Director and CEO
Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
For me as a child, Juneteenth was the most anticipated event of the summer. In the weeks leading up to the festival, I could count on hearing “Are you going to Juneteenth?” throughout my entire social universe. I would dream about riding horses with the Black Cowboys who galloped into town with their stylish cowboy hats, skin-tight jeans, and Southern charm. I would plan on tossing bean bags and winning prizes of live goldfish in plastic bags and scoring cheap beaded necklaces that I would stack like they were Mr. T’s gold chains.
My friends and I reveled in roaming freely in the traffic-less streets that teemed with people, excitement, and activities. Public service announcements explaining the meaning of Juneteenth consistently flowed from the mainstage like waves returning to shore over and over again with varied intensity depending on the emcee. Listen. I have celebrated Juneteenth—in all its soulful glory—for most of my life. But this past weekend, as we observed this day commemorating the delayed emancipation of enslaved Black people, I found myself bankrupt of the fun and flair that has always occupied my fantastic memories of the day that I have affectionately referred to as “our Fourth of July.”
Instead, I had a heavy heart. As I compose this note, I am admittedly struggling to find words to say, as I know we need a healthy dose of warmth during this societal season of bitter cold. Not only are we navigating what appears to be the second act of a global pandemic complete with the threat of extended social isolation, but we are also facing significantly painful truths about the precarious state of our American Democracy. While there have been advances in our nation’s dealings with human rights, it is obvious that we are still a country fragmented and tormented by the diseases of inequity, inequality, and racial violence.
I know it has been explicitly distressing to communicate the dimensions of the anger, concern, and despair that many of us are feeling. I, too, am challenged to wrap palpable language around my thoughts and emotions during these uncertain times. Even using the word uncertain seems somewhat inaccurate—dishonest even—because we are, in fact, quite certain about many things. We are certain that it is not safe out there. We are certain that our health and welfare are in question. Many of us are acutely certain that some of us live in a constant state of fear and anxiety simply because of the skin we are in.
Speaking for myself, I am sadly certain that these days feel uncomfortably familiar and reminiscent of a loss that I know well. The difference is this: The pain and suffering that have perpetually crowded the everyday lives of Black people are now invading the precious airwaves that so many depend on for entertainment, distraction, and fun. Many Americans are beside themselves having witnessed lethal violence against Black people unfold live and in living color. Others are perplexed when they hear someone say, “I just had no idea this was happening.” James Baldwin once said, “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law's protection most!—and listens to their testimony.”
The veil has been lifted and there is no escaping or undoing the racism and police brutality that we have seen with our own eyes. People—all kinds of people—are speaking openly in what my mother would call “mixed company” about matters that are normally reserved for those who sit around our kitchen tables. Audrey Lorde famously said, “Your silence will not protect you.” She was speaking about how imperative it is for humanity to work together, to love one another indiscriminately, with well-being in mind, in order to achieve universal freedom. James Baldwin, her comrade in the literary world, said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Let their words be a lesson to us as we lift up the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others who have lost their lives to unjustified aggression and senselessness. Speaking these names into the air is important. It is equally imperative to acknowledge that they are symbolic representations of a cumulative roster that is so painfully long that it requires Herculean stamina, physical and emotional, to read.
As we find ourselves desperately in search of solace, how might we allow the weight of our collective sorrow and fury to provoke us to be brave? Brave enough to ask difficult questions and lean into the discomfort of the answers in ways that bring to fruition a new world order—one that speaks the truth, points to hope, and catalyzes action for a better today and tomorrow.
In January of this year, I started my role as the director and CEO of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art—a brand-new institution currently under construction in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park. As we pour the foundation for an institution dedicated to visual storytelling, we commit to creating a work culture with a diverse staff that is rooted in equity, equality, and racial justice. We have the opportunity to implement inclusive hiring policies, acquisition protocols, and cultural norms at the onset rather than retrofitting entrenched practices. So, we are doing just that with a sense of urgency.
I will end with a quote by Australian Aboriginal visual artist, activist, and academic Lilla Watson, who famously said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” So, I ask, what can we do together? What narrative will be used to explain our presence in this moment to generations to come?
Sincerely and always in community,
- Photo by Mangue Banzima