"In this place, men and women will be strengthened and ennobled by their contact with the beauty of the ages."
Hold on to these words for a second.
It's a snowy day in mid-January. Friend and I decide to visit the Clark Museum. Lots of folks that visit this rural (the more polite term is pastoral) part of America come to the Clark to see antiquated pieces of American and European prints, drawings, sculptures and paintings. Although the museum is a five minute walk from my residence, in all the years I have been here, it has never been of interest to me. I dare say. Maybe because I've had enough of its like already.
Let me explain.
Friend and I walk into the reception. We are warmly greeted by two older women who give us each a wrist tag and mention that "so-and-so renowned art critic is coming to give a talk at 12PM." We nod amicably and offer to pass by and listen. We spare these old ladies the truth. We're not here for a talk.
I'm here to have a solo soul-versation with this space. I want to soak in the sounds, sights and scents of the Museum. How does the Clarke extend itself to me? Does it accept a body like mine - curvaceous, black, boisterous, African, confident, enlightened? Or am I at such odds with this space, that I too might be a spectacle - a piece of art in itself?
See this piece below? Don't be distracted by her nudity - The Nude is central to American and European art history. Pay closer attention to what's going on in this picture. The gentleman at the far end who is leaning against the table is the esteemed speaker that the receptionists mentioned earlier. As we move through this space, I can tell that Mr. Speaker is paying attention to us. Maybe it's in the way we pose? Maybe it's because we seem unusually comfortable in this overly White space? Maybe we shouldn't be so loud with our confidence? Eventually, he greets us and asks us if we are coming to his talk. Our blank - possibly non-chalant faces, take him by surprise.
No saah, we don't know who you are. (Should we apologize?) No sa-ughh, we aren't here to gobble up White America. We're here for Americanaah: the experience-that-is-being-a-non-immigrant-black-African-woman-studying-abroad-in -a-racially-super-charged-America.
How can I begin to tell you of all the times that I have lived in the shadows of Whiteness while I've been here? Moving unheard through the dining halls and unseen in the libraries. Ghostly. Invisible. How can I begin to tell you how the very sound of their uptalk - typical to White American accents - depressed me on the ride back from the airport after summer break in Kenya? How can I begin to tell you of the micro-aggressions that I have endured - mockery doused in empathy and in a curiosity that has othered and obscured me.
My professor asked me this question in class, in front of all my classmates. "Tabitha, what type of English do you speak? Would you say its British Kenyan English..?"
What would you say in response to that question?
At this point, we've moved through most of the galleries at the Clark. I can't seem to find any hint of my history. Recall the writing on the plaque: In this place men and women will be strengthened and ennobled by their contact with the beauty of the ages.
I can't find any piece of Africa here.
I only find these ferns. Don't they fit within the trope of Tropical Africa? Or maybe they remind you of all the cartoons and movies in which African queens are always fanned with similar fern leaves. How is it that such images of African-ness are so enduring and so resonant?
Next we moved into a dark-lit room. I encountered a painting of a native American on a horse and I was drawn to it. It was almost impulsive. Reminiscent of all the times my eyes are drawn to a fellow "minority" walking across campus. I often think to myself, "I wonder if they feel as obscure as I do?"
How do I recount the times that I have shuddered at the ease with which people use the term "minority"? I've always wondered why "minorities" have to have a "coalition"? I've wondered what it feels like to be on the other side. What does it feel like to be White-in-America? To be "free"? To be without a cause to fight? To have conquered all? To be without a label? To live as an individual independent of the need for a coalition?
What does it feel like to be White? To be "free" ? To be simply you? To be neutral? To be blank? To be taken for who you are rather than for a stereotype that you might represent?
This is the room in which the talk took place. Of course, we'd intentionally missed it. On the wall were a series of portraits of White women framed in gold. Long, straight blonde hair. Slim, bridged noses. Slits for lips.
I wonder if I would have made the cut. My curly jet-black gravity-defying locs...my audaciously full lips...my buste and derriere needing not an implant. I would not have made the cut. I would not have been framed in gold. I would not have had the permanent gaze of a white-man-cast-in-bronze-in-the-nude.
How do I begin to tell you of all the days that my "minority" bestie has wondered why White men don't find her attractive? How do I begin to tell you of all the days she has wished she was a little slimmer? Or of all the days she has gawked at how White womens' straight tresses effortlessly cascade down their backs? Or at how their fruity-fresh-out-of-the-shower hair assaults you as you walk past them?
My hair can stay put in a tornado. Mine smells like coconut oil and Jamaican Black Castor Oil after my washday. A smell almost so repulsive, that I have to mask it with my Live Perfume by ("minority" Pop-Star) J LO.
Needless to say, I wasn't encouraged nor ennobled by the beauty of the ages. I searched but soon realised that I was unaccounted for at the Clark.