I recently attended a two part conversation “Talking About Racism in Museum Education” organized by Marit Dewhurst (Director of Art Education/ Assistant Professor of Art and Museum Education City College of NY) and Keonna Hendricks (Reviewers and Critics Program Manager, ArtConnection; Freelance Educator, Family Programs, MoMA). The title alone interested me and sent me thinking about the permanent collections of MoMA and the Whitney that I teach in, and the classrooms I have visited over my many year involvement with object based teaching. I have done my best to present artworks made by African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, women and anyone else that seems the slightest bit outside of museum collection norms.
The symposium asked us how we racially identify, and how often that identification impacts our teaching. I honestly feel that whiteness, my whiteness, never enters my mind. My colleagues of color said they are ALWAYS aware of their racial identity and how others perceive them. They can’t shake it if they tried. They often feel invisible because of their color, or challenged by museum audiences as to their knowledge and understanding of the art objects. They noted that the security guards, maintenance workers, food service workers are often people of color, and it is much more rare to meet a curator or director of color. The power positions in museums are frequently held by white people.
Still the show featuring Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series in MoMA’s One Way Ticket is an outstanding exception, a show that begs for discussion on this difficult subject. I have had many opportunities to bring racial issues to the center of my programs and into my teaching agenda, through studying this exhibition. This spectacular series of sixty paintings by Lawrence examines the many reasons that Black Americans migrated from the rural South to the Urban North–fleeing in great numbers from the persecution, the abuse, and inequality in hopes of finding employment, better living conditions, and opportunities to raise and educate children and live in a safer environment. The way Jacob Lawrence tells this American story–it wasn’t as easy as that. Prejudice existed in the North and restaurants served whites on one side of the restaurant and blacks on the other. Experienced as farmers, many of the migrants were suddenly working in steel mills where they crossed picket lines and caused skirmishes with union workers. Riots broke out in Northern cities and tensions mounted. People were forced to live in overcrowded conditions. And still the migration continued.
16. Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave where one had occurred.
22.Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.
49.They also found discrimination in the North although it was much different from that which they had known in the South.
51.In many cities in the North where the Negroes had been overcrowded in their own living quarters they attempted to spread out. This resulted in many of the race riots and the bombings of Negro homes.
58. In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.
(all captions by Jacob Lawrence, 1941)
This show is an opportunity to look at the world today and at our National news that has been full of violence that is racially motivated. Racial tensions, horrific events of police brutality and murder, soaring incarceration statistics, and prejudice of many kinds–racial, sexual, religious, ethnic, gender–the world today does not feel that different from the many stories that are told in One Way Ticket.
Marian Anderson singing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on film is enough to bring you to your knees. And don’t miss Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” either. Photographs of migrants, literature and journals, music, poetry, and the paintings of Jacob Lawrence’s contemporaries fill out the show. Go with a friend or your family and spend some time talking about the lynching of innocent people, arrests for the slightest provocations, and the unfairness and inequity in the world. We all have a responsibility to change and end the injustices in our community.
Given an assignment to record all of the instances of racial prejudice that I observe in myself for seven days has at times left me worried and confused. When I picked my seat on the subway away from the smelly homeless man who happened to be black, I found myself questioning, ‘is that a racist act’? Momentary confusion aside, “Talking about Racism in Museum Education” was a way of bringing this further into focus for me, both generally and in my work. But then again, I can only teach to what’s on view. And I can only speak from secondhand knowledge of this kind of systematic oppression. The greater responsibility lies with curators and museum administrations to make choices and invite new voices that will shape a space for art that is more representative of reality, and of our communities.
ONE-WAY TICKET: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works is on view until September 7th at MoMA