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Responding to this moment

Posted on June 3rd, 2020 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.


When JMM staff approached me about moderating one of the two conversations we had planned to accompany our now-virtual exhibit, GrayinBlackandWhite.com, I didn’t hesitate to say “yes.” Those who know me well know the #BaltimoreUprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody five years ago was a touchstone on my personal antiracism journey. I was glad to be able to lend my voice and presence to a conversation marking the fifth anniversary of a time that was so important to my understanding of the world and my role in it. Two weeks later, on May 21, 2020, I was again pleased to play a role in another conversation, this time with female activists and journalists working to expose and address the root causes of the Uprising.

In my introduction to that second event, I answered the question I had heard spoken or implied many times: “why is JMM getting involved in commemorating the Baltimore Uprising?”

My answer was two-fold: First, at JMM, we regularly assert that Maryland Jewish history is Maryland history, and since we make that assertion, we must value and amplify its corollary: Maryland African American History is Maryland History. And second, at JMM, we know that the Jewish community of Maryland is diverse and multi-ethnic. When most of us think of American Jews, we imagine white-skinned Ashkenazi Jews. And, though there are a lot of us, (I am one) the Jewish community is made up of white, black, and brown people. Which means that institutional and structural racism, the root causes of the Baltimore Uprising, are Jewish issues.

Little did I know those root causes would reveal themselves again with such heartbreaking clarity less than a week later in Minneapolis.

His name was George Floyd. The whole world has watched the cruel treatment Mr. Floyd received at the hands of men who wore a uniform issued by a city government. The world watched, and we were horrified, outraged, saddened, terrified, sickened. (The exact emotional response changes depending on the person reacting and the moment.) Protests in response to Mr. Floyd’s death have sprung up around the country—indeed, around the world. Many have turned violent, though there is evidence at least some of the violence is caused by saboteurs, not protestors. In Baltimore, we can’t help but see parallels with what happened here five years ago. To be frank, it’s disheartening. It’s disheartening that so little has changed in these five years, that the pain and anger and heartache is happening again.

But there is also reason for hope. I am noticing many more of my fellow white-skinned Americans paying attention to questions of race and racism than I have in my memory. As I write this, the top three books on Amazon’s best seller list are White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, So You Want to Talk about Race, and We’re Different, We’re the Same (a kids’ book about race). In my opinion, this is a great sign. As Marvin said in his statement from the Museum on George Floyd’s death and the ongoing protests, “We must educate ourselves. We must listen, truly listen, to the voices of people who don’t look or live or worship as we do. We must commit to being upstanders, not bystanders. We will only change the story if we change ourselves.”

I want to urge us all to be steadfast. We cannot let this impulse to learn more and to move toward antiracism be a trend we abandon as quickly as we picked it up. I believe this work to be among the most important work we can do if we want to leave our children a better world. To that end, I want to offer a thought experiment, especially to my fellow Jews who may be reading this.

When I want to better understand a situation, I often find it helpful to find a parallel that is closer to me—a situation with which I am more familiar that is somehow similar to the one I seek to understand. I want to offer you a parallel for this moment: imagine what it would look like, what it would feel like if men and women wearing uniforms issued by a governmental agency were disproportionately killing unarmed Jews with little to no consequences. Imagine it happening over and over and over and over again. Imagine complaining about it, protesting it, alerting your non-Jewish neighbors in various ways for generations, and not being believed by the majority who distrust you and think you must be lying because you don’t worship as they do. “You must have done something to deserve it,” they say, and go back to their lives.

Sadly, we don’t have to work too hard to imagine such a reality. It has a familiar air about it*.

Stay with me.

Imagine in this reality that however you protest the frequent and seemingly indiscriminate killing of unarmed Jews, you’re told it’s the wrong way to protest. You’re criticized when Jewish athletes use their platform to protest. You’re criticized when you peacefully march in the street. You’re criticized when you dare say, “Jewish lives matter.” Imagine after generations of this, some people at a protest are so frustrated at never being heard, they lose control of their anger and destroy property. Others take advantage of the moment of chaos, and loot or steal. Now your non-Jewish neighbors call you names. They tell you in direct and indirect ways, the fact that your sons and daughters keep getting killed is much less important than the fact that some who participated in protests of those killings caused property damage.

