A Wake Up Call for African Americans


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A Wake Up Call for African Americans

 Contemporary African American culture emphasizes the narrow purpose of “making it” out of our neighborhoods rather than transforming them. This culture of “making it” is reinforced daily when African Americans from all social strata see financial success as their ultimate goal, and are honored by African Americans and others for attaining it. Those who “make it” out of the neighborhood are the dominant role models for youth in communities characterized by poverty, high unemployment and poor education. Successful uplift will not happen in a significant way until we provide, through African American cultural institutions, a larger context of meaning for our children that we ask others to provide.

At last year’s Morehouse College Commencement ceremony, President Barack Obama issued this wake up call:

It betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do. So yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business, we need black businesses out there. But ask yourself what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood.

 Black capitalism is seen as one of the most viable strategies for neighborhood transformation, and seems to underlie the President’s message. While that strategy has failed for many economic and political reasons, a cultural explanation best explains why the most successful African American businesses and capitalists are not currently the major agents of neighborhood transformation. This is something we must address for the President’s message to have traction with this next generation of African American college graduates he seeks to inspire.

 Since the turn of the last century, educational investments through the form of scholarships have been the primary strategy to uplift our community and level the societal playing field. The educational strategy is the basis for the investment of a large amount of our community dollars, and is seen by many as neighborhood investment, as ‘giving back.’ This strategy should be questioned.

 Last April, some 14,000 educators and education scholars met in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association to discuss a very familiar question: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty? The answer: Parental income is a better predictor of success than any other factor, including race. On average, students from richer families have better grades and higher standardized tests scores than students from poorer families. They also have higher rates of enrollment in, and graduation from, college.        

This is reflected in the performance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), our country’s main engine for African American uplift, where the vast majority of students are from families earning less than $40,000. The Associated Press analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education which revealed that while HBCU enrollment increased by about 3 percent overall from 2006 to 2011, the graduation rate for HBCU students fell from 37.7 percent to 33.7 percent. Roughly, of the 47,000 students who began college at HBCUs in 2006, only about 15,000 had earned degrees in 2011.

 This data suggests that education alone as a strategy to uplift African Americans and transform our neighborhoods is not enough. But setting this data aside, one simply has to look at the decline of African American neighborhoods over the past 25 years to realize that new investment parameters need to be placed on the table. To change the community culture surrounding neighborhood development, investments in education must be coupled with support for community institutions that provide spaces where contemporary meaning can be discussed as a means to empowerment – and where that meaning can be put into a context for neighborhood transformation.                     

 African American cultural institutions are a good and logical place to start. However, despite these institutions’ presentations of our noble past, a culture based on “making it” out of our communities – which most of us cannot realistically do in the near future – insures that we continue to internalize supposed ‘deficits’ in our abilities and achievements. As low attendance at African American cultural institutions attest, solely representing a self-referent history does not significantly impact racial uplift, resolve contemporary issues, or serve as a basis to build sufficient community and individual confidence. Intuitively, young people and their parents understand this. That’s why so many stay away.

 There is a reason these institutions exist currently as they do in a self-referent context. Mainstream cultural institutions have historically omitted African American achievement from the mainstream historical narrative. And while in many cases that is not as true in contemporary society, some would argue that it is still true that less importance continues to be put on representations of African and African American history and culture by mainstream cultural institutions. But these truisms are not sufficient reasons for failing to widen the cultural framework through which so many African Americans see and define meaning for themselves.


Having a larger cultural framework allows others into our world and provides African Americans a platform for engaging with other cultures. It is the basis for the success of the Houston Museum of African American Culture, which presents both African American and non-African American artists. This strategy has allowed us to attract visitors and followers from all over the United States and from foreign countries including France, Germany, Malawi, Australia, Ghana, England, Nigeria, Croatia, Canada, and Jamaica.

 Real confidence in our culture, not the false bravado that exists today, can result in valuing the neighborhoods from which that culture emanates. It might inspire those of us who succeed to invest, like Magic Johnson, in transforming African American neighborhoods.

