Tuesday, February 18, 2014

the start of some personal responses to the work of Carrie Mae Weems

"After Manet" © Carrie Mae Weems

This blog post is a personal response to seeing Carrie Mae Weems’ brillant exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Of course I thought about race and class and gender, as one must. Beginning with race.
In elementary school I knew only two black people.

Curline Mosley, my mother's cleaning lady who came in once (or twice?) a week from the south Bronx to clean and do the laundry (She knew those dirty secrets.) I think she also served me lunch when I was a little girl. I remember liking her, thinking she was kind. My mother used to give her my brother's and my "castoffs" since she also had two kids.

One day when I was about 7, she brought her young son with her (he was around my age). I remember (a VERY distinct memory because it was an epiphany) he said that he hated that his mother had to work cleaning for us "white people". This was really the first time I considered the situation.

The other black person I knew before I was 11 years old was Ronald Tyson, a boy in my class at PS 187 (in Washington Heights, Manhattan) who was bussed in from Harlem. I imagine his life was probably very confusing, as he was the token black in a room full of whites.  He was smart and tall and wore glasses and sat in the back of the room near the windows. I sat  in the front middle (I guess because I was short and nearsighted.)

In thinking back to that time (the class was mostly sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants and survivors) he must have felt very out of place. His ancestors from the diaspora via the south I would imagine (Now. Never gave a thought to it then.) I have wondered what happened to him; I wouldn't be surprised if he became a radical or Black Panther as soon as he grew up.**

In the early 1990s I worked for the NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation -  first as the photo archivist and then as a manager of a recreation center. One day there was a meeting for managers of recreation centers at the Parks Department headquarters in Flushing. I was the only white person at the meeting. No one would look at me or acknowledge me; they were very dismissive. I understood, but it hurt my feelings.

Feeling the shun of racism. Understanding the lesson, from the other side.. Thankful that I don’t have to live it everyday. Sympathetic to those who do.


**(I decided to search for Ronald and I found him on Facebook...! We have re-connected, wonderfully. Some of what I surmised is true, but it was a very positive experience for him. He is a Professor of English in New Jersey. We have more in common than I would have thought in 6th grade, and some mutual friends over the years.)

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