Most of what I do
I joined the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in 2019 to lead the African American Art History Initiative (AAAHI), a new program aimed at establishing GRI as a major center for the study of African-American art history. American.
I grew up in Queens, New York. My father worked as a post office supervisor and my mother was a district manager for New York Telephone. She was responsible for commercial and residential repairs for the five boroughs. I learned a lot about management from her. There were plenty of craftspeople on the father’s side of the family – quilt makers, carpenters, seamstresses and an aunt who is a fashion designer. In fact, my paternal grandmother was related to singer Tracy Chapman, who is a distant cousin. Although I didn’t grow up going to museums (except on school trips), I was allowed to create, draw, and do whatever I wanted to do. At the beginning, I created with LEGO. It was innocent, but they gave me space to follow my imagination. In elementary school, I studied the anatomy of comic book characters and created my own comics. I was a huge fan of everything from the 1980s, like Spider-Man and GI Joe. I liked characters that had a human side and an extraordinary side, something that could be used to help society. Believe it or not, all of that study eventually helped me get life drawing classes at college and at the Art Students League in Manhattan, where I was also studying. I really understood the anatomy.
Thinking through these characters also gave me the opportunity to reflect on moral dilemmas. The Green Goblin is trying to destroy New York. What does Spider-Man think? Who does he care? How does he distinguish good from evil? How does he try to keep himself from becoming a villain? Sounds like a lot for a six or seven year old, but that’s what I thought.
The power of representation
My parents came from remote Alabama and emigrated to New York in the 1960s, and that’s where they met. Armed with this experience, they recognized that they needed empowering images for their children. When they went to school, there weren’t many textbooks that had anything to do with African Americans beyond slavery. So there was always a panoply of magazines in my house. My father read several newspapers every day, so there were always different kinds of readings in the house. And besides periodicals like Newsweek (I loved political cartoons), I was immersed in positive portrayals of people who looked like me in Ebony Junior! and Essence and black business. My parents didn’t impose these magazines on my sister and me – they just left them all over the house, and I ended up reading them. But thanks to them, I had an idea of the kind of people I wanted to be like. How were they dressed? What kind of things were they into? There is a kind of self-shaping and modeling that comes with exposure to visual culture.
Enter the world of art
I was destined to be an art historian, since my two best subjects were social studies and art. I went to Hunter College in New York because I knew photographer Roy DeCarava, artist Nari Ward, and painter Juan Sánchez who taught there, and I wanted to be part of that program. There I learned that what I had been doing since childhood had intrinsic value, and that there were legacies of artists who looked like me and did the same. My freshman year in college, I worked in the Education Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and started the first of two internships at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the first in the Education Department and the second in Curatorial. There, I had the privilege of meeting all different generations of African American artists and curators, including Kinshasha Conwill, Lowery Sims, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Deborah Willis, and Christine Kim. My work at Getty involves different types and levels of conversations with people I’ve known since my late teens, starting with the Studio Museum in Harlem. It opened up a world for me in terms of exposure to a deeper history of African American art and artists.
I graduated from Hunter with a BFA in Painting and a minor in Art History. I recognized that I could still paint, but the window to get a doctorate is very limited. I received a scholarship from the Graduate Center in my first year at Hunter and decided to apply for a doctorate in art history. So I moved from an undergraduate painting program to a PhD program. There I studied with Robert Storr, Katherine Manthorne and Michele Wallace. Eventually, I was the first black man from the City University of New York Graduate Center to graduate.
From New York to California
After graduating, I wanted to stay in New York, so I started teaching at universities in the city. There was a recession, so there weren’t many attractive jobs on the market. It was a difficult time; the life of an assistant professor in New York can really wear you down if you let it. But a common thread in my life was my connection with artists who recognized me as an artist. I was part of creative circles in New York, going to openings and connecting with friends who chose the path to being creative. Me too, but it took a while to figure it out. For example, I created a public TV show featuring my conversations with artists. I received poetry scholarships from Callaloo journal and the Cave Canem Foundation, and began working with the Bronx Council on the Arts and with Claudia Rankine and the Racial Imaginary Institute. I also wrote essays for catalogs, mainly because the form itself was manageable. There are poets who prefer sonnets and others who prefer villanelles and haikus. I preferred the essays. That’s how I thought of it. My academic life has been made more productive, powerful, serious, and sincere by my relationships with artists and by reflecting on the possibilities of my own creativity.
I was tenured in the African Studies department at Lehman College when I first saw the advertisement for a new position at Getty with AAAHI. The routine of being a teacher is highly regulated – you mark assignments, prepare lectures, meet students during your office hours. This routine can be rewarding, but at the same time I felt like there were other parts of myself that I hadn’t really explored yet and that I could contribute more to the field than I could. as a teacher. At first I thought, this is California, it’s too life changing. And then some people I really respected in the business also sent me the ad and told me I should give it some serious thought. I applied and could feel the generation-changing potential this position offered and the legacy of what could be done here. I felt that my professional and personal experiences were in line with the ultimate goal of AAAHI. Eventually, I decided it made sense for me to take the job when it was offered to me.
Archive with empathy
There are stories of exploitation of the older generation of African American artists. Many donated their material to specific institutions and were unhappy with the way their material was treated and the way they themselves were treated. So for me, it was important to emphasize empathy and caring around their life’s work. Imagine living for decades knowing you’re doing work on par with your white colleagues, but the critics don’t go to your studio, you’re all but ignored – and now there’s a renaissance of people looking at your 1960s work and 1970s. To do this job, you have to understand history. I have to be very aware that many of them have had this particular history (much like my parents) and have not been treated with respect by the art world.
Favorite artwork at Getty
I love looking at Betye Saar’s notebooks in the GRI holdings. I love the poetry of Toni Morrison and the prints of Kara Walker. I love the Jason Moran and Alison Saar prints we recently acquired. But the things that I like the most are not covered, they are things that I have seen in the archives. I am proud to say that I was the lead curator for the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) acquisition. I worked with the bankruptcy attorneys (and the rest of JPC staff, Vickie Wilson and John Roach) to gain access to the records for pre-auction appraisal. It still feels like a “360 moment,” given my lifelong affinity for JPC publications. But, it will take years to process. I leave that to Steven Booth, the new JPC archivist. The great part of GRI is that we collect things that a researcher can physically hold. It can be transformative when you study something for so long, then see it in person, study it, write about it, and help save it for future generations.
What People Should Know About African American Art
I think most people don’t understand that the history of art is also the history of segregation. If you think of New York after World War II and all the European artists who came to America, African American artists also studied with them or knew them informally in coffee shops. African-American artists have innovated new forms and approaches to art and artistic practice, but have rarely been given credit. The erasures have remained far too long. Who is telling these stories? If these stories aren’t told, you can honestly take an art history program and think that African American artists were never there. These are the wrongs we need to right for art history to become more relevant than it is now. We need new storytellers and new approaches to research. So that’s what I want to do. Be a facilitator and a protagonist within the movement for this vital and necessary future.