The Ostracon: Dispatches from Beyond Contemporary Art’s Center, an arts writing site by Nicole J. Caruth and Paul Schmelzer, looks at figures and ideas outside the mainstream of contemporary art—from public policy, indigenous rights, and folklore to community organizing, historic preservation, environmental science, journalism, and food justice—that may offer insight into new forms of making art that are more responsive, relevant, and connected to the way we live now as individuals and communities. Taking its name from the pottery shards used in ancient Athens when voting to ostracize community members, the site aims to celebrate, instead of push out, voices from art’s periphery.

Portrait of an Anti-Fascist Gravedigger

“I’m unburying these books before I’m buried,” says Jack Zipes, a retired folklorist and German professor who, at 84, is republishing long-forgotten anti-fascist children’s books through his imprint, Little Mole & Honey Bear. Despite being 80, 100, or more years old, these stories prove timely in an age of Donald Trump, insurrection, and the Proud Boys.

The Hitleresque Keedle crushed, a detail from Deirdre and William Counselman’s antifascist tale.

“I am a gravedigger,” writes Jack Zipes in the preface to the book Yussuf the Ostrich. “I do not dig graves to bury the dead. I dig up graves to bring the dead back to life.” In the last portion of his own life, the 84-year-old folklorist and retired German professor is doing what he’s always done—studying, translating, adapting, and publishing folk tales from decades and centuries past, but with a new focus. Through Little Mole & Honey Bear, the imprint he founded in 2018, he’s unearthing anti-fascist and pacifist children’s books that have fallen out of circulation and republishing them for readers today. “I feel in my last days, in my old age, I’m doing what I can. In everything that I do, I want to resist what’s going on,” he recently told me. “I’m unburying these books before I’m buried.”

Recent books republished by Jack Zipes, through Little Mole & Honey Bear and other publishers.

Despite their vintages, Zipes’s first releases on the new imprint couldn’t be more timely. Keedle the Great, and All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Fascism, written by Deirdre and William Counselman in 1940 and illustrated by Fred L. Fox, tells tale of the rise—and ultimate squashing—of a little boy with dark ambitions. Simple with a touch of humor, the slim volume follows its titular character, a boy in the spitting image of Hitler who “hated laughter more than anything else in the world,” entertained himself by feeding bugs to his pet spider, and subsisted on a diet of “synthetic candy.” As an adult, he grew a familiar moustache and embraced dictatorial tendencies, even writing his own manifesto, Keedle’s Kampf. By the book’s end, he’s so ridiculed that he shrinks to the size of a mosquito, small enough to be squished in the palm of a hand. Zipes unearthed Keedle in the rare book section of the Strand Bookstore in January 2020 and immediately saw parallels today. “Keedle has reared his ugly head again,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “He is somewhat fatter and has forgotten how to do the goosestep, but he is dangerous and threatens to destroy all that is decent and humane in the world… He’s a liar who has no inkling he is a fascist fool. This all makes him pathetic in his rule, and domination will eventually die out not from our laughter, but also from our humanity.”  

An illustration from Deirdre and William Counselman’s Keedle, the Great.

Yussuf is a 1943 tale written and illustrated by Emery Kelen, a Hungarian Jew who witnessed the grim realities of war first-hand when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was so disturbed by the experience that he pretended to be mentally ill to get out, a ploy that resulted in his transfer to a psychiatric hospital. There he began drawing fellow patients, an act which helped him process his experiences with combat. He later declared himself a “violent pacifist” and teamed up with artist Alois Derso and gained fame—not to mention the attention of Nazis and other fascists angry about the duo’s depictions of their movement—for caricatures that critiqued totalitarianism. Due to this attention, the pair fled to New York in 1938.

An illustration from Emery Kelen’s Yussuf the Ostrich.

Set in northern Africa during World War II, Yussuf tells of a studious and speedy ostrich who helps American troops thwart the Germans. Having volunteered as a courier (“he ran so swiftly that the Nazi gunners grew dizzy trying to hit him”), Yussuf was captured and feared for his life. But a pair of dachshunds owned by a portly Nazi general devised a plan to spring him: they convinced him to spare Yussuf for a higher purpose, using his plentiful supply of feathers to keep the vain general’s footwear polished (no Nazi bootlicking here, as the story eventually shows). Assuming he was “just a silly ostrich,” incapable of understanding much, Yussuf was in the room one day as the general and his advisors discussed plans to wipe out the entire US army. Ultimately, through the help of his swastika-clad canine comrades, he stole the plans, zipped back to the Allies, and defeated Hitler’s minions. As word of Yussuf’s heroism spread, his fame did, too. But when asked by the American general what he wanted to do next, the humble ostrich said he simply wanted to go back to Abou, the little boy who raised him, but only after a visit with his mother in the desert. Beautifully illustrated, it’s an instructive tale about friendship, assumptions, and the emancipatory prospects of education (in one passage early in the book, a donkey challenges Yussuf’s attempts to read and write: “What’s the use of an education to a bird? Look at me. I have enough hay. I have enough straw. And I never went to school.”).

An illustration from Emery Kelen’s Yussuf the Ostrich.

Other tales Zipes has republished in recent years bear titles that nod to their ideological leanings, among them Johnny Breadless: A Pacifist Fairy Tale (written in 1921 by French writer Paul Vaillant-Couturier), The Castle of Truth and Other Revolutionary Tales (a series of short stories from the 1920s and ’30s by Austrian writer Hermynia Zur Mühlen), and Fearless Ivan and His Faithful Horse Double-Hump, Zipes’s retelling of an 1834 folktale by Russian writer Pyoter Yershov in which a magic horse befriends a young “dunce” to help expose the exploitation of a greedy tsar. In the pipeline, he says, is a book of Chinese fairy tales written before the Communist Revolution.

“These are not outspoken, didactic, or pedagogical books,” Zipes says. “They don’t preach anything. What they do is reveal subtly what is happening in the world through metaphorical stories.”

A Storied Trajectory

Zipes was raised in a family where storytelling was king. “My father used to tell me stories about his life in Russia, growing up in Minsk and finding his way to school through the snow,” he recalls. “But, of course, my father wasn’t born in Russia and had never went to Russia. He was just a great storyteller.” Zipes was born, in fact, in New York City in 1937 and raised in Mount Vernon, a suburb just north of the Bronx and next to a town that at the time prohibited Jewish residents. There his mother read to him, regularly rotating through classics by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. It’s also where he first experienced anti-Semitism; he lost a girlfriend when he was 12 or 13, he recalls, when her Catholic family discovered he is Jewish.

He went to Dartmouth, and as “the English department was terrible,” he earned a BA in political science instead. “The college was very racist and anti-Semitic,” he recalls, but it had a few good English professors, and he took their classes, finding himself drawn to French existentialists like Camus and Sartre (whose Anti-Semite and Jew he found useful). At Columbia, he earned a Masters in English and Comparative Literature, studying critical theory and immersing himself in the greats of American literature: Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, etc. In 1961, he left for Germany to study, a year in Munich and a year in Tübingen. “Germany was a mystery to me. Still is,” he writes in the introduction of Yussuf. “When it came to understanding German history, all my friends there were silent at first. They were silent about the Nazi past because their parents and relatives were silent, just as I was silent about the anti-Semitism I experienced in America. But I no longer keep silent about it.”

Jack Zipes. Photo courtesy the University of Minnesota.

After completing his PhD at Columbia, and writing a thesis (later published as a book) entitled The Great Refusal: Studies of the Romantic Hero in German and American Literature, he returned to Germany for a teaching stint at the University of Munich. During his next job, a faculty position at NYU, he became steeped in activism: at the height of the Vietnam War, he started working as an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), among other groups, which he says landed him on a blacklist. But he eventually found a teaching job—“somehow,” he says, mystified—at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He moved from New York with a girlfriend and settled into teaching, working with area socialist groups and an advocacy organization called the Wisconsin Alliance on the side. His partner began pursuing a degree in education, and Zipes started reading her books on child development, noting that much of the pedagogy at the time was focused on obedience and control. He thought: “We’ve got to get children when they’re young, and not to politicize them, but to make them aware of what is happening in the world, who’s in charge of the world, what these struggles are all about.”

“At that time, I became interested in the impact fairy tales can have in child development,” he recalls. “It’s the major genre in children’s lives, practically in everyone’s lives; from the time we’re born until we die, we read fairytales. That’s the only genre, all over the world, which has this power.”

The form became the focus of his writing, teaching, and study. “I read the orthodox Marxist views of [Bruno] Bettelheim,” whose book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales came out in 1976, “and they infuriated me,” he says. He vowed to come up with an alternative perspective. But first he had to dig into the history of fairytales, and to do so he had to learn other languages, including Italian and French, to understand how such stories worked in other cultures. He eventually started workshopping his thinking by going into Milwaukee area schools and sharing his storytelling methodology, slowly incorporating theater into his work. His publishing efforts at the time reflected his passions: he wrote books like Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979) and Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1983) and edited volumes including Political Plays for Children: The Grips Theatre of Berlin (1976) and Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (1987).

In 1989, having left Milwaukee for a three-year term teaching in Florida, he accepted a position in the University of Minnesota’s Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch and moved to Minneapolis. His writing ratcheted up, with more than a dozen new titles written during his time at the university, plus another two dozen books that he edited. A 2004 volume, though, proved one his most impactful works: Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children captured and codified his thinking on the power of storytelling in education, sharing his decades of literary knowledge, but more importantly, years of experience running Neighborhood Bridges, a critical literacy program he cofounded to “empower students to become the storytellers of their own lives.”

Neighborhood Bridges students with Teaching Artist Apprentice Ladan Siraji. Photo: Bruce Silcox, courtesy the Children’s Theater Company

Embodying Stories, Embracing Empathy

Based on his theater work in Milwaukee, Zipes co-founded Neighborhood Bridges in 1997 with Peter Brosius, artistic director at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis. “Meeting Jack and being introduced to his pedagogy was completely mind-blowing,” says Maria Asp, an artist involved with Bridges since its inception and most recently its program director. Through learning Zipes’s critical literacy framework and concepts from the Italian writer Gianni Rodari’s 1977 book The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories, “I realized that theater, storytelling, and creative writing aren’t the end product,” she says. “They’re the tools for exploring meaning-making.”

At its peak, the program brought teaching artists into more than 20 Twin Cities schools for weekly two-hour sessions all year long. But this is no traditional theater program, where adherence to a play’s text is paramount. With the diversity of student backgrounds, experiences, and even English-language proficiency in mind, the artists would customize the structure, using Zipes’s pedagogy, to help kids reinterpret existing texts or invent their own storylines to produce as plays on the Children’s Theater stage. “Instead of saying, ‘OK, this is the next scene, here’s what it’s about,’ we would ask them, ‘What do you think it’s about? What should the next line be?,” says Kiyoko Motoyama Sims, the program’s longtime community engagement director. “We want kids to be able to shape their own narrative.”

 Kiyoko Motoyama Sims with working with Neighborhood Bridges students at Lyndale Community School. Photo courtesy the Children’s Theater Company.

Using game-like exercises, including Rodari’s notion of the “fantastic binomial,” kids would use improvisational storytelling as a tool to explore themes and, eventually, write and produce a play. “Embodying the story,” literally taking in the experiences and vantage point of yourself or others, is key, Sims adds. “Once you go inside, I think you will learn the skill to have empathy, to want to understand experiences you haven’t had before.”

“The focus was on the children and enabling them to be able to speak, act, draw, sing, and so on,” says Zipes, who served as the project’s director until 2008. We didn’t go in and do a type of storytelling that would be just to entertain. Art was going to be provocative and mind-opening, for everyone—for the school teacher, the teaching artists, students, for everyone.” While Zipes has moved on from Bridges, so have Asp and Sims; both were furloughed in the early months of COVID-19, which left them to focus on the Speaking Out Collective, a group of actors, educators, and directors “who believe that story is a vehicle for self-expression, questioning, and creating new narratives together.” Zipes credits the collective for “keeping the tradition of [Bridges] going.”

“My philosophy,” he adds, “has always been that I teach to find people who are going to replace me, and that was certainly the case with Bridges.”

A Trump supporter with a burnt flag. Photo: Marco Verch/Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

What Do We Mean by Fascism?