 Getting African American institutions to broaden their focus will not be easy. But the recent troubled experience of the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, and its probable liquidation, has opened the eyes of these institutions’ directors and boards to the need for change. Even more difficult will be changing a culture of “making it” out of our neighborhoods to one of investing in them. Ironically, these same neighborhoods continue to be transformed by gentrification. Still, there is potential and hope, if not from our current African American leadership, then perhaps from those Morehouse Men and other young graduates the President reached out to last year. Time and our effort will tell if this strategy will work. At risk is the future of our neighborhoods, and our community’s soul.

 John Guess Jr., is the CEO of the Houston Museum of African American Culture.

Source: Morehouse College

 Written February 19, 2014 by HMAAC Blogger


African American culture, museums


Top Five Fall Preview: August 24 2017

Top Five Fall Preview: August 24 2017

 Christina Rees and Rainey Knudson | 8.24.2017

1.1. Chuck Ramirez: All This and Heaven Too
McNay Art Museum (San Antonio)
September 14 – January 14, 2018

A survey of works by San Antonio artist Chuck Ramirez (1962-2010). “Ramirez’s large-scale photographs of everyday objects offer a humorous yet poignant perspective on our culture of consumption and waste, and the reality of fleeting life and mortality. Ramirez was inspired by opposing themes—life/death and humor/despair—and incorporates hints of his work as a graphic designer at Texas supermarket giant HEB.” Ramirez’s work also draws on his personal narrative, including his San Antonio upbringing, Mexican-American heritage, and his HIV status.

1.2. Chuck in Context
Ruiz-Healy Art (San Antonio)
September 15 – October 14

An exhibition focusing on the texted-based works of San Antonio artist Chuck Ramirez. This is the first time Ramirez’s Words series has been show in its entirety.

1.3. Chuck Ramirez
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts (San Antonio)
September – January 2018

A show of works by San Antonio photographer Chuck Ramirez. The exhibition includes works from Ramirez’s Purse Portraits series.

Linda Pace Foundation (San Antonio)
September 8 – January 27, 2018

A show featuring works from the Linda Pace Foundation’s collection of contemporary art. The exhibition includes works by Chuck Ramirez, Hills Snyder, Frances Stark, Diana Thater and Cheyney Thompson. Rivane Neuenschwander’s room sized installation Secondary Stories will remain on view.

2.1. The Telling and the told: The art of David McGee
Houston Museum of African American Culture
November 2 – January 2018

A show of works on paper by Houston artist David McGee. The exhibition, curated by Benito Huerta, explores issues of politics, race, class, pop culture, and more.

Texas Gallery (Houston)
September 14 – October 21

A show of works inspired by artist David McGee’s “continued investigation into the paradoxes of blackness, via the abstract notion of colorism” and his “long-term interest in Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick, and Homer’s The Odyssey, and the aversion to transcendentalism.” The works are also inspired by “the Middle Passage, Viking culture, colonization, the colors of police cars and its effect on the optic nerve, and the impulses of modernism.”

This was featured in Arts+Culture magazine. To continue reading click here.

Review: Otabenga Jones “Fort HMAAC admin

Review: Otabenga Jones “Fort HMAAC admin

MARCH 1, 2012

“Fort HMAAC” is the latest offering from Houston-based collective Otabenga Jones. The inaugural exhibition marking the opening of the Houston Museum of African American Culture’s new space on Caroline Street, seek “Fort HMAAC” illustrates pedagogical and revolutionary ethos that girds the collective’s practice, as well as the curatorial approach that informs the groups’ museological interventionist installations.

Raising the issue of the precarious position of many African American cultural institutions Otabenga Jones has repurposed the HMAAC and posited the site as a type of safe haven. Approaching the HMAAC, one encounters a stack of sandbags that line the front entrance. Though the glass doors at the entrance, one can see further sandbags in the main foyer and lower gallery spaces that are ostensibly shoring up the walls of the museum.

The collective has transformed the main floor gallery space into a bunker/classroom. The walls of the gallery have been painted various shades of green and a glass door that leads into a back garden area is covered by a camouflage sheet and adhered with packing tape. Few objects are contained within the gallery space. Four tables in the center of the room enclose a still life comprised of plinths covered in black fabric, artificial palm leaves and flowers and a wrapped African mask on a stick that sports sunglasses.