This is not some dystopian future I’m describing. It’s the reality your black and brown friends, neighbors, loved ones, and at least 12 to 15% of our fellow Jews, are living right now, in 2020. I invite you to sit with that for a moment. Really sit with it. Now ask yourself, if the roles were different, if it really were Jews’ deaths being protested, what would you want your non-Jewish neighbors to do about it?

Once you have your answer, you know what you – what we – must do.**


*Pictured: (Left) Broadside, directive for a “Mr. Lynch” to leave the 9th ward in 30 days or else be “visited” by a group of 300 men. “The White Caps” will take the law into their own hands. “Beware! Beware!” printed across bottom, May 7, 1889. Possibly directed against a Bacharach who ran for public office. JMM 1991.147.39. (Center) Sign stating pool for approved gentiles only at the Meadowbrook Swimming Club. JMM 1995.201.2. (Right) Cartoon from “Puck” magazine regarding hotel discrimination and Jews. JMM 1991.147.38.

**Pictured: Title from 1941 pamphlet produced by the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation Council and the American Jewish Committee. To Bigotry No Sanction: A Documented Analysis of Anti-Semitic Propaganda. JMM 1988.211.32.


 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




In the Shadows of Statues

Posted on May 28th, 2020 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.


In May of 2019, I attended the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in New Orleans. One of the keynote speakers was Mitch Landrieu, the city’s mayor. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what he spoke about, but I must have been impressed, because I bought his book, In the Shadows of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. I finally got around to reading it.

The book is part memoir, part manifesto.

Landrieu’s purposes is supposedly to recount the experience of deciding to and then executing the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans on his watch. In the end, he writes on considerably more: He writes of his childhood and adolescence as the son of New Orleans’ Mayor, Moon Landrieu, a staunch fighter for civil rights. He recounts his time as Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, and as mayor of New Orleans during the surge in gun violence that has overtaken the whole nation in the past five years. There is even a chapter devoted to tracing the parallels between David Duke’s rise to state-level office in Louisiana and Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency.

Landrieu’s writing style is clear and digestible, and I found the text to be a pleasant read. He seems to have written the book to help convince other white southerners like himself that he made the right call in removing the statues. Regular readers of mine will not be surprised to learn that I am squarely in the choir for Landrieu’s sermonizing. Of course, DeRay McKesson (next on my TBR shelf) reminded me at the first annual Anti-Racism Book Festival last year that the best choir directors can teach you how to use your voice in ways you never thought possible.

I was surprised to find considerable time spent on the issue of gun violence and the disproportionate toll it takes in the African American community. Landrieu seems to come at the issue from a place of deep humanity–and with words that resonate with Jewish texts close to my heart. On page 144 Landrieu talks of “lives that deserved America’s promise.” Of those souls, cut short by gun violence, Landrieu echoes the verse that instructs “whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture accounts it as if he destroyed a whole world” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) when he writes, “If it is true that one person can change the world, it must be true that the absence of so many must change it as well.” He goes on to tell stories of specific victims of violence during his tenure as mayor. The stories are heartbreaking, and as a reader I believe that Landrieu is heartbroken.

After the heartbreak, he goes on to tell us, “I firmly believe that this is a solvable problem if we treat gun violence as both a public safety issue and a public health crisis. We vaccinate people to thwart disease. Against gun violence, society is passive.” (p 148) And later, “This is a mental health issue, and the greatest moral issue in America today” (150). Landrieu does not avoid the racial reality of the epidemic of gun violence: “In most major cities, someone dies each day from a gunshot. The weapon of choice, most often a handgun; the victims and perpetrators disproportionately young African American men.” (150) He goes further, recognize the racism behind the racial reality:

“As former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter has so forcefully said, if a foreign enemy killed fifteen thousand American citizens, there would be hell to pay. If the Ku Klux Klan murdered thousands of young black men, this nation would be in an uproar. But for some reason we are hardened to domestic gun deaths and remain eerily silent. Maybe it is in slow motion–we refuse to hear it or see it because we place too little value on the lives of young, black men.” (150).

