Dark Matter

a mixture of the unknown and the tangible

What Do We Have To Lose? Everything

This is one of the best pieces of writing I've read in a long time, so I am putting it here in its entirety. A not-so-subtle reminder to exercise your right to vote today. From the NYTimes, Nov 8, 2016 and the inimitable Harry Belafonte:

Harry Belafonte: What Do We Have to Lose? Everything

“O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!”

— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”

What old men know is that everything can change. Langston Hughes wrote these lines when I was 8 years old, in the very different America of 1935.

It was an America where the life of a black person didn’t count for much. Where women were still second-class citizens, where Jews and other ethnic whites were looked on with suspicion, and immigrants were kept out almost completely unless they came from certain approved countries in Northern Europe. Where gay people dared not speak the name of their love, and where “passing” — as white, as a WASP, as heterosexual, as something, anything else that fit in with what America was supposed to be — was a commonplace, with all of the self-abasement and the shame that entailed.

It was an America still ruled, at its base, by violence. Where lynchings, and especially the threat of lynchings, were used to keep minorities away from the ballot box and in their place. Where companies amassed arsenals of weapons for goons to use against their own employees and recruited the police and National Guardsmen to help them if these private corporate armies proved insufficient. Where destitute veterans of World War I were driven from the streets of Washington with tear gas and bayonets, after they went to our nation’s capital to ask for the money they were owed.

Much of that was how America had always been. We changed it, many of us, through some of the proudest struggles of our history. It wasn’t easy, and sometimes it wasn’t pretty, but we did it, together. We won voting rights for all. We ended Jim Crow, and we pushed open the Golden Door again to welcome immigrants. We achieved full rights for women, and fought to let people of all genders and sexual orientations stand in the light. And if we have not yet created the America that Langston Hughes swore will be — “The land that never has been yet” — if there is still much to be done, at least we have advanced our standards of humanity, hope and decency to places where many people never thought we could reach.

What old men know, too, is that all that is gained can be lost. Lost just as the liberation that the Civil War and Emancipation brought was squandered after Reconstruction, by a white America grown morally weary, or bent on revenge. Lost as the gains of our labor unions have been for decades now, pushed back until so many of us stand alone in the workplace, before unfettered corporate power. Lost as the vote is being lost by legislative chicanery. Lost as so many powerful interests would have us lose the benefits of the social welfare state, privatize Social Security, and annihilate Obamacare altogether.

If he wins this Tuesday, Donald J. Trump would be, at 70, the oldest president ever elected. But there is much about Mr. Trump that is always young, and not in a good way. There is something permanently feckless and immature in the man. It can be seen in how he mangles virtually the same words that Langston Hughes used.

When Hughes writes, in the first two lines of his poem, “Let America be America again/ Let it be the dream it used to be,” he acknowledges that America is primarily a dream, a hope, an aspiration, that may never be fully attainable, but that spurs us to be better, to be larger. He follows this with the repeated counterpoint, “America never was America to me,” and through the rest of this remarkable poem he alternates between the oppressed and the wronged of America, and the great dreams that they have for their country, that can never be extinguished.

Mr. Trump, who is not a poet, either in his late-night tweets or on the speaker’s stump, sees American greatness as some heavy, dead thing that we must reacquire. Like a bar of gold, perhaps, or a bank vault, or one of the lifeless, anonymous buildings he loves to put up. It is a simplistic notion, reducing all the complexity of the American experience to a vague greatness, and his prescription for the future is just as undefined, a promise that we will return to “winning” without ever spelling out what we will win — save for the exclusion of “others,” the reduction of women to sexual tally points, the re-closeting of so many of us.

With his simple, mean, boy’s heart, Mr. Trump wants us to follow him blind into a restoration that is not possible and could not be endured if it were. Many of his followers acknowledge that (“He may get us all killed”) but want to have someone in the White House who will really “blow things up.”

What old men know is that things blown up — customs, folkways, social compacts, human bodies — cannot so easily be put right. What Langston Hughes so yearned for when he asked that America be America again was the realization of an age-old people’s struggle, not the vaporous fantasies of a petty tyrant. Mr. Trump asks us what we have to lose, and we must answer, only the dream, only everything.

Remembrance Day

Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember.
— Willa Cather

This quotation has remained with me over many years since I first came across it as a teenager. I was reminded of it again today while listening to a podcast of Elizabeth Gilbert speaking with Jonathan Fields for his Good Life Project. She spoke about creative acts that are original versus those that are authentic. I was struck by this distinction, as we often think of projects that dazzle us with their genius, technical facility, and craft as being the show-stoppers. These are the works we stand back from in wonder and say, “Wow, that’s amazing.” We admire them. But do we remember them? Do they move us? Work can fall flat if it is not accompanied by heart. I would rather see something that embodied a searching curiosity, a process, and a striving than something that was mere display. Staid. You remember the ones that move you, that cause a tremble in your soul, that furnish nutrients to universal soil. I want more of THAT in my life. And thus, conversely, others want more of that from me.

