My Love for the NAAM

I first came across the Northwest African American Museum on February 21st, on my way to attend the Woman's march, which ran from Rainier Valley to downtown Seattle. It was a beautiful day. Signs with powerful slogans bobbed along in people's hands, many of whom wore pink "pussy" hats, ready to march from Judkins park.

As I passed by the Neoclassic brick building, I had a sobering moment when I realized there was so much more to know about the experiences of African Americans in the northwest. And an extension of that, recognize the influences that African Americans have had in every sphere of society, whether it be art, politics, science. There is an incredibly rich history of black pioneers, activists, and artists that made great impressions on the northwest and nationally. The museum tells every story beautifully. 

first there was the dance theatre of harlem & the notable ones

I was especially motivated to visit the museum to see their exhibition, Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts, which highlighted the many achievements and talents of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, based in New York. It was founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969 and was paramount in creating opportunities for African American dancers, both in ballet and in the allied arts, to hone and celebrate their talent. I have a special affinity for dance that stems from my Mom. She was a modern dancer for 10 years in Seattle, traveled throughout the U.S. and overseas, and taught me the beauty and grace of all elements of dance. Over the years we'd attend different performances from the Pacific Northwest Ballet and see the work of modern companies through the University of Washington. It is a powerful art and I loved reading of the history, how it has become a multi-cultural community full of artistic expression.

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As you enter the second double doors of the museum you are greeted by a timeline showing the simultaneous events that occurred nationally and locally in the Pacific Northwest from as far back as the slave trade to the 21st century. It is a powerful visual of the many significant events, impacts, and amazing people of color within the U.S. How easily I have forgotten or have not even been aware of the history so I wanted to take a moment and share a brief story of a few amazing figures.

 

The Notable Ones

 

Wing Luke //

City Councilman

This was especially cool to learn as my Grandma Laura worked at the Wing Luke Asian Art Museum for over a decade. Housing discrimination was sadly paramount in the northwest through the 1960's. When I picture racism and prejudice of the past I tend to revisit the images of the Jim Crow South and forget its existence in the Northwest. Property deeds and community covenants placed restrictions on people of color so they had no choice but to live within certain parameters of the city. Wing Luke was the first person of a minority group elected to the city council in 1962, and made it a mission to fight for housing equality. He also gave great value to missions like historic preservation in Pioneer Square and the Waterfront. He carried a passion for Seattle that is amazing and continues on to this day.

 

 

Jacob lawrence //

Painter

A life filled with painting and teaching, Lawrence masterfully depicted the every day life of African Americans both in their plights and triumphs. He was the first African American to show work at the New York Gallery. His work has been shown all across the nation, a few months ago his powerful work, Migration Series, was exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum. The series is a beautiful collective of the African American journey from the rural south to the industrialized north after World War I. Such topics were predominant in his art, shedding light on communities and their history. He tenured at the University of Washington in 1971 until his retirement in 1986. 

Lorraine Hansberry //

Playwright and Writer

She was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway, called A Raisin in the Sun. It was a great success, was adapted for film in 1961, the screenplay written by Hansberry, as well as adapted into a musical called Raisin. It is a resonating story about an African American family struggling to improve their life after the death of their patriarch in the racially segregated 1960s Chicago. I had seen the film years ago, Sidney Poitier was (and always will be) a favorite of mine, but I didn't know the extent of Lorraine Hansberry's work or her history. She was also an activist and came to use her writing skills to contribute to such publications as The Ladder, a monthly magazine published by the Daughters of Bilitis, an advocacy group for Lesbian women. Her plays have been performed numerous times in Seattle through the Seattle Repertory Theatre and she will always be considered a pioneer for future female playwrights and writers.

The title to the left was a posthumous piece, created by Hansberry's ex-husband Robert Nemiroff, comprised of her personal letters, diary entries, and unfinished works. To Be Young, Gifted and Black became the longest running off broadway show of the season in 1968.  

And then there was a wedding reception

My Grandpa Frank met Patricia Valentine in 2013 in a YMCA Seniors exercise class. She is one of the most charismatic and genuine woman I have ever met and exudes a regale that is unassuming and entirely inspiring. I have been fortunate to spend time with them both, having dinner at my Grandpa's apartment, attending a fashion show in South Seattle with live reggae music, sitting in on a panel discussion with Patricia for the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival, running into them at NAAM for the screening of Wilmington On Fire by director Chris Everett (amazing documentary). They are a beautiful pair, their passion and love for travel, for Seattle and for their community is inspiring.

Above are my Grandpa's four kids, my Dad in the classy white, my dapper Uncles, Marcus (left) and Bruce (right), and my beautiful Aunt Millicent.

