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on grand canyons

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I helped paint this mural on the wall of a building on South Beach in 1992 as part of a sidewalk art class taught by the late artist-singer Tomata Du Plenty.

I received an email today from someone who purchased a painting I did on salvaged wood more than a decade ago (Some of my colleagues make quilts. Another knits. I paint). The painting, which was titled “Pink House,” was sold years ago in a New Orleans gallery that once represented me. The buyer was art collector Mike Hill, who is also an administrator at Roane State Community College in Tennessee.

The work  on salvaged wood that Mike purchased years ago has real mail slots with paintings of people behind them. As I thought about it today, it reminded me of the importance of community and urban issues in my art, my research and teaching. Regarding the latter, the graduate students in my “Gender, Race and the Urban Space” course examine this week the urban crisis in Detroit after World War II as offered by historian Thomas Sugrue and the conflict surrounding the building of the interstate highways after the Great Depression as told by historians Raymond Mohl and Mark Rose.

Essentially, by the second half of the twentieth century, city dwellers, mostly people of African descent, saw their communities destroyed by new roads that helped others get to the suburbs and beyond. Many of those city dwellers, especially in the midwest and northeast, suffered from the reduction in entry-level manufacturing jobs and the movement of production to the suburbs, the south and overseas beginning in the 1950s. On going racial tension made matters worse. Newly arriving black rural migrants from the south saw the jobs they’d hoped for in the midwest and north disappear.

Even now, inequality is still shaped in cities. Gentrifying downtown areas are presently uprooting working class folks, black and white ones, who cannot afford high rent or property taxes.

History books do not easily put a face on these political and economic issues. Blogging helps me bring these studies closer to home for my students.

As I have written earlier, I spent my initial years a housing division called “the Projects” in the Coconut Grove section of Miami. My Mississippi-born grandparents lived in a duplex behind ours. Every morning, my grandmother left her back door opened so my brother and I could run inside and sip cooled coffee from my grandpa’s saucer. My granddaddy always added sugar to make it sweet.

One of our neighbors was a woman we called “Sister Bea.” She painted her walls very bright colors like yellow and pink and then spray-painted colorful polka dots on those walls. I suspect she wanted to bring cheer to our very simple housing. These walls were intriguing. I was struck by how an adult was allowed to paint on walls! Maybe Sister Bea was one of my first artistic influences. This was the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Tomata poses with a woman named Sally at the reception for our class’ art opening.

By the time I was five years old, my parents were able to afford a four bedroom house in then-Carol City, about 25 miles north of Coconut Grove. Because we visited my grandparents a lot, I learned to pay attention to the exit signs on I-95, which connected us to our old neighborhood.

I had grown up watching “Sesame Street,” which often used the urban landscape to teach children how to count and read.

Whenever we left my grandparents’ home in the Grove, I saw the street numbers get higher: 36. 54. 62. 79. 119. 125. 135.151. These were actual streets whose exits were being announced. Some of them were exits to black neighborhoods.

A teacher at the predominantly white elementary school I attended after our move once put some numbers on a chalkboard. He asked us about their significance. They were not unfamiliar to me. I recognized them as the exits on I-95. My classmates were less sure. Living mostly in the suburbs had not provided them with such knowledge. Highway politics separated us even though we were too young to know it.

Tomorrow I will ask my grad students to watch a clip from the 1991 film “Grand Canyon” (we saw a bit of this film earlier this semester). The movie stars Kevin Kline, Steve Martin, Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard. The late film critic Roger Ebert believed it was one of many “overlooked” films.

In one of the movie’s first scenes, Kline’s character, a white businessman, hastily leaves a sporting complex only to end up in a black neighborhood. His car breaks down. “Mayday, Mayday,” he utters to himself.

A group of African American would-be robbers see him and decide to carjack him when Danny Glover’s character – a black tow truck driver – “saves” him. The rest of the movie unveils the degree to which certain chance meetings can forever change a person’s life. What if that car hadn’t broken down? Would these two men have ever met and become friends? The question is asked again via other scenarios.

The entire movie pivots on how insignificant we all are in our fast cars when our lives are positioned beside the Grand Canyon, one of the great wonders of the world. Glover’s character eventually takes his new white friend to Grand Canyon to make this point.

There are other issues hovering over the story. Kline’s character fled from a Los Angeles basketball arena only to find himself in a black community that probably did not benefit much from the money going into that arena.

I think now of the Dolphin games which are a stone’s throw from the house to which my family moved in 1972. After black families like ours arrived, it became a so-called “second ghetto,” owing to white flight. How much does that community benefit from that stadium built after our arrival? I cannot easily say.

The challenge before us tomorrow will be making connections between discoveries in history books and our lived experiences. For example, how will we make links between the encounters between black entertainers who performed in interwar Detroit and 1920s Harlem, and the white patrons who frequented nightclubs in then-black neighborhoods back then? We learned about them last week. Which events led to such black-white interactions happening less after World War II? Are highway construction projects one of those events? To ask this question is to ask about changes in the growing options for entertainment like drive-ins, sporting events, television, concerts, movies via the Internet and so on.

And lest we think the conversation before us is only an urban story, as Mohl and Rose tell us, car “registrations quadrupled in Alabama and more than doubled in Georgia and South Carolina” between 1920 and 1930. Highways were needed for all of those cars. After the war, those highways led to suburban sprawl. Who was left behind in cities?

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The mix tape featuring different covers of the 1944 jazz standard  ‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk that Tomata gave me.

By the 1960s, alternate forms of transportation including light rail systems and bike paths were proposed solutions to highway building following citizen protests. But those solutions and even the tearing down of expressways do not, as Mohl and Rose have written, address how the automobile permits us to come and go as we please. Cars still offer something Americans cherish: freedom.

I have driven across this country on interstate highways twice alone. Thank you, Eisenhower, the president whose leadership helped make this possible. Along the way, I felt a certain freedom. But did traveling African Americans musicians like Nat King Cole of “Route 66” fame feel the same freedom when traveling on roads before and after the war? Probably not always.

How often do we drive along roads around us unaware of the bigger narratives surrounding them? I think now of the old U.S. Highway 11, now University Blvd., that once ran through the campus of the University of Alabama, the road on which motels like Moon Winx, the Ole English Inn and Bel-Aire still sit. This road was built long before nearby interstates. It is worth wondering about how these roads separate and bring us together – beyond game day.

These are sentiments that might have been shared with Tomata DuPlenty, a singer-artist, who once taught a sidewalk art class I took on Miami Beach in the early 1990s. There were just four students in the class. He once gave me a mix tape of several versions of “‘Round Midnight,” including the one made famous by Thelonious Monk. I still have that tape. Tomata was so generous. On the night of our class’ opening,  he hired a group of African American musicians to play New Orleans-styled jazz. They led us to a dive bar. It was a glorious evening. This event happened in the earliest days of South Beach becoming a playground for the rich and famous – again.

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This is the folkish “Pink House” painting that sold in a New Orleans gallery in 2001.It has people underneath those mail slots. Such placement suggests an invitation to see the human beings and human struggle inside the dwellings we often hurry past.

Postscript: Mike, who owns the painting above, received a grant to mount a show featuring his collection. I am so excited to have my piece included in his show. He’s promised to send me the catalog. What a welcomed walk down memory lane on the heels of two pretty rough weeks  owing to the  illness of a loved one, and the passing of another.

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