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A Letter from an Arts Worker: DeLana Dameron-John

 

Dear Jess,

I am at my writing desk this rainy Wednesday morning, before the sun is fully up, but I can tell it will be an overcast day, and cold. Seasonably cold.

Two nights ago I watched the weather report on live television. I never watch live television these days, but somehow I was there, and I didn’t change the channel, and I watched this woman read numbers off of a screen and point to places in the tri-state area, and then say, with each day of the week and each number, the word “Seasonably” as if it were a surprise. As if we should be thankful. As if we hadn’t gotten a few days of “unseasonably” warm days—70 degrees, inching close to 80—two weeks before. As if it weren’t still winter and folks were coming out of their houses in shorts and sandals.

She said by today it should be “warmer” and that yesterday it was supposed to rain. Yesterday it was warmer, and today it is raining. The thing about the weather is that we expect one thing and most often, even when someone tells us, get something totally different. And we are always so surprised.

This morning, almost as early as I woke, I got a distress message from a young mentee, a young Black woman, and I feel so bad, Jess. I had worked with her, trained her, sent her on to bigger and better places. I had said, you’ve got this, now fly. I had pushed her out of the nest. This morning she sent me a message asking me to come save her. What did I do? I had reported the weather, and said it would be sunny and unseasonably warm, and she had gotten a blizzard. I had told her what has been told to me: that this place would give her a name recognition, that this place is not like the others; that this place would take care of her. She may not make a year there. How often we are so blindly wrong when we think we are right.

My story is not dissimilar. On my work desk are dried pink roses from C. My first day, the receptionist called and said I had a package. Me? It was my first day. C had sent me a small bouquet of flowers and a note congratulating me on my new appointment. I was loved. I had arrived. I was on a leadership team of an arts institution with a long history of producing cutting-edge exhibitions and showing diverse and emerging artists’ voices. This would be different. Maybe, I too could fly.

Before this institution, I had come from a place of explicit Blackness. There is no other way to say it. As far as institutions in New York City go, this is the birthplace of Brooklyn Black. Remember when I told you I was going there? It was a few months after we saw and wrote about One-Way TicketJacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” on view at MoMa in early 2015. We had started our official journey of documenting our Black Southern (and women) selves against this urban artistic landscape, and what that meant in terms of how we navigated the world, the art world, the art work world. I told you I was leaving fundraising for educational non-profits to raise money for righteous small Black community-based organizations. I said: I was going to Get Free.

In so many ways, I did. You know the ways: working with all-Black colleagues in an all-Black institution as a young Black arts administrator will build you up in a way you could never imagine until you are in it. Of course you know. I remember when you went to work for the Black Performing arts organization in Brooklyn. You, too, were leaving education, and I should have seen it—you were the canary in the mineshaft. When you left education, you were telling me the oxygen is low here, get out while you can. I didn’t see that message then. I see it now. But I remember your growth, and how you shared that with me, how we worked together under a Black Executive Director who was also woman. How rare. How beautiful. Even though I flitted in and out on project assignments, every time I walked through the doors it felt like family. Your co-workers became my friends. Your mentor  became my mentor. And so on.

Wouldn’t it be a world if our story ends with us at those explicitly Black spaces, happily ever after? Today, this cold and rainy Wednesday, I would say our opportunities were “unseasonable,” meaning, small blips in a larger pattern. If that institutional racism weren’t a thing, and that funding for small, Black, community-based arts and cultural orgs were prevalent and all-flowing, perhaps we would have stayed there. Right? I won’t speak for you but I know I would have stayed at Weeksville if I could.

But you are ever the canary in the mineshaft, and I am learning to watch how you move and I am learning to follow suit. Though you call me mentor, big sister, I think in true form to mentorship, I learn so much from being in your universe. I have taken great pleasure in writing and speaking your praises in reference, and watching your career and artistry grow. I remember the texts the calls the coffee over whether or not you should leave the place you landed after the Black arts organization. Should you leave? The oxygen was low low and you were suffocating. We decided you should get out while you were alive and still had breath and agency.

And the world opened up to you in such a way! Ok, we talk about God a lot in private, sometimes public. How He moves and moves us with our knowing or without. I don’t think it wrong to say that God opened the door for you and Jessica and Kimberly and Taylor–four black women artists and thinkers of your own powers—to be in residence at Recess at the exact moment that I was transitioning from to a new institution a few blocks away.

I have been trying to put to words what I felt those six weeks you all were in Session with Black Arts Incubator. I will try now, as I write you.

Do you know what an airlock is?

When deep sea divers climb out of their submarines and enter the abyss of sea and creatures and unknowns, they have of course an oxygen mask. There is no other way. In addition, they have pressurized systems to create a livable environment in a place that is otherwise uninhabitable to humans. We carry the things we need to survive from place to place. Inside of the submarine is oxygen and pressure to keep the weight of water from crushing a body and outside the submarine, with the diver, is oxygen and pressure. When the diver is ready to return to the submarine, which is to say when the diver is going from one place to another, she first has to enter a small chamber, an airlock chamber, to stabilize the environment, to flush out the uninhabitable water and pressure, and prepare for entry into the submarine. It is a similar process, I believe, for astronauts out on a space walk, hoping to return to her comrades in the pressurized space cabin. To make the journey from one environ to the next without such a chamber is certain death.

I am trying to say that I journeyed from a place where my colleagues and constituents and very understanding of myself in the workplace were as Black as I am, to a place where I am the only Black woman sitting around the leadership table. I dared to venture from one pressurized environment to another type of pressurized environment, and you, your BLACK ARTS INCUBATOR with its open office hours, with its store front open door that welcomed the drop in became my airlock. (You must also know my Southern self was most at home with the idea that I could come, unannounced, and sit for a while) When I was out in the unstable environment in which I had found myself, trying to assert my certain Blackness and work and conviction around that work in a place of certain whiteness, I knew for six short weeks I had a place I could go. Your team had opened a place for me to flush out the inhabitable toxins, take in oxygen, and prepare to enter the next cabin.

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Two Black women stand in the street. One, filmmaker Ja'Tovia Gary, wears a red scarf as she holds a micrphone in front of the woman wearing a yellow coat. The woman wearing the yellow coat is preparing to answer a question.

When the Session was nearing end, I ventured out into the world more often, and found my way to your airlock chamber before I made my way back to the office. I browsed your Black Arts library, met Black artists and Black curators and Black thinkers invested in making room for people like us in institutions that don’t look like us, or even support us. It was such a special place. Unseasonable. It was a surprise. Thank you.

Jess, I am watching the canaries—Black women in white institutions—dive down into the mineshaft. There is a shift in the wind. I am quite aware of my mixing metaphors, but I feel that enough of us do not have such places providing life-giving oxygen, and we are searching desperately for an air lock, a place with people who want us to live, to survive it all.

Where will we go when we leave, to live? May there be a place for us—& habitable—somewhere.

Love,

DéLana

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

​DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of Weary Kingdom and How God Ends Us. She is an arts and culture administrator and lives in Brooklyn. www.delanaradameron.com

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