Lest we believe Landrieu’s words on gun violence and racism have nothing to do with his overarching story, Landrieu reminds us, “We must press on, share the agenda that the culture of homicides is evil and unacceptable, and resolve ourselves to changing it, however long it may take or incremental it may be. But to do so requires us to value every life. The monuments hover and tell a different story. The shadow these symbols cast is oppressive. It is in this broad context that people must now understand that the monuments and the reasons they were erected were intended not to affirm life but to deny life. And in that sense, the monuments in a way are murder.” (160).

In his crusade to wrest the Confederacy from the Cult of the Lost Cause (those who promoted the message “the South had fought a noble war, for honor and independence, and it would rise from defeat to rule by white supremacy” (40)), Landrieu asks the reader to think about the number six million. “Six million is the approximate number of human beings who were enslaved in our exceptional country until 1865. Six million. Look at it and say it again. You can see it. You can see them. These six million included men, women, children. Many of whom were beaten, raped, tortured.” (177)

I have read and written before about the analogy that asserts the Middle Passage and the institution of slavery is to people of African descent what the Holocaust is to Jews. Landrieu’s focus on the 6 million, especially as I read it in the season of Yom HaShoah, cemented that analogy for me. A few pages later Landrieu further underscored the comparison when he quotes “Richard Westmoreland, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, who said that Robert E. Lee was a great general but compared him to Erwin Rommel, the World War II German tank commander. There are no statues of Rommel in Germany, he continued, ‘They are ashamed. The question is, why aren’t we?’ Westmoreland said, ‘Make no mistake, slavery was the great sin of this nation.’” (185)

The strength of that comparison makes me wonder if antisemitism in Europe today is moving in the same way anti-black racism pervades the U.S., as what Landrieu calls “the ho-hum racism that eats through our country every day.” (187) If the two historical events are comparable, and I believe they are, one of the biggest differences is in their recency. Obviously the two are not apples-to-apples historical moments. Nevertheless, I find it chilling to think about the parallels. We are seven decades into a post-Holocaust world. The Cult of the Lost Cause began erecting monuments to the Confederacy between 50 and 75 years after the Civil War ended. Just as the Cult of the Lost Cause sought to re-write history, to sanitize the actions of the Confederacy.

In many ways, the cult succeeded. There are large numbers of people today who genuinely believe the Civil War was not fought over slavery (it was), or that slavery wasn’t “that bad” (slavery was and always will be inhuman, full stop). It took about the same amount of time for us to face those who would sanitize WWII, claiming the death camps didn’t exist, that the six million souls we lost are somehow fictions. Those deniers–of the Holocaust and of the sins of slavery and the Confederacy–they are still out there. They are actively spewing their hatred and using forms of terror to help propagate their evil. (If you doubt this truth, I ask you to think hard about the flags we saw displayed at some of the recent protests against COVID19 shelter in place orders: confederate flags with the silhouette of an automatic rifle and the words “Come and Take it.” If the symbolism in that image doesn’t frighten you, I guarantee you are neither of color, nor Jewish.)

As in most of the books that I read, in this text, I often underlined passages or made notes in the margin where there were moments I wanted to remember. After my chilling conclusions above, I want to close with one of those moments, that gives me some hope. Early in the book, Landrieu articulates one of those transformational moments that sets a person on an antiracist path: “I have often heard it said by elders that you can’t know how a man feels until you walk in his shoes. It has taken me the better part of forty years to find those shoes. This is what I have come to call transformative awareness. We are all capable of it; but we come kicking and screaming to a sudden shift in thinking about the past. To get there we have to acknowledge that we were inattentive, insensitive, myopic, or God forbid, hateful in our earlier view” (40).