Displaying my authentic voice has been something that I struggle with daily. What is the most heartfelt, true articulation of who I am? How does it manifest in the world? If I am in a healthy state of mind, it first starts with gratitude. I am thankful that I have the ability to express myself at all, given the odds stacked against me. I can read, am educated, well-fed, and I have a stable roof over my head. I do not live in constant fear and uncertainty - that puts me ahead of most of the world. So what do I do with this privilege? How and where and with whom do I feel the wonder of the world? Where does it come from in me?

When I feel like I don’t stack up against those I admire, I remember: courage.

Your life has been a mad gamble. Make it more so. You have lost now a hundred times running. Roll the dice a hundred and one.
— Rumi

Ebony Jr. Architecture Issue

Here's an oldie but goodie I found: an issue of Ebony Jr. focused on architecture! Published in March 1983 by Johnson Publishing Company, the magazine highlighted blacks' role in the architecture profession, as much as it tried to inspire new leaders. I am eager to get this printed somehow so I can give a copy to my own kids. 

EbonyJr_March1983.jpg



Flâneur, the political act of Walking While Black

I went for a long walk on Sunday. My husband took the kids hiking in the mountains, and I was afforded with six (read that, SIX!) hours to do with what I wished. I determined not to work on a Sunday, and instead to go for a long stroll. 

I walked from our house in East Vancouver, past industrial warehouses and production facilities, toward the “historic” neighborhood of Strathcona, passing signs denoting black Canadians of import who lived along those streets. I walked through Chinatown, loping through Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s garden, into the scraggly and uncertain boundary between the Downtown East Side and Gastown. I walked through Pidgeon Park’s marketplace, Sunday hagglers bartering over used shoes and other sundries for trade, police cars hovering to contain the thronging crowd. I make the grittiness of it sound romantic because, for this mother of two, it was: a few hours to return to my body, indulging my senses as the sun soaked into my skin.

Cut to a few hours later, after the chaos of dinner/bath/children’s bedtimes and calm relief at getting through the day towards evening. I should stay away from electronics at night, but I was watching music videos, a pastime that stems from VH1 and the days when MTV was about moving art set to music. 

Fingers tapped my screen, leading me to Nosetalgia by Pusha T and Kendrick Lamar. I know this video is over a year old, but I had never seen it before. Please take the time to watch what I think is one of the most haunting pieces of stylized cinéma vérité, and my new favorite music video.

Never mind the pure artistry of this video - the single long take, the sauntering beat, the poet-virtuosity of the lyrics and their delivery. By its end, you also realize you have been watching a radical act. Two black men, walking in the street, talking to the world without incident. Two black men speaking fiercely with the world to listen, asserting their individuality and their humanity, telling stories embattled by lived experience, violent and cracked-out on those same Compton streets. Pusha T’s voice growing in crescendo to “dying, dead, YAH.” Kendrick Lamar’s verse cozied up in Bill Cosby-like affectation. It is a troubling song that pulls at you. I could watch it, their bodies wandering through abandoned streets, all day.

Under the direction of nature and the tyranny of circumstance, Monsieur G. has pursued an altogether different path. He began by being an observer of life, and only later set himself the task of acquiring the means of expressing it. This has resulted in a thrilling originality in which any remaining vestiges of barbarousness or naiveté appear only as new proofs of his faithfulness to the impression received, or as a flattering compliment paid to truth. For most of us, and particularly for men of affairs, for whom nature has no existence save by reference to utility, the fantastic reality of life has become singularly diluted. Monsieur G. never ceases to drink it in; his eyes and his memory are full of it.
— "The Painter of Modern Life", Charles Baudelaire

I do not trust myself to watch it, however. I do not trust myself to do so without anger, sadness, grief, tiredness, and any other manner of coping that I, and others like me, have had to feel while wading through life. The video is crippling for its stark realness: straight talk of the dope game, running mules, and destroying lives. Kendrick watching his father’s addiction, countered and endured through artistic escape.

The video is haunting, too, for what is not there. A spectral absence presents itself in the lyrics, its visceral poetry pouring from lips, where the story runs parallel to other common narratives: the police threatening arrest, the mother crying in the street, the neighbors staring on in horror. Missing is the hope and honor, the frailty and vulnerability of coming to terms with a society who hears only a single story and values you not enough. It despairs me to think on this, plus images like the one below - what does this young boy consider when he thinks of the possible arcs of his life?

YoungBlackAndWalking.lpg

There has been much written about the role of the flâneur in modern life, from Baudelaire's intellectually aware observer, to Benjamin's capitalist consumer strolling the Parisian arcades. I do not want to write an exposition on those Gallic iterations. What of its present-day incarnation: the freedom to walk without fear of incarceration.

