Participating in a dialogue about race and inequity is one of the hardest things a community can do. Understatement aside, the effort it takes to just get everyone in the same room can be a monumental effort.
Positive conversations with dominant cultured individuals about racism in America are a new occurrence for me. Before marrying my husband, who is white, It was a conversation exclusive to people of color and I made efforts to keep it that way. I used to dread when a white person would overhear me discussing race and feel compelled to dive into the conversation. I would immediately prepare to censor and tone check myself. I’d learned that contributing my experiences as a black woman to the conversation made white people uncomfortable. They never appreciated when I offered up actual examples of “Racism” while they shared their philosophies of world peace and goodwill to all mankind. When I tried to, they responded with dismissiveness, telling me that what I experienced didn’t actually have anything to do with race- it was a socioeconomic issue. Or that the things I experienced happened to everyone, not just black people. Or they tell me we live in a post-racial society because of “international relations” (huh?). The most painful is when fellow Christians tell me that racism isn’t real because of Jesus (without any elaboration or theology to back up that statement) and, actually, incidents of racism never occurred in the Bible. They tell me this social issue I insist on having does not need to be discussed in the church. I have learned to be silent, for sanity’s sake. But that must end.
In February, the Fayetteville Underground Art Gallery invited me to be a guest artist for Black History Month. I said yes, without thinking. The new gallery manager, for the first time, was a young black woman. I’d met Joelle Stort the year before and was amazed by her art and her desire to serve her community with the arts. Of course I said yes when she asked me to “knit something” for the event.
I decided to shadow knit a disappearing 8′ * 3.5′ image of Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. Five hundred hours of charting and knitting and around 2,000yds of yarn. Using the illusion/shadow knitting technique, when one views the piece straight on, it appears to only be vertical stripes, however when viewed at an angle, from either direction, a hidden image appears. The piece is called “Anxiety of the Unseen”. It was displayed by hanging it from the ceiling in the center of one of the side galleries. As guests entered the room, this was the first piece they saw, positioned to appear as vertical stripes. A sign was in front of the piece, giving a brief description of the techniques used to create it, and the message behind the piece. Viewers are then directed to go stand on the blue X’s on either side of the room to view the hidden image. The rest of the gallery room was full of bright and bold art, including my own knitted pieces hanging on the wall behind the piece.
My intention with this piece was for people to ignore it. To walk straight past an eight foot tall portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, during Black History Month no less, without taking a second glance at it. And then, as the person delights in the rest of the art that is easier to consume because it’s beautiful and easy, they turn. Inevitably they turn around and notice Dr. King staring straight at them. And maybe, for the briefest of moments, they will understand what it is like for me, every day, to be present in a space and my blackness be looked over. To be seen, but not seen.
When it was my turn to speak, I stood up, despite every instinct in me telling me to run. I stood in the center of the room surrounded by white people and started to talk about my experiences as a black woman in America. I told them how, so often for people who look like me, our presence is held at arm’s length, on the edge of conversation and social reality. I told them about how painful it is, how frustrating it is. I told them that the work of Dr. King is far from finished. We have not made it to the top of the mountain; we are far from it. Likewise, my knitted piece is incomplete. The stitches were not bound off, relying on a single life line to keep them from unraveling. Stitch markers were along the bottom of the piece; my needles hung in the corner. It felt appropriate to present an incomplete knitted photo of Dr. King. It’s ok that the work is not done yet. Incomplete work spurs others to stand up and finish. Unfinished works are the sparks of the flames of change. But those flames can only be fanned if people show up to the conversation. Art makes its point when there is an audience who will engage.
Presenting my art was the first positive conversation about race I have ever had where more than two white people were present. I was listened to. Genuinely heard. And when I was done sharing, one after another, people came up to me and told me thank you. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for being here. And then we talked about racism in America.
Facilitating safe spaces for POC to share their experiences and stories is critical, but it’s only effective if the community responds with a genuine effort to be present and positively engaged. It has never and will never be enough to sit passively off on the sidelines, “horrified and shocked” but otherwise undisrupted from day to day life. Hate feeds on our indifference; art is inherently passionate. In response to the violence that took place in Charlottesville, VA this weekend, my husband and I have committed ourselves to consistently being present in the places in our community that are facilitating safe spaces for dialogue and learning about racism. There is a strong presence of non-profit organizations dedicated to tearing down the walls that prevent progress towards Racial Unity. Many of them are national and have hundreds of locations and thousands of groups dedicated to change.
I am so grateful to be able to use the medium of my craft, knitting, to be a bridge builder in one area of my community. I hope to continue being present, and I hope to encourage others to understand the importance, the critical need, for showing up.