“Feelings propel fascism more than thought does,” writes social scientist Robert O. Paxton in “The Five Stages of Fascism,1Robert O. Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1 (March 1998), 6. a 1998 essay with strong resonance in the era of Donald Trump, insurrection, and the Proud Boys. In it he outlined the “mobilizing passions” that can be present in fascisms:

• The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.

• The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group’s enemies, internal as well as external.

• Dread of the group’s decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic or cosmopolitan liberalism.

• Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence, if necessary.

• An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.

• Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.

• The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success in a Darwinian struggle.

Despite the ways Trumpism echoes these distinctions—from a charismatic leader who said “I alone can fix this” to a group of his supporters united by a shared sense of persecution—Paxton has long hesitated to apply the F-word to Trump. But the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol changed his thinking. “His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”

Zipes has been far less hesitant to apply the term to Trump. “There’s always been an extreme right-wing liberalist, if not highly racist, stream in American culture,” he told me last July, referencing the near-annihilation of Native Americans as depicted in the tale of Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. “So none of this surprises me. What does surprise me is that we literally have a fascist as a President.”

Robert Keith Packer was arrested in January and charged with multiple counts for his involvement with the US Capitol insurrection, including violent entry and disorderly conduct.

Speaking again just days after the January 6 insurrection, I asked his response, especially to the man who wore a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” sweatshirt while storming the Capitol. “It wasn’t surprising to me that that would happen because anti-Semitism has been replaced by racism, but anti-Semitism has really never died down because the Jews have always been associated with minority groups and looked down upon,” Zipes says. “So when somebody walks around with a T-shirt that says ‘Auschwitz’ on it, it doesn’t really frighten me. It doesn’t worry me because I’ve lived with it my entire life.”

He refers to the “soft fascism” of America, a society in which, under a democratic pretense, the populace agrees to abide by rules that are ultimately autocratic. As an example of how this tendency is expressed in children’s stories, he points to the piece he republished recently by Hermynia Zur Mühlen. “The Glasses,” written in 1923, tells of a wealthy land in which the rich exploited the poor but the poor never rose up, thanks to glasses crafted by a magician and issued at birth. “The lenses were cut in such a way that the poor people who wore them saw their brothers and sisters as small, helpless, inferior creatures” and the rich they saw “magnified as powerful, clearly godlike creatures who deserved all the best things in the world.” The king’s glasses were ordinary, but dipped “once in the blood of the cruelest person who had ever lived and twice in the blood of the stupidest person who ever lived. When the king wore the glasses, he saw whatever kings are accustomed to seeing, and he saw it in the way that suited the kings.”

As you might expect, one day a baby was born, little Fritz, who couldn’t tolerate the glasses and ripped them off. His parents tried various ways to keep the spectacles on, fearing reprisal from the king, including tying them on his head. As a young man, he smashed the glasses once and for all and started a clandestine resistance group, the “enemies of the glasses,” who drove such fear into the king that he “ran until he came to a country where the people still wore glasses and where law and order prevailed.”

Zur Mühlen was born into an upper-class family in Vienna, and Zipes notes, “if you’re born into aristocracy, especially as a woman at the end of the 19th century, you’re going to have to obey every single rule of behavior that is imposed on you.” She married an Estonian count, which helped her realize, as Zipes puts it, “how horrible all the aristocracies in Europe were.” She left the count and moved to Switzerland where she met Stefan Klein, a Hungarian writer and communist, whom she married. “All her stories were explorations in developing critical thinking,” he says. “In ‘The Glasses,’ she tells a story about people who are blinded by outside forces so that they cannot recognize how they are being manipulated and deprived of the fruit that they actually produce for the rest of society.” He finds the tale, like all of his recent work, appropriate for these times, echoing the title of the series he edited and translated the story for, Princeton’s “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.”  

A scene from the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol. Photo: Blink O’fanaye/Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

That title struck me as curious: if Zipes loves “oddly modern” fairy tales, why not use his golden years to write and publish new books for children that convey the values he holds dear? He’s not sure they’d ever get published.

“Although there are some very good writers and artists who are trying to deal with these problems for young people, I find a lot of them are not very honest and truthful. And these books that were written in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are much more candid, much more honest. They raise issues without fear of what corporate publishing houses might think.”

“The type of censorship that exists among publishers of children’s books today, where everything has to be charming and have a happy ending, I don’t think that’s being responsible to children,” he adds. “In order to be responsible to children, I don’t think we need to horrify them, but we have to be truer than true.”


For more on opposing fascism, read Spencer Sunshine’s 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists (2018).

Ceding Power: Paying the Rest Debt

The final piece in the “Ceding Power” series explores the discourse on rest as a type of reparations. What does it mean to rest and how can the return of energy aid human repair?

The Nap Ministry, “A Resting Place,” 2019. Site-specific installation at Ponce City Market, Atlanta, for Flux Projects. Photo: @capturedbytabia

“Being Black is exhausting” is a common refrain that doesn’t quite convey what it means to be fatigued on a multigenerational and cellular level. Every day, we as Black folk expend precious energy navigating systemic racism that’s present everywhere all the time. We spend our lives fighting for equal access to healthcare, education, fair compensation, and basic human rights like fresh foods and clean water, all while trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from being killed for existing. Living in survival mode takes a toll on the body. The spectacle of dead Black bodies on the news and social media takes a toll on the mind. Fake equity initiatives in the workplace take a toll on the spirit.1Mary-Frances Winters, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020.

“When we ask for reparations, it should include everything from economic to energetic repair,” writes the artist Navild Acosta in his 2018 essay, “Cultural Institutions are Colonial Projects, Where’s the Lie.” In this candid critique, Acosta reflects on the experience of being an Afro Latinx, transgender, queer artist navigating predominantly white cultural institutions. His anecdotes are sadly familiar, from expectations of free labor to the extraction of ideas from individuals and communities of color for institutional gain. Acosta articulates a radically different vision for interaction that centers care and repair. “I am imagining a world where marginal people’s rest/sleep/REM cycles are prioritized … Cultural institutions should be instigating better rest/sleep for those who need it most.”

Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa, Black Power Naps, installation view at Performance Space New York, 2018. Photo: Da Ping Luo

Acosta refers to the racial and ethnic differences in sleep that scientists have just begun to understand. Studies show that Black people have the highest rates of sleeping disorders nationally and generally sleep one hour less than white Americans, Acosta and collaborator Fannie Sosa told a Creative Capital audience. This was the basis of their project Black Power Naps/Siestas Negras, a multi-sensory installation at the Miami Dade College Museum of Art and Design that beckoned visitors to recline on luxurious beds in the gallery to “reclaim laziness and idleness as power.” Black Power Naps explores rest as a type of reparations—the most talked-about non-monetary form of recompense for centuries of racial injustice in America.2According to the Public International Law & Policy Group, “rehabilitation” is a type of reparations that is intended to provide care and services for victims, beyond monetary payments. Rehabilitation can include physical and psychological care, as well as social and legal services, often in a community-focused context. Accessed at: https://syriaaccountability.org/wp-content/uploads/PILPG-Reparations-Memo-2013_EN.pdf Across the country, artists, curators, and all sorts of health and wellness practitioners are using cultural spaces, academic institutions, and digital platforms to accelerate what feels like a movement for Black rest aligned with the Movement for Black Lives. But what does rest actually mean in these settings and how can the return of  energy aid human repair?

Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers, 1876. Oil on canvas, 24 1/16 × 38 1/8 inches. Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA.

To understand rest in the context of reparations, you first must understand how Black people have been systematically denied the right to respite. (What follows is by no means a comprehensive history.) Chattel slavery forced Black men, women, and children to work 20 hours a day. To maintain control over the Black labor force after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Southern states passed a series of laws known as “Black Codes” that led Black men, women, and children to be returned to “slavery-like conditions through forced labor and convict leasing systems that lasted well into the 20th century.” In the state of South Carolina, for example, a Black person who didn’t work on a plantation or as a servant was either taxed for being free or forced into plantation labor for failure to pay that tax. It was a crime to be unemployed or not to toil for the benefit of white men. 

Black Codes were repealed in 1866 but subsequent vagrancy laws would make it a crime to be idle “without apparent purpose” or to simply appear suspicious. Modeled after England’s Elizabethan “Poor Laws,” American vagrancy laws have long given police the freedom to deem Black stillness in public space (and sometimes even in private) unlawful. Couple this with anti-Black propaganda, from blackface memorabilia to Hollywood films depicting Black people as lazy stereotypes, and you get a culture that demonizes Black rest. In recent years, this has been hypervisible in mainstream media, from two Black men being arrested for supposedly sitting too long at a Philadelphia Starbucks to a case on the Yale University campus, where a black graduate student found herself answering to police for napping in her dorm’s common space because she didn’t appear to “belong.”

Community RESTival

A few months ago, the Oregon-based curator Ashley Stull Meyers and social worker Madeline Harmon launched a community RESTival, a monthlong public program at Reed College in Portland where Meyers and Harmon both work. Open to the public but “birthed for students,” RESTival included lectures, yoga classes, sound baths, and such mostly via Zoom. Mutually energized by the concept of rest reparations, Meyers and Harmon began dreaming of ways to facilitate “community and joy and wellness” for students representing marginalized identities on the campus. 

Madeline Harmon (left) and Ashley Stull Meyers (right).

“We were thinking about this tiresome moment that as Black and Brown folks we’ve always been in but especially the past four years as a Black or Brown person engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion work, activism, and education,” Meyers said. “It just doesn’t seem there’s respite to be found anywhere. It’s this awkward negotiation of there being so much work to do but also understanding that we’re not going to survive this moment if we don’t also take little moments to care for ourselves in real, logistical ways.”

As Meyers told me about “diverting institutional resources” to make this happen, I thought about the extra labor Black women so often do to support the health and wholeness of other people of color. What if the system was set up so that we didn’t have to be double agents in institutions, genuflecting to white comfort so we can serve people who like us? What if we didn’t have to do twice the labor to express care for the people we care about? The health coach in me couldn’t resist asking Meyers about her personal relationship to rest. “It’s tough,” she replied with some heaviness in her voice. “The art world and culture work of all kinds is always moving, and it’s hard to take a minute to take a step back from it.”

RESTival featured an electronic musical sound bath with Portland-based ambient musical artists Yaara Valey and Naike Swai.

RESTival shifts the paradigm of typical arts wellness programming from the instagrammable performance of care to somatic healing practices for the inner repair of human beings. Sadly, this way of thinking is radical in our cultural institutions. I queried further, how else might rest reparations look? What other models might we reimagine? Meyers mentioned artist residencies for their ability to provide time and space to think without the expectation of artists producing a tangible object. “Outside of an art world context, that’s what rest as reparations looks like to me,” she says. “Space to think—we need more of this.” 

What’s more important than a specific structure as a reparations framework are the attitudes and behaviors that guide what happens in the structure. “There’s been unconscious expectation that Black folks are going to be cultural contributors even in moments where we’re not meaning to be,” says Meyers. “Even when we’re talking about Black kids on TikTok who don’t necessarily conceptualize what they’re doing as culture work. For me, rest as reparations looks like the right to some sort of opacity when we want it.”

Nap Ministry

RESTival was inspired by Tricia Hersey, a multidisciplinary artist with a master’s degree in divinity and founder of The Nap Ministry, an organization that creates collective rest experiences to explore the liberating power of naps. Hersey is an undeniable influencer of millenial self-care, rallying her Instagram troops to reject the false urgencies of white supremacist culture by slowing down and opting out. What began as a performance art project Hersey now describes it as a “spiritual and political movement.” Hersey’s definition of rest encompasses anti-capitalism, daydreaming, storytelling, afrofuturism, somatics, community care, womanism, sleep science, and reparations theory. “Resting is simply a connection between our mind and bodies,” she explained to a Zoom audience at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia). “It’s a slowing down. It’s a reimagining. It’s reclaiming our time as our own. It’s slow living. It’s daydreaming. It’s drinking our tea a little bit slower in the morning before we start the grind race. It’s making space for others to rest.”

But how is taking time for yourself an act of reparations? Hersey suggests that by taking the time to rest that was denied our enslaved ancestors we can begin to slow the capitalist systems that do us physical, mental, and spiritual harm. There is a rest debt to be paid and we can claim what is owed through napping.

“Everything in this culture is for us to go, go, go,” said Hersey. “From the plantations back in the South when slavery was invented, and when capitalism was invented in those fields, that energy is still [here] now. That automated way of looking at a body as a machine, that way of looking at property and profit over people, all of these things are deeply entrenched in our society.” Hersey has made clear that her message is for everyone, regardless of race, because the belief that exhaustion is normal and necessary for productivity is a lie of capitalism that we’ve all been conditioned to believe.