This passage resonated with me because I had a similar moment of transformative awareness. That moment came to me–and Mitch Landrieu’s came to him–not because either of us is an exceptional human being. Rather, they came for each of us because, for whatever reason, in a particular place and a particular moment, we were truly open to being transformed. That openness is not easy to achieve. Nor is it predictable. But what Landrieu and I and many others like us prove is that it’s possible. And so long as change is possible, we must continue to strive for it. We must continue to tear down the monuments, both literal and figurative, that no longer represent who we want to be, and this monument-relocation must happen at the individual and at the societal level. Both are difficult. Both are essential. We must keep going.

May the time come soon and in our time when the only monuments we erect or revere in our minds and in our public spaces celebrate the beauty, the value, and the full humanity of all of us. Amen.


This post was originally published at bmoreincremental.com.


 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Representation Matters: What D. Watkins helped me understand about museums

Posted on May 7th, 2020 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.


I am often working my way through more than one book at a time. Especially right now in the midst of quarantine, I have been turning to the page as my way out of the house. While I was reading D. Watkins’ We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America, I have also been making my way through Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience by John H Falk.

As often happens, I found that these two titles, seemingly completely unrelated, had some resonances with one another. Well, more precisely, reading them at the same time led me to have new insight.

I have written about Watkins before. A fellow Baltimorean, I’ve been following his career not-quite from the beginning. In my mind, what sticks out about D. Watkins is his authenticity. He makes me believe he knows who he is and is sharing that person–without pretense or posturing–on the page.

When I wrote about him three years ago, I was struck by “Watkins’ ability to introduce us to characters with seemingly perfect empathy. His descriptions of the people who inhabit his world paint pictures of fully human individuals. This is remarkable because the humanity of the people he depicts is so consistently denied in most of the media that those of us in the room usually consume. Drug dealers and addicts, prostitutes and felons, all receive their full humanity from D. Watkins’ pen. His empathy for them is contagious.”

Though my use of the word “contagious” sticks out as I re-read it from quarantine, I find the persuasive force of Watkins’ empathy, and, more importantly, his affection for the friends and acquaintances he introduces us to, remains in full force in this latest work. I feel I am a slightly better person for having allowed myself to be carried along by the affection for the full humanity of characters like Big Wop, Dub, Turk, and O.G.

As with my reading of Lawrence Lanahan, it is an interesting experience to read another’s recollections and interpretations of moments I lived through. I read Watkins’ essays on the Uprising and the schande of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force with a speed and an emotional and physiological reaction I can only describe as validating. (As an aside, as I read this book, I began to wonder about the experience of Watkins’ and Lanahan’s readers from outside of Baltimore. It is hard for me to imagine the experience of reading about the Uprising and after without my prior knowledge of it.)

But the connection Watkins’ work made for me in 2020 actually had to do with his description of how addictive and positive reading can be–when you start with the right material. In an essay near the end of We Speak for Ourselves, Watkins writes about finding reading. While in the hospital, a nurse loaned him The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. He writes: “I read it in under two days. She was right. It was the fastest I’d ever read a book in my life. Who knew you could write books about the streets? I would’ve read this book ten times if it was assigned to me in high school.

The Coldest Winter Ever opened up my mind and led me to consume more and more books. My thoughts changed. I developed new ideas. I was forever transformed. Within months I went from being a guy who solved problems by breaking a bottle over someone’s forehead to using solution-based thinking when resolving issues. It was as if reading instantly civilized me. It also made me acknowledge the need for culturally relevant material. Familiar information is less intimidating. And if it worked for me, I believe it can work for anybody.” (pp 156 – 157)

The memory of this experience led Watkins to work to get his own writing into the hands of Baltimore’s students. Through grants and his own money, Watkins donated copies of his books to city schools in Baltimore and Washington, DC. “The deal was for me to make classroom visits and teach workshops to every class that received the books and the students would get to keep the books because they were being stolen from schools.” (p 162)

Watkins goes on to relay how despite successful outcomes in the classrooms he visited, in 2017 he learned from one of the classroom teachers who’d been using Watkins’ titles “they passed on your book…They decided to double down on Shakespeare.” (p 163)

Watkins brought me with him through the disappointment of that moment. It stayed with me. It stayed with me so much so it surfaced again, unbidden, as I was reading Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. One of Falk’s key hypotheses in this book is that the outcomes of a museum visit are highly predicted by the ways in which the museum visitor thinks about themself as they enter the museum, but that’s not actually what connected for me.

