The most visible result of war is the flight pattern of the refugee. Most of the narratives around people like my grandfather say the Great Migration was set in motion by Black families emigrating North searching jobs. But my grandfather wasn’t running to anything; he was running from the state-sanctioned terror that defined his hometown in Mississippi. My grandfather never told me about the night he escaped up the Mississippi River to Chicago—there was a shame in it, even in its survival. As an artist, I believe that silence can build a legacy. But telling the truth does too.
As an artist and organizer, I make paintings and policies in equal measure. I’ve been lucky to help fight for some meaningful change in my legislative and policy career, building grassroots power. These are extensions of the paintings, and the paintings are generative spaces for organizing. I think artists should be embedded, indebted, integral to the efforts to end cash bail, outlaw housing discrimination, protect abortion rights, reallocate carceral resources, and on and on.
I first became involved with social justice work in Providence humbly: creating posters, flyers, and logos for the rallies and organizers who couldn’t afford professional designs. The truth is that I’m a pretty bad graphic designer, but the groups were happy to have the service, and I was happy to be of use. Rich relationships were built through that simple task. I’ve been fortunate to help fight and win some meaningful criminal justice reform milestones, including the Unshackling Pregnant Prisoners Bill, Rhode Island’s probation reform package, laying the groundwork for the state’s Ban the Box movement, and the passage of our region’s at-the-time most progressive police racial profiling prohibition.
It’s my hope that my painting lives right alongside my political work–two woven threads. Like politics, my painting process is a confounding one. I approach each piece in a ritual of call-and-response, wherein each element calls for an answer—a subtraction, addition, reboot. Paintings take months or years to complete, with many “finished” layers hidden underneath. For me, each painting’s meaning is found within the lifetime of its creation, on the canvas itself. They move as social movements do: evolving in real-time, bound by the edges of the canvas, but free to grow within those bumpers.
I believe in painting. I also know it’s been weaponized to reinforce narratives of colonialism, modalities of patriarchy, and hierarchy, and that it can be a tool to devalue other artmaking forms, especially those traditionally championed by women. To me, painting becomes the best position to attack those notions. I want to paint in a way that builds power. In times of injustice, the artist is the griot, historian, architect, activist. I don’t see a moment of my work—political or artistic—without my grandfather’s voice in it.
My practice begins and ends with listening. I try to never ask myself “what do I want to say” with a piece, and instead insist on the question “who do I want to hear?” Whose voice can this painting build? Whose story, forgotten or ignored or unimagined, can be reciprocated in this canvas?
Being a student of Black history largely means possessing a decent imagination, different from the student of European history whose mastery is facilitated by a zealously meticulous record. So little Black history exists in the concrete that to chart a history of your own family is like trying to read the pencil marks left after the eraser has cleaned the writing off. To piece together the story of the night of my family’s exile is to imagine it for the first time. In the wake of erasure, history and myth become the same. The artist becomes the historian, griot, and architect.
Image at top: Jordan Seaberry, The Wanderer, oil and mixed media on canvas, 87 x 58 in., 2015.