Rest, as Hersey beautifully describes it, is a lifelong “meticulous love practice” of healing and decolonizing our bodies and minds from centuries of violence. Black people aren’t the only ones who have ancestral healing to do. On an episode of the Irresistible podcast, Hersey conjured the image of a lynching to make a point I’ve heard repeatedly this past year: What kind of trauma makes a man so spiritually bankrupt that he takes his children to celebrate the lynching of another human being? That poverty of spirit lives in white bodies today because all of our bodies carry, as Resmaa Menakem writes in My Grandmother’s Hands: “The unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.” The process of reparations, then, is entangled  in the spiritual repair of white Americans who must do the work to understand how white supremacy harms them, too.

Black Unrest

Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa, Black Power Naps, 2019. Performance Space New York, NY.

The Black Power Naps theory of rest reparations emphasizes making space for quality sleep.” Which begs the question: what exactly is keeping us up at night? Studies on ambulatory blood pressure offer a clue. As Dr. David R. Williams, a leading scholar on health inequalities and professor at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health explains, these studies show no differences between young, healthy African Americans and whites during the day. However, researchers found that African Americans maintained a higher level of blood pressure at night, even during sleep. In reviewing this data, Dr. Williams asks, “Could this reflect the possibility that the threats in our environment, potential threats of violence, potential threats of discrimination, is so high that it’s almost as if African Americans need to sleep with one eye open?” The case of Breonna Taylor has confirmed this much: not even in sleep are we safe.

At this point in my writing on reparations, I know that some white arts workers want easy answers to soothe their discomfort and avoid the inner work that equity asks of them. (I’ve read enough emails confirming as much.) In the absence of care and criticality, I can imagine institutions responding to this call for rest by organizing programs to advance a theater of equity that ends up reinforcing stereotypes. Yet I struggle to understand how those who hold power can give rest responsibly. What could rest reparations look like as concrete institutional action? Acosta and Sosa suggest that it’s less about doing than unlearning: “To center the sleep of Black folk, you must not economize, commodify, or extort it.” Since the Middle Passage, white people have had “unfettered access” to the Black body. Black folks can’t rest until that unconscious mindset changes, which feels a long way off.

Black people are often expected to be the voice of diversity in predominantly white cultural institutions, to do the labor of educating white people about racism, no matter the mental and emotional drain, while meeting our everyday job expectations. We’re given the same (and sometimes more) responsibilities as our white counterparts but with less pay or compassion for what it takes to get the work done. Anecdotally, a colleague recently shared with me that a white curator sitting at his desk and behind on deadlines is perceived as doing the “thinking work” his job requires, whereas she, a Black curator, is perceived as sitting idly and expected to pick up his slack. The “Black Codes” of the nonprofit workplace, a set of unofficial rules for Black people, show up in all kinds of ways. In my own experience, after a series of racist incidents at a previous job, the executive director instructed me to “smile or things wouldn’t be good for me”—to mask my emotional fatigue and tap dance to prevent punishment. It’s not being Black that’s exhausting; it’s the systemic racism, social stigmatism, discrimination, and indifference that plays out even in so-called progressive art spaces and institutions.


Frontlines of All Kind, a documentary film about the Black Power Naps opera, premieres tomorrow, March 3, 2021 at 1pm EST, as part of the Ford Foundation exhibition, Indisposable: Structures of Support After the Americans with Disabilities Act. The film will be followed by a moderated conversation and soundscape meditation with the artists.

Bulbancha Forever: From NOLA to Minneapolis, a movement to revitalize Indigenous names grows

In their practice of “one-word activism,” Jeffery Darensbourg and artist Ozone504 have been working to revive usage of Bulbancha, the Choctaw name for New Orleans since well before the city’s founding some 300 years ago. Their efforts prompt a broader look at Indigenous naming and what it can teach us in fractious times.

Graffiti in Bulbancha. Photo: Jeffery Darensbourg.

When Jeffery Darensbourg moved to New Orleans several years ago, one of the first things he did was look up the city’s Indigenous name. A writer, researcher, and enrolled member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, Darensbourg grew up in Baton Rouge and, while his birth certificate identifies him as “Negro,” he is Creole. But people usually assume he’s white. Some of his ancestors lived here in what is now called the United States, while others came from Europe and Africa. He’s traced his last name to a forebear named Karl von Arensberg (later changed to Charles D’Arensbourg), a man “of Swedish, German, Polish, Jewish extraction” who came from what is now Szczecin, Poland to Louisiana in 1722. His son later married a Native woman. For a guy who says he’s ethnically “a mixture of things,” Darensbourg’s adopted hometown has a fitting name.

“It took me 10 minutes online, and I found it in the first ever Choctaw dictionary by Allen Wright, who was a Choctaw chief in the 19th century.” Before the French founded the city in 1718, naming it after Phillip II, the Duke of Orléans (a man who, Darensbourg says, never set foot in the city), the area was called Bulbancha. But while many Indigenous place names reference sensory experience, the most defining characteristic of Bulbancha, it would seem, was human interaction. The name nods to the mixing of cultures, the languages spoken by the area’s many residents—tribes including the Biloxi, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica, among others, who often communicated in a bridge language, Mobilian Jargon—and economic exchange facilitated by wetlands that served as transit routes for trappers and traders.

Balbancha mentioned in Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz’s Histoire de Lousiane, 1758.

In 2014, Darensbourg and his friend, the artist Ozone504, started engaging in what they call “one-word activism,” a project that eventually drove them to revive use of the name Bulbancha. But it wasn’t until 2018, when New Orleans celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding, that their ideas started gaining traction. As a counter-narrative to the tricentennial, they created a zine to celebrate Indigenous culture in the area, both today and thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Their efforts suggest a broader look at Indigenous naming and the power it holds in reconciling with our past and celebrating the real, and complex, diversity within our communities today.

What’s In a Name?

In Indigenous cultures, “place names tend to describe whatever is uniquely memorable about a particular place,” says Margaret Wickens Pearce (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), a geographer and artist whose Mississippi Dialogues project is creating an Indigenized map of flooding on the Mississippi River. “That may be what is sensed (smelled, heard, seen, tasted) or what we’re obligated to do there (gather berries, look for eggs, wait for the tide) or what happened there (treaty signing place, starving place, dance grounds), and so on.”

Beyond that, they convey history, a connection to ancestors, the earth, and other beings. “Place names remind us of our obligations to each other and our relatives,” she emails. “Place names specify Indigenous rights and responsibilities on land and water. Place names are our ancestors’ speech. When we say them and visit those places, we activate and ruminate on their guidance. Place names are our identities.”

I’ve long been fascinated by the power we ascribe to names (including my own), but my interest in the naming of places was sparked only recently by the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, bryologist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and by recent events here in Minneapolis. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes of the “honorable harvest” and our “covenant of reciprocity” with nature, which gifts us our food. “Understand that the lives we are taking are the lives of generous beings, of sovereign beings, and in order to accept their gift we owe them at least our attention. To care for them we must know what they need and, at the very minimum, we should know their names. It’s a sign of respect and connection to learn the name of someone else, a sign of disrespect to ignore it.” And in Gathering Moss, she writes about the importance of knowing the scientific names of plants: “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

Like the lake itself, streets and parkways bearing the name of John C. Calhoun were changed in 2019 to reflect the Minneapolis lake’s Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

And seeing clearly is key to Indigenous naming, explained Dr. Kate Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux Dakota) in a 2019 TEDx talk. “Our language is very visual,” she says. “Usually place names are not political. Usually places aren’t named after people. They’re usually descriptive, to describe the history or the connection to a place.”

Beane continued:

And today in order to include people who have been excluded from that master narrative, in order to be inclusive of us, we must create spaces where we can create our own stories. We must think about: Who do we honor? What legacies do we want to honor? And what’s our own legacy going to be? What do we want people to remember about us? But not only that, how do we create a space where the legacies of our children are able to continue, where they can make their own mark? How do allow space for them? Naming and honoring is meant to unify, not exclude and divide.

While Darensbourg and Ozone504 can be credited with bringing the name Bulbancha to the lips of so many in New Orleans, it’s thanks to Beane—along with twin sister Carly Bad Heart Bull, father Syd Beane, and many supporters—that people in my city speak the Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake), every day. For more than 100 years, Minneapolis’s largest lake was called Lake Calhoun, named after a man who, like New Orleans’s namesake, reportedly never visited the state. As US Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun ordered the construction of Fort Snelling on land near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1818. This area, known to Dakota people as Bdote (“where two waters come together”), has bittersweet distinctions: it’s the birthplace of the Dakota people and the center of Dakota cultural and spiritual life; it’s also the place where, following the US-Dakota War of 1862, nearly two thousand Dakota women and children were held in a concentration camp (some 300 of whom died there) before being expelled from the state.

The website for the organization Save Lake Calhoun, which opposed renaming the lake Bde Maka Ska, after the URL was purchased by another party.

Calhoun’s name, to Beane’s point, wasn’t one with a legacy of unity but division. His ideas for the treatment of Native people, first shared in 1818, set the groundwork for passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to atrocities against Native people, including the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Cherokee people from their homeland. Additionally, a slave owner and avid segregationist, he characterized slavery in an 1837 speech not as “an evil,” but as “a good—a positive good,” one that benefited, in his logic, all involved.

“The names were changed in order to assert power over us, to claim the land, and to disconnect us from our ancestral homeland,” Beane says. “To sever our ties.”

Spread from Bulbancha Is Still a Place, issue two (2019).

A revival in the use of Indigenous place names has grown in tandem with related Indigenous rights movements, and momentum seems to be building. In October 2020, 14 US states and 130 cities officially commemorated Indigenous People’s Day in addition to or instead of Columbus Day. Last July, the Washington professional football team announced plans to “retire” its racist team name. In December, the Cleveland Indians promised to change its name as a way to “better unify our community.” And here in Minnesota, a judge ruled early last month that Mike Forcia, a member of the American Indian Movement and enrolled citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, would avoid jail for leading the effort to topple a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in June. In lieu of a felony conviction, Forcia was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. In a statement, Ramsey County District Attorney Sarah Cory acknowledged “that the violence, exploitation, and forced assimilation that has been inflicted upon Native people has been perpetuated from colonial times into modern times. And the trauma resulting from it is still present. The impact of those harms is largely unrecognized and unknown to the dominant culture. I also recognized that the legal process, of which I am a part of, is reflective of the perspectives of the dominant culture.”

An Aaron Sechrist illustration for a 2013 symposium on racist mascots at the National Museum of the American Indian.

New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3000

In his research, Darensbourg found plenty of documentation of the name Bulbancha (also spelled Balbancha): in addition to its inclusion in Wright’s A Chahta Lexikon (1880), it appears in the region’s first history book, Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz’s Histoire de la Louisiane (1758). And it appears as an identifier for a river in Alexandre de Batz’s 1735 painting Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations, the earliest known European depiction of Native people.

But when he first started talking to scholars about it, he was taken aback. When he asked a staffer about Bulbancha at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2014, “the librarian who helped me said, ‘Oh, there was nothing here before colonization. It was just a swamp,’ which is kind of racist.” Likewise, he notes that when he mentioned Bulbancha at a cocktail party at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, “somebody in this conversation just laughed at us: ‘If there was an indigenous name for this place, I would have heard about it.’”

Alexandre de Batz’s 1735 painting Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations features the name Bulbancha on its bottom edge. Collection Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

To combat this erasure—or to use the language of the Ramsey County Attorney, to counter “the perspectives of the dominant culture”—Darensbourg and Ozone504 partnered with the POC Zine Project to create Bulbancha Is Still a Place: Indigenous Culture from New Orleans, with publication timed to synch with the tricentennial celebration. Its first two issues feature contributions by Leila K. Blackbird (Mescalero Apache/Cherokee), who looks at the enslavement of Native people by colonists and how they sidestepped a prohibition on “Indian slavery” by using the terms “mulatto” and “creole” instead; an interview with Winter White Hat, a Two-Spirit Lakota teen living in Bulbancha; a poem by Rain Prud’homme-Cranford; and comics and artwork by local Indigenous makers; among others. The cover image for issue two: a photo from 1934 of the headless statue of Andrew Jackson—the president who signed the Indian Removal Act into law—in New Orleans’s Jackson Square. (“Even though no one knows who decapitated the statue,” Darensbourg says, “Ozone and I claim full responsibility.”)

