Made-In-L.A-Kenyatta-C-Hinkle-2360-2
African-American Studies, Art Exhibition

The Kneegrow in the New World Pt 2: Finding SIR

I always phone home to talk to my mama about how my exhibitions and performances went. We always unpack my work together and I walk her through my whole installation, opening and deinstallation. We have a really tight bond. She is one of the few people who I can truly say that really understands my work inside out. I got my artistic talent and love for writing from her. During my deinstallation I told her about the positive and negative responses that I received from my show The Kneegrow in the New World in February 2011  I had no clue that our conversation would open up the floodgates for this book project to come about.

Since I was a very young age my mama always fostered my strong nature and creative spirit through the words of what I would like to call an African-American proverb: “Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.” This proverb has prepared and helped me to succeed in graduate school and  to develop tough skin for the art world  and beyond. It really helped me make through that week of the exhibition.

After we unpacked the views about the show Mama and I started talking about my fascination with the historical and contemporary naming/ labeling of the black body. She started sharing stories with me about my brother Sir and how his name came to be. It is so funny how things can become so normalized within your family that you don’t even think to question such gestures. His name was always just what it is, his name. Of course when we were little we would make fun of him by saluting and saying ” Yes Sir, no Sir!” as if his presence alone made us new recruits for the army. But after a while that gets old and he is just your brother until you mention to someone that you have a sibling named Sir and they give you a “Hum that’s interesting” type of face.

My Mama & I at my BFA Thesis show at MICA 2009

My mama & I at my BFA Thesis Show at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD 2009. 

I always had my nose in books studying African-American history. When I was in middle and high school I considered James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X and Dick Gregory (I love his book Nigger) to be my closest friends when I was trying to make sense of the southern dynamics that I was born into. Looking back on that time I realized that I was really looking for my own story  to be told within their stories. But that never really satisfied me and now I have realized that I must write my own.

It wasn’t until I moved away from Louisville to attend art school in Baltimore and heightened my global consciousness that I began to understand the political power (both positive and negative) that Mama’s naming gesture evoked. Even now as I continue to work on the material for the book I am doing it via Los Angeles. The distance allows me to find the poetics of space and what it means to navigate the landscape of Louisville through memory, emotions, pure factual information and research. (I sometimes return home in the winter to visit my family living there and to do research) As a writer I am trying to find the balance between the personal and political when thinking about my brother Sir living in our hometown and a black man named Sir living in Louisville, Kentucky.

Upon leaving home I also began to grow curious about Sir’s relationship to his name and why my mother felt it was so important to give him that name beyond the early stories that I heard when his name was attributed to him being the first male grandchild. I ended up hitting a brick wall because I had no stories to link my mother’s personal experiences to the political gesture that became his name, and in all of these years I had never directly asked my mother or my brother about his name.

The never asking interests me in relationship to the African-American experience. Due to the trauma, turmoil and violence subjected collectively onto black families and bodies, asking can be a very dangerous thing. You can go opening up some heavy wounds and get answers that will cut you like the knife that gave the wounds if you keep on prodding. Or you can be met by an indifference that refuses to see the significance in a gesture because it is merely linked to surviving within a hostile place. Within my research and interviews I have come across a gamut of these emotions. Sometimes it makes it harder to get to the bottom of things and sometimes just the presentation of the raw response to opening the wound says it all.

Lucky for me my mama doesn’t mind sharing her experiences and we talked on the phone until my butt became numb on the concrete floor of the gallery. When she said that every time she called Sir’s name out in the grocery store all of the white men turned around I could see this scene playing in my head. It is such a powerful image. I could literally see every white man stop and turn around to address this beautiful black woman shouting,” Siiirrr, Siiiirrr !” Mama said she would say to them, “I am not talking to you, I am talking to my son.” I could see their confused faces when a 5’7 handsome soft-spoken man wearing a doo rag appeared from the frozen food section. There were many times after hearing this that the optimist in me wanted to analyze this scene and give those turning white male heads the benefit of the doubt and say well Kentucky is the South so people are used to saying and being called Ma’am and Sir. It is a staple of southern charm. But the reality that I know so well is that historically within this particular social geography these titles of courtesy and respect weren’t so freely given to black bodies.

* The first image is from The Kneegrow in the New World  exhibition.

How I learned My ABCs
Chalkboard paint, chalkboard, chalk
2011
(Photo by Molly Stinchfield)

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hello my name is
African-American Studies, Art Exhibition

The Kneegrow in the New World: Finding SIR

“Every time I call your brother’s name in the grocery store, all of the white men turn around as if I am addressing them.”

-Delia Hinkle

It was this statement from my Mama echoing through the phone line via Kentucky that stopped me dead in my tracks during my deinstallation. The image her statement conjured up said everything that I had been wanting to say with my art and within my life for years. The image summed it all up. I was in the midst of reflecting on my very last thesis exhibition at CalArts. It was called The Kneegrow in the New World. The exhibition was focused on the many iterations of naming and stereotypes historically placed upon the black body. I utilized everyday materials and loaded them with social commentary about race. A grid of 100 red Avery Hello My Name Is nametags graced one wall with names ranging from Ape Dick Jr. to Pretty Young Thing. On the wall I painted a visual score of the word Nigger in which the N was stretched from a stammering whisper to a ragging shout that then trailed off the cliff  the largest N to an uneventful “igger.”

Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle, nnnnnnNNNNNNNNNNNN

I had a 20ft paper scroll hanging from the ceiling that had various hyphenated American names: African-American, Coon- American, HIV-American, Yo Mama-American, Big Booty-American and so on. I also wrote a letter to the word “Nigger” demanding that it stopped appearing in the hearts, minds  and mouths of people. It was a show filled with dark biting humor, contradiction and schizophrenia concerning the impossibilities of self-identification in the face of repetitive historical branding.

This show caused much controversy on campus and sparked several conversations concerning racial relations and selfhood. Some of my peers were annoyed with the work. Someone argued that I shouldn’t talk about these issues because these were issues that the news covered. Some people assumed that the work was redundant because it was authored by a black body ( a perceived victim of the language acts. I argue that both the recipient and the author of the speech act are both victims within a system of oppression, ignorance and hatred.)  To say it plainly many people thought I could have done better with my final showing opportunity and were disappointed that I chose to make a show about race. (This speaks to larger issues of diversity within art graduate programs!)

Many people were offended and brought in experiences into the space that I became the culprit of just because of the nature of the work. On the flip side actors from the theater school came into the gallery and took pleasure in doing monologues based from the text on the 20ft scroll. A  biracial girl said that the show made her confront her own relationship with her blackness for the first time.  I consolidated all of these responses and I considered the show to be a major success because this is exactly what I wanted to happen. I wanted to intensify our historical relationships to naming within the traditional setting of the gallery. I felt that as trite as the subject matter was that the audience and I still needed to unpack the issues and to think about what we all have been called and more importantly what we want or need to be called. The book about Sir came in the midst of this investigation. Through all of the pseudo definitions to claim/name the black body I wanted to discover a name that undefined the defined. 

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Photo taken by Kevin Robinson June 2013
African-American Studies

Birthing & Protection: Life Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair

It has been several months since I have made an entry on this site.  My writing often requires that I step back from it in order to integrate new life experiences into my being so that I may enrich the journey of the story that I want to tell. Since my last entry life has filled me with many unique opportunities that have informed the SIR book project in ways that I have never imagined it would. On March 22nd I gave birth to our son Johari Kai Hinkle-Robinson. Because I am an interdisciplinary artist and writer several people kept asking me about how I was documenting my pregnancy creatively and how was it influencing my work. The answers to these questions were always so hard to articulate. I felt guilty for not feeling compelled to document every single moment. I ended up concluding that I found the gestation of a human being similar to the artistic process. (Creating and giving birth to bodies of work.) I felt no need to elaborate on it further outside of my body. Now that Johari is here I can begin to sort out what happened during his gestation and how it has impacted my life and art forever.

The book project SIR that this site discusses was born from a manuscript titled “The Manchild & the Womanchild.” It focused on a young girl (my mother) giving birth to a son she named Sir. She gave him this name in a geography filled with racial prejudice so that he would be addressed with a title of respect no matter who was addressing him. Somehow the work surpassed this relationship and began to focus on not only naming but on historical geography, memory, selfhood and belonging. My role as writer wove into interviewer, storyteller, quote gatherer and an observer of cycles within my family. Now that I have fulfilled a cycle through giving birth to my son, I have become a better witness to the adversaries my mom knew. Although my experiences have been way more subtle and not as hostile I find myself asking the same questions that I wondered about her journey raising my brother:

How can one raise her son in a historically and contemporary hostile geography for young black males?

What can she give him physically, spiritually and mentally to protect him?

Can these gifts suffice protection from bullets and malice?

Or is it merely the gesture of the naming that  will give  power?

While writing I kept trying to channel how my mother felt giving birth to her first born child within a geography filled with forces that wanted to harm him because of his racial make-up. I interviewed her, I analyzed our family history, I researched the history of my Louisville ancestral geography, but nothing has informed me more than actually holding my son in my arms. Sometimes when I look into his eyes I worry about the unseen forces out there. I can’t help but to think about Treyvon Martin and the Zimmerman trail, The Jena 6 boys, Emmett Till and so many countless others. I think about my friend Andy that had guns pulled out on him by the LAPD while he was waiting on the bus stop (I call this SWB “Standing While Black”). I think about my husband moving out of his apartment in a somewhat affluent neighborhood in Baltimore, having to show the police his lease because they thought he was stealing items from  his own residence. I think about my brother being forced to walk barefoot on the hot pavement to the courthouse because the cops would not let him grab his shoes. I think about the layers and scars that can’t quite heal with just a mother trying to kiss where it “hurts”. I think about my undieing need to protect our son and to educate him about the complexities of the body that he will walk around in. Of course this education won’t be easy. I have to make the  showing and telling just as complex as its existance so that cycles of stripping the humanity and complexity from certain situations in favor of  a percieved victim don’t remain as simple as black against white.