I have remarked that every age had its own gait, glance and gesture.
— "The Painter of Modern Life", Charles Baudelaire

A while back, I bought a book regarding walking as a performance of racial and sexual freedom. Unfortunately, I have not yet made the time to read it. But, as walks have been on my mind (and the minds of many this week, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday), I will soon visit the pages of that book. It is a Long Walk to Freedom, and the black flâneur is a both a quixotic and radical agent.

SidewalkPermit.jpg

The shadow took shape - and it was white and gold!

Our eyes are funny things. . . I cannot force myself to see this dress another way - it is clearly white and gold to my eyes. Maybe I have too few cones that see blue. Maybe I prefer those colors somehow subconsciously. The madding fact remains that I simply cannot see it differently. (Maddening because this dress is actually blue and black! WTF?!?)

dressperception.jpg

If our eyes can play such tricks with something so simple as a dress, what if other ideas could be this perceptively polarizing? This lead me down a Google rabbit hole about colorism, race passing, and racial identification. 

Race passing is a way of performing identity, where a person denies their actual race in favor of identifying with and projecting another race. Race is largely a social construct, reified by all of us who identify and project race biases. But what happens when someone can navigate the slipperiness of these boundaries, sliding from one construct to the next? Light-skinned blacks identifying as white to avoid the persecutions of the Jim Crow South is a oft-cited example. (As an aside, I deny use of the term African-American in preference for black because I think it is more accurate in its abstraction, non-truth (yo, my skin is BROWN), and general imprecision. . . Plus, my friend from Zambia who grew up in Baltimore is African-American! In stark contrast, I am plain ol', ruptured history, descended from slaves black.) Terms such as black, white, mulatto, octoroon, quadroon, etc all attempted to codify the amount and disposition of blackness in someone's blood - the (in)famous "one drop rule."

Hypodecent is alive and well, although without the negative connotations it originally imparted. Interestingly, many bi-racial children choose to identify most closely with their non-white ancestry as a way of asserting positive difference. In 2000, the US Census allowed people to check more than one race, thus paving the way for those of mixed heritage to claim them all equally. 

The story comes closer to (my new) home with the fascinating story of Marie Joseph, a First Nations woman who, along with her sister, denied their heritage and passed as Chinese. After horrifying experiences at residential schools, they moved to Chinatown and assimilated into that culture, utilizing their high cheekbones to great effect. In actuality, Marie was the last of the Qayqayt tribe in New Westminster, a city near Vancouver. When Marie's daughter Rhonda Larrabee found out about her mother's background, she vowed to bring honor to her mother's memory and reclaim her heritage. Rhonda is now Chief of the Qayqayt and instrumental in getting this group recognized. She helped save what was thought to be a dead tribe from obscurity. Yet the Qayqayt remain the only First Nations tribe in Canada without a land base.

I would really like to see the National Film Board movie A Tribe of One about Miss Joseph and Miss Larrabee. It was produced by Trinidadian-Canadian filmmaker Selwyn Jacob, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Over the Imaginary Border last week. The world is small.

I think it is the mind's predisposition to chunk and categorize information, be it the colors of a dress or the race associated with the melanin in one's skin.

To send you off on your own rabbit-hole, Google the folks below. . .


Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington

Carol Channing

Carol Channing

Walter Francis White

Walter Francis White

Dr. Albert Johnston and family

Dr. Albert Johnston and family

Soul Searching

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending Over The Imaginary Border, a concert celebrating Black American expat musicians in Vancouver. I was psyched to attend due to the presence of Dutch Robinson, whom I really only knew due to his connection to Ohio Players (Fire, Skin Tight, Love Rollercoaster). These are the tunes my dad used to spin on vinyl and we'd dance to in the living room (never mind the appropriateness of these songs for my young ears - the jams were tight!) Turns out there were a number of talented elders leading the way for younger R&B/soul musicians on the stage. It was an inspiring performance.

More importantly for me as a newcomer to this town, the evening brought together Vancouver's black cultural community. The subtitle for the event was "the soundtrack and stories of Black Americans in search of the Canadian dream." Perhaps this is the music of my present - a soul searching journey in a new land. I am still trying to figure out what it means to be here - who the players are, what the histories are, and how I might interweave my efforts and story into this changing narrative.

The organizer talked briefly about a desire to have more First Nations artists performing at the event - noting the similarities in discrimination they and American blacks have faced. We are tackling this in a new work title Land Transfer, still under development. Stay tuned!

overtheborder

Distorting Glass - Dream The Combine at Patkau Architects

Last night, we had the honor of presenting our work at the office of Patkau Architects in Vancouver. We were so humbled to be able to share our projects and motivations with such an esteemed group - the tour of their projects on the boards was stunning. They asked probing questions that encouraged us to deeply consider ourselves and our practice.

