Category Archives: Fall 2014

Exhibiting Blackness: A Book Review (Culture Brief, No.9, Fall 2014)

by Jamillah R. Gabriel

Culture Brief, No. 9, Fall 2014
Culture Brief, No. 9, Fall 2014

In Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Bridget R. Cooks takes a close examination at the earliest history of inclusion of African American art and artists in mainstream museums, as well as the beginnings of all-Black exhibitions. In the process, she lends a critical eye to exhibition strategies that were employed and presents an analysis of how these strategies have impacted African American artists.

The introduction to the book begins with a brief analysis of the first museum exhibition of art by African Americans, The Negro in Art Week, which took place at the Chicago Art Institute in 1927. Cooks asserts that this exhibition is “emblematic of the fraught situation of African American art in museums throughout the twentieth century.” So sets the tone for the remainder of the book in which Cooks looks at subsequent exhibitions and how each was problematic in its own way. She asserts that the state of African American art in museums today is essentially the legacy of past exhibitions such as An Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture by American Negro Artists funded by the Harmon Foundation in 1929, Exhibition of Sculpture by William Edmondson at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937, and the Contemporary Negro Art exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, to name a few.

The crux of Cooks’ argument is that historically, art museums exhibiting African American art have used an interpretive lens that has painted Black people, and their art by association, as inferior. Additionally, early exhibitions also lacked self-representation by the artists themselves. These factors combined have created a racial hierarchy of difference and a standard of racial exclusion that still currently exists, according to the author. But she concludes that in order to overcome this obstacle, there should be continued Black resistance to the perpetuation of racial hierarchy (often via all-Black exhibitions), and that there must also be a consistent inclusion of Black artists in group exhibitions.

Cooks is thorough in her analysis of the early history of exhibitions of African American artists, chronicling the development of Black art in the museum world. This book is by no means meant to be a comprehensive treatment of all exhibitions of African American art; rather, its contribution is in the recognition of key exhibitions that have continued to frame how African American art and artists are treated in modern mainstream art museums of the 21st century. She provides a great introduction for those who have no prior experience with African American art, making the book indispensable as an historical overview. Particularly valuable is Cooks’ individual assessment of prime exhibitions and why each proved to be problematic for African American artists then and now.

Exhibiting Blackness provides a perspective that has not been explored in other similar books such as Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums or From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Cooks’ offering is a fresh take on Black art and artists as they relate to the mainstream art world.


Cooks, B.R. (2011). Exhibiting blackness: African Americans and the American art museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum



Experiencing the Mask

by Keturah Nix

Note: This is the third in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

While on the trip to Trinidad and Tobago a phrase that was stated stuck with me: “Look through the mask and see the expression of the people.” This was briefly said in a demonstration workshop we attended conducted by Matthew Wiley who portrays the traditional bat character in the Carnival celebration. For me, this phrase helps to contextualize the experience. When thinking about a mask, there are two perspectives, the one from the onlooker and the one from behind the mask. On this trip, we were able to experience both angles.

As an onlooker, we participated in a Carnival re-creation celebration at Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain where we learned about the signature Carnival characters and their African origins and connections. This experience was enlightening because I was introduced to the history of Carnival in Trinidad. Learning that the origins of many of the characters are exaggerated representations of the slave masters and the slave experience was very interesting. For instance, the Blue Devil, a popular yet frightful character is a representative of the lost slave souls from the Middle Passage to the island and the ones who died and were killed working the fields. The Blue Devil goes around with a sticky substance on his or her body forcefully beckoning for money from crowd members and threatening to smear the sticky substance and blue paint over people. We found out that the sticky substance is molasses and it symbolizes the sugar cane fields in which the slaves had to work. The reasoning behind this character’s petitioning for money serves as the symbolic payment for those slaves and servants who never received payment for their endless work. It is a devil embodiment because many of the slaves viewed the White slave masters as the devil. This and other characters have similar roles chronicling the slave experience in the entire Carnival event.

A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen's Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen’s Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

As part of seeing the mask from the inside, two workshops I believe helped with this are the Idakeda Group ‘s workshop on “Anansi and the Drum” and the Extempo workshop with Calypso artists “Short Pants” and “Lord Superior.” The Idakeda workshop was an intense 4 ½ hour session of learning about African storytelling in the Caribbean. In this workshop we engaged in song, dance, and acting to help foster a historical perspective to the slave experience. In the Extempo workshop we had an opportunity to hear and even engage in what would be considered freestylin’ but with a more political and international twist. This was fun because old and young Calypso artists explained the importance of Calypso in Trinidadian culture and we were able to feel the fun, lighthearted, and informational vibe extempo can possess.

