On 9/20/2018, @DJChubbESwagg exclaimed: “THERE IS A WHITE WOMAN CURATING THE HIP HOP PART OF THE NMAAHC SMITHSONIAN?!?!?!?!?! WHO LET THIS SHIT HAPPEN!?!?!?!” igniting a small firestorm of controversy which involved a surprisingly large number of Black people defending said curating White woman. The curator in question is named Timothy Anne Burnside. Burnside has been an employee of the Smithsonian since 2003. She has a master’s degree in curatorial sciences from Johns Hopkins. By all indications she has done a good job and seems to be qualified.
But, that is not the issue. Without presuming to speak for @DJChubbESwagg, based on his responses to critics, some of them Black professional curators, one of them a well known White member of Kappa Alpha Psi, it’s clear that the original question wasn’t about qualification or effectiveness, it was about race. Again, without presuming to speak for him, I have a broader question, why do White people have an inherent right to curate and present Black history, culture, news?
The responses to the original tweet have been…revealing. Many of them focused on her qualifications and vouched for her knowledge of hip hop and rap. I should hope the Smithsonian museum wouldn’t have been so willfully idiotic as to appoint someone who literally knows nothing about the culture for which she is supposed to curate an exhibit. Others have claimed that it is an insult to the staff of NMAAHC to claim that they would pick an “unqualified” person to curate their exhibits, and have affirmed the absolute, unimpeachable, unreviewable and, above all, unquestionable, right of people who have engaged in extensive study to curate and present Black culture.
There are several things at play that need untangling. First, simply being Black does not mean having deep knowledge of Black history, culture etc. Facts, theoretically, are available to anyone willing to engage them. I have taken courses with well known White historians of African diaspora and African history; every single one of them probably knows more facts in this area and has a better command of its existing literature than I do. We can all agree that a Black first year undergraduate who would walk into a course taught by a White professor who has been teaching Black history longer than said student has been alive and claim to know more facts than said professor would be a fool of the highest order. At the same time, I have met and taken courses with White people who have been writing books on Black history longer than I have been alive who have, nonetheless, displayed a striking cultural tone deafness. One famous professor, while speaking to me and another student, who was White, inexplicably decided to throw in a bit of awkwardly deployed slang. Another time a professor who has served as a Black history expert for the BBC was showing us some pictures which were included in a book about the Black Panthers.
The photo was of two Black women sitting on a bench holding bags of food they had just received from the Black Panther party’s community food program. The professor, though untrained in photographic analysis, invited us, as an intellectual exercise, to analyze the photo. He described the woman slightly in the foreground as looking, tired, weary and forlorn. I responded, with no intention to be controversial, that she looked like someone’s grandmother “holding forth” i.e., like an elder Black woman sitting in her self-contained glory, looking square into the camera holding a sack of her community’s bounty. In this moment, I possessed more expertise than the professor. The only relevant fact was the photograph in front of us, it gave no clues to what the women were thinking other than their body language. Of the two of us, I was the greater expert in Black body language, because I have a Black body, I came out of a Black body and for 27 years I have been surrounded by Black people speaking body language. Some of the most formative influences in my life have been elder Black women, I therefore had vastly more experience than my White professor had at encountering them as full human beings, as opposed to objects of historiography. My experience gave me a broader set of assumptions and experiences on which to draw. Another time, we were listening to a recording of an oral interview with a Black man from Greenwood, Mississippi. For our benefit a transcript of the interview had been printed out. As my classmates followed along on the transcript, I simply listened. I am a Black Southerner, I have been speaking to Black Southerners all my life, Black Southerners taught me how to speak, I speak like and as a Black Southerner; I can therefore understand them as easily as I understand myself. At a certain point the speaker’s words in the transcript were labeled “unintelligible.” During the ensuing discussion, when this “unintelligible” part was mentioned, I chimed in with a ready “translation.” To me there was nothing unintelligible about what he said, he talked like my grandfather. Understanding him came naturally. Several of the people in the class were much more well-versed in oral historiography than I was, that wasn’t hard to be, I had never studied it. But, I know Black talk if I don’t know anything else.
Did my experiential knowledge invalidate their book-bounded knowledge? No. Could any amount of book-bounded knowledge have turned them into a native speaker of Southern African American Vernacular English? No. It is because such experience cannot be taught that the university should and must privilege formally ordered knowledge. A degree in “being Black” would be a hopeless endeavor. The problem is, that knowledge producing institutions don’t distinguish between the two, because to do so would be to admit their own limitations in a way that is very difficult for a set of institutions built on the presumed ability to “know.” I venture to guess that every single Black person who has spent enough time in academic spaces has encountered the proverbial Black studies scholar who seems unaware that they didn’t get their degree in “Blackness” or “Being Black.” Such persons often engage in an obnoxious brand of competitiveness when faced with actual Black people because, for all their credentialed authority, there you sit, Black as can be, a potential competitor wielding an authority they can’t touch. What’s strange is that for all their study, they almost universally seem to have missed out on an incredibly basic fact: Blackness is a human reality belonging to those humans who live their lives in Black. It can’t be commodified and abstracted fully for academic consumption anymore than you can place the whole French revolution in a book. You can read the words “The sound of ear splitting cannon fire filled the air,” ten million times and not bust an eardrum. You can study anti-Black police brutality until you keel over and still not know that special terror of seeing a police cruiser and wondering if your time on earth is up. Black people bring something irreducible to the study of ourselves that no university can teach.
