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Ancestry in Progress

When you first enter the back exhibition halls at the Resnick Pavillion, you are met with Hank Willis Thomas’s “A Place to Call Home (Africa-America).” It is a map of the Americas with the continent of South America replaced by Africa. It is also a mirror. As you take it in, you see yourself in the piece. At my height, I appeared dead center of the hybrid continent. This is not just history. It is your history. Not in the abstract; these displays are about you, specifically. Experience it as such.

The Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at LACMA is a powerful and thought-provoking display of art and culture that explores the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on the African diaspora. Curated by Robert Farris Thompson, the exhibit features a wide range of works from artists of African descent, spanning centuries and continents.

Scheduled on a lark by Tiffany, the visit felt serendipitous, as if guided by otherworldly forces. To spend nearly two hours with these works during the same week that I was reading and, candidly, struggling through Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts felt heaven-sent even to my apatheist heart. And that’s not to mention that we arrived before the heavy rain and the LA crowds looking for something to do during a downpour. Thank the ancestors.

In Wake, Rebecca Hall writes:

Living in the wake of slavery is haunting, and to experience this haunting is to be nothing less than traumatized.

This “haunting” was my primary challenge in making it through her graphic novel before I spent the morning with these works. The exhibit features pieces I’ve seen before from Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Betye Saar, along with many artists from Brazil and the Caribbean that were new to me. It was overwhelming to walk from room to room, each with its theme meant to make the enormity of the black experience in the Americas digestible. Digestible even if it goes down bitter. Digestible even if you have to swallow hard.

Americans are myopic and self-centered, and I am no different. When I grapple with the realities of slavery, I think of it as a uniquely American problem, a United States of America problem. This curation, though, makes plain that the impacts of the transatlantic slave trade were similar and terrible throughout both North and South America. This horror-as-commerce, of course, rippled back to Africa and the countries that brought themselves into the modern world on the backs of Africans for hundreds of years.

In Afro-Atlantic Histories, this sober reality is expressed by displaying art from artists that seem to be conversing with each other, like Kara Walker’s “Restraint” and Sidney Amaral’s “Neck Leash—Who Shall Speak on our Behalf?” In Wake, Hall highlights this by recounting her trip to Great Britain while researching her dissertation. She makes it to archives of Lloyd’s of London—an insurance company that exists solely because of the need to insure the cargos of slave ships hundreds of years ago—only to be denied access to their records out of fear that a proper independent accounting of history will also come with a bill long past due.

While Wake’s tagline sells the graphic novel as a deep exploration of the women who rose against these supposed enslavers, these stories are unavailable. Historians of the period seem biased against the idea that women could do such a thing. Perhaps they would kill their masters in a domestic dispute but lead an insurrection? Arm and inspire dozens or perhaps hundreds of others? Surely not!

To which, and this is not a joke, can someone get those old codgers a copy of The Woman King?

Hall and her illustrator explore the idea of captured Dahomey warriors on a slave ship and how they would have taken advantage of being underestimated.

Or invite them to the Afro-Atlantic Histories portrait room, where Dalton Paula’s Zeferina is on display. Zeferina was an abolitionist leader who joined with formerly enslaved people to lead a rebellion, killing enslavers to establish an independent community of free black people. She was executed for her crimes against the Portuguese crown. A woman king, indeed!

We must use our haunting to see how black life truly is and see how it could be otherwise.

The closing chapter of Wake is titled Ancestry in Progress, referencing the Zap Mama album I loved at its release. It’s playing now as I write this. I feel the throughline of the graphic novel, the art, and being a descendant in my bones. Staring into artwork that demands you reckon with these horrors—our shared history, even if you don’t yet recognize it as such—has had me on the verge of tears.

But I am here. Many of my ancestors survived these incomprehensible circumstances and found ways for their spirits to thrive. To swing out. I am here with Zap Mama singing along as we make it past the rain to the sun on Ca Varie Varie. I am here with portraiture that conveys all we might be as we exist today. We are our past and our future. And sometimes, I am overwhelmed by how improbable and beautiful that is.

To crib a bit of how Firelei Báez describes one of her paintings, black joy amazes and I will not relinquish it.

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