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How Black Artists in Texas Demonstrate the Spirit of Juneteenth

For better or worse, words like “proud,” “unapologetic,” and “resilient” have come to define Texans, and these words and this attitude also define a spectrum of Black artists who are from, or have lived in, Texas.

Tammie Rubin, “Always and forever (forever, ever, ever) No. 2” (2016) 12 x 47 x 16 inches, pigmented porcelain, underglaze (image courtesy of the artist)

This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Juneteenth.”
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The range of Black creative expression hailing from Texas should come as no surprise. After all, those who were enslaved in this state learned that slavery had been abolished more than two years after the nation’s 1863’s emancipation proclamation. This tragic truth might be what connects the range of Black artists with ties to the Lone Star State — a testament to the ways in which art knits people together. This combination, of creativity and the need to heal, might have also driven a segregated enclave in Austin, Texas, to become the only Black cultural district in the Lone Star State. This neighborhood is home to the city’s annual Juneteenth parade. It is also the neighborhood I have called home for the last 12 years.

The fact that Black people in Texas endured the horrors of slavery longer than those who were enslaved in any other part of the country speaks to the state’s reputation of independence (it was in fact its own country from 1836–1845.) For better or worse, a we’ll-do-things-our-way ethos pervades this state — and words like “proud,” “unapologetic,” and “resilient” have come to define Texans. These words, and this attitude, also define a spectrum of Black artists who are from, or have lived in, Texas. In a recent phone call, artist Diedrick Brackens said, “Texas is the most quintessentially American place. It represents all the values that this country is built on, but turnt up.”

As someone born to Trinidadian immigrants in Canada, and a transplant to Texas, this might be the most accurate description I’ve ever heard of the second largest state in the union.

I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. As such, I came to understand the full complexity, and painful history of the US later in life. And while I often believe that I have much catching up to do, I equally believe that coming to understand the unbearable weight of this country’s foundation of discrimination as an adult, has given me some breathing room. Canada is by no means a utopia, and there are strange similarities between the province of Quebec and the state of Texas.

Austin artists BlackAdonis and Jeff Miles work on a painting in Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, a community gathering space on 11th street, in historic East Austin (image courtesy of the author).

They have both battled with secession debates, they are both home to the second largest populations in their respective countries, both have seen an uptick in hate crimes since 2016. And yet, my Canadian friends and family act as if I’ve moved to Mars when they learn that I live in Texas. The “How’s that working out for you?” or the “So, when are you coming back to Canada?” are common reactions. It’s a sentiment Brackens, who is from Mexia, Texas, knows well. He admits looking forward to leaving the state to attend college in California. And yet, when people offered versions of Oh, you’re from Texas, as if it were a condolence, he found a renewed sense of Texas-pride.

“Texas has this reputation of being racist and homophobic. But other places are all those things too. It’s just coded differently. In Texas you always know where you stand, which allows you to carve out your specific community.” Brackens laughed, “If a Black queer kid can survive in Texas, I can survive anywhere.’

Knowing-where-you-stand is a sentiment echoed by artist Deborah Roberts. “In Texas, ‘no’ doesn’t mean stop. ‘No’ simply means figure out the detour so that you can get where you want to go. The road blocks are clear.” Over the course of her long and noteworthy career, the celebrated artist is no stranger to overcoming hurdles. “There will always be people who try to define you before you even know who you are. Yet in Texas, you’re taught pride at a young age — singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” as a child in school, pledging allegiance to the state before pledging allegiance to the country at the beginning of the school day. This sense of pride has always reminded me who I am. Even when people tried to tell me I was something else.’

In truth, my West Indian parents did not ascribe significant value to pride when I was growing up. Instead, they encouraged my sister and me to keep our heads down to avoid attention — their way of imagining how we’d stay safe, I suppose. But we were also regularly reminded that we would not be seen as equal to our white peers. As such, they told us we needed to be better. “You are Black, and you are women which means you will have to work twice as hard,” my mother said (twice, that I can remember). Their emphasis not on pride, but on the need for us to push harder — a need which might have drawn me out of Montreal, to Boston, DC, New York, and Philly, before coming to land in Texas — with hesitation.

In a recent phone call, Austin-based artist Tammie Rubin shared her own mixed feelings about moving to Texas from Chicago. “I was apprehensive [about the move]. I had to consider all the events that had to take place for me to feel comfortable moving south.” Rubin’s family were part of the wave of African Americans who made their way north during the Great Migration. Her work Always & Forever (forever ever ever) — a series of ceramic sculptures whose surfaces are treated with marks reminiscent of maps, while the forms themselves are reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan hoods — was in fact precipitated by her move from Chicago, to Texas. “Of course, the promise of the North was just an illusion. Maybe the oppression seemed subtler, but it was certainly strategic; maybe just less violent; probably not even that.”