Falk is among the researchers who have found that one of the most predictive behaviors of museum visitation is museum visitation (in other words, the likelihood of you visiting any given museum in the next 6 to 12 months is highly correlated to whether or not you have visited any other museum in the past 6 to 12 months). Further, adults who visit museums are likely to have visited as children. I was thinking about those statistics and about the session I attended at the American Alliance of Museums conference last year where I heard that at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), from day one, they were seeing dwell times (i.e. the length of a museum visit) that doubled and even tripled the industry average (6 hours at NMAAHC vs. 1.75 – 2 hours for the national average). I haven’t seen the data, but I wonder how many of those long-dwelling visitors to the NMAAHC are visiting their first museum in the past 12 or 24 months, or longer?

In Identity and the Museum Visitor, Falk is more interested in what he calls “small i” identity than in big I identity. In other words, he’s looking at whether a person thinks of themselves as curious or spiritual or a good parent rather than whether they are black or white or Asian or how old they are or their gender identity. Falk makes a compelling case, and has the data to back it up. In fact, Falk conducted a study of African American museum-going. Of it, he writes: “The overwhelming conclusion of my research was that, overall, African American leisure behavior was very similar to European American leisure behavior, while tremendous differences existed within and across the African American community. Where black-white differences existed, race/ethnicity did not emerge as the best variable to explain these differences.” (p 29)

I believe Falk’s data did suggest those outcomes. I also know the study was done in 1993, more than two decades before the NMAAHC was a reality. I wonder what a study of African American NMAAHC visitors would find. More than that, I would like to know of the visitors to NMAAHC who were infrequent museum goers prior to their visit, how many visited another museum in the following 6 to 12 months? Can NMAAHC or the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore or other African American museums or other heritage museums around the country do for a museum visitor what The Coldest Winter Ever did for D Watkins, the reader?

I can’t help but think the answer is ‘yes.’ I read this passage from Watkins, and translate it from ‘reading’ to ‘visiting museums,’ and it rings true for me:

“‘Reading is boring’ is a phrase I’ve been hearing at the beginning of each semester ever since I became an adjunct professor. I give them my soliloquy on why it was illegal for slaves to read and how easy it was for masters to control populations of people wiht limited thoughts–partially due to illiteracy. I would say, ‘Being smart and developing complex thoughts without reading is like trying to get The Rock’s muscles without working out.’

Then I assign cool books like Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Jay-Z’s Decoded, Liza Jessie Peterson’s All Day, Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down, and essays by me and other writers I think they would like. I also scour the internet for articles that speak directly to them. I believe that everyone would enjoy reading if they had the right material. Obtaining material that speaks to them would not only provide the foundation for the basic critical thinking skills needed to function, but also spark a greater interest in literature outside the classroom.” (p155)

Right now, we are all starting to more fully grasp the exponential effect we can have as our lives intersect with others’. Luckily for human beings, COVID-19 isn’t the only thing that can spread exponentially. Reading, history, knowledge, skills, self-compassion and self-esteem can also be caught and passed on. That’s part of what I got out of Watkins’ continued return to the first book that showed him a different way.

We Speak for Ourselves is a collection of essays. I wouldn’t say that there is a central hypothesis, but there are certainly recurring themes. As you might expect from the title, one of them is that black folks have voices to speak for themselves, if they were ever given the chance. Watkins repeatedly declines that he is “the voice” of his people, insisting instead he is “a voice.”

It is a voice worth reading: clear, authentic, likable, insightful. One of the insights, for me, from this voice, is the power of people–especially young people–hearing voices they recognize as like their own speak from positions of perceived power and authority. In other words, representation matters. I am sure that John Falk is right that little i identities are more predictive of museum-goers’ meaning-making than big I identities. I’m also sure that if the big I identities of the visitor (or reader or viewer) are ignored, neglected, or, worse, denigrated, by a museum (or book or show) the lasting effect is hurt to us all.


This post was originally published at bmoreincremental.com.


 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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