During our talk, I articulated the why and how our artwork engages with race. I had not formally stated this publicly before, but I share my comments here:


FROM LECTURE AT PATKAU ARCHITECTS, JANUARY 16, 2015:

Jeff Wall - After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (2000)

Jeff Wall - After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (2000)

Our artworks latently engage with race, and the particularities of my background. The doubling of real, tangible space and an illusory one gets at the crux, I believe, of Black American experience, where there is a doubling of self - the knowledge that combined with your true personhood are a host of projections bound to your black body. This fact is how unarmed black teenagers can be tragically struck down without hesitation. Due to their very presence - of being black and in the “wrong” place, which really could be any place - they are seen as, to quote Darren Wilson who murdered young Michael Brown, “a demon” to be exorcised.

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the lead protagonist describes his experience thusly: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me.

This kind of self-doubling, or “double-consciousness” as W.E.B. DuBois coined the sensation, happened most explicitly to me in my first-year visual analysis course at the Yale School of Architecture. Peter Eisenman was describing what he saw as the roots of architecture with a capital A, and during his monologue he exclaimed: “There is no such thing as black architecture. There is no Chinese architecture.” and so on. All of the brown and yellow students looked around the room and at one another, wondering if this was really happening.

I thought to myself, “But I am black, and I aim to make architecture. I’m here, sitting in this room.” I realized then that I was both inside and outside the Western canon at the same time. As Du Bois has noted, “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

Our work mines this doubling, where both tangible surface and reflected image are enmeshed, in a cacophonous dialogue where each voice is speaking simultaneously, urgently, and loudly.


Forging a way through via abstraction, constructions of image, and tangible forms, I aim to make work that metaphorically engages with themes present in my prior research (see Black Boxes, etc). 

Put simply, it is inherently black because I'm doing it.

Oh, (Black) Canada

This is the start of a post dated April 22, 2012:

My husband and I are contemplating moving from Brooklyn to his hometown of Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Questions:

Would I actually be freer to talk about blackness being outside of America?

Do I want to return to a cultural climate where my son and I are "two of few"?

Ironically, would Canada provide an escape from the pervasive discrimination and stereotypes black Americans face? Despite the lack of "people like him," is it a healthier/saner place to raise a young man, divorced from Stop & Frisk and other policies that target black males?

Would we, in fact, be happier there?


Fast forward 26 months to March 19, 2014. . .


We now live in Vancouver, and I still struggle with some of the questions posed in my original post. We certainly are an anomaly in this town. I tell myself that the stunning beauty of the surroundings provides community enough, but there is something still searching within me to "be known" to others of my cultural group. We can still count the number of black people I see in a day on one hand (maybe two hands on a good day). My son is one of many mixed race kids in the city, but not too many are the mix of "plain ol' black" and white.

That said, when I hear of disparaging news coming out of the States, I feel truly blessed that I don't have to deal with many of those issues on a daily basis. The discrimination black people face in the US has traditionally been focused towards First Nations or Asians in BC, thus lending an invisibility to blackness as a targeted "other." Sometimes I feel as though people are looking through me, wondering why I am here, where I came from, and whether I will go back there (not out of hatred, but more from curiosity). 

I was listening to a radio program recently regarding black Canadians and these very same sentiments. But the fact is that black people HAVE been here for a while, they just assimilated rather than form their own Vancouver Chocolate City. The railroads brought porters and others to the city in what was a vibrant neighborhood called Hogan's Alley. In a replay of US Highway Act destruction, this black neighborhood was the first to go in the construction of the Georgia/Dunsmuir Viaduct (an elevated roadway into downtown). Jimi Hendrix's grandma and others like her saw their neighborhood destroyed - activism from neighboring Chinatown residents stopped the wholesale destruction of the area.

I realize that I will have to do much to make sure my kids know about their black American heritage. I remember being annoyed/confused about going to Jack & Jill meetings as a kid. But now I realize what my mom was doing, all those years ago in Minnesota: making sure I knew parts of myself, seeing familiarity in the surfaces of other children. . .

Tricky Juxtaposing

Hi. I haven't been here for a while. And that is starting to bug me. Not in a way that is debilitating, but in that nagging at your gut kind of way that says, "hey, remember how you committed to being present and celebrating your own voice? Get back to that!" So I'm here. Today, Tom and I visited Nate Young, a fabulous artist/teacher doing powerful work over at Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis. Practically every person in the arts community of color that I've come across has recommended I get my booty over to JXTA, and now I see why. Started by Roger and DeAnna Cummings in 1995, the art space is part gallery, part teaching laboratory, part business incubator, and part neighborhood stalwart, to name a few of the roles this ambitious organization fills.

art_elemental11.jpg

Students aged 8-21 take a 12-week visual arts fundamentals course that grounds them in the basics of drawing and design - issues such as value, tone, color, composition, and perspective. They then can go on to specialized courses or work with JXTA in a variety of paid positions.

The folks at JXTA are part counselor, part arts administrator (teaching students how they can actually make money from their creativity), and part advocate. I am so impressed with the work they are doing - if you find yourself in Minneapolis, please head on over to the north side and check them out!