The zine is also both a celebration and a reminder: “I think that when you say the word Bulbancha you are not just saying an ordinary name, you’re acknowledging that they continue in presence of Native people.”

A clipping from a September 1934 edition of the Times-Picayune

Since then, the use of Bulbancha has gained popularity. The National Performance Network (NPN), a New Orleans–based arts nonprofit (where I first learned the term while doing freelance work), uses it in its land acknowledgement, and it’s appeared in publications from The Nation to Scalawag magazine to NOLA.com, often in reference to Darensbourg’s activism. And on the website of the Historic New Orleans Collection—where Darensbourg did his research in 2014—there are now four references. But unlike the case of Bde Maka Ska, which legally had its name changed, Darensbourg isn’t leading a charge to have New Orleans’s name officially recognized by government entities.

“I guess I’d prefer that to not, but on the other hand, am I ever going to ask? No,” he says. “I don’t even recognize that [the government] has the authority to do that… If someone comes into my house and tries to rename my cat, that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m going to call the cat. This is not theirs to do. And that’s how I feel about Bulbancha.”

A spread from Bulbancha Is Still a Place, issue two (2019).

He adds, “For this place to be Bulbancha has nothing to do with this fictional, fly-by-night, who-knows-how-long-it-will-last government. And if someone says, ‘Well, it’s lasted 300 years,’ my response is, ‘We’ve lived here for 10,000 years. So it doesn’t matter to me if the colonial government ever sees it as Bulbancha.”

Instead, it seems that seeing the name’s organic adoption by people who live in Bulbancha is far more gratifying. On Tripod, an NPR podcast dedicated to New Orleans’s tricentennial, Darensbourg coined a phrase, which was used as the title of the episode, that spoke to the status of the area’s Europeans as relative newcomers. It seems it struck a nerve. A few months later, just before the city shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darensbourg was celebrating Mardi Gras. “I was walking from the R Bar in the Marigny neighborhood, packed with people, and I see this guy walking along. He’s in his early 20s and he has a jacket that says ‘New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3,000.’ I introduced myself, and he had no idea who I was. That was great, because it means that people know about it without having a relationship to me or Ozone or any of the contributors to the zine. The name is being revived.”

Welcome to Bulbancha

Reclaiming the Indigenous name for Bulbancha is, of course, political. Darensbourg agrees that it could be seen as a conceptual counter-monument: “I don’t know what way it would be represented in stone, but I do know that every time the name is used, that’s a little jab at white supremacy,” he says.

But he loves the Choctaw name for the region for another reason: it’s so much more fitting for a place of such fusion and comingling, a place of welcome—the place that birthed jazz, where amazing culinary fusions were born and evolved, and where nearly every language in the world is spoken—than a name derived from a white guy from France.

“When I say ‘Bulbancha is still a place,’ I’m not saying everybody else go home,” he says. “People here say, ‘No matter how weird you are, wherever you live, you could move here and you’re probably not that weird here.’ Obviously, the land that was Bulbancha is still a piece of land. But we’re also talking about those fundamental interactions between people, that diversity, the values of those people, the way that they would all come together and form this sort of place of interaction, place of cultural exchange. That is still a place, and Bulbancha means that place better than any European word.”

Ceding Power: The Chicken Versus the Pig

What’s the difference between a donation and reparations? In this second piece on reparations in the arts, Brandi and Carlton Turner, co-founders of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, share their perspectives on charitable gifts and possibilities for change in arts philanthropy.

The Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, Utica, MS.

Just a few months ago, the news cycle was filled with stories about Silicon Valley companies pledging five- or six-figure donations to support the movement for Black lives. It’s rare to see an artist come close to matching anything that tech companies can give at a moment’s notice, but the musician Jeff Tweedy announced that he would commit five percent of his writer royalties to racial justice organizations in perpetuity. The Wilco frontman, who’s worth an estimated $9 million, encouraged other white musicians to do the same because, as he suggested in a written statement, the music industry continually profits from the appropriation and theft of Black creativity and culture. “The wealth that rightfully belonged to Black artists was stolen outright and to this day continues to grow outside their communities,” he wrote. “No one artist could come close to paying the debt we owe to the Black originators of our modern music and their children and grandchildren.”

I’d never heard of Wilco or Tweedy until his statement began circulating online, so I’m literally not a fan. What got my attention was his simultaneous call for industry-wide reparations—and that multiple white colleagues of mine understood Tweedy’s pledge to be reparations itself. This prompted a question that I’ve been posing in interviews: What’s the difference between a donation and reparations? Is there a specific dollar amount or giving strategy that makes the leap from tax-deductible gift to reparative justice?

Few people have a clear answer, except Brandi and Carlton Turner, the husband and wife co-founders of Sipp Culture, known formally as the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production. “You think about breakfast. You have eggs and some bacon and some toast. The chicken made a donation, the pig made a commitment,” Carlton said with a chuckle, repeating the words of a former coworker. “There’s a sacrifice that has to happen that is related to reparations whereas a donation [implies that] ‘I can keep giving this donation because I’m not really hurting from it.’ A donation doesn’t change the power dynamics. It doesn’t equalize power. It just quells disruption is what donations do. What reparations does is it actually alters power.”

Brandi and Carlton Turner (center). Photo via sippculture.com

Spanning three spaces and eight generations

Established in 2017, Sipp Culture is an enterprising model of what we might call creative placekeeping in Utica, Mississippi. Their work spans three spaces all within walking distance to each other, including a 1920s-era house for an artist residency program, 17 acres of land for a demonstration garden and outdoor amphitheater, and a cultural center on Main Street that serves as a community hub. But listen to the Turners tell it and Sipp Culture is far more than a cluster of programmable spaces. It’s the coming together of Carlton’s lineage, which goes back eight generations in Utica to a plantation and the enslaved Africans who worked that land; his background as a performing artist and cultural leader (he was previously the executive director at Alternate Roots); and the manifestation of he and Brandi’s vision to share the stories of this place they call home.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “William H. Holtzclaw; Principal, Utica Normal and Industrial Institute” and “Mrs. William H. Holtzclaw.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1915.

Once a hub for cotton production and export, “Utica [Mississippi] was created by white people coming down from Utica, New York, and developing a kind of settler space here,” Carlton explained. “The Choctaw, the Chickasaw, and the Natchez people were in this area.” Sitting next to Brandi at the Sipp Culture site, he told me how, in the early 1900s, a man named William Holtzclaw, a student of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, established the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute.1See more images of the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute in the New York Public Library Digital Collections. The school eventually became Utica College, the first and only historically black junior college in Mississippi, and also housed a high school. “They created this infrastructure to support the post-reconstruction era, to support the education of Black people, turning them into educators, business people, administrators, and agriculturalists,” he said. “You have probably three generations of people that came to that Institute and became the Black leadership in and around central Mississippi.”

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “A group of teachers in the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute who were trained at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1915.

In recent years, Utica has witnessed the closure of its grocery store and high school, creating deep cavities in the public infrastructure that are increasingly common in Black rural and urban areas alike. Brandi said, “When we started thinking about our work here, it was about creating a space in our community that served our community.” Sipp Culture operates at an intergenerational crossroad, looking forward to the future of Utica for its young people while looking back at the historical events that can still be felt today. For instance, the white terror that precipitated the Great Migration and affected the ability of Black families to pass land to their family members. “When you think about reparations,” Carlton added, “our work is about repairing some of that generational damage, and connecting people back to a legacy and history of agriculture, of growing and producing, but not producing for someone else, producing for the community and for collective liberation practices.” The Turners also see their relationship to reparations as “repairing ideas” about the boundaries of art and culture by honoring practices typically excluded from the narrow definitions of what art is. 

Planting seeds to grow reparations strategies

Sipp Culture is one of several organizations involved with Reparations Summer, a campaign of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA). Reparations Summer promotes a “new Juneteenth tradition” of annually organizing and redirecting resources back to Black land stewards. The website states: “We demand that white people and folks with access to the accumulated and hoarded resources move money and land out of the extractive economy now so that we can plant it as seeds to grow the Reparations strategies we need to become truly whole.” Bearing images of Black farmers alongside unapologetic statements about what is owed, the Reparations Summer website is visually appealing but feels untended and untethered from the action. The campaign came to life for me after hearing directly from the Turners, who revealed multiple connections between the organizing efforts of NBJFA and the systems that fund the arts.

A screenshot of the Reparations Summer website.

When I asked the Turners where reparations might begin in the arts and culture sector, Carlton gave a compelling response:

I think so much of art and culture relies on heavy investment from philanthropy and that’s a troubled relationship because most of the surplus resources that are stored in the form of endowments, and the way that philanthropy is structured, so much of that money came on the backs of enslaved people . . . These foundations were created as tax shelters and allow these wealthy institutions and trustees to still determine where those dollars go. Otherwise, those dollars would be in the public coffer and would be distributed as democracy dictates, whatever that means . . .  But that’s not the case. Foundations are structured to live in perpetuity. That’s literally written into most foundation charters. So, I think reparations, for me, looks like challenging ideas about these dollars being held in perpetuity and thinking about how these philanthropies can begin to spend down and into non-existence.

This almost made sense to me. As someone who’s worked almost exclusively on the public programming side of the visual arts, having little contact with funders, my knowledge of how philanthropy actually works is minimal. So, to better understand it, I did what most learners do these days: I turned to YouTube.

Last month, Vu Lee of Nonprofit AF moderated a virtual panel discussion called “What’s Broken in the Foundation and Donor Landscape?,” an eye-opening dialogue on how foundations hold wealth and power in society. Speaking to an audience of 1,300 live viewers, Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies said, “The purpose of this conversation is to open up this invisible, mostly secret world of how high finance works.” The panelists, including Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, and Andrea Caupain, CEO of Byrd Barr Place, explained that private foundations must give out a minimum five percent of their endowment annually. “It is intended to be the floor and that has become the ceiling for most foundations,” said Villanueva. He then echoed what Carlton had begun to illuminate: “Despite our role in helping to create this bounty of wealth in this country, off the backs of our ancestors, and the current day expectations of lower-wage workers [who are] mostly people of color, we as people of color are not benefiting from our fair share of philanthropic investment.” Of the five percent minimum that Villanueva mentioned, a meager 8–8.5 percent go to communities of color, even as racial inequities in healthcare, education, and housing widen and nonprofits work to fill these gaps.2Watch the second part of this conversation on philanthropic reform, “Fixing Philanthropy for Communities,” which addresses potential solutions.

Getting beyond words to transformation

Hearing this dialogue left me with the same question for arts philanthropy that I have for the arts at large: What models get beyond all the buzzy verbiage about diversity, equity, access, and inclusion to actual transformation? Or even reparations? In speaking with DeeArah Wright for my last Ostracon piece, she held up the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia, which gives grants to individual women, trans, and gender nonconforming artists, as one model to which others might aspire. Denise Brown has been Leeway’s executive director since 2006, following a strategic shift that moved this small family foundation from a predominantly white staff to majority people of color on the staff and board of directors. Leeway Foundation worked with community advisors, which included artists, to design a new application that focused on formative personal, political, and artistic experiences as opposed to your typical signifiers of value like CVs.

In Brown’s mind, the Jeff Tweedy example speaks to the problematic relationship that the Turners alluded to: The power to determine how much money will be given and who it goes to remains with the white man who holds the wealth. “What turns it into reparations is how much agency and autonomy those people have who are supposed to benefit from his decision to give resources,” said Brown. “What is their role in defining what that looks like? That is when it starts to veer more towards reparations. Until then, it’s just a charitable impulse.”

Brandi and Carlton Turner (right) with Sipp Culture’s Rural Performance/Production Lab advisors.

Brandi Turner suggested to me that reparations must involve systemic change that “serves us as a whole, as humans.” However, arts funders have a tendency to shift their priorities to support trends—arts engagement in low-income neighborhoods, DEAI training in museums, or COVID relief for artists, for example. I’m not suggesting that support is not needed in these areas but there’s little indication that these philanthropic dollars dismantle systems that uphold injustice, or alter power structures, or close the racial wealth gap, or mend the decades of underfunding, disinvestment, and destruction in Black communities. A donation is, to paraphrase one of my students, akin to using a tourniquet instead of repairing the actual wound. “Most of these large philanthropies are not progressive enough to see how they could help to foster and sustain the type of change that’s needed in order to have a different type of world,” Carlton told me, “Even though a lot of them have the equity and diversity language, that only goes so far.”