But of course, as I said, facts and formalized knowledge matter also. If Timothy Burnside didn’t know more about hip hop than me before she started curating exhibits at NMAAHC (she may have) she certainly does now. There are White people who can recite every Tupac lyric known to man and Black people who think Afrika Bambaataa is the national anthem of Wakanda. So what about Black people with credentials? If we take it for granted that Burnside is doing a good job (I’ll give the people that run the NMAAHC that much credit.) Why does it really matter that she’s White? Black people are severely underrepresented in the fields of knowledge and cultural production. At the same time, there is an increasing clamor for Black “content.” (I personally hate the word content, but, it’s the best word to capture the things I’m about to bring together.) Take academia, Blacks are 5% of professors nationwide in all disciplines. Since history is my discipline, I’ll zoom in there since I see little reason to suppose that history is much better though, strangely, I haven’t been able to find data on what percentage of history professors are Black. The Wesley-Logan prize is awarded annually by the American Historical Association for those who have written “an outstanding book on some aspect of the history of the dispersion, settlement, and adjustment, and the return of peoples originally from Africa.” Of the last 19 recipients, 10 have been White.
Of the last 22 recipients of the Organization of American Historians’s James A. Rawley prize for the best book on “American race relations” 18 have been White. In many ways, the question of who is winning the history profession’s awards is more important than who is teaching. Awards give a sense of whose work is thought to be indispensable, whose work is defining the course of the discipline, whose work one cannot “get away” with not having read. I came face to face with this reality in a course on the Black freedom struggle, taught by a White professor, with a syllabus made up entirely of White authors, save one. My argument is not that White professors can’t do good work in the area of Black history and culture, though I am routinely smacked in the face with the Whiteness of White authors because framing and authorial voice can be as much of a dead giveaway as actual skin color. The White historians I have read have been undeniably knowledgeable and seemed to have a sincere love of their subject matter. They were clearly “qualified.” But, even the most well-crafted historical narratives leave unanswered the question of what more a Black author might have found in the same archive. What corner of Black existence remained invisible to the White scholar and, as a result, remains invisible to the reader? The most striking example of this phenomenon is the Works Progress Administration’s collection of interviews with formerly enslaved Africans compiled in the 1930s. This oral slave narrative collection is the best record we have of what enslaved people thought about life as chattel. Unfortunately, 80% of the interviewers were White. It doesn’t take any great feat of historical imagination to realize that an 80 year old Black man in rural Mississippi might have been exceptionally wary to speak too much of their mind to a strange White person lest local White opinion become inflamed against him. While many interviews contain a striking candor, the stories held back by those who were not willing to speak the unvarnished truth to a White stranger are lost forever. As Paul Laurence Dunbar observed “We wear the mask that grins and lies, it shades our cheeks and hides our eyes. This debt we pay to human guile, with torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” With our centuries of practice at dissembling before the White gaze, with White people’s perennial ability to remain oblivious to how little they know about us, it is always worthwhile to ask what White curation and presentation miss.
Finally: It is beyond ludicrous to demand “representation” without worrying about pipelines. It is easy to see that it would be absurd to make a movie about Black life while using White actors, and Blackface is out of the question. It requires a little more thought to recognize that the credentials that make someone “qualified” based on a resume come at a significant cost and that Black people, being disproportionately poor, are also at a severe disadvantage in acquiring them. Academia and media tend to get around these pipeline issues by just allowing the White people they’ve always privileged to produce their Black “content.” 5% of the journalistic workforce is Black, but, there is an increasing hunger for stories about Black people. To “solve” this paradox, newsrooms are more than happy to let upper-class White people who rarely interact with Black people outside of a service capacity do their damndest to fill the gap. If we care about the actual needs of Black people, we must demand Black faces to produce Black content. We must also be willing to move White people we like out of the way, we must be willing to accept that “nice, well-meaning” Whites are sometimes not going to get to have everything they want all the time, as the price of Black people getting our just due. We have got to decide that the needs of Black people are of central importance SOMEWHERE in this world. Of course, the bigger, unspoken problem, which I don’t have time to address in this essay, is that The Smithsonian is a federal institution and that until we figure out how to build our collective power and wealth as a community in a way that will allow us to build museums that are truly our own, we will always have these debates.
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