Juxtaposition Arts
Juxtaposition Arts

Juxtaposition Arts
2007 Emerson Ave N, Minneapolis, MN 55411, United States
1-612-588-1148

Officially Withdrawn

Voluntary Witness Protection Program
Voluntary Witness Protection Program

I didn’t mean to become “Officially Withdrawn.” It just happened, through course of introspection, outward discussion, and projection into the life I wanted to be leading but wasn’t. It has been brought to my attention that the last words I wrote to you, dear reader, were ones of a hopeful clinging to dreams, had when 11 years old, of life in New York, making it somewhere. But the reality of those days were in fact hustled, bustled, neglectful of the total picture, and unsustainable. My husband worked too much. I worked not enough on my own creativity (except on the screen, here). I was (am!) a great mother, a fact I am extremely proud to proclaim. But the third member of my family was fracturing, prisms of himself shone through in our son, but his main light was illuminating the wrong path. The wrong people. The wrong fit. So we decided, a bit grudgingly on my part, but necessarily, to leave. To become withdrawn.

After a few weeks on my knees, painting cabinets and freshening the appearance of “domestic tranquility,” we listed our apartment. The first open house was packed, other people projecting their memories and hopes for future lives onto our possessions - can we put our bedroom here, should little susie sleep here, will the kitchen be adequate for our needs, how the heck did these people find a 1400sf 3-bedroom 2-bath and why are they leaving it? Who walked these halls, labored with a firstborn child in these rooms, made love in these beds? Ooh, lots of books, art, architecture, and some models strew about too. They look cultured, of a type. Upwardly mobile. Yuppie. Creative. Someone who belonged but now needed to move on for some reason, what?

We were lucky and able to sell our house within a month. From listing to signing a contract, one month. One month and our house was gone. One month and instead of stressing about money, worrying about fragile jobs, worrying about how we were going to continue in this life, our problems were disappeared. Or made to go to ground for a while. The relief we felt upon rushing to the bank to deposit our profits felt like (bitter)sweetness - we were free from a mortgage and also free from our first real HOME.

***

I know it was the right thing, but I miss Prospect Park and the blissful moments I shared with my son there. It was his beginning and the first time I felt truly proud of something I was shaping. We had a wonderful time, he and I. Trips to the Botanical Garden each Tuesday, Forest School classes in the Neathermead, Saturday trips to Grand Army Plaza and the farmers market. Sundays with lobster rolls from food trucks. The park saxophonist and our friend, Giwe, playing in the arch near the boathouse. Baby swans, signaling Spring. The drummers circle, heat rising, polyrhythms swaying, cacophony of sound so spiritual and free. I love Brooklyn’s mix, our corner of it cradling young boys with curly tops and long limbs drenched with water from a dragon’s lips, Imagination playgrounds abounding within green fringed borders. I knew then how special it was, how fleeting those early days of childhood, and it makes me so so sad that he doesn’t remember it. . .

Fast forward days, weeks, months and the regrets slowly fade. He’s still a New Yorker, a kid whose forts are “coffee shops” and who loves bagels with cream cheese. Brooklynese turns bear into “baer” and park into “pahk.” He’s got a swagger born from nature walks, sure of himself and where he’s going, in his own skin. But what of us?

***

Peripatetic, exploring, searching. We left as buoys, ranging yet tethered to certain ideas. We decided we needed to change our context, search out other oceans. We went to North Africa for a month, walked Hatshepsut’s steps, sailed the Nile waters, and saw the sun rise in Abu Simbel. Then Spain and back to the continent and Morocco, Las Meninas fading to the High Atlas, reflections of ourselves and our own imaginings coming into view. It was an extraordinary journey that allowed us to return to our own selves. We drew every day and just walked walked walked miles of terrain, footprints tracking our souls.

American city shopping landed us in Minneapolis, MN where I grew up. Nile to Mississippi, in a river-front Victorian with a yard, a dock, a view, and quiet. We call it our “voluntary witness protection program,” a place with no expectation conferred by background, schooling, or position. We took our money and ran, frugally towards riches.

It all sounds a bit narcissistic, and likely is. But this level of introspection and gathering has proven worthwhile. We are so much closer as a family. That has reenforced our certainty that it was right, however wistful, to go. We rediscovered love and being wholehearted in a way that I think we would have had trouble doing with the distractions of New York City beckoning. We launched our own practice in January and are giving our own ideas a real go. Positive responses bolster our confidence and our persistence and our doggedness. We are going to make it, pieces that had been floating like ships, all now aligned on course towards togetherness. Feels good.

Unofficially Emerged.