What to do with a broken democracy: Ostracism and other lessons from Athens

Just days from the most consequential presidential election in modern times, the brokenness of the political system of the United States could scarcely be more evident. But how to mend the fractures in our body politic? In a bit of poetic irony, perhaps the solution can be found through more brokenness—in particular, the shards of pottery from which this site takes its name.

 

With a monumentally important presidential election upon us, the brokenness of the political system of the United States could scarcely be more evident. On one hand we have a president, accused of coddling white supremacists and influence-peddling from the Oval Office, who has consistently defied historical precedent, the law, scientific consensus, and common decency (not to mention the will of voters). On the other, the opposition party has seemed ill-equipped or structurally unable to serve as a substantial counterweight. Further, it could be American democracy itself that is breaking apart: Donald Trump has said he may not abide by the results of the 2020 election, and his surrogates, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), appear to be unconvinced of the value of non-autocratic rule: “We’re not a democracy. Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are,” he opined in a pair of tweets on October 8, 2020.

How to approach such brokenness? In a bit of poetic irony, perhaps the solution can be found through more brokenness—in particular, remnants of the work of artisans, the shards of pottery this website takes its name from.

Ostraka from the Agora excavation site in Athens. Photo courtesy the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. All image design by Ian Babineau

In the 5th Century BC, the Greek city-state of Athens brought the world its first democracy. Deriving from the Greek terms for people (dêmos) and power (krátos), it was a system of direct representation in which male citizens over the age of 20—women, foreigners, and slaves were prohibited from participating—would gather regularly at the Agora, on a hillside near the Acropolis, to tend to community concerns and vote on issues of the day. Once a year this convening, the ekklesia (Anglicized to ecclesia) would hold a special vote meant to hold rulers and other citizens accountable for their actions. This practice of removing real or perceived wrongdoers from political life for a time, which gives us our modern-day term “ostracism,” seems to have been created around 507 BC, according to references in Aristotle’s The Constitution of the Athenians, following the city-state’s rule by tyrants—a series of autocratic rulers who assumed power unconstitutionally—from around 560 to 510 BC.

Here’s how it worked: If a quorum of 6,000 was reached, a fraction of the total population of between 30,000 and 60,000 at the time, and a simple majority voted in favor, a second vote would take place two months later. But paper ballots weren’t used. The closest thing, papyrus, had to be imported from Egypt, so a more common material was recycled: bits of broken pottery called ostraka (often spelled ostraca or, in its singular form, ostracon). In this second vote—again, after a quorum had been reached—voters would scratch the name of a citizen onto a potsherd, someone they believed showed anti-democratic leanings or had otherwise earned public contempt. After all the shards were gathered, votes would be tallied and the individual whose name appeared most often would be required to leave Athens for 10 years (or face execution). Upon their return—presumably having had time to think about what they’d done—all would be forgiven: they could return to the community, seek public office (if so desired), and resume ownership of property or possessions (welcome back to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump!).

“One important feature of ostracism was that it did not require a formal charge,” James Sickinger, an ostraka expert and Classics professor at Florida State University, told me. “It was an extralegal or extrajudicial procedure. There was no indictment, and as far as we know there was no formal debate when it was time for a vote. There was not even a formal list of candidates or potential victims. Athenian citizens presumably discussed among themselves whom they wanted to send into exile in the days and weeks before the final vote.”

Those who were ostracized, or sent into exile by ostracism, weren’t always government officials, Sickinger adds, although they often were. “What does seem to be the case is that most individuals who were ostracized were deemed to be ‘too big for their britches’ (my phrase) and to display anti-democratic (or aristocratic) traits, [but] some ostraka actually refer to the sexual practices of their candidates. Others accuse candidates of crimes (like bribery) and possibly treason. There was no precise definition of what made someone susceptible to ostracism, so it really boiled down to strong public sentiment against an individual.”

The Constitution of the Athenians. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

So, in today’s climate, Trump could be removed from office at the will of the people for any grievance, from showing disregard for the constitution to sexual assault, defaming soldiers and veterans to not paying his fair share in taxes to, simply, telling a heap of lies. Without any formalized system like ostracism in place, the closest thing we have today might be social media–driven “cancel culture,” which, like ostracism seeks to shun public figures as a way of seeking accountability, but unlike Athenian ostracism of yore, seems to leave little room, at times, for redemption for the accused.

In a 2003 op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, the director of Agora Excavations at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, called for a modern-day reconsideration of this ancient democratic practice, noting that “those in office might not like it, but a return to ostracism would certainly return power to the people and ensure that their voices were heard and heeded.” But in his piece John McKesson Camp also noted several other accountability measures baked into Athenian democracy that merit a second look today: dokimasia, “an examination to check the qualifications of an individual before entering office,” and euthynai, “a formal rendering of accounts at the end of a term of office.”

The Athenian Agora excavation site, 1997. Photo courtesy the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Reached at his home in Virginia, Camp highlighted two elements of democracy from ancient Greece, “accountability and term limits, both of which are essentially ignored today.” (One new development on the accountability front: last week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) introduced a bill that would create a commission that would rule on the physical or psychological fitness of future presidents should their removal from office under the 25th Amendment be warranted.)

Ostracon of Megakles Hippokratous Alopekethen. Photo courtesy the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

“The dokimasia presumably checked beforehand that you were an individual in theory capable of holding office: you were not the village idiot, you had not murdered your parents or fondled the wrong young man, etc.,” Camp tells me. “And the euthynai were a built-in part of the deal, a given that those leaving office presumably underwent automatically, so it did not fall to anyone to have to file charges.”

If in force today, these twin practices might have prevented, or at least provided a fair accounting of, the candidacy of a man wildly unprepared for office and a presidency likely to be followed by a spate of potential legal actions related to everything from bank and insurance fraud to sexual misconduct to tax evasion.

John McKesson Camp walks at the Agora excavation site, from the video “John Camp: A Life at the Athenian Agora.”

But in trying to fix what’s broken, Camp says, it’s ostracism that “the ultimate in accountability.” Were it part of modern American democracy, it’d be “a huge opportunity to ensure that the do-nothing Congress did something. If each knew they were a good candidate for removal next month that might help focus them on the task (any task) at hand.”

Ceding Power: On Reparations in the Arts

Reparations for Black Americans can take many forms. What might this look like in the arts? This post kicks off a conversation series with artists and culture-makers about the possibilities for distributive justice in the arts to repair the historical and ongoing damage of anti-Blackness.

Courtney Cook and Italy Welton. Photo: Ed Forti. All images courtesy of JACK, New York.

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, white-led institutions and companies of all sizes published Black Lives Matter statements, declaring solidarity with their Black staff and constituents and committing to anti-racism. Now that the period of platitudes has subsided, I wonder which arts institutions are engaged in the daily and deeply uncomfortable work of undoing racism? Who in our arts communities is performing allyship and who’s actually relinquishing power to advance Black liberation?

In the arts, we’re awfully good at intellectualizing injustice, studying and theorizing how we got somewhere as a society while failing to recognize how our own institutions perpetuate and benefit from brutality against our fellow human beings. Our arts leaders are swift to write empty inclusion statements, organize panel discussions on social justice, and publish white papers on diversity and equity strategies that took years to develop. But they are slow to take action, with boards and bureaucracies serving as excuses or real obstacles to structural change. And why should we expect more when so many cultural institutions and the people who fund them built their fortunes on the backs of enslaved peoples, by pillaging not only their artifacts and ideas but by stealing their land and lives? Maybe this is why the discourse on reparations for Black Americans sits on the periphery of the arts feeling as taboo as P-Valley is to Hollywood, as sidelined yet as present as Colin Kaepernick.

Repair from the harm of anti-Blackness requires action, not a social media statement about how you intend to behave or what you want the public to believe but actual sacrifice. As Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, explained in our interview earlier this year: 

“There’s a misconception that the main issue with racism has to do with how individuals treat each other. In other words, ‘be nicer’ when, actually, the main issue with racism is institutional or structural. We can’t solve racism by teaching tolerance or helping people be nice. We solve racism by giving over the lands, the money, the positions of influence in organizations and government and then we share those fairly in society. It’s not about intention; it’s actually about the outcome. We’ll have racism until all metrics of the distribution of power and resources don’t have racial differentials.”

Soul Fire Farm operates with a reparations framework, which means the farm not only acknowledges “that labor was taken, that land was taken, that resources continue to be taken,” says Penniman, they teach folks “to give them back without the associated social capital or ally bash. Just give them back because it’s the right thing to do.” Penniman has seen this emphasis on action in their Uprooting Racism workshops lead to “some pretty profound change,” from “small acts, like well-resourced organizations dedicating twenty percent of their grant writer’s time to writing grants for frontline Black and Indigenous-led organizations that need that support without fanfare, up to giving away ten acres of land.” 

This got me thinking: What forms might reparations for Black Americans take in the arts? What’s our twenty-first century version of 40 acres and a mule? How might reparations in our sector support the larger-scale systemic change needed in, say, housing, healthcare, and education? How are artists and culture-makers envisioning reparations in their creative corners of society, from farms and restaurants to museums, performance spaces, and publishing houses? And what platforms are being used to advance these visions? In this conversation series, I attempt to get answers to these questions.


Absolutely improbable and absolutely necessary

DeeArah Wright (left), former JACK co-director, and Alec Duffy (right), JACK co-director and co-founder. Photo: Ed Forti.

In February 2017, the New York performance venue JACK launched Reparations365, a series of performances, workshops, and conversations about distributive justice for Black Americans. The timing of the series was accidentally perfect: Trump had recently been sworn into office, and Congress had just introduced the H.R.40 bill to:

Address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.

Really, what better time to start a community forum on reparations, “the single most divisive idea in American politics,” than after the election of the most divisive president some have seen in their lifetime? As JACK put in its website, “In the aftermath of the [Trump] campaign, the idea of reparations feels both absolutely improbable and absolutely necessary.”

Reparations365 started with JACK co-founder and co-director Alec Duffy, a cis white man, who brought the idea to his co-director at the time, DeeArah Wright, a cis Black woman who now sits on JACK’s board. Duffy was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, “The Case for Reparations.” I got the sense that Wright was on the fence about the topic at first. “My work and activism in arts and education is more powered by a sense of self-determination, not consistently looking to this idea of reparations,” she told me via Zoom. “I’m definitely for reparations but I was interested in shaping something that felt like a non-prescriptive way of thinking about it. How could we facilitate this conversation in a creative way, incorporating the arts in thinking about what it means to repair? We thought a lot about how artists are always deconstructing something and creatively putting it back together in ways that make sense for our community; really thinking about what we have and then using that to assess what do we really need and what do we truly want?” So far, JACK has hosted more than 40 conversations on reparations, and Wright has moderated all but one. Participants have ranged in age, from 17 to 70ish, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, though most participants have been Black. 

A community conversation at JACK. Photo: Ed Forti.

People hold such strong opinions about reparations that discussions on the topic tend to get contentious, even in my own family. What was it like to moderate an interracial, intergenerational dialogue on reparations with strangers who haven’t been indoctrinated into the politically correct conventions of arts dialogue? “There were plenty of uncomfortable and a few volatile moments,” Wright recalls. One disharmony stood out to her: Participants often had difficulty “finding the balance between actively listening and being triggered when people talked about how systematic oppression and racism have impacted their lives.” This meant “being able to sit with some really uncomfortable truths.” Other tensions arose around logical but complicated questions: Who is responsible and accountable for reparations? Who should be trusted in the work? Whose job it is to do the heavy lifting, Black or non-Black people? From Duffy’s perspective, “there’s a lot of mistrust in white people doing that work for Black people,” he said. “How are we ensuring that it’s not just white people trying to solve problems again? We’re always wanting to have the solution and that has often turned out very poorly.”

A home to our neighbors

JACK, New York. Photo: Alec Duffy.

Located in a former garage space in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, JACK was co-founded in 2012 by Duffy and several of his colleagues. They wanted to create a theater that, as he said, “reflected the diversity of New York City and felt like it could be a home to our neighbors.” Duffy and his wife used their savings of $75,000 to start the space, and “the money ran out after about five months.” By that time, they were making just enough from ticket sales and rentals to keep JACK going, though never sure if they’d make the next month’s rent. “All sorts of people started coming into our orbit that wanted to program dance and have their own music concerts,” said Duffy. So, JACK quickly evolved into a multidisciplinary performance venue. 

The murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner two years later marked another turning point at JACK. “There were protests coursing through New York City and I was asking myself how JACK could provide support to this movement for racial justice at this particular moment.” Duffy’s response was “Ferguson Forward,” six months of programming on racial justice that incorporated benefit parties for local activists. The public response to the series helped Duffy realize that “JACK was not just a space for performance, but a space for activating our community around critical issues of the day.” Motivated to dig deeper into racial justice, Duffy knew, as he told me, “it was pretty problematic for a white male to be leading the visioning around that.” So, instead of using a grant he’d received to hire JACK’s first development director, Duffy hired Wright, an artist and organizer he’d gotten to know in the neighborhood.

“How do we make our organization reflect the values that we’re talking about in the reparations series?,” Duffy said. “By sharing and being in solidarity with people of color and making sure that the leadership of JACK is not just white-led. That influences everything I’m doing on a daily basis in terms of our work with programming, fundraising, partnerships, building relationships in the neighborhood, thinking about what conversations we want to frame at JACK, and how we want to have an impact on our community.”

Anyone can make a declaration of solidarity on behalf of their institution, but our true values show up in how we treat people and in the choices we make outside of work. When I asked Duffy how Reparations365 has impacted his daily actions, he stumbled a bit, saying, “I don’t have an individual reparations practice yet. I haven’t yet been bold or brave enough to go there.” He began reflecting on JACK’s forum on the intersectionality of reparations and parenting: “It ended up being about how white parents can make sure they’re not contributing to racial injustice in the way they raise their children . . .  As a newish parent myself, with toddlers, that’s very much influenced what I know will be our next 10 to 15 years of decision making. Now, is that reparations? I’m not sure.” I’d argue that it’s not, but it’s lovely nonetheless to think of child-rearing as a series of actions driven by desire to repair the harm of anti-Blackness, not the so-called progressive teachings of tolerance. The true test of Duffy’s commitment will be the consistency of his actions as his family needs change over time.

Transferring power and shifting relationships

Allyship to Solidarity chart via Fakequity. Framing and graphic by Equity Matters.

Wright and Duffy have different visions for reparations in the arts, but they align around the idea that there has to be organizational restructuring to even start a larger conversation on reallocation. Wright (who is now director of Education at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum) says, “There are so many ways that reparations could look on a personal or organizational level,” yet she offers this recommendation inspired by Reparations365:

“White-led and founded arts organizations can make ongoing and active commitments to unpack their organizational history, publicly acknowledge how they have benefited from oppressive systems and white privilege, and make a related public pledge to reparations. Active reparations within the organization could include offering Black team members reparative offerings to support their work-life flow, like additional paid personal days and a chosen, flexible work schedule. Arts organizations could also ensure that Black and Indigenous folks are in empowered positions on the board and leadership team, even if this means white team members must step away. 

All folks who want to be an active part of reparations in the arts could complete an ongoing combination of anti-racist training, accountability practice, and direct action, such as committing to paying down or paying off a Black artist’s student debt; offering no-cost services to Black artists; or, transferring ownership of land and spaces to Black and Indigenous artists and organizations.”

Wright seems optimistic about reparations but, true to her spirit of self-determination, she’s looking ahead to the homestead cooperative—“an ecosystem of land co-stewarded by Black and Indigenous members who thrive and create home together”—that she and her husband are launching in upstate New York. 

Meanwhile, Duffy is focused on the nonprofit racial leadership gap. “We’re thinking a lot in arts orgs right now about succession planning for leaders because there are a lot of white-led arts organizations and so what does it look like in the context of this current movement?” Duffy is one of 40 New York–based arts leaders that participated in an Undoing Racism workshop led by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond a few years ago. This cohort, which is racially mixed but mostly white, began meeting regularly when the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests began.

“There’s talk about transferring power, shifting power, and shifting relationships. It’s never been talked about necessarily as reparations but more like, ‘This is the healthy way for our organizations to develop,’ that we need more voices of color in our highest leadership positions.” But Duffy finds that some of his peers don’t see racial inequity (let alone reparations) as their problem to solve. And let’s be honest, even the most well-intentioned folks can be in succession planning mode for years with zero sense of urgency to move on.

Whether Black arts leaders will want positions that white leaders now hold raises a host of other questions. Does the salary match or exceed what white workers are being offered? (Efforts to reduce the racial wealth gap through salaries could be a form of reparations.) Where is the job located, and are the residents hostile toward Black bodies? Will new Black leadership be embraced or embattled by the staff and board? What’s the financial health of the organization that’s being handed to the successor? Would it be better to build a new organization with equity at its core or try to turn someone else’s ship by doing the exhausting work of changing hearts and minds? “I guess another tension is that some Black arts organizations that I’ve been in contact with are like, ‘We don’t want to sit at your table,’” said Duffy. “‘We created our own table.’”

Ceding power to Black leaders isn’t reparations. However, it is part of a reparations process in a sector that’s controlled by white wealth and largely caters to its wants and whims. This is not to say Black leadership can’t reinforce the values of whiteness but we at least need more opportunities to lead. If we can’t get a seat at the table and the power to make decisions, how are we going to create the conditions in the arts for reparations to occur?

In Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, a restauranteur puts justice at the heart of rebuilding plans

“Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.” Shared online after Gandhi Mahal was destroyed in the unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder, the words of Ruhel Islam went viral. Now that the dust has settled, the Minneapolis restauranteur and sustainability advocate discusses what’s next, for his business and his multi-modal mission of “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”

The rubble where Gandhi Mahal once stood. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

On the third night of unrest over the police killing of George Floyd, Gandhi Mahal burned to the ground, and the words of the Minneapolis restaurant’s owner, Ruhel Islam—shared on Facebook by his 19-year-old daughter, Hafsa—shot around the globe: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served: put those officers in jail.” For those of us who frequented Islam’s business, located a block from the Minneapolis police station where Floyd’s killers worked, they were powerful, if unsurprising: for 12 years, justice—social and environmental—was as compelling a draw for Gandhi Mahal customers as Islam’s award-winning cuisine. But for the rest of the world, the moral clarity of his call struck a resonant note. Quickly, the post went viral, sparking more than 33,000 shares, 40,000 reactions, and 3,100 comments, expressing love, thanks, and pledges of support—and drawing the attention of media outlets worldwide, from the New York Times, CNN, and the Boston Globe to London’s Daily Mail, The Times of India, and the Dhaka Tribune.

Flowers blanket the ground in front of Peyton Scott Russell’s portrait of George Floyd outside Cup Foods, the site where Minneapolis police killed Floyd. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

Now that the dust—and ashes—has settled and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, it’s time for Islam, and Minneapolis, to begin rebuilding. A month after his restaurant was destroyed, we met at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard gardens that supplied produce to Gandhi Mahal, to discuss that night in May, the future of his creative community-building, and how he aims to expand his mission of fostering change through food at a new Gandhi Mahal.

Bringing Peace by Pleasing the Palate

It’s an understatement to say that 2008 was a momentous year for Ruhel Islam. He became a US citizen, eight years after arriving here, and, after running Little Taj Mahal in the food court of the Dinky Dome on the University of Minnesota campus for several years, he opened Gandhi Mahal, with his brother Jamil, in a building just off Lake Street. The mission was simple, if wildly ambitious: “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”

Ruhel Islam at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard neighborhood farms that sourced produce for Gandhi Mahal. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

More than a marketing slogan, the phrase has been activated at Gandhi Mahal in the dozen years since. Tough enough for any restaurant to achieve, that “pleasing palates” part of the mission has been delivered on through and through: the menu’s mix of Indian and Bangladeshi dishes earned Gandhi Mahal a visit from Guy Fieri and numerous local best-Indian-restaurant honors (my family’s favorite: the lamb rogan josh).

But its cuisine is only part of the story of peacefulness towards people and planet. “From the beginning,” he says, “my mission has been to lead by example. It’s what I’ve always done.” That aim has guided an array of endeavors that seek justice in their own right while also spotlighting practices Islam hopes are more widely adopted.

David Gray, a longtime friend of Islam’s and himself an influential node in Minneapolis’s small-scale agriculture scene, says he’d often ask Islam, “How local are you?” The answer: “52 steps”—thanks to an aquaponics system installed in Gandhi Mahal’s basement in 2014, the first restaurant-based system of its kind in Minnesota, where the restaurant raised tilapia and grew tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. The 7,000-square-foot building’s rooftop was home to both a solar array and a bee yard that provided the restaurant honey (plans to raise quail on the roof hadn’t come to fruition by the time Islam’s building burned).

Ruhel Islam with tilapia raised in Gandhi Mahal’s aquaponics garden. Photo: David Gray, Bullthistle Gardens.

Even the vegetables grown off site had a staggeringly low number of food miles—anywhere from a hundred yards to an hour’s drive away. Some came from a community garden planted down the block or from farmers selling at the Midtown Farmers Market across the street, while other produce was sourced from the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden, a collaboration between the restaurant and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MNIPL), All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission, and New City Church. And, more surprisingly, Islam filled out his ingredient list through produce grown in a dozen or so extremely small-scale farms dotted across south Minneapolis.

Gray first met Islam at the farmer’s market a dozen years ago when he was selling produce from eQuality, an organic farm in nearby Buffalo staffed by people with developmental disabilities. Islam would push a giant food cart—the kind you’d haul lumber on at a big box store—and go from vendor to vendor, making sure to buy something at each stall. “My booth was last, and when he got to me, that cart was loaded,” he remembers. “And sometimes he’d apologize. ‘I’m sorry, friend, but I have everything I need.’ And I said, ‘As long as you just stop and say hi, that’s all I care about.'” They struck up a friendship, with Gray advising on various aspects of the restaurant, including the aquaponics system. Since leaving eQuality nearly two years ago, Gray has been running Bullthistle Gardens out of his bungalow two miles south of Gandhi Mahal, his basement filled with grow lights and his backyard home to a giant greenhouse.

He’s impressed by the genius of supplying a restaurant using veggies grown in the backyards of neighbors. “Ruhel identified people that had space in their yards for gardens, and he funded it. He said, ‘I’ll give you seeds, everything you need.’ He even had staff that would oversee it and help them. And at harvest time, they’d bring it back and he’d buy it from them,” Gray explains. “He did simple math. You come out way ahead: you get local food at a good price, but it’s from the community.” (Islam, an early member of the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, was instrumental in getting city regulations changed to allow for market gardens and urban farms within the city.)

Islam looks at cilantro flowers, grown at Bullthistle Gardens to be harvested for coriander for his restaurant. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

These values of connection and cultivating community extend beyond agriculture as well. Ruhel and Hafsa have been involved with Black Lives Matter, protesting the police killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and the elder Islam visited Standing Rock during the protests in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Gandhi Mahal has been hiring ex-offenders since 2012, thanks to a partnership with Volunteers of America. In 2018, he and Hafsa, who are Muslim, took a relief trip to Bangladesh in support of the NGO Sports for Hope and Independence Bangladesh and visited with Rohingya refugees, delivering letters from Minneapolis schoolkids to children there.

Fittingly, following the uprising over George Floyd’s killing, Islam took to Facebook in a pledge to continue doing what he long has, making space—and food—for people in his community:

…It is crucial in this moment to have dialogue to continue the healing process and create hearts and minds that are focused and finding a new way forward together. You tell me what table you will be meeting to have this dialogue and I will cook for you. We are not only feeding your stomach but also your soul.

A Rohingya boy in a Gandhi Mahal sport jersey. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam.

May 29, 2020

Feeding is what Islam and his family were doing the night Gandhi Mahal burned. Business was slow the evening of May 29 due to roads being blockaded by police and the restaurant’s proximity to the Third Precinct station, Hafsa recalls. Then riot police moved on demonstrators and began throwing teargas canisters and firing rubber bullets. A street medic ran into the restaurant and asked if she could bring in a demonstrator who’d been tear-gassed. Islam agreed, offering space in the Climate Hub, an adjacent storefront that was home to local climate advocacy groups. With no medical training, Hafsa joined in, helping one woman get undressed (and redressed in dry clothes, including a Gandhi Mahal 10th-anniversary T-shirt unearthed from the basement by her dad) and assisting others as their contact lenses were removed, eyes washed with milk, and wounds from rubber bullets cleaned.

Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits, across the street from Gandhi Mahal, was one of many businesses destroyed in the uprising following George Floyd’s murder. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, staff prepared rice and dal, an Indian lentil soup, to share with medics and demonstrators. “When people had a hard time in the village over in Bangladesh, they’d send dal and rice to everyone because it’s very simple to make,” Hafsa says, “but it’s also very nutritious and gives you everything you need.” Around 1 a.m., Ruhel Islam headed to the home he shares in south Minneapolis with his wife and their four children. The next morning, Hafsa reported online that the restaurant was gone. She vowed: “Gandhi Mahal may have felt the flames last night, but our fiery drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! “

Islam’s immediate response to that news: “We can rebuild. The main mission is not about burning buildings; the mission is justice.” But then things sunk in. “This is a labor of love. Thirteen years of building so many small pieces from all around the world, from my Bangladesh village. My grandfather’s picture was there,” he tells me. “My children grew up there. I found my home here.”

The Islam family at Hafsa’s high school graduation in 2019: Hanifa, Humaira, Ruhel, Hafsa, Hamza, and Sultana. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam.

“I felt so many things,” he adds. “But I felt overwhelming support and love: I felt that right away. That’s why my pain was very little.”

With news reports investigating the role of white supremacists and other extremists in violence and property destruction, I asked him how he felt about those who burned his restaurant. “It doesn’t matter who did this, but why this happened is what matters to me,” he says. “I blame no one. This is a sacrifice of another building; it’s not a life.”

He’s heartened by the response online to his words and the fact that they reverberated around the world and to his village in Bangladesh, where as a darker-skinned child he felt the sting of colorism. “I felt that pain. It’s a different kind of pain [from what Black Americans experience],” he acknowledges, but one that has reinforced his longstanding solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements. “As Brother King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”

A mural on the boarded-up window of Moon Palace Books on Minnehaha Avenue, near Gandhi Mahal. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

One bit of praise from back home was especially bittersweet. Islam’s 85-year-old uncle, Faizur Rahman, called in late June, a few days before our meeting. “He told me, ‘I’m happy because you spoke out. This is what we are! I’m so proud looking at you in the New York Times.'” Then he advised, “Don’t take too long to rebuild. Rebuild it quickly because people are watching you. We are all watching you. Our prayers are with you—and a lot of people who did not get justice, their prayers are all with you, too.” Then Islam’s uncle blessed him.

What Rahman didn’t tell his nephew was that he’d contracted COVID-19, and two days after that phone call he passed away, one of the nearly 3,100 Bangladeshi victims of the pandemic so far.

Food and an Uncertain Future

In planning to rebuild—a process Islam says could take four or five years—Gandhi Mahal’s owner takes his uncle’s words to heart: people are watching, giving Islam the opportunity to leverage that attention to promote his family’s values around sustainability and community. He’s convened a group of restaurant staff, neighbors, architects and designers, community elders, and others to work collaboratively on a rebuilding plan that could put a structure up to six stories tall on the restaurant’s former footprint. His dream for the design: “addressing every single issue we have in our life. One of the main goals I want to achieve is a fully fed community. And everyone means every part of our community: people, plants, trees, bugs, birds, animals.”

But the start has been slow. Islam is partnering with MIGIZI, the Native youth center next door, to share demolition costs, but two months after the restaurant’s destruction such work hasn’t yet begun. The City of Minneapolis, Hafsa reported on Facebook on July 25, is making demolition permits conditional upon tax payments, an additional burden for business owners, many not fully insured, who she says may have to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 to move rubble and prepare for rebuilding. (Following publication of this piece, a city representative shared that state law requires collection of property taxes before demolition permits can be approved.) Just today, July 31, Islam signed a lease that will reopen the restaurant on the site of the former Chef Shack restaurant on the corner of Franklin and 31st avenues during construction. He notes that a food truck will likely be part of the temporary solution while the new space is being developed.

Graffiti mural on the exterior of Arbeiter Brewing, just across the street from where Gandhi Mahal stood. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

With the new building, Islam’s aims are to “come back strong.” He promises to continue sustainability efforts from the past and incorporate new ones: he’ll again build a zero-waste operation that utilizes solar panels, aquaponics, and a rooftop bee colony, but he also hopes for a LEED-certified building that has room to raise chickens and goats on-site. He’s interested in exploring sustainable materials like compressed earth blocks and passive solar, and he plans to design with future pandemics in mind. “COVID is going to be a long-term problem,” he says. “I’m thinking about when it comes back in one, two, or 30 years.”

One idea is to combine sustainability and physical distancing: “Tables will probably have planters between them or an aquaponics bed,” he says. “If you like spicy food, maybe you can just reach over and grab a chili or salad greens.”

Peppers grown during winter in Gandhi Mahal’s basement aquaponics garden. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam

He’d also like to incorporate community housing. “My thinking is, by calling it affordable housing, you’re dividing people,” so he’s interested in multi-generational, intercultural housing instead, with affordability as a key value.

Over time, chances are Islam’s plans will be scaled back, whittled down by pragmatic factors from city permitting delays and the intricacies of municipal ordinances to funding hurdles and the nuts-and-bolts realities of translating a vision in his mind into a bricks-and-mortar facility. But it’s this vision that drew me to Islam for The Ostracon: he acknowledges the power of art but doesn’t identify as an artist, yet he lives like one. He interrogates the world around him, investigating what can be different. He brings into view ideas he wants his community to know matter. He experiments, reworks, tries again. And he models for the rest of us that other, more just, futures are possible.

He envisions Bangladesh. He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living.

As Gray puts it, “He sees how powerful food is, culturally speaking.”

He’s compelled by Islam’s vision, too: “He envisions Bangladesh,” he says. “He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living. If you could walk to Uptown and there were fruit trees you could pick from, vegetables growing everywhere, raised boxes, people growing things on the rooftops, just a complete free-for-all based around food—that’s what he sees.”

While Islam’s plans sound positively utopian—a six-story, zero-waste complex that houses community members affordably, raises bees and fish and vegetables, while also serving as a hub for social justice activism?—I have hope he can do it.

Ruhel Islam in front of the rain tree he planted at his childhood primary school, 2018. Photo: Bob York, courtesy Ruhal Islam.

Passing the site of Gandhi Mahal recently, I spotted a small white plastic square affixed to the chain link barrier surrounding the pit of rubble and burnt metal. Apparently a sign used when the restaurant had donated catering services for community events, it depicted a black tree, its thick branches extending wide to each side, along with the words “Special Thanks to Gandhi Mahal.” In marker, someone had drawn a heart and wrote, “We love you!”

The tree at the center of Gandhi Mahal’s logo, a rain tree, is based on one outside his primary school in Bahar Mordan, a village in the city of Sylhet in northeast Bangladesh. As a child there, Islam followed the lead of his father, who’d won a gold medal for leading a tree-planting campaign in the community, and rallied his brothers and classmates to join him in planting the tree. More than three decades later, it still stands there today, larger and stronger, a testament to a leader whose vision grew something tiny into something much, much bigger.

How on earth will we build a whole new world?

Leah Penniman, the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, talks about healing from generations of land-based trauma and creating a more just food system.

Leah Penniman. All images courtesy of Soul Fire Farm except where noted.

Years ago, when I just began to learn about food justice, I volunteered to help out at a youth-run farm in Brooklyn that had been devastated by a storm. As a thank you to the volunteers, we received a free workshop on garlic at the end of the day. I don’t remember one iota about planting or harvesting garlic, but I’ve never forgotten how the workshop leader, a young white woman, responded when someone asked why the predominantly Black youth who worked there lacked access to healthy foods. “Nothing in the food system happens by accident,” she replied. In other words, unequal access is by design.

Our food system is inseparable from the larger social, economic, and political institutions that place power in the hands of a privileged few while others go without.1Eric Holt-Giménez and Breeze Harper, “Dismantling Racism in the Food System,” Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First/Food First Books, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2016. https://foodfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/DR1Final.pdf Leah Penniman, the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, calls this “food apartheid—a human-created system of segregations, which relegates some people to food opulence and other people to food scarcity.”2Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, “How Do We End ‘Food Apartheid’ in America? With Farms Like This One,” AlterNet, June 12, 2017, https://www.alternet.org/food/how-do-we-end-food-apartheid-america-farms-one Located in upstate New York, Soul Fire Farm is a for-profit agriculture venture and nonprofit educational space widely recognized for its “commitment to ending racism and injustice in our food system.” I scoffed a bit the first time I read the farm’s mission statement because any system without racism is almost beyond my ability to imagine. (I acknowledge I have a deep-rooted mistrust from working for too many nonprofits that let racism stand in the way of their mission.) But then I attended Penniman’s lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design last April, and I was challenged to think more deeply about the critical role of imagination in dismantling anything. To quote the cultural strategist Anasa Troutman, “If you are unable to imagine a new story . . . then how on earth are you going to have the imagination to build a whole new world?”

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north, 1940–41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 inches.

Speaking to a packed house, Penniman told the history of our food system through images—John Gast’s American Progress (1872), photographs of incarcerated men and migrant workers laboring in fields, portraits of Dr. Booker T. Whatley and George Washington Carver, and vintage broadsides. One of the most memorable images li/she showed was an etching depicting African women while explaining how some wove seeds into their hair before being forced to board Middle Passage slave ships. (Penniman’s pronouns are li/ya/she/he. I use li in the remainder of this piece.)3Li is the Haitian Kreyol all-gender pronoun with no possessive form. To learn more, visit the Google Doc, “Pronouns for Leah” at https://docs.google.com/document/d/13e5h2YQ98P_uStshda1xcvNNcOiNvB9jSU8g1LE7HUI/edit “Stolen land and exploited labor are the DNA strands of the food system,” li said. Penniman reminded us that American slavery wasn’t just about labor; it was about acquiring the farming knowledge of African peoples. Li touched on the different periods in centuries of white terrorism, like the rampant lynchings that prompted “the refugee crisis we romantically call The Great Migration.” Li discussed the indignities of factory farms and the invisible contributions of Spanish-language-first migrant workers who make up 85 percent of the farm labor that provides our sustenance. Penniman concluded with an invitation to the audience to reflect on our own stories and lineages in relation to the food system, encouraging us to see ourselves as more than consumers.

At the time, Penniman was on an 18-month international tour for the book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. I spoke with li by phone a few months ago, just after the tour was cut short by the pandemic. “I wanted the book to do three things,” li explained while tending crops on the farm. “Be a practical, how-to garden guide that maybe for the first in a long time was written by not a white dude; start to rewrite the narrative of who has contributed to sustainable and regenerative agriculture in a way that uplifts the unique and precious contributions of Black, Indigenous, and people of color; and provide society as a whole, especially those with privilege, with some concrete [examples of] what you can do to create a more just food system.”

Farming While Black is an easy read yet feels biblical somehow, maybe due to the spiritual tone of the stories and lessons Penniman generously shares with the reader. It feels like a family album, too, a vibrant record of the joy and sweat that Penniman and li’s husband, Jonah, their children, Neshima and Emit, as well as staff, students, and volunteers have put into the land over the last ten years. In side columns throughout the book, Penniman situates Soul Fire Farm in a larger historical context through short backgrounders on agricultural practices and food justice influencers, including the Black Panthers, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm and Black Urban Growers, who wrote the book’s forward.

Highly conscious of the hero-industrial complex (the belief that a person arrives at success all alone, driven by their own genius), Penniman actively acknowledges those who came before or work alongside li, like Washington. Revered in the food world, I’ve always known Washington from afar as the woman who audaciously turned an empty lot in the Bronx into a garden long before it was the hipster-gentrifier thing to do. It was Washington who taught Penniman the concept of food apartheid. As li has said in another interview, “I would not be a farmer if it were not for [Mama Karen], because when I was a young woman—I was a teenager just getting into farming—I had a lot of doubts about whether I belonged in that movement as a Black woman.”4Karen Washington and Leah Penniman, “You Belong to the Land: A Conversation with Karen Washington and Leah Penniman,” Center for Humans and Nature. Accessed at https://www.humansandnature.org/you-belong-to-the-land-a-conversation-with-karen-washington-and-leah-penniman Washington helped li understand that Black farmers not only “have a noble legacy thousands of years old going back to the continent, but are the stewards of the future.” This resonates deeply as the COVID-19 pandemic underscores how critical farmers are to our survival and the longevity of this earth. The world as we know it is transforming and we have no idea what it will become, but the food system—how we eat, honor the land, and treat each other—is central to that transformation.