One of my favorite days on the trip was when we went on a glass bottom boat in the Caribbean Sea to see the coral reefs. In certain parts of the sea the reefs form natural swimming pools where we had a chance to get off the boat and either snorkel or just play around in the water. After some major coaxing from friends, I ended up getting off the boat and into the water (I admit I was kind of scared because I didn’t trust my swimming skills, plus I was having sinus issues that day.) But, I must truly say that I am glad I got in the water! It was refreshing and awe-inspiring to stand and swim in the middle of the sea while looking out and seeing no land anywhere. It was a moment that I will cherish because I was literally a tiny spec in a massive ocean surrounded by water and sky. I could feel the magnitude of God’s power through nature.

A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.
A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.

These were just a few of the moments that I reflect on from my first trip to Trinidad and Tobago. While I understand that it is implausible to learn and experience every aspect about a culture or location in 5 days, I am appreciative of my experience because the exposure has helped to increase my interest in looking more at the social developments of culture and identity within this nation. I think that this trip has helped me begin to see the mask from an insider’s point of view and an outsider’s point of view so that I can better understand a rich heritage full of color, liveliness, soul, and the tradition of hosting the “Greatest Show on Earth.”


American Girls Love Bacon

by Shana Hardy

Note: This is the second in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

I stepped out into the sweltering heat of Trinidad pleasingly shocked by how instant my emergence in the culture felt. I realized that the individuals that surrounded me all looked like me. However, they did not sound like me. I found it a little hard to understand the Trinidadian dialect, which is a fusion of proper English, Spanish, and French. As off-putting as that was, my excitement grew as I begin to soak in the differences between this country and the United States.

One of the major differences was evident in the food. Trinidad and Tobago offer plenty of curried options, callaloo, rice, roti, doubles (my favorite), salted fish, shark, and several different tropical fruits. The traditional Trinidadian dishes included, but were not limited to blends of Indian, African, and Creole influences. Interestingly, they have a KFC or Church’s Chicken fast food restaurant on nearly every corner. I didn’t realize until this trip how much beef is integrated into my diet. For most of our meals, we were offered curry chicken or some version of light flaky fish. I craved for a little more meat variety evident in my request for bacon during breakfast in Tobago. The waitress laughed and responded “American girls love bacon.” Though a funny comment, I began to think of some other things I would love to have that would be indicative to the perceptions of a privileged American.

Another distinction that was quite refreshing was the scenery. As we loaded onto the bus to head to the Normandie hotel, the background of Trinidad was overwhelmingly beautiful and humbling at the same time. There were lots of houses in an assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes. They were beautifully dispersed through out the hills and valleys of Trinidad, with a few sky scrapers in the backdrop. This was absolutely breathtaking and a huge contrast to US suburbia, often uniform in conformity. A lot of these houses and buildings in which our workshops took place were designed to allow for open air circulation. There would be these huge fans that were often times off. The heat was almost impossible. And of course there was no air conditioning. I think it is accurate to say that American girls also love air conditioning.

Port of SpainPort of Spain, Capital of Trinidad

Understanding the African diaspora in Trinidad and Tobago was the main focus of the research tour. I have to say this was one of the most moving experiences of my time in T&T. We had the opportunity to participate in an Idakeda group workshop. This group introduced us to the African heritage in Trinidad and Tobago. They shared many of the songs, dances, and stories that were intrinsic to Afro-Trinbagonians. The workshop also contextualized Trinidadian staples such as the steelpan and calypso music. I definitely identified with this portion of the experience due to the common origin of African presence in the US. Afro-Trinbagonians reveled in securing their freedom and their independence. And maintaining that spirit. American girls love the underdog.

Another aspect of our trip was dedicated to understanding the origins of carnival and carnival characters. Carnival is the most significant event to occur in Trinidad, attracting participants from all over the world. Carnival features calypso, soca (a contemporary derivative of calypso), and the nation’s official instrument, the steelpan. I was especially interested in the Baby Doll character. She would be dressed in a frilly or lacy garment, often wearing a bonnet. She would walk around carrying a white baby with blue eyes stopping male passersby and accusing them of being the baby’s father. Uncovering the origins of carnival revealed that the babydoll character was a mocking statement at whites having babies with black women and then abandoning them. Many of the other traditional carnival characters grew more complex as we learned more and more during the tour.

Baby DollIdakeda Group portrays the Baby Doll character,
a traditional Carnival character.

I have come to realize that celebration is homogenous in the twin islands, Trinidad and Tobago. The entire time I was in the tropical paradise, I celebrated T&T’s rich cultural identities that ranged from Afro to Indo-Trinbagonian. It was absolutely amazing. I know that I will miss the tropical climate, the biodiversity, and more importantly, the rich people of Trinidad and Tobago. This American girl fell in love with the people, where the culture of T&T dwells.