Cosmopolitan Hybrids, A Celebration of the Hyperlocal

Last night I attended the event Toward a New Cosmopolitanism at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. The discussion, moderated by the outgoing Dean of Princeton's School of Architecture, Stan Allen, included David Adjaye, Teresita Fernandez, Sarah Whiting, Enrique Walker, and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Taking its title from Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism, the event touched on the philosopher's notion of the modern city and global ethics laced by entwined mutual experience. I have not read the book - its on the list! - but it seems like it challenges the distinctions of us from them, what is up from down, low from high. This optimistic vision of the city is not new, nor is it revolutionary. It is the foundation from which all progressive societies are born - a celebration of simultaneous difference, respect, and the advancement of love. David spoke about hybridities extant in the metropolis that are the result of tangential interpretations: the chance meeting on the street, the overlap of contact, and the language of nodes of encounter that agglomerate to create an experience of the city. We are but a collection of points, an ever-shifting lattice of matrix dots, operating in a grand algebraic fashion. This hybridity produces an inauthentic narrative - one that can never be precise because it takes only the node, the point of contact as its truth - a position that implicitly acknowledges the limits in the range of that occurrence. (I wonder if it is this pointedly uneducated stance (in the most intentional and learned sense of the word - acknowledging unknown silences) that provokes the criticism of naiveté that some have leveled at David and his project.) But it might be all we have, because history is imprecise, narrative only tells one story, and even that story changes according to who's doing the telling, where, when, and why.

So how do we mine this matrix for its riches, how do we learn from the looking, existing, walking, being, seeing city? I think it starts with a hyperlocal project. Stan Allen made the observation that both Adjaye and Mansilla+Tuñón (the other architecture office & publication the event was meant to highlight) worked initially within their local geographies - building in the East End of London or, as M+T still do, in their native Madrid. Architecture gains its richness from a deep understanding of place, via climate, site, culture, material, etc. In order to communicate globally, we need to mine what we know, enrich our immediate context, and use it as a laboratory for ideas, inclinations, intuitions, and inspiration.

My husband and I are contemplating a move from New York, so these dilemmas are on the brain. I feel so fortunate to be a part of this amazing experiment called New York, Brooklyn, Prospect Park South, Ocean Avenue, my block, my building, my floor, my apartment. These scales of influence have shaped who I am, and helped form my psychogeographic views on city life. So, besides the actual fact that this event happened here, the themes addressed in the discussion strengthened my desire to stay, be a part of it, New York, New York. Let me rub up against you.

Mentors, Part IV: Jack Travis, FAIA

Last week I had the pleasure of attending Jack Travis's first year graduate course at Pratt. He had invited a number of guest speakers to talk about their work to the young group, and each of the presentations was incredibly engaging, thoughtful, and inspiring. All of the presenters were also Black or brown. Now this was something of an anomaly, and as I took my seat on the presenter side of the room, I felt self-conscious about the dichotomy in the class. Here we were, the pigmented patrons of knowledge, facing our paler charges. Oh how the tables had turned! It was as though someone had hit the Invert command in Photoshop, and I was in a parallel universe (and university) where the students were engaged, taking notes, and invested in a black architectural aesthetic. Jack deserves full credit for exposing students to a voice they, I think I can say with some certainty, would not have otherwise heard. The students were designing a small business incubator for Harlem's 12th Street and had to address the clients in that community (their desires, traditions, and visual culture) head on. I eagerly look forward to their final review at the end of this month.

Jack is a true pioneer who is also very true to himself - he posits an Afro-centric aesthetic unabashedly and unwaveringly. He was the first to let me know about David Adjaye, and suggested I try to get a job there (success!) He also pushes tirelessly for blacks in our field, and he is committed to diversifying its ranks. If you are a young, gifted, and black designer, you should know who he is, and be inspired by his story. I certainly am.

Betsky's Bargain

There is an article in last month's Architect Magazine titled "Invisible Men: U.S. Memorials Fail to Honor Blacks" by Aaron Betsky. I agree with much of what he writes - that we need to increase the diversity of the architecture student body as well as our schools' pedagogy, we need to have memorials (he writes about Civil War memorials specifically) that acknowledge what the war was really about (slavery) and the black bodies who helped fight it, and that these memorials need to be expressive and well-designed. But I was tripped up by the sentence, "If there are going to be black monuments, should they not draw on the traditions of those cultures?" At first I wanted to say "no," because I think we need an American model of memorializing American events - that takes account of the richness of our many colored existence. American culture is a jostle of influences that includes Black culture. I can listen to (wow, I'm trying to think of a white musician who ISN'T British that I listen to - Led Zeppelin, Florence Welsh, The Rolling Stones, James Blake, hmm, uh, ok, they just sound British) Interpol while my white neighbor prefers Coltrane. But that seems an insufficient answer - again we come at the conundrum from another angle - what would a culturally Black memorial look like?