This article originally appeared in Arts+ Culture magazine. To continue reading, click here.

Center of international discussion: Houston Museum of African American Culture in the spotlight

Center of international discussion: Houston Museum of African American Culture in the spotlight

By Whitney Radley  | 9.8.11

he Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) has big things in store: Its new home, situated — meaningfully — between Houston's Museum District and the Third Ward, is now open for special events; a series of exhibitions, programs, film screenings and panel discussions are in line for the fall season; and it's holding an internationally-recognized symposium this Friday and Saturday.

The symposium, entitled ‘Africans in America: The New Beat of Afropolitans,’ will feature a varied and talented panel. Wangechi Mutu (artist), Derrick Ashong(actor/musician/social entrepreneur), Taiye Selasi (author), Teju Cole (writer), Odera Ozoka (filmmaker), Meme Omogbai (arts maven) and Nemata Blyden(professor) will participate in what has the potential to be a pivotal historical conversation.

Through lectures, film screenings and roundtable discussions, speakers will address the Afropolitan (a term coined by Taiye Selasi) cultural movement and present a larger picture of what it means to be an African.

“These talents sometimes stand separate, sometimes side by side, and more than occasionally are fused together through an exciting mix of fashion, style and identity that is helping to redefine blackness in America," HMAAC CEO John Guess, Jr. in a statement.

This article was originally posted on CultureMap. To continue reading, click here.

Black Lives Matter Gets a Foothold in Houston Racism, the Police and Stereotypes Spotlighted By Fearless Museum

Black Lives Matter Gets a Foothold in Houston Racism, the Police and Stereotypes Spotlighted By Fearless Museum

By Shreya Muchmilli | 01.25.16

“The Abolitionists: Different Eyes Seeing the Same Reality,” on exhibit now at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, probes one of the most powerful and troubling topics of today from the art-world perspective. Coupled with “As Small As A Giant,” the shows at HMAAC explore racial discord and violence sparked by history and current events.

“The Abolitionists” has three major components. A highlight is the series by Ti-Rock Moore, who went public with her multimedia protest works on racism in 2014. The second portion comes courtesy of Clay Bennett’s racially charged political cartoons. The last element screens a video of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s political discourse on racial inequality, sampled from her website.  

This article was originally published on PaperCity magazine. To read the rest of the article, click here.

Houston Museum of African American Culture Teams w/ Silicon Valley African Film Fest for Houston African Film Festival

Houston Museum of African American Culture Teams w/ Silicon Valley African Film Fest for Houston African Film Festival

Tambay A. Obenson | Jan 22, 2015 3:12 pm

For those of you in the Houston area, take special note – an opportunity to see some films covered on this blog, that you may never get to see otherwise. Details via press release below…

The Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) announces the Houston African Film Festival, February 6-8 at the museum. The museum has partnered with the Silicon Valley African Film Festival (SVAFF) to bring Houston a weekend film festival that promotes an understanding and appreciation of Africa and Africans through moving images. The weekend showcase of films from various African countries will take audiences of all ages across the continent, presenting a mix of feature films, shorts, documentaries and animations from Africa’s seasoned and emerging first-voice filmmakers.

This article was originally published through IndieWire. To read the rest of the article, click here.

Artist Eleanor Merritt has an evolved career

Artist Eleanor Merritt has an evolved career

By Molly Glentzer | July 12, 2013

"Reflections of Goddesses," a retrospective exploring more than 50 years of painting by Eleanor Merritt, caps a season of celebrating women artists at the Houston Museum of African American Culture.

Merritt, who lives in Florida, is a longtime advocate for African-American and women artists. She visited recently for the opening of the exhibit, which features works from 1957 to 2012. Merritt's early paintings include serene, monochromatic oils. They're quite a contrast to her busy, many-layered later works.

Some artists hang onto every canvas they've ever painted. Not Merritt. Proof of a spirit always moving forward, she often cuts up old paintings to incorporate in current works.

This article was originally published in the Houston Chronicle. To read the rest of the article, click here.

