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  • Gabi Kirilloff

Humanities on the Edge Preview: Bridget R. Cooks

In 1969, under the direction of curator Allon Schoener, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition titled Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, which aimed to represent the cultural history of Harlem. The exhibit was comprised of photographs (which at the time were not considered to be fine art) that depicted the people and buildings of Harlem. Despite being the first exhibition of African-American art at the museum, the exhibit did not include artworks by members of Harlem’s artistic community. This, coupled with the fact that the exhibition failed to respond to the openly voiced concerns and needs of the Harlem community, sparked controversy, boycotts, and protests. Organizations like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) and Harlem Cultural Council responded to the Met by putting pressure on museum administrators, encouraging them to represent minority communities more responsibly and to diversify their exhibits.

In “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind (1969)” Bridget R. Cooks examines the planning and execution of the exhibit, as well as the activist movements that arose in response. Cooks unpacks the motivations behind the exhibit and the exhibit’s failure to engage with the community it was attempting to represent, noting that the difference “between Schoener's concept of Harlem and the way the people of Harlem wanted to be represented formed the great tension over Harlem on My Mind…[this] illuminated what was at stake for the Harlem community and for a larger community of Black Americans that were invested in how their story would be represented, packaged, and sold” (17). In a supposed attempt to celebrate the history of a marginalized group, the Met ended up further disenfranchising the community it was trying to represent. The “story” of Harlem that was told was influenced by the bias and privilege of those in charge – it represented their “version” of a community that they were not part of. The result, as Cooks observes, was that “the chosen representations of Harlem presented the community as cultural capital, an objectified place but not a living culture in itself” (22).

Though Harlem on My Mind is one of the most controversial art exhibits in U.S. history, museums have a long history of marginalizing African American artists and communities. In her book Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (2011), Cooks notes that “The exhibition space is a powerful one that does more than fulfill the seemingly simple function of displaying objects of creative expression. Exhibitions also have pedagogical roles, teaching the values of art, cultures, social movements, and national histories. Because of this particular significance, the exhibition space has been a contested one for African Americans” (3). Cooks’s comment encouraged me to reflect on the way in which I tend to view spaces less critically than other types of cultural objects (e.g. books, visual art, music, film). I was struck by Cooks’s observation that the exhibition space itself is powerful -- as someone who works primarily with text, I am always amazed by the ways in which spaces can also tell (and silence) narratives. It is perhaps because spaces seem “neutral” that they have such a dramatic ability to propagate beliefs and assumptions. While literary scholars are well acquainted with the biases that inform anthologies and textbooks, it is easy to forget that the same processes of selection, exclusion, privilege, and interpretation inform the spaces we occupy (I’m thinking also of the way in which urban planning decisions often enforce racial and economic segregation).

Cooks’s comments also made me think of the archive (particularly the digital archive) as a powerful, interpretative space that has the ability to share or silence (and empower or appropriate) cultural narratives. This past week at the Nebraska Forum on Digital Humanities, several historians talked about the challenges and rewards of working on projects in partnership with disenfranchised communities. Many of their stories and sentiments mirrored Cooks’s emphasis on responsible community partnerships. Jason A. Heppler (from University of Nebraska-Omaha) spoke about working with Native American communities to preserve their history. Rebecca Wingo (from Malcaster College) spoke about her work with the Rondo community, a historically Black neighborhood in St. Paul intentionally bisected by the construction of I-94 in the 1960s. Wingo and her students have partnered with Rondo in order to digitally preserve their history. Heppler and Wingo advocated for the importance of serving as community partners. Part of this, they emphasized, is allowing the community to guide how their materials are presented. In addition, the community should stay in possession of their materials (either digital or non-digital) and should have the ability to remove their materials from public view. Essentially, the type of practices that the Harlem on My Mind exhibit did not embrace.

While this emphasis on responsible partnerships is encouraging, it is also far from the “norm” in terms of scholarly/community interactions. Cooks’s work encourages us to think critically about how our own scholarly practices (whether in the library, museum, or online) could engage more responsibly with the communities we work with: Are the objects we are creating (articles, archives, projects, etc.) intended to serve a community other than the scholarly community? Do we reward and adequately evaluate work that is community oriented? What does a pedagogy focused on teaching students responsible research practices look like?

(The image is from the painting Flag Day by Benny Andrews, a prominent Harlem based artist who helped organize a demonstration against the Met’s Harlem on My Mind exhibition.)

Cooks, Bridget R. “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind (1969)” American Studies 48:1, 2008.)

Cooks, Bridget R. Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum. University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

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