Oddly, I think it could be a moving target, atomized, and cloud-like, like the Blur Building. Or maybe it would look like a black monolith, strong and angular like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. Or like Adjaye's LxWxH, slatted with shadow. Or like Robert Farris Thompson’s “cool,” with blue light shining. No one asks a monument to be Neoclassical. No one demands that Black architecture be one particular way over another, just like no Black person is a facsimile of his neighbor. I don't think Betsky is calling for a "Black Architecture" per se, but an architecture of inclusion, a memorial with aesthetic resonance for the referenced community. The ways one interprets that cultural specificity through siting, material, and form can be as varied as the citizens it serves.

The Space We Have

I had the pleasure of listening to the founder of SUPERFRONT, Mitch McEwen, give a talk on Feb 16th at Van Alen Books about her fledgling organization and their growing series of publications. She was making a case for "paper architecture" as a valid discourse - true, if architecture is always an act of translation from representation to built form (we are not the ones swinging the hammer), then a publication of text/drawings/ideas should garner as much weight as the drawing set from which a building is constructed. Those architects who have used publications as a polemical tool to control their legacy (Palladio, Corbusier, Superstudio, Eisenman, et al) would certainly agree. But I thought differently as a first-year graduate school student. I remember having an argument with a classmate, where I was advocating for a very "compass down" definition of an architect: as someone who builds with "real" material to form real, habitable things. Since then, informed by the implosion of the housing bubble and, even before that, the sinking feeling that most of the projects I worked on were never getting built, I have reversed this position. For architects of my generation and technological moment, the publication might be all we have. In order to put forward ideas unfettered by capital and physics, Lulu, Blurb, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are our greenfield sites for building dreams.

So what are the natures of these documents? Mitch noted that her publications are intentionally messy, revealing the process of their realization. It is work that is tenuous, risky, and unsafe in the sense that it crushes the carefully crafted space of the academy and sullies the star-studded red carpet of glossy trade magazines. It is multifarious and unbound. As the events at the Architectural Association & Victoria & Albert Museum, and  can attest, the Archizine is a real force that doesn't simply describe our reality, but create it.

David Turnbull (professor at Cooper Union and former SUPERFRONT collaborator) astutely noted that the success of these endeavors is perhaps safeguarded by their position off the exposed path. Although it devolved into a semantic argument about the word "secret," I think he used the term to mean that the internet and print-on-demand media creates a cloak under which SUPERFRONT can operate free from scrutiny, fear of mistakes, and the tyranny of failure. This is a key aspect of contemporary intellectual exploration - the web gives you the space to put it out there, hidden in plain sight (or at least within a Google-search reach). This describes the freedom I (and others) have found in keeping a blog - I am accountable to no one and everyone at the same time.

So Thank You, Dear Reader for finding yourself here, reading the words on this page, climbing the contours of my inner mind. I hope the view is fine from up there.

QuestionBridge: Black Males

Friday night I attended the opening of QuestionBridge: Black Males at the Brooklyn Museum. Friends Jesse Williams and Aryn Drake-Lee are co-producers of the multi-city exhibition, and the assembled crowd spoke to the importance of their project. I found the exhibit fascinating, and sat for a long time soaking in the faces and messages of Black men speaking their hearts and minds. My father passed away when I was 16 years old, and I come from a very strong matrilineal family, so the opportunity to hear their varied perspectives was particularly eye-opening. They talked about Blackness, they talked about interracial dating, White women, families, prison, spirituality, homosexuality, and love. They talked with candor and with fervor, and they talked to each other. Most poignantly, I felt they were talking to my son. I am raising a young mixed-race boy, and seeing these men of all different shades and backgrounds made me reflect on what that means in America today. Instead of seeing Reagan give the State of the Union, my son sees Barack Obama, another "curly-top" just like him. That in and of itself is huge. But there are still the outside perceptions, the stereotypes that seek to erode his character and self-esteem, and the traps that so many boys like him might become ensnared in. Growing up is hard, harder still to be so black and blue. It made me so thankful to live in the neighborhood we do, where there are other kids who look like him and parents who look like my husband and me. It made me thankful for our families, his godparents, and our friends, who will be there to offer him guidance and support.

There will be many questions and challenges we will face in the coming years, but none more vexing than: How do you raise a man?

This is my Baby

I was reading through parenting blogs today, and I found a few voices that really resonated with me. Even though I live in Brooklyn, a borough with a baffling array of international cultures, interracial couples, and cosmopolitan liberalism, I still get The Question. "Is that your baby?" As you can probably guess by the other posts on this blog, I am Black. What you may not have surmised is that my husband is not. Our son is a sweet, generous, funny, and kind "curly top" (as I like to call the B&W kids in our neighborhood - seriously, a cadre exists), and the love of my life.  It bothers me when people ask me if he is mine, especially since he looks quite a lot like a lighter version of me. The opportunity for inquiry arises often since I work from home most days and am out with my son in the park/museum/cafe during traditional work hours. But, oddly enough, when walking through Park Slope or the Upper East Side, the exposure I feel is not one of differentiation. I feel the deadening and mute anonymity of "the help", those figures who, while trusted with a most difficult and valuable task, still operate under the social radar, cloaked in the shadow of their professions.