Artist Tara Conley Invites You Into Her Doll House

Artist Tara Conley Invites You Into Her Doll House

By Michael Hardy | 1/27/2015

FOR THE PAST 18 YEARS, sculptor Tara Conley has been collecting phrases. Phrases she overhears at the supermarket, phrases people say when they’re talking to her, phrases plucked from the ambient chatter of daily life; banal phrases, profound phrases, witty phrases, silly phrases. She now has a collection of 900 such phrases, a collection she dips into when creating her multimedia works.

For a courtyard archway at Texas Tech’s Rawls College of Business Administration, she made limestone engravings of several phrases related to power, integrity, and success (“They never thought small”; “The boardroom just got a lot bigger”). For the South Gessner Houston Police Station she cast 33 phrases in bronze and hung them throughout the building (“You have the right to remain silent”; “Good luck with the police”).

For her new installation at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, Conley took her process one step further and based the entire work around a single phrase: “My Life As A Doll.” She chose the phrase in collaboration with writer Tria Wood when they were planning the original version of the installation, which went on view at DiverseWorks in 2011. “I asked Tria to go through the list of phrases with me, and we both picked the same phrase,” Conley remembers.

This article was originally published in Houstonia. To read the rest of the article, click here.

HMAAC steps up its game for Kinsey Collection: African-American culture exhibit displays the good and the bad

HMAAC steps up its game for Kinsey Collection: African-American culture exhibit displays the good and the bad

By Molly Glentzer | September 12, 2014

Every picture, letter, legal document and object in "African American Treasures From the Kinsey Collection" offers a window into a compelling story, illuminating centuries of struggle for freedom and equality. The exhibition also reflects positives, including the role of African-Americans in developing the country's aesthetic culture.

If you think you understand the history of slavery in America, the sight of a small set of shackles consider in a Lucite case stings. They're sized for girls, with a heavy bar of solid steel holding rings that would have permitted only a slow shuffle as they cut into the skin.

A letter written in 1854 by slave owner A.M.F. Crawford is painful to read. It was carried by Crawford's illiterate 17-year old servant Frances, on the way to a fate she may not have expected. Describing the girl as a very fine chambermaid, the owner reveals, "She does not know she is to be sold, I couldn't tell her; I own all her family and the leave-taking would be so distressing that I could not. Please say to her that... I was compelled to sell her to pay for the horses that I have bought, and to build my stable."

This story was featured in the Houston Chronicle. To read the article, click here.

Identity and inspiration on display in 'i found god in myself'

Identity and inspiration on display in 'i found god in myself'

By Molly Glentzer | March 17, 2017 

Dominic Clay was prepared to be on the defensive when the exhibition "i found god in myself" opened at the Houston Museum of African American Culture.

Timed to coincide with Women's History Month, the show features artworks based on choreopoems (monologues performed with dance and music) from Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf." A once-radical anthem for black sisterhood, Shange's 1970's performance piece-turned-Broadway hit contains the stories of seven women who navigate sexism, racism and mental and physical abuse.

It still reads as culturally aggressive, with a raw anger directed as much at black men as at whites.

Clay, the museum's assistant curator, is 31, heterosexual and black, and the show made his male-bashing alarm go off.

He previously knew Shange's writing mostly through Tyler Perry's 2010 flashy film adaptation, "For Colored Girls." The exhibition gave him a different perspective.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle. For the full article, click here.

The Magnificent Faith Ringgold: A Legendary Artist’s Survey Exhibition at Houston Museum of African American Culture

The Magnificent Faith Ringgold: A Legendary Artist’s Survey Exhibition at Houston Museum of African American Culture

On October 8, Faith Ringgold will be 87. Alive, well, and still making art in her Englewood, New Jersey, studio, she has earned the moniker “living legend.”

For the current exhibition of Ringgold’s work at HMAAC, on view through Sept. 25, three of her famed story quilts, 10 sculptures, three “tankas,” six works on paper, and the illustrations from her most famous children’s book, “Tar Beach,” fill both main galleries of the museum. There is also an excellent documentary, featuring the artist, looping in the theater space downstairs. Ringgold is fascinating as an author, storyteller, speaker, performer, and activist.

This article was originally published on Arts + Culture magazine. Read the rest of the story here.