“All Power to All People”

“All Power to All People.” Art installation by Hank Willis Thomas at Burning Man 2018. Photo by Christine B.

It’s time for another brief art lesson [and the crowd goes wild]!

The afro pick (or afro comb) installation above is the work of Hank Willis Thomas, a conceptual artist who works “primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture” (Artist’s bio).

The work, entitled “All Power to All People,” was one of the many fantastic pieces on display [in 2018] at Burning Man a “temporary city” built annually in Black Rock Desert in Nevada. According to a New York Times article on the “monumental art” of Burning Man, Thomas’s 24×10 foot tall installation is on tour throughout the United States this year.

Popularized in the 1970’s, the afro comb has a long, long history that dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt and [also] has roots in West Africa. You can read about that here: Combs from Kemet.

The 1970s-style afro pick typically includes the “peace sign” and the “raised fist”–as seen in Thomas’s work.  It was–and still is–a symbol of Black unity, solidarity, collective identity, and Black empowerment.

The photo was shot by my pen friend Christine B, who participates in Burning Man every year. She surprised me last week with a few of these postcards and a very cool “Black Lives Matter” button. 🙂

I was not only happy to receive Christine’s postcards, but was elated that her photo led me to Hank Willis Thomas. A few summers ago, I photographed one of his other installations, but neglected to get the artist information [doh!]. Maybe, that work will be the subject of a blog post next week. Let’s see what time allows.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for a bit of tree love.

Guest Post | “‘Naming’ Our Grief” by Chanté Enu

It is not unusual for artists to use their work as a platform against social injustice, so it is not surprising that we have seen a resurgence of social justice art since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many artists have used Instagram to share their messages. 

My former student, Chanté Enu [formerly known as Chanté Marie]–singer, songwriter, and artist–contributes to the dialogue. Her social justice artwork, which she has begun to post on Instagram, reminds us to “say the names” of those who have succumbed to police violence.

For today’s post on living Black in the United States, she shares a piece from her series, Voices Mourning in Protest and a little about the motivation behind its creation. 


This piece is a tribute to the many Black individuals whose lives were taken by the police. I added names to the canvas in hopes that while viewing this composition people will say their names and remember:

George Floyd. Jamar Clark. Timothy Thomas. Danroy Henry Jr. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Artago Damon Howard. Jeremy Lett. Lavall Hall. Thomas Allen. Charly Leundeu Keunang. Naeschylus Vinzant. Tony Robinson. Anthony Hill. Bobby Gross. Brandon Jones. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Frank Shephard. William Chapman. David Felix. Brendon Glenn. Kris Jackson. Spencer McCain. Victor Emmanuel Larosa. Salvado Ellswood. Darrius Stewart . Albert Joseph Davis. Samuel DuBose. Christian Taylor. Asshams Pharoah Manley. India Kager. Keith Harrison McLeod. Junior Prosper. Anthony Ashford. Bennie Lee Tignor. Jamar Clark. Nathaniel Harris Pickett.

The list goes on.

The focal point of this piece is a black woman in mourning. She represents the heaviness of the grief and loss many of us feel.

My prayer is that we expel the monsters of apathy and disconnect that plague our nation and invoke genuine feelings of connectedness through our collective grief over the loss of these lives.

Through this piece, I hope people understand that it is our responsibility to speak up, to advocate, to say their names, to protest injustice, to deeply care about the injustices against Black lives.

Summoned Mother | Tameka Cage Conley

All mothers were summoned, when George Floyd called out for his mother. —Rachel Costa

Every mother heard him. We heard George Floyd. We hear him. —Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo who was murdered by New York City police officers in 1999.

For today’s post on living Black in the United States, I invite you to view a three-part series presented by the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. The project features Dr. Tameka Cage Conley, an artist I initially met many years ago when she was a student–an English major, of course. 😉 I am so very proud of her and her work.