Since his birth Langston Hughes’ poem “ Mother to Son” rings in my ear.

Well, son. I’ll tell you:

Life ain’t been no crystal stair

Johari is pure sunlight and has so much innocence within his every giggle, toe touch, drool drop and squeal of excitement. He drinks the world with his eyes. We are connected forever. When I am at work I call home cause I can feel when he is ready to eat. I can hear his thoughts and interpret every cry sometimes.  I cannot even fathom the forced separation of mother and child my ancestors in Kentucky had to endure during slavery. I thank them everyday for their courage and strength that I am standing on the shoulders of. I couldn’t imagine having to explain to Joahri that we can’t go to a park or drink from a fountain or be called Ma’am and Sir because we are a different color.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

My husband and I have been living in LA for the past five years and sometimes the segregation and leftover animosity from the Rodney King riots still linger. We were denied housing by a Latino woman. I guess my voice and my name did not add up on the phone because you could see her disdain when we walked up to the gate confirming that we were the ones she had been talking to for the past week to arrange the viewing. We drove all the way from Valencia, CA which can be an hour long with traffic.  I  called her when we were 10 minutes away and she  responded enthustaitcally telling us to come on. When we arrived  she stood  stone faced and kept up her same facade during the viewing. When we asked about the paperwork  she said that the apartment was already taken. “Really? In the past 10 minutes,” I asked, and she said, “Yes, someboody just gave me the down payment.” 10 minutes ago it was come on, I am here and ready to show you.

How do we explain moments like this to our son?

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor––

Bare.

I didn’t even like the place. It had so many bars on the windows, it was dark and the neighbors gave us the same stone faced feelings the landlady did.  So it didn’t matter at the the end of the day, but the thing that hurt about it so much was that my husband was so excited about the place. He could see us there regardless of the aesthetics. We have lived in rough areas of Brooklyn and Baltimore ( his hometown) and the place was in a dream neighborhood close to the heart of Los Feliz right near the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park. Looking back on it I thought this behavior was dead, I had never been denied housing because of my skin, not even in Louisville.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners

My Mama used to always pester me about having kids. I am the baby. My brother has four and my sister has one. I was a Mama to two cats before they passed away within three years of each other. When she came for my first reading of the book project in February of last year we took her out for ice cream. She, my husband and I sat enjoying our huge scoops sitting in the California sun. Out of the blue she says, “I am sick of this pet shit, when ya’ll goin give me some grandbabies?”  Our jaws dropped and we couldn’t help but to crack up laughing. I guess our 23 lb tabby named Fristkat wasn’t enough! “ You already have 5 grandchildren Mama.”  “But I ain’t got none from you!” Well I don’t want to bring a child into this crazy world. I guess our children will come when the world is ready for them.” I guess that time is now because I am holding a tiny soon to be black man in my arms. The worrying still creeps and lingers every now and then. Especially when hearing that during the Zimmerman trail the defense showed blown up photos of Treyvon’s body and how his father had to leave the room. I teared up, and kissed Johari 30 more times knowing that tomorrow is not promised and 16 years from now if shit ain’t better that could be our son. Racially profiled and not alive to talk about it.

I tell him he is beautiful everyday and that he can be what he wants to be. He is almost three months and we sing his ABCs to him. I try to help him shape his tongue to say his name. Yo-HAR-ree. In Swahili it means rare, special and unique. I did not name him Sir to protect him like Mama did with my brother. Maybe we named him a name that means unique so that his experiences navigating his body will be.

* Check out the first excerpt from the SIR book project posted on the page Excerpts from SIR. It was the first piece that I wrote for the book and compliments the questions raised in this post.

Sources for post:

Mother to Son, a poem by Langston Hughes, 1922

To read the poem in its entirety click here

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louisville-riots
Uncategorized

Getting Started: The Unconscious identity of a place

I am interested in uncovering  the various layers of Louisville’s history and how the geography has been manipulated by social interactions. By using the term manipulation I am not only  referring to the external phenomenon like changing the literal geography or land mass through building structures. I am referring to the deeper implications of what these sites represent to the unconscious identity of a place and the bodies that occupied/occupy the space. I am trying to dig for the residue of this unconscious identity,  its formation and  the impact upon families and social dynamics in Louisville, KY.

There are several sites that I focus on within the book project that involve entertainment, education, domestic space, and leisure space. These spaces are loaded with the residue of being constantly conflated with histories of slavery, reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movements. This page will feature reflections on the differences between West and East Louisville and how African-Americans navigate these two worlds, the public school system, factions of separate but equal as it pertains to space,  former plantation sites and their usage today, the Ohio River as a liminal geographical boundary, street names that morph into city divisions, park systems that upheld segregation, housing projects, and several other  land and social dynamics.

I will feature a different Historical Location/Implication once a month.

 

The photo above is from the May 1968 Louisville riots.

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