Exhibit A: Once, when in Barnes and Noble with my son and a friend, we ran into one of my friends's acquaintances. This woman completely ignored me as she asked my friend, "Oh, is this yours?!" referring to the child that I, presumably as the nanny, was pushing around the store at my (White) friend's behest. When my childless friend answered with a definite "No," there was a breezy continuation of the conversation and no acknowledgement of the error that had occurred. The interloper continued to chat away and ignore my presence, perhaps continuing to think that I was just aimlessly pushing someone else's baby, that I wasn't a real person who lived and breathed and had opinions. There certainly was no concern that I might have been hurt by her assumptions.

This is a complicated issue that makes me tackle my own prejudices about the role nannies and babysitters play in raising our children. I get upset because when people think you are the nanny, often you are invisible, as though there is no "there" there. The change in attitude is palpable once they realize you're the mom. So, maybe what this is really about class, although it gets couched in racial terms. Why do I feel the need to cry out, "This is my son! I am (insert: educated, middle class, someone who listens to Florence + The Machine, etc) just like you!" Silly, but I feel that impetus nonetheless.

Then there are people who are well-meaning, or at least as well-meaning as I can give someone who makes a whole host of assumptions about me, my kid, and our family. Maybe there really isn't anything that they think is malicious about the question, or they simply don't realize how rude and annoying it is to ask.

Exhibit B: I was at a baby clay class with my son recently, and all of the mothers were sitting around playing with clay and their kids. Friends and I had been having a lengthy conversation, during which the instructor of the class referred to me as my son's mother a few times. One of the new moms in the class then asked off-handedly, "Oh, is he yours?" Later, she told me that she was (before she had children) a college level professor who taught courses about, as she called it, "the -isms": racism, sexism, classism, etc. Funny that, despite her academic interests, socially she was still spouting some pre-Loving assumptions. Oh and did I mention that she was White, her own husband was Black, and her kid was mixed-race? Oh lord. . .

Exhibit C: While walking on the street pushing my son in his stroller, a man gave me a cat call of "Hey, Babysitter!" Perhaps what he lacked in sexiness he hoped to make up in familial accuracy. Nope, wrong on both accounts. . .

Most disturbingly, there is the constant reminder that somehow the love I have for my husband and my son is an anomaly, some aberration of nature that shouldn't have, but somehow miraculously occured. This hurts, especially when the question comes from other Black people, with disbelief and surprise in their tone. When I smile and say "YES," I can feel the sting of their assumptions. Aren't we past the point where I could be seen as a traitor to my race?

I could go on with Exhibits D, E, F, G... so I suppose I'm wrong about that last one. Dang. I hope I can have the gumption and resolve to ask my questioner, "Yes he's my son - why do you ask?" the next time I'm presented with this frequent query. Every so often, I tell myself that I'm going to do it. But each time it happens, I'm still caught off guard.

Landscape Performance

Last night I stayed in New Haven after teaching in order to attend the Charles Waldheim lecture on Landscape Urbanism. His talk was insightful, and he is clearly a passionate and brilliant thinker who is a champion of his profession (rightly so, as he is the Chair of the Landscape Architecture program at Harvard's Graduate School of Design). He discussed two veins of landscape architectural approach: ecology-driven and performance-driven. Both lend themselves to a "the science/program made me do it" defense of design claims, and he talked very little about the term "design" in the way that the public or even architects might know it. The debate between Landscape Urbanists and New Urbanists has been well documented, so I don't need to go into that here. Despite current directions, the truth is that landscape architecture as a profession began as a way of forming (not scripting) the land around us, and was heavily influenced by the picturesque movement in painting. But while Waldheim acknowledged Claude Lorrain's influence, he didn't talk about aesthetics in a traditional sense. There was a conscious omission of "design" as a prescriptive, dogmatic, and far-too-limiting stance. For Charles to carve out a wide berth for landscape, and Landscape Architects in particular, there is a reluctance to limit the terms. This approach resonates with me, in the sense that "Black architecture" is similarly amorphous. But it made me realize that folks are hungry for definition, for a box to carefully put something in. I found it hopeful (even if it means that I need to re-position my practice) to think of the built environment in a freer way, but was also cautious because "freedom" can often end up in places that have no architectural character or experiential richness, whose defense is obfuscated by insider jargon. When I asked Mr. Waldheim what he thought about folks like William Kent, his garden at Rousham, and the construction of space using a filmic or picturesque language, he said that his field was divided. Half were interested in that stuff (himself included), and half saw it as trite. I am not on the front lines of these debates, but I think the performative/ecological approach (certainly politically and environmentally correct) combined with a discussion of aesthetics and traditional conventions of planning and pre-1997 landscape architecture will yield the most fruitful places to work and live. Mr. Duany and Mr. Waldheim, "can't we all just get along?"