In a gentrifying neighborhood in Pittsburgh, a gridded black billboard with white lettering sits on top of a two-story building. The unassuming signage resembles a large scale version of those vintage letterboards that you may find in front of a school, church or coffee house. The Last Billboard is a public art project that invites artists to display text on the space above the building in this East Liberty neighborhood, and Alisha B. Wormsley is the current artist invited to engage the community in an artistic dialog. A Pittsburgh native, Wormsley is an interdisciplinary artist who was a 2015-2016 recipient of the Mayor’s Award for Public Art for her work as artistic director of the Homewood Artist Residency. The artist’s work utilizes afrofuturistic themes to reimagine our past, present, and future by taking science fiction iconography and applying it to modern day challenges that involve media consumption and creative expression.
Her text for the Last Billboard installation contained a simple phrase:
Notice I said was.
Wormsley’s billboard was up for about a month when the landlord removed the piece, basing their decision to remove it on a clause in the lease that grants the landlord authority to approve text; curiously in the 8 years that the Last Billboard has been under the lease, this provision had never been exercised by the landlord until now.
Across the genres science fiction, anime, and comics, black characters are sorely underrepresented. It is far easier for science fiction writers to imagine aliens of every hue in the rainbow before a black character is written into existence; the importance of seeing black characters on screen was one of the success factors behind movies like Black Panther. Black representation matters. Among black science fiction fans, the phrase has a particular resonance, but it is not limited to the genre by any stretch of the imagination.
“There are Black people in the Future.”
How does a simple articulation of an incontrovertible fact create controversy? How does this statement, one that dares us to imagine our mere presence in the future, create a level of discomfort so severe, that the landlord felt the need to censure it through its removal? This isn’t an opinion, fake news, or a conspiracy theory, it’s a fact. Instead of reacting to the words, what would happen if the individuals who took issue with the sign paused to examine why they felt the need to remove it? If I had to hazard a guess, I imagine that those who were offended by this statement felt the text was “divisive”, a coded term that has become as ubiquitous as “race card” as a device that attempts to shut down any meaningful dialog around discrimination, bias or institutional racism. These same folks often claim “they don’t see color”.
If the Last Billboard debacle has shown us anything, it’s proven that those who say they don’t see color are really saying they don’t want to see it. The overtures made by the landlord don’t open the door for a dialog, they simply telegraph the fact that censors have no intention of dismantling the actual power structures that afford them the illusion of colorblindness. It’s far easier to dismantle a phrase on a sign than to confront a simple reality.
Today, the artist released a powerful statement on the origins of the piece and her reaction to its removal.