The museum describes the “Summoned Mother” series as:

a memoir of a particular American motherhood: Black and uniquely precarious. This three-volume video series features Dr. Tameka Cage Conley, a literary artist and mother to a six-year-old Black boy, as she responds to George Floyd’s breathless call on motherhood. Conley juxtaposes the works of Elizabeth Catlett with those of contemporary Black poets, bridging the visual and literary arts in a meditation of Black artistry’s longstanding eye on injustice.

Dr. Tameka’s masterful weave of poetry, art, story, and song achingly reaches that primordial place in all mothers that compels us to protect, to rescue, to do something.

The project was spearheaded by Kwadwo Nnuro; the entire series is approximately 42 minutes in length.


About the image: The image that leads today’s post features a favorite photo of my son and me–modified for the post.

Other posts in the “Black Lives Matter” Monday series:

“When Giving Is All We Have”

Terrance Osborne, “Front Line”

This morning as we began our final Shakespeare session for the semester (sad face), one of my students requested prayer for the nurses who are suffering under the strain of watching far too many patients die as a result of COVID-19. Just moments before that, I read a Facebook post in which one of my friends, Dr. Scharmaine Lawson, a Nurse Practitioner and author, announced that after prayerful consideration, she’s heading to New York City to help with the COVID-19 relief effort there.

I often think about the health care professionals who are on the front line of this thing day after day after day. No matter how well-trained they are, no matter how often they see death, it is still inexplicably HARD.  The connections between nurse and patient or doctor and patient–however brief–matter, and every death carries emotional weight. With COVID-19 doctors and nurses are bearing witness to far more than the “usual” and they are still out there, weighed down with the grief and burden of so much loss, fighting to save lives.

Some might wonder why someone like Dr. Lawson, a busy NP with a booming practice and a very full life of her own, would uproot and rush into this daunting challenge. Albert RÍos’ poem provides the answers—not only for why we give in the big ways but also why we do so in our smaller, daily interactions.

When Giving Is All We Have
Alberto RÍos

One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

About this poem, RÍos wrote:

This is a poem of thanks to those who live lives of service, which, I think, includes all of us—from the large measure to the smallest gesture, from care-giving to volunteerism to being an audience member or a reader.  I’ve been able to offer these words to many groups, not only as a poem but also as a recognition. We give for so many reasons, and are bettered by it.  –from poets.org

Thank you to our health care professionals and to all our public servants and other essential workers for whom the stay-at-home order does not apply.  Thank you to all of you who give daily in your own spaces, outside your own spaces, and “in-between” spaces. We are making something new, something beautiful when we give.


About the image: The image above is the work of New Orleans artist, Terrance Osborne. He created Front Line—a nod to Rosie the Riveter—“to show the men and women on the front line that we love and support them.” [Did you catch the fleur de lis–symbol of New Orleans?] Osborne generously offered the image above as a free phone screen saver and gave 1000 posters to local hospitals. A lithograph ($75 signed; $40 unsigned) can be purchased via his website. To see more of this phenomenal artist’s work, please go to his website. You’ll feel like you’ve just taken a tour of my beloved hometown.

She Dances: Working on My Sway

“Flamenca Blanca”

To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power; it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.  –Agnes De Mille

My friend Cy sent this amazing postcard a few weeks ago. She found this beauty in Madrid during her travels there. I fell in love with it. The lone woman dancing reminded me of my favorite part of Louis Delsarte’s mural “Spirit of Harlem.”

“Spirit of Harlem” [I was fortunate enough to be in residency at NYU the same time as the artist. Weeks after its unveiling, the whole group of “Scholars-in-Residence” took a trip to Harlem to see the mural].

I’m intrigued by these women who sway their hips without apology and dance solo in spaces obviously peopled by many. It seems the musicians—equally surrendered to their muses—play only for each woman.

I don’t have their gift. As part of the “rhythmless nation,” I’m not sure I will ever dance in public.

