Tomorrow is GIveSTLDay here in St. Louis – a day set aside for giving to non-profits across the region. In the week leading up to this day, members of the We Stories community have been sharing stories about their experiences. Today I share the story of why we give, why our family has prioritized this work. Here’s the story as it goes live this morning. And here’s the link to GIVE!
We exit the Hall of Presidents and head down the stairs to the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Along the way we notice the lengthening line in front of us. The museum is buzzing with excitement over the Obama portraits, and we are a part of that hum. People still waiting in line smile at us in anticipation; we assure them the line moves quickly enough and is worth the wait.
Arranged chronologically, visitors pass through several rooms of presidential portraits – from Washington to Lincoln, Kennedy to Reagan – to form another line to see the latest installation, artist Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama. He is seated in a chair against a lush, green background that seems to glow. It is the first portrait to hang in this hall created by a black artist; its subject is the first black man to hold this office. There is no need for additional narrative in this space. We feel it, I feel it, our girls feel it. We have walked past dozens of white men, dressed in the robes of their time, framed in the gilding of the moment – we’ve passed history to see history, to stand with history, to listen to the thrum of history in the murmurs around us.
Downstairs we enter another wing of the museum and enter the current exhibit, Unseen: Our Past in a New Light. The first portrait we see directly across the room is an oil painting of Thomas Jefferson. It is similar in style and technique to the portraits we’ve just studied upstairs. But this painting has been unfastened in the upper lefthand corner. Without the staples holding stretched canvas to frame, it drapes like a heavy curtain pulled aside at the entrance to an old, dusty parlor. The portrait of a young slave girl representing Sally Hemming is revealed on a second canvas beneath the first. Artist Titus Kaphar has titled this work Behind the Myth of Benevolence, and we move from piece to deconstructed piece in this exhibit – reexamining the visual history we are all taught first through portraiture, challenging the collection in the very institution we are exploring. It is the first full day of a weeklong exploration of our nation’s capitol – the first visit for both of our daughters – and we leave this gallery with the energy and desire to dig deeper into the story of the founding of our nation.
We will encounter Mr. Jefferson many more times along our journey. We will climb the steps of the temple erected in his honor, and read his words that feel both powerful and hollow in the context of history. We will meet him again in the underground galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture where he stands regally carved in bronze in front of a wall of Monticello-like bricks, inscribed with the names of the six hundred slaves that he owned, several of them his very own children. We will walk through his reassembled library on display in the Library of Congress while recalling the exhibits we saw the day before that detail the lengths that slaveholders would go to maintain the illiteracy of those enslaved. We pass the ceremonial office of the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, the first female African-American appointed to this position, and then stumble upon her working office. We seek out hidden and surprise moments of history-changing among the foundations of buildings erected by slave labor. The week is rich in opportunity; it is steeped in moments of contradiction and retelling. It feels like a gift.
When I first learned of We Stories I was intrigued. I have always had a deep love for children’s literature, and I find the genre compelling and powerful and essential. I turn to our own book collection on a daily basis for guidance and nurture and joy. I grew up in a family surrounded by literature, and with the example that there is almost always a deeper, untold story to every history. The mission of We Stories so closely aligns with our own family’s mission, that I had to know more.
I am grateful for the opportunity to now sit on the board of this organization and to watch this community grow in number and power. I still believe in its mission, and am energized by its reach. Its community helps to strengthen my own voice; its presence spills over into other moments and movements that I support; its commitment bolsters my own, and is a living, breathing example to my children of the values that I hope to pass along to them.
Throughout our week in D.C., my husband and I kept pointing out to the girls how much had changed since our own childhood visits to the capitol. The story is changing, the narrative is deepening, the opportunity for reflection is more abundant and more challenging. This shift must be fueled by something, by a deeper calling for realization and reckoning. It can start with a simple shift in the way we confront our past in our own families. It will gain momentum when we ask, and then demand, a more complete story. It is possible because we can see it. I returned home to St. Louis renewed in my faith that this change can happen here as well.
It must become a priority for the St. Louis region moving forward. We must challenge the narrative that seeks to divide us. We must tell a deeper, truer story that resets our region’s trajectory, centering growth and progress on the foundation of equity and inclusion and the owning of our shared narrative. We must seed this work in a generation of storytellers that we are nurturing and raising within our own homes, and in our neighborhoods and our classrooms and on our playgrounds.
And in this family, it is our priority too. That’s why we give. #thatsWHYwestories
*Information about the image: Behind The Myth of Benevolence, Titus Kaphar, 2014
UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, The National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. 5/18-1/19
Kaphar’s work examines traditional portraiture and reveals the unseen stories in a sculptural way. Artists have traditionally taken liberties with history in their artwork in order to present a certain narrative; Kaphar plays with that idea of manipulation to challenge that narrative and re-frame the way we look at historical figures and events.
#thatsWHYwestories #FueledByFamilies #GiveSTLDay2018