Brackens’s work also considers the ways in which Black people have moved around this country — from the Underground Railroad to the Great Migration. In a recent conversation, we talked about those who left the South not only for the northeast, but also for the West Coast. And we talked about those who’ve left Texas. “Even if we leave, were always orienting ourselves to Texas.” He went on to say, “In many ways the South is as close as we [African Americans] can get to the homeland.”

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, “Atlantic” (2017) thread, ink and graphite on tracing paper, text by playwright Ricardo Bracho from the play The Sweetest Hangover and other STDS (images courtesy the artist)

Nigerian-American artist and Guggenheim Fellow Wura-Natasha Ogunji, did in fact leave Texas, for the homeland. Ogunji split her time between Austin and Lagos before re-locating to Nigeria permanently. Yet she considers her time in Texas as critical. “Texas was so far off the map for me, so unlike anything I thought it would be. It is a place full of unexpected beauty and interactions — a place for exploring. My time there nourished my work.”

Angelbert Metoyer is another Texan artist who splits time between Texas and overseas, in the Netherlands. When we last spoke, he was in Rotterdam. I asked if he would return to the States amidst the current uprising and he replied, “I have to come back. Strands of my new world are embedded in this fire, this time.” He’s since landed in Texas, in time for Juneteenth.

Angelbert Metoyer, “I’m cut out Life (M-Window)” (2014) mixed media on paper (photo by Mark Dorba and courtesy the artist)

At a time of the year when the BBQ pits get rolled out and parade routes are cordoned off for Juneteenth celebrations, three Texas GOP leaders shared a post suggesting that George Floyd’s death was staged, while The University of Texas (my employer) athletes call on the administrators to confront the institution’s racist history. Needless to say, in the state’s only Black cultural district, which is also home to the city’s annual Juneteenth parade, which also is the neighborhood in which I live, the nation’s current climate has changed the tone of this year’s celebration.

The significance of Juneteenth carries additional weight for Brackens: His own family, on both paternal and maternal sides, have been part of the initial community who established a fairground at the edge of the lake in Mexia, Texas, to celebrate Juneteenth in the late 1800s. In its heyday, Mexia’s celebration drew crowds near 30,000. This was THE Juneteenth party, with people coming from all over the country. But in 1981, at the annual event, three Black boys drowned while in police custody, changing Mexia’s celebration for years to come. These days, Mexia’s Juneteenth event sees crowds in the hundreds, not thousands. The highs and lows of this event have had a profound effect on Brackens’s work. “To me, Black liberation in the US started in the space I’m from. So for me, Juneteenth will always be super-important.”

Diedrick Brackens, “a star is a seed” (2019) woven cotton, acrylic and bucket, 13 x 64 1/2 x 48 inches (image courtesy Various Small Fires Gallery, Los Angeles and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

There aren’t many first-generation Montrealers of Trinidadian descent in Texas. (I know two. I’m one of them.) And while there are similarities between Texas and Quebec, it turns out there are similarities between Texas and Trinidad, too. What began as church gatherings in Texas in celebration of emancipation, has grown to become a widely recognized holiday known as Juneteenth. And in 1985, Trinidad and Tobago made history becoming the first country in the world to recognize emancipation as national holiday — a celebration marked with processions and costumes and dancing. This truth makes me proud. And as Texans say, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”

I think of returning to Montreal every day — to a set of conditions that I understand. To a place that isn’t turnt up. And yet — I may not be from here, but I am Texas-sized proud to be a part of the only Black cultural district in the state, and equally proud to bear witness to change being fueled by Black artists who have called Texas home. Artists such as John Biggers, Diedrick Brackens, Michael Ray Charles, Christina Coleman, Trevor Doyle Hancock, Melvin ‘Mel’ Edwards, Ja’Tovia Gary, Robert Hodge, Bert Long, Delita Martin, Betelhem Makonnen, Angelbert Metoyer, Wura Natasha Ogunji, Robert Pruitt, and Deborah Roberts constitute a cohort that draws attention to the complexity of Black identities and to the racial disparities which continue to plague this country.

“Black Artists Matter” street-mural on 11th Street, in front of the historic Victory Grill, in Austin’s Black Cultural District, which is an initiative of the Austin Justice Coalition (image courtesy of the author)

This year, in the weeks leading up to Juneteenth, as protests hear the chop of helicopter blades that interrupt a Sunday afternoon and police in these helicopters circling above bark, “We will deploy tear gas” (and your daughter asks “What is tear gas?”), while protestors park cars and vans on our streets before donning masks to join the fray, the celebration reminds us how far we’ve come. And it reminds us how far we have to go.

When I first moved to Texas, I couldn’t understand how finding out two years after everyone else that slavery had been abolished was cause for celebration. Yet after more than a decade I’ve come to understand that in Texas, “fixin” doesn’t mean repairing. It means preparing.

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