But—

I have been reaching for a metaphorical moment like this—of pure freedom—of yielding completely to the rhythms of life without fretting over consequences–“what ifs” or “therefores.”

I’m tuning in and working on my sway.

Joy Break 2 | Dance, Dance, Dance

“Allow yourself to trust joy and embrace it.
You will find you dance with everything.”

My Love Notes friend, Connie, sent the postcard above a couple of years ago. She found it and many others at an art fair, I think. Even though I searched “high and low” for information about the artist, I found none.

This is one of my favorite postcards because there is so much joy in the artwork–the colors, the movements, the expressions. The dance is part of the conversation between the women whose very souls seem to be possessed by joy.

Perhaps, that is the point of the quote above (attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson). When we release ourselves to joy, there’s a light in the step and mirth in the eyes. Our very beings are infused with joy.

Walk with Truth

Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? …. Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other? –Sojourner Truth

I chuckled to myself when I realized the reason for today’s Google Doodle. Initially, I wondered why Sojourner Truth. Did the google gods discover today is her birthday? Then, it occurred to me today is the first day of Black History Month (BHM).

Why the chuckle? Because it’s predictable.

Sojourner Truth–like Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman–is almost always brought up when discussing anything related to Black history.

Do I mind? Not really.

I like Sojourner Truth. I like her moxie. I love how she stood up for herself when the odds were most certainly against her. There are a lot of amazing lessons in her life.

Today, I opened class by talking briefly with my first-year students about not allowing themselves to  be so focused on the mountain in the distance that they render themselves incapable of taking the tiny day-to-day steps that make conquering the mountain achievable.

I wish I’d thought to weave some of Sojourner Truth’s life into that brief talk.

Sojourner Truth didn’t look at the mountains in front of her and freeze with fear or run in the opposite direction. She didn’t see the obstacles of her skin color, her gender, or her status as enslaved person as barriers to conquering the insurmountable. As a result, among many other “unlikely” accomplishments, she won a lawsuit against her former “owner” who sold her son into slavery after the State of New York had declared slavery illegal. And while we haven’t quite figured out whether Sojourner Truth said “Ain’t I a woman?” or “Ar’n’t I a woman?” in her famous speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, the reality is even if she never said a single word, the fact that she showed up to a party she wasn’t invited to and insisted on her Black presence and humanity says enough for me.

She literally walked the path to freedom in her own truth and with a righteous insistence on her own humanness. As long as she held on to the essential value of her personhood, no racial or gender mountain could stand in the way of her truth.


The art above is part of the “Celebrating Women” banners that were on display at The Lower Eastside Girls Club’s Celebrate Cafe in New York City when I visited several years ago. If I remember correctly, each piece of art added to the banner was created by a young woman who was involved in the Club.

If you want to know more about Sojourner Truth, click any of the links above, particularly the Google link.

12 Days of Christmas Postcards | Day 12

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

–Howard Thurman, “Christmas Is Waiting to be Born” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations 

Our final “12 Days of Christmas” post features a card Michael Lomax, President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and former President of Dillard University (DU) in New Orleans (1997-2004), sent to University employees in 2002.

Of course, this card wasn’t just lying around waiting for this moment. I found it a couple of weeks ago during my latest “I’m going to purge for real” session.

The cover, entitled “A Tribute to Peace,” features the work of Damion Hunter, who was then a sophomore at DU. A native of New Orleans and DU alumnus, Damion now resides in Houston, Texas. Like this piece, much of his work reflects New Orleans themes.

“A Tribute to Peace” pairs well with Theologian Howard Thurman’s “Christmas Is Waiting to Be Born,” and both work well to end our 12 Days of Christmas.

Hoping you will join me as we begin the real work of Christmas…


If you’re in the Houston area, you can see more of Damion’s work up close and personal on January 11 downtown at Kulture Restaurant. If Houston’s too far to travel, see below for links to some of my favorites from his Instagram profile.


Gwendolyn Brooks: In Her Honor

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), detail of The Furious Flower Portrait Quilt, 2004. Mixed media collage on canvas. Artist: Malaika Favorite. Card from my collection.

Like the Rita Dove piece I blogged about several months ago, the Gwendolyn Brooks portrait above is part of a 24-poet/panel masterpiece by mixed media artist Malaika Favorite which honors the history of African American poetry. The work was commissioned for Furious Flower, a conference held every decade (since 1994), that celebrates, stimulates, and encourages African American poetry and poetic voices.

Brooks (1917-2000) was a prolific writer with one novel and more than 20 volumes of poetry to her credit. She was the first Black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, now called U.S. Poet Laureate (1985-1986), and the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Her book Annie Allen won for the best volume of verse published in 1950.

Sometime between the ages of 13 and 14, I fell in love with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I gained access to these poets (and many others) through the book collections of my older brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks was my favorite. I still know by heart “To Be in Love,” the first poem I read by her:

To be in love
is to touch with a lighter hand.

In yourself you stretch, you are well.

You look at things
through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
you know you are tasting together
the winter, or light spring weather.

His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.

You cannot look in his eyes
because your pulse must not say
what must not be said.

When he
shuts a door—

Is not there—
Your arms are water.

And you are free
with a ghastly freedom.

You are the beautiful half
of a golden hurt.

You remember and covet his mouth,
to touch, to whisper on.

Oh when to declare
is certain Death!

Oh when to apprize,
is to mesmerize,

To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
into the commonest ash.

I was “mesmerized” by the way she crafted language. I recall being moved by particular phrases–

you are the beautiful half/of a golden hurt

free/with a ghastly freedom

the Column of Gold/into the commonest ash.

And I was intrigued by how she used opposites and negatives to convey the beauty and pain of love and evoke a powerful sense of loss.

My own (early) poetry was very much influenced by Brooks.

Brooks would have been 101 on June 7, so in her honor, I invite you to read about her contributions to American literature as well as some of her poetry. To get started, see the links below:

Lessons in Art and Piano

Pure exhaustion made me miss my “Focus on Black” post last Friday, so I’m posting this morning to avoid the same mistake this week.

Today, I’m using children’s art to “introduce” African American artist Romare Bearden.  Even though Bearden is far from an “unknown” artist, few people know who I’m talking about when I reference his work:

Considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, Romare Bearden’s artwork depicted the African-American culture and experience in creative and thought provoking ways. Born in North Carolina in 1912, Bearden spent much of his career in New York City. Virtually self-taught, his early works were realistic images, often with religious themes. He later transitioned to abstract and Cubist style paintings in oil and watercolor. He is best known for his photomontage compositions made from torn images of popular magazines and assembled into visually powerful statements on African-American life.  -from Biography.com

Last year, my favorite (now retired) second grade teacher, Mrs. Crarey, introduced her students to Bearden’s work. They studied his art, noted his interest in jazz music–which influenced some of his art–learned about his collage technique and then created their own Bearden-esque masterpieces. [Click an image for a closer look]

The children used rulers, pencils, Sharpies, crayons, and markers to imitate Bearden’s collage style. As you can see, they used piano keys patterns for their borders.

I pretty much love everything Bearden created.  The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou is my favorite, probably because it was the masterpiece that inspired African American playwright August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, one of my favorite plays.

The piece was inspired by jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who collaborated with Bearden’s wife, Nannette, on a musical and dance composition.  If you are familiar with Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson and The Music Lesson, you will see his influence on the work as well.

There are two versions of the work–the original:

Romare Bearden’s  “The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou” (popularly known as “The Piano Lesson”). Watercolor, acrylic, graphite and printed paper collage on paper.

And a signed lithograph:

Romare Bearden, “The Piano Lesson,” Lithograph

For more about Bearden’s life and influences, click the links below:

The Bearden Foundation’s page features more resources such as a timeline and an impressive collection of Romare Bearden’s artwork.

Until next time…