They held the reception at the museum, hosting over 250 people. Acquaintances from 5 years to 50 years came to support and show love for these two people who have given so much with their thoughtful character and genuine regard for others. 

I asked them why they chose the NAAM to host their reception. The reason: they love the Northwest African American Museum. Frank and Patricia have been Seattle residents for decades and each lived in the central district where the museum is located. It's a place close to their hearts for what it represents and has established in Seattle and beyond.

It was a fitting location to hold a tremendous celebration.

 

And then!

There was pen 2 pad

"Be unapologetic for what you want or love" -Key Porter

This was such a great event. Pen 2 Pad: Why We Write was a reflective, community driven discussion, on the reasons and value for writing within the African American community. I went with my Aunt Millicent (Tulip Festival buddy) and we went into the museum ready to soak in some literary-editorial-poetic-prosaic goodness. And we sure did.

There was a panel featuring four writers each with unique and equally interesting specialties. It was great because they all had a commonality in their love for writing, all exceptional nerds, but you could see how their individuality influenced their work into it's own unique form. It was really inspiring to hear of their methods and the significant moments that defined their work. 

About halfway through the discussion I realized how critical it was that I record the panelists' feedback. Not wanting to distract anyone with my phone all up in the air, I decided to just record the audio. For a time, I thought having the visual would have been better, but I appreciate just listening to the unique cadence and intonation of their voices. So as part of giving you a brief introduction, I wanted to include snippets of their stories.

 

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Key Porter

A visual artist who brings literature to life. I loved her thoughts on pursuing your passion relentlessly despite all opposition and being true to yourself. With such a culturally rich perspective from her time living and studying in Tokyo, Japan, it was great to see it manifested in her amazing work and message. It, too, opened my eyes to what message I want to send through my writing. I admired her courage to do so in face of all doubt.

 
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Jonathan Cunningham

A renowned journalist and the community programs officer at Seattle Foundation, Jonathan's practical insights to the world of journalism were enlightening and helpful. I appreciated the passion he demonstrated, but also the raw side to it; working with editors, creating credible work to be published, etc. Weaved with anecdotes of his time writing in his hometown of Detroit, it was great to see a holistic perspective that was rooted in excitement.

 
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Olivia Littles Erickson

As a grant writer for NAAM, Olivia made some really enlightening points on the social aspect of writing, as it pertains to relating to and communicating, with possible donors. How do you relate to people who don't share your background and communicate effectively the importance of your cause? I loved her genuine interest in the world of museums and history, which is clear by the Ph.D she acquired in anthropology from the University of Washington. I also loved her approach to writing, from the small details like changing the color of the text when stumped by writer's block. By the way I tried it and it's awesome.

 

Jeff L. Cheatham ii

A children's book author who values creating stories in which children of color find connection to all kinds of worlds, the same as any other child. Instead of fitting to a mold defined by historically significant, but stereotypical settings, his characters learn and triumph in magical lands. You want to go to Dinoland? Go right ahead. The power behind knowing possibilities are endless is paramount here and I admire it greatly. He is also the founder of SUBE, the Seattle Urban Book Expo, which launched in 2016. It serves as a platform to showcase authors and their literary work and build connections with readers in their community. 

Last but not least...

Photo: KD Hall Communication

Photo: KD Hall Communication

Sharon Blake

Sharon was the co-host and moderator for the event and was as inspiring as the panelists. Author of four books, each of which I want to read, she is a strong advocate for the homeless and those struggling through addictions. With personal experience in each, her love for writing became a tool to change her life and others. She created a publishing company called Life Chronicles, designed to help new writers bring their works to life. I admired her passion for healing and well-being, cultivating an environment to serve others, and her insights during the discussion were effusive and enlightening. 

Throughout the evening they encouraged everyone to write on a whiteboard the reason they write. There was a resonance of strength on that board, the answers as unique and powerful as the hands that wrote them. Some funny, some altruistic, all true. It was mentioned it will be turned into an art piece to be featured at the museum - I can't wait to see it!


"What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"

This line is from a poem by Langston Hughes', the line which would inspire the title of Lorrain Hansberry's play. I think of my experiences here at NAAM and I'm always left inspired, always left questioning, always left more mindful than when I first walked in. And I'm grateful for it. 

History is an incredible necessity to understanding our position as humans. That includes all people of every color and nationality, both in the present and where we stand for our future. By understanding the impact, at least acknowledging its existence, allows for the opportunity for change. Such change in attitudes can only be brought about with knowledge and exposure.

For all the years I missed getting to know the Northwest African American Museum better, I am determined to make up for it, excited to engage in its events and appreciate the amazing art and history of the African American community...my community...in the Northwest. 

You can check out all of the current and upcoming exhibits here!

 

 

Warm wishes,

Kels