The Traditional Characters of Carnival

by Arlie Lehmkuhler

Note: This is the first in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

Friday, we had the privilege of participating in a small Carnival put on by the National Carnival Commission. Carnival started after the freeing of the slaves in Trinidad and Tobago. It was a show put on to mimic the slaveowners essentially, and the range of characters are amazing.

First, there is the basis of music that is the steel pan drums. They are attached by a framework made of pipelike metal poles. People would assist the movement of the band as they walk forward and continuous play the magical sounds of the steel pan. Now, let’s move on to the eccentric characters.

The Midnight Robber is a person who dresses similar to a grave robber or grim reaper. His dress included many skulls around his two layer hat and an all black skeletal costume with a decorated cape. His character carried a gun and basically collected the skulls on his hat. The emergence of this character came from slaves having to be in by midnight or they were basically risking their life. Something else to note while each character presented themselves to us was that when in costume they ARE that character.

They next set of characters to introduce themselves were the Jab Jab. These were the people with electrifying whips that most people thought were the sounds of firecrackers or guns. It is LOUD. They cover their whole bodies for somewhat protection, but also elaborate decorations distract their opponents because it was a competition as well. The Jab Jab have short whips used the whip each others bodies. They prepare their skin for this by brushing their body. They also wear bells on their ankles. Though this was thought to represent the slave master or whip cracker on the plantation, it derives from the Indian influence of the country. People worship the Hindu god Cali by whipping themselves as a spiritual thing. Competitions are held throughout the year and his wife was actually the first female Jab Jab; she also competes.

Next, we’ve come to a french influence of Pierrot Grenade. The name in French patois is Grenadian clown. This lady was dressed similar to a 1920s flapper and used allegories to spell words. For example, how do you spell Chicago? When you have to take your chicken to the vet and the light is finally green, “CHIcken n de CAr can GO.” Another one might be what happens when you play music out on the farm where your pigs are kept, “yo pig IN DE PEN DANCE.” Trinidad and Tobago declared their independence in 1962. This character used to fight with whips, similar to Jab Jab, and were French pantomimes, but they began fighting with words as time continued.

A more traditional character that emerges at Carnival is the Fancy Sailor. The man we met was about 80 and had been dancing as the Fancy Sailor since he was six! They wear big elaborate costumes and dance real smooth with great footwork. He even did the drunk sailor dance for us! The origination of the sailor came from mocking the sailors who brought them over. The women of the group dressed as sailors for the parade!

Fancy Indian came about from traditional Native Americans. They use modern materials, but keep the dress and design very traditional and the same to Native American dress. They do not have any African influence and do not refer to themselves as Indian, which is not the accurate term since there is an East Indian influence. Yet, the name Fancy Indian sticks because that is what they are historical called as a role in Carnival. They even have met with Native Americans and the Native Americans are amazed to see the hundreds of traditional headdresses made from this family. It’s amazing how uniquely they preserve the culture. This was the Jagasaw family.

The Masqueraders are the lovely ladies dress in beautiful detailed outfits that only cover what is necessary. They are the modern aspect of Carnival and do not have any historical ties.

Dame Lorraine is another French influenced character that is traditionally played by a male. He dresses up in a large dress to accentuate the breasts and bottom that are made of pillows and wears bright makeup and accessories. This was a satire of the wives of the plantation owners. Sally BomBom is known in other areas. Eric Nichols was the man who played this character and he won King of Carnival prize last year for his portrayal of this character as Nicki Minaj.

The Babydoll is a character that carries around multiple children and dresses scandalously, accusing men to be her baby’s father. This role pokes fun at the women who would carry around their blue eyed babies, covered up, accusing black men to be the father of her baby, though it made no logical sense. She would have people pay to see her children, thus making money.

The Blue Devils were also a VERY scary creature, they are fire breathers. They are painted blue and paint was used to erase your identity, which also comes from the traditional oil pan that is pushed around by a sailor. The oil was also used as paint to erase the identity as well so they could do what they want and not be punished. Also, you had to pay the blue devils or they would rub their blue body all over you.

Moko Jumbie was on stilts that derived from an Africa spirit that walked across the Atlantic Ocean. After years of brutal treatment, he remains tall. Costumes differ in every way and kids use this to learn as an after school activity.

It was great to see all the characters of Carnival and hopefully everyone will come out to see us portray some of these at the Masquerade Ball and our Cultural Arts Festival!

