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 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
(Photo by Molly Stinchfield)