When it seems like the world around me is falling apart, sometimes I just feel like throwing my hands up in the air and giving up on humanity. I have always had the conviction that humans are inherently good, but there is also a lot of harrowing evidence that points to the contrary. As if you need the details, I’m thinking about the government’s terrifying attempt to erase transgender people, their condoning of sexual misconduct, the separation of immigrant families, and ongoing police brutality. When faced with such injustices, we can protest in the streets, go to the voting booth, donate money, be allies, call senators. As Angela recently reminded us, we can pursue paths of self-care and be kind to ourselves. In this same vein, we can also make an active effort to show kindness to those who cross our paths. To counteract the hate spread by certain populations with limited mindsets, we can make a point to be attentive to the people in our lives. We can listen closely to our friends’ concerns rather than just waiting our turn to speak, sit down with our colleagues to share experience and counsel, smile at those who pass us on the sidewalk (alas, as long as it doesn’t compromise our safety), and take the time to share with our loved ones how we feel about them.
Everyone reacts to tragic situations differently depending on their personal convictions, constraints, and resources. In recent months, I have also realized that putting more energy into meaningful work can be another response to despairing times. (I realize however that this, too, may be less of an option depending on your workplace and work community.) This can mean bringing more intention to projects that you deeply value or that might be inspiring. For me, this has often meant highlighting marginalized narratives in my teaching and writing. Lately, though, it has meant investing more creative energy into my digital project at Fisk. Through this project, I am able to underline racial and sexual injustices of the past but also spotlight more encouraging historical narratives. This work has also given me the opportunity to educate myself on African American history and to consider how I can utilize my skills and resources to amplify voices in the archive that have been historically marginalized.
To clarify, here’s a little background information on the project. I am in the midst of creating a digital archival exhibit that showcases female artists, writers, and scholars who received a Rosenwald Fellowship between 1928 and 1948.
How does this work help me cope with current political circumstances? Well, it reminds me that not all rich, white men are bad. In a perhaps counter-narrative to many contemporary examples, Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) was a Jewish philanthropist who, after amassing his wealth as a partner of Sears Roebuck, teamed up with Booker T. Washington to build over 5,000+ schools (including the one in the photo above) for African American youth living in the rural South. Later, inspired by W. E. B. DuBois’s concept of the “talented tenth,” he created the Rosenwald Fellowships, which financed the personal projects of hundreds of talented individuals. While white-philanthropist efforts are open to the critique of racial liberalism that governs representations of difference, this money undoubtedly paved the way for many to have critical access to education and artistic success.
This project also reminds me that women have, for a long time, unabashedly demanded recognition of their cerebral and creative brilliance, and have also combined their personal work with social aims. As a young woman, Mildred Blount knocked on the door of John Frederics, a famous American milliner (led by white men), to ask for work. They recognized her talent and hired her, though they would eventually take credit for her personal creations. With the help of a Rosenwald Fellowship in the mid-1940s, she eventually went on to create her own business. Blount became the “milliner of the stars,” who made hats for Gone with the Wind and also for big names like Marian Anderson, Gloria Vanderbilt, and A’Lelia Walker. In a letter to the Rosenwald Fund committee, she insisted that: “My desire to do this work is first of all to acquaint all who see it with the hidden possibilities of women.”* Elizabeth Catlett, another Rosenwald Fellow whose fellowship application and paintings are housed in Fisk’s Special Collections and Van Vechten Gallery, used Fund money between 1945 and 1947 to complete a series of lithographs, paintings, and sculptures “on the role of the Negro woman in the fight for democratic rights in the history of America.”** During the fellowship, she created works like “I Have Given the World My Songs,” “I Have Always Worked Hard in America,” and “Sojourner” to illustrate the role of African American women in American history.
This “Women of Rosenwald” project will include the stories of at least ten other inspiring women (Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, Augusta Savage, Margaret Walker, to name a few). To varying degrees, these artists endeavored to improve race relations, stimulate social justice, and cultivate cultural awareness through their work and contributions to their communities. These women are helping me to find seeds of hope in humanity. Like these women, I want to continue honoring my self-worth, demanding the recognition of my and others’ talents, and seeing that my work connects to greater goals of social equality and recognition.
*Blount, Mildred. Letter to William C. Haygood. February 1943. Rosenwald Fund Collection, Special Collections, Fisk University, box 394, folder 5.
**Catlett, Elizabeth. “Plan of Work.” 1945. Rosenwald Fund Collection, Special Collections, Fisk University, box 400, folder 7.