Escrava Anastacia, Brazilian Saint and Icon (Culture Brief, no.7, Summer 2014)

by Jamillah R. Gabriel

Upon visiting Brazil, one might notice the perpetual image of a dark-skinned woman with blue eyes, and an iron mask and collar fastened on her face and around her neck. An iconic image that is often seen in Brazilian art and other manifestations, “Escrava Anastacia,” or the slave Anastacia, is also a popular figure amongst practitioners of both Brazilian Catholicism and Umbanda. The illustration seen below was originally a drawing of an unidentified Brazilian slave by French artist Jacques Arago which later came to be associated with the stories of Anastacia.

While it is unknown if she was a real person, there are several variations in the oral tradition that describe who she was, and most accounts agree that Anastacia was enslaved by a sugar plantation owner in Brazil, where she was subjected to rape and abuse by the overseer and many other white men. Her attempts to fend off these advances along with other acts of defiance were inevitably the cause for her punishment resulting in confinement to an iron mask and collar and her subsequent death. It should also be noted that, historically, enslaved people often were forced to wear iron masks for a variety reasons, one of which was to prevent any attempts at committing suicide by poisoning themselves through the ingestion of dirt.
Anastacia has come to represent many things to the people of Brazil. One perspective is that the emphasis on her blue eyes within the oral narrative is meant to detract from her Africanness and implies that if the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then Anastacia is good and saintly because she has a “white” soul. This belief reflects an obsession with whiteness (Dos Santos Soares, 2012, p. 84). But the most common representation of Anastacia is evidenced in the movement among Catholic women who have embraced her as a long-suffering character who was able to both maintain her virtue and forgive her attackers, despite the brutality that characterized her life, thereby making her worthy of sainthood. She has become synonymous with “the sufferings not only of slaves but of female slaves and black women in general” (Handler & Hayes, 2009, p. 37).

Dos Santos Soares, M.A. (2012). Look, blackness in Brazil!: Disrupting the grotesquerie of racial representation
in Brazilian visual culture. Cultural Dynamics, 24(1), 75-101. doi: 10.1177/0921374012452812
Handler, J.S., & Hayes, K.E. (2009). Escrava Anastacia: The iconographic history of a Brazilian popular saint.
African Diaspora, 2, 25-51. doi: 10.1163/187254609X4307682014-jul-CULTUREBRIEFS7

Black Death, a Father’s Perspective


A Father’s Cry for Justice

 by Bishop T.D. Jakes

When Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. made plans to drop off their 18 year old son Michael at Vatterott College, a technical school near their Ferguson, Mo. home for the start of his freshman year, never could they have imagined that rather than celebrate his triumphs, these deeply grieved parents would instead be planning his funeral.

As I glance at the 20 candles glistening atop my own son’s birthday cake on a warm August afternoon, the irony is not lost as I too prepare for the trek that millions of parents make ritually each fall, dropping their offspring off at colleges, universities and trade schools across the nation. Yet, unlike the majority of parents, I now have the added burden of knowing that recent events have placed my sons squarely on the endangered list.

It’s becoming an all too familiar vignette of distraught mothers and fathers helpless to shield their sons and daughters against societal woes, and unforeseen circumstances that would find them scanning crime scene photos instead of gleefully posting ‘first day of school’ snapshots on Facebook and Instagram.

The seemingly willful killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown, Jr. in Missouri, Trayvon Martin in Florida or Eric Garner in New York, all have their origins in the odious practice of racial profiling.

According to U.S. News and World Report, African Americans in Ferguson, Mo. are not only stopped more often, they are also searched and arrested more than whites, even though the data show that whites are more likely to be caught with contraband if searched. In short, whites were stopped for actual suspicious behavior, whereas black were routinely stopped for racially motivated reasons.

Although legislation was put forth to end this heinous exercise, the state of Missouri’s own 2013 statistics show the disproportionate execution of “just-us” Ferguson-style: Of the 5,384 police stops, 686 were white, while 4,632 were black. Of 611 searches, 47 were white, 562 were black. Of 521 arrests, 36 were white, 483 were black.

As a father of three African American sons and a pastor to more than 15,000 black men not to mention the other 23 nationalities that make up The Potter’s House of Dallas, I’m deeply troubled by the constant erosion of the black males whose battle to survive poverty, drugs, violence, dropout rates and other community maladies only to come to such a forlorn and hideous end! We certainly don’t need the added burden of racial profiling or any form of injustice leveled against our already perplexing ills.

And while the exact details of Michael Brown’s death continue to unfold, his parent’s anguished cries on television remind me of how onerous the task is for mothers and fathers in our communities to dodge the bullets of black-on-black crime, disenfranchisement, disillusionment, and a justice system whose own statistics reveal racial disparities and poverty itself as the twin scions of sociological toxicity.

I cringed at the attention that would not likely have been given to this case had the community in one accord not demanded a thorough investigation! Nevertheless, I am grateful for the attention that this outcry has received from the highest levels of government!

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