Soul Fire Farm predominantly works with African American, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. “What that means is we’re working with folks who have experienced generations of land-based trauma—slavery, sharecropping, the guest worker program, convict leasing, and more,” said Penniman. “That trauma is passed down and influences the way people relate not just to the land but to each other and to themselves, their own sense of purpose and worth and possibility. If we’re going to be in the business of calling people back to the land, part of it is paying attention to that trauma.” As much a farmer as a healer, in Farming While Black Penniman outlines the diasporic healing rituals employed at Soul Fire Farm such as dance, story circles, spiritual baths, and Haitian stone balancing. “These technologies have thrived for thousands of years because they’re very effective,” li says. “It’s important for us to make them accessible to folks who might have been disconnected previously.” Penniman’s work is art adjacent, and li’s healing practice extends to the collective Harriet’s Apothecary, founded by the artist Adaku Utah. The Apothecary members include Penniman’s sister, Naima Penniman, Soul Fire’s program director and one half of the acclaimed spoken word duo Climbing PoeTree.

Soul Fire’s work to heal historical and contemporary racialized traumas is deeper than the soil they till. In 2016, they worked with the Movement for Black Lives, contributing to the policy visions for economic justice and reparations. Then, they contributed to the Green New Deal through their work with various coalitions. More recently, they were tapped by both the Warren and Sanders campaigns to help develop their farming platforms. And Soul Fire continues to work with Heal Food Alliance, “a multi-sector, multi-racial coalition building collective power to transform our food and farm systems.” They’re also regular “rabble-rousers” around the Farm Bill. Their advocacy efforts are modeled in their own policies. For example, they’ve spent years developing relationships to establish a “cultural respect easement” that would allow Mohican citizens to use Soul Fire land, which was historically stewarded by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, “for ceremonies and wildcrafting in perpetuity.”

The so-called food movement promoted in mainstream media is largely driven by white folks who focus on individual choice, not systemic issues or community health. “I want us to question why we’re calling something a ‘movement’ that doesn’t center the needs of those most impacted by food injustice,” says Penniman. “We really have to be listening to the wisdom of frontline communities and making sure that they have the resources they need to thrive.” Soul Fire’s typically sold-out Farming Immersion program for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx heritage growers, and Uprooting Racism in the Food System training is where that work is most visible. The latter is not your typical diversity, equity, and inclusion training, says Penniman, because Soul Fire uses a reparations framework focused on action. As anti-racism resources are circulating online in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, Farming While Black is frequently cited—evidence of the book’s efficacy and definitely a sign of how much better our world would be if more people were working with the Soul Fire spirit.

Penniman cites feeding others during a summer internship at The Food Project in Boston as a turning point in li’s life as a farmer. But I wondered about li’s shift toward organizing and activism. “It’s always been,” said Penniman, from running li’s elementary school ecology club to protesting alongside li’s parents, both former members of the clergy, who were “very active” in the civil rights movement. “There are pictures of me with my crayon sign ‘No More War’ on my mom’s shoulders. I thank my parents for being that example of social justice warriors and caring deeply about community.”

Black Birth Matters

Documentary film and photography—from George Stoney’s All My Babies (1953) to LaToya Ruby Frazier’s 2018 photography series for the New York Times—have played a critical role in efforts to humanize Black maternal and infant mortality statistics.

“Simone Landrum holding her newborn son Baby Kingston” © LaToya Ruby Frazier. Courtesy the Artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome

In 1951, the Georgia State Department of Public Health and the Association of American Medical Colleges commissioned filmmaker George C. Stoney to create a documentary about childbirth, specifically, the practices of Black lay midwives in the Deep South. Also known as “granny” midwives, these women were trained through apprenticeship and respected healers in their communities. With the help of community liaisons, Stoney met Mrs. Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900–1966), a midwife who is said to have delivered more than 3,000 babies in roughly 30 years. For four months, Stoney followed “Miss Mary” to her patients’ homes, observing her practice and deriving inspiration for his script. Miss Mary would become the star of his film, All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story, a bizarre period piece that merges reenactments by a mostly Black cast with midwifery instruction, a live birth, and a hymnal soundtrack.

All My Babies was intended to educate lay midwives in the Deep South, and Stoney was given a list of 118 teaching points to incorporate. But the film found a broader audience. Advertised early on as one of the “outstanding humanist works of American cinema,” All My Babies holds a place in the pantheons of film history: Stoney donated his outtakes to the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Department, which was at one time a distributor of the film. And in 2002, the Library of Congress placed All My Babies on the United States National Film Registry, calling it “a culturally, historically and artistically significant work.”

Stoney paints a familiar picture of Black subjects under the tutelage of a white  “professional” or “expert.” What his film doesn’t show is how much the American medical establishment loathed—but learned—from granny midwives, drawing from their deep well of knowledge as community birth attendants before outlawing their practices. Women have always served as birth attendants, and it stands to reason that skilled birth workers in Black communities date back to ancient societies, though the literature focuses on slavery and segregation. In the antebellum years, Black midwives served their enslaved sistren and masters’ wives. Post-emancipation, they typically provided birth services to women in rural communities that lacked access to hospitals or women who feared medical establishments due to entrenched racism and, ostensibly, the decades of nonconsensual experiments on Black bodies. As Lynne Jackson writes, doctors and nurses generally looked down on lay midwives in the Deep South, recognizing them as a “temporary and unfortunate necessity.”1Lynne Jackson, The Production of George Stoney’s Film “All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story” (1952), Vol. 1, No. 4 (1987), p. 387.

Crisis Intervention

When All My Babies was released, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 3.6 times greater than that for white women. One could speculate that Jim Crow segregation and lacking medical technologies underlie this disparity. But now, nearly 70 years later, the statistics are not much better. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women in the United States die from pregnancy-related causes at a rate 2.5 times higher than their white counterparts.2Emily E. Petersen, MD; Nicole L. Davis, Ph.D.; David Goodman, Ph.D.; Shanna Cox, MSPH; Nikki Mayes; Emily Johnston, MPH; Carla Syverson, MSN; Kristi Seed; Carrie K. Shapiro-Mendoza, Ph.D.; William M. Callaghan, MD; Wanda Barfield, MD, “Vital Signs: Pregnancy-Related Deaths, United States, 2011–2015, and Strategies for Prevention, 13 States, 2013–2017,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 10, 2019. (Reports in previous years showed a rate of 3.3 to 4 times higher.) Black infants face similarly horrible odds with a mortality rate more than twice that of white infants. Why does this gap exist and persist? Everyday “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” anti-Black rhetoric would have us believe that poor lifestyle choices by individual mothers is the reason for the disproportionate statistics. But multiple studies point to structural inequities, including differential access to healthcare, healthy foods, clean drinking water, reliable transportation, and safe neighborhoods. Researchers also recognize that the chronic toxic stress of racial discrimination takes a toll on the body, increasing the risk of physical health problems. And then there is the centuries-old myth that Black people are impervious to pain, a racial bias that crosses class and influences medical care—or lack thereof—in doctor’s offices and maternity wards across the country. Women’s stories of neglect include rushed cesarean sections, too little anesthesia, and failure to listen when a mother senses that she or her baby may be in danger.

Andrea Chung, “Mesa 4,” from the Midwives Series, 2017.

Despite how much time has passed since All My Babies was created, the film continues to be germane, especially now amid a resurging demand for Black birth workers. Recent journalism has turned the spotlight on midwives and doulas of color, noting how their involvement fosters better health outcomes for Black families. (As an aside, a midwife or doula wasn’t even mentioned as an option when I was my sister’s Lamaze partner 28 years ago.) Birth workers serve as advocates for the mother but occupy different roles. Nowadays, midwives are clinically trained, licensed practitioners who deliver babies in homes and have access to hospitals if needed. Doulas are trained, unlicensed practitioners who provide emotional, physical, and educational support from pregnancy to labor to the postpartum period. In the past, a midwife might have done it all and in some countries or situations they still do.

Midwives and doulas were at the center of my recent conversation with the San Diego–based artist Andrea Chung and D’Yuanna Allen-Robb, the director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health at the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville, for the forthcoming book Women Picturing Revolution: Representations of Black Motherhood and Photography.3Edited by Lesly Deschler Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago, Women Picturing Revolution is due out in 2021. In 2018, Chung collaborated with Metro Public Health; Taneesha Reynolds, a certified nurse-midwife; and Ashley Couse, a doula and childbirth educator, to create cooking workshops for new and expectant mothers. Chung drew partial inspiration from her series, Midwives, an homage to granny midwives resulting from her research project with Dr. Alicia Bonaparte.

To understand the benefits of birth support from a public health perspective, I asked Allen-Robb, who heads a new community doula training. She named, among others, greater satisfaction in the birthing experience, lower incidences of experiencing hypertension, fewer complaints of post-surgery pain, and more reports of women returning to their healthcare provider for follow-up appointments. For Black women specifically, she spoke of the innate human need to belong and be in community. “The information shows that Black women primarily benefit from the psychosocial support and having a person or people who understand the unique experience of being Black. I know how I feel when I’m experiencing racism, and I know I’m not crazy because it’s a real thing. A mother [with a support system] might say, ‘I’m being treated differently and there is another voice or set of voices in a hospital setting who are going to advocate for me.’”

A still image from a lengthy hand-washing scene in All My Babies.

Reframing Birth Work

In this time of COVID-19, when the data tells us that the lives of the melanated and marginalized are once again overrepresented, and medical facilities are barring partners and birth workers from delivery rooms, it seems more important than ever to contemplate how the disease of racism that infects the American healthcare system has played out not only in terms of death but also in birth.

George Stoney wrote two birth scenes for All My Babies based on what he had experienced in the homes of Miss Mary’s patients. One scene was shot in a moderately well-off nuclear family home where everything was tidy and prepared. The other was shot in a shanty with the expecting couple depicted as emotionally traumatized and unprepared to welcome their child, believing it would be stillborn like their last. Swarming flies in this couple’s home suggest unsanitary conditions. “A main emphasis of the film is cleanliness and hygiene practices for the midwives,” writes Miriam Zoila Pérez. “But this emphasis foreshadows the eventual decline of the granny midwives and the messaging used to discredit them.” A combination of legislation and regulation eventually prohibited the services of granny midwives, but that was after they endured smear campaigns that portrayed them as dirty.

Stoney made efforts to exclude anything that might imply poor Black-white race relations in the American South or that might be seen as a northerner’s attempt to “exploit Southern poverty.” Despite—or maybe because of—what Stoney left out, All My Babies was lauded for its uniqueness, particularly for the way Stoney positioned granny midwives as respectable members of society. In later interviews, Stoney recalled comments that he had “heightened these people.” His editor said to him, “You have shown them so that I don’t think of them as Negroes, but just people.”4Lynne Jackson, The Production of George Stoney’s Film “All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story” (1952), Vol. 1, No. 4 (1987), p. 386.

“Landrum and her doula, Latona Giwa” © LaToya Ruby Frazier Courtesy the Artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome

Documentary film and photography have played a critical role in recent efforts to humanize Black maternal and infant mortality statistics. Take, for example, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photography for Linda Villarosa’s 2018 New York Times article, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” Frazier chronicled the pregnancy of Villarosa’s main subject, Simone Landrum, a New Orleans–based mother preparing to welcome her third child after the loss of her previous child. Two photographs spotlight the relationship between Landrum and her doula, Latona Giwa (co-founder of Birthmark Doula Collective). Working in the lineage of granny midwives, Giwa represents a life-affirming bridge in the mother-child-doctor relationship.

Frazier’s images echo something that Stoney wanted to portray: a celebration of childbirth and family as opposed to a depiction of trauma. “There are ways to say through photographs, ‘We are strong. We are supporting one another. We raise healthy children. We have this expectation for our families, and not only for our families, we have this expectation of the system around us,’” says Allen-Robb. “When we expect more, we demand more, and we hold people accountable for delivering on the more that we expect and demand. Photography, and images of Black women specifically, can be extremely powerful in not only systems shift, but also in helping us as a collective of individuals shift our own internalized thinking.” I would argue that the best art goes a step further and motivates people to action—which we need more of from all sectors of health and humanities because mothers and babies are dying unnecessarily.


For more information about Black maternal and infant health and advocacy, visit: