By Venise Keys, Edited by Cynthia Kukla
In the great tradition of Black Feminism, I have integrated a daily practice of self-love into my lifestyle as a full-time graduate student. This self-love is deeper than an assortment of wooden Afrocentric jewelry or a proclaiming Black Nationalist flag (although I proudly have both)…it is an active choice of engaging my ancestral heritage as a Black woman artist through knowledge and scholarship.
Here, I am distinguishing differences between knowledge that is attainable from experience, and scholarship that only holds importance between the walls of privileged institutions. This “experience” within knowledge cannot be measured by age; I have heard prolific life observations from children younger than 10. I am referring to the metaphysical feeling of acquiring meaningful ideas, developing an alternative perspective, and applying the information into a living practice.
What does this practice and alternative perspective look like? In my case, it started at the beginning of February 2015 with a personal social media campaign called #blackhistory365.
Although seemingly vague in its title, my intention was to showcase a different Black American artist as my profile picture each day of February. This action is more than a passive trending of statements and photos reinforcing historic figures. I deliberately only chose black American women artists who engage in abstract art, hoping someone would notice my hidden agenda of gender intersectionality and specific artistic aesthetic.
Symbolically, I represented my connection with these women artists by having them embody my profile picture; embracing their artistic spirit and strengthening my place on the continuum of American black artists.
I consecutively posted images for about 5 days. I didn’t anticipate my full-time schedule would leave no mental room to patiently sort through 95 years (referring to the Harlem Renaissance of 1920s into the present) of black artists every day.
Naturally, I felt embarrassed to evoke the attention of my Facebook public only to underperform. But something miraculous transformed the embarrassment into a grand learning lesson. I unknowingly signed up as spokesperson to educate on black art (works created by artists of African descent) for an audience that could easily find the sources themselves. So how do I reconcile the cycle of self-appointing spokesperson for black people? How do I feed my passion to constantly learn (and create) so I can share knowledge with my community about an identity that is not readily given to us?
I invest in my graduate research which functions as simultaneous self-love and academic scholarship. For instance, the title of this piece can be dissected into multiple meanings that are personal for my own self-love journey.
In 1971, a group of black women artists formed an artist collective named “Where We At” Black Women Artists Inc. (WWA). Among this group of women was Camille Billops, Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Faith Ringgold, and Betye Saar to name a few. Although WWA achieved great success in addressing issues within the black community and social injustice, they did not identify as feminists. This separation is partly due to the dominating white feminists of their time only focusing on sexist issues.
My excitement of learning about WWA can be harnessed into taking action toward my own aspirations of creating black artist solidarity in higher education. I can use the histories of my people as a tool to continually deal (with) Black Feminism in a country still haunted by the tragic racial discrimination of the past and present.
Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926 to celebrate the accomplishments of black people normally excluded from the narrative of American history. Black History Month was officially established in 1976. Our country must truly consider we still exist in the 239 years and 2,095,028.59 hours of oppression that is only acknowledged 672 hours in February.
As I write this on the last day of February, I cannot help but feel this release is on right on time. In honor of the 39th Anniversary of Black History, I compel learners of all backgrounds to do better at actively searching for knowledge and holding on to the tenets of your own self-love. Although the journey may be painful, your passion and conviction will be met with gratifying internal and external rewards.
Venise Keys is an MFA and Master Certification in Women’s and Gender Studies candidate at Illinois State University.