibility in all white spaces. Careless white people are around every corner waiting to victimize you simply because you’re black and happen to be in their presence. So I developed a habit of keeping to myself and constantly working to prove my worth. But no amount of tongue biting or labor made me feel like I was truly a part of a team. Overworked and isolated, I often felt like Sisyphus. Constantly laboring uphill only to be knocked down again and again. And for a while, I took these stumblings as evidence that I did not belong in the art world. The fact that I was surrounded by white people who were struggling far less only contributed to that belief.
It all culminated in July 2020 when in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and historic protest against racism and police brutality I was let go from a predominantly white organization and my job was given to a white woman. Two months later I was working at Red Olive Creative Consulting. There I was hired by a black woman to join a team of women of color, who are committed to fostering a world with sustainable cultural and artistic institutions. With Black Art Futures Fund as the philanthropic arm dedicated to shaping the future of Black art, for the first time in my life I was a part of a company whose mission I identified with. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t immediately realize it was where I needed to be. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a BAFF grantee call with 10 or so black founders of nonprofits that I realized I wasn’t the only black person on the call. For the first time in a professional setting, I didn’t feel out of place.
White supremacy is a spell. Bewitching and potent it has been refined to be almost undetectable. But what if we committed to fighting it? What if organizations and academics dedicated the time and attention that is given to white artists to artists of color? How much trauma would be avoided? How many more artists would create? What if in that museum that day in second grade I had seen another image of a black woman? Or if I had seen 20 other varying images of black women? What if all of them together enfolded me into their ranks and let me know that I too belonged in this space dedicated to beauty? Years later I now see how powerful that topless woman was. How she boldly existed in an all-white space, defiant and demanding to be seen in full, in all her glory. I just wish a black woman had been there to explain that to me.