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Saturday, August 13, 2022

A Memorial to the Lives of African-American Women and Girls

A small group of about 20 people gathered in a quiet exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on the Friday before Thanksgiving, as millions of others throughout the nation began packing their belongings and getting ready to board planes to be with their family for the holiday.

There were two big wooden altars at the rear of the room, with steps covered with gifts designed to celebrate the lives of Black girls: satin hair bonnets, nail polish, a baby doll, and children’s books. On TikTok, a video of a 16-year-old girl fixing her bouncy hair was aired on a continuous loop. Throughout the show, candles, teddy bears, and bouquets of flowers were put to create a festive atmosphere.

In the words of Scheherazade Tillet, a co-founder of A Long Walk Home, the national group that supported the erection of the temporary monument, “it’s about taking tragedy and reclaiming it for yourself while recognising others who have been affected by it.” “The horror is in the trauma, and the beauty is in the spirit of the individual,” says the author. “It’s all in the details.”

The removal of sculptures and monuments commemorating racist historical individuals has been more popular worldwide in recent years. While this is going on, some artists, such as Kehinde Wiley, have been inspired to recognise persons from underrepresented groups, as seen by his “Rumors of War” series and a recent public art display in New York City that included bronze busts of African-American luminaries.

Art historian and Harvard University professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis believes that the commissioning of these sculptures at a time when historical monuments are being demolished represents “an broadening of the American narrative.”

According to Dr. Lewis in an email, “these new monuments demonstrate that we have underrated the importance of visual representation to the task of rights and representation in American democracy,” which includes the signalling power of monuments in the public domain.

The importance of a memorial to the lives of Black girls was not missed on the visitors at the museum on that frigid November night, despite the chill in the air. Juniyah Palmer, Ms. Taylor’s sister, took a loop around the room before stepping outdoors for a moment of quiet reflection. “I’m thinking of Lyniah Bell,” Evelyn Hightower said, her gaze drawn to a photograph of her daughter hanging from one of seven pendants on a neighbouring wall, each one commemorating a different victim.

It had been the previous evening that the group had come together for a private family-style meal at Taste 222, a restaurant located in Chicago’s Fulton River District, where they were joined by members of the A Long Walk Home organisation known as the Girl/Friends. As everyone took their places at two long tables, the space was lighted by chandeliers and candles that were faintly lit.

It was served after the introductory comments, and the first dish was a green salad with cranberries and sunflower seeds. It was possible to find moments of humour in what might have been an otherwise sad gathering, as attendees grew familiar with the venue and the catering menu.

When Elizabeth Gerald first started meeting with other mothers in Chicago who could relate to her tragedy years ago, she was taken aback by the divisions she felt between survivors whose loved ones were not well-known and those whose stories had become the subject of national news and protests.

Following dessert, the hosts took a time to discuss the history of the altar and the purpose for which it was built. Families were given gift bags, and each group was given handcrafted beaded bracelets and lockets that were dedicated to their loved ones as part of the ceremony.

In order for everyone to voice a wish for Black women, a microphone was handed around the room at the conclusion of the night. “Protection,” they said, and their words resounded across the room like a blessing. “Freedom.” “Righteousness.” “Pleasure.”

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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