It’s February 1, and I’m back at it again! Last year I continued to pivot away from the blog to pursue more freelance/paid work, which meant that my Artist a Day and Culture Shock Art posts had to rest on the back burner for a bit. Oh, and I also relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina at the end of the year! While California continues to be where my home and heart is, I enjoy the newness of this change of scenery, while reveling in a slower pace in an entirely new region of the U.S.–one that I had once vowed I would NEVER live in. Well, as trite as it sounds, never say never.
Relocating to the South on the eve of an election cycle has been a mentally daunting and challenging experience. I don’t have family ties here or professional connections to root me to Raleigh, but my mother’s family hails from Texas and my father’s people are from Missouri; between the two sides of my lineage, the shadows of Jim Crow and the legacy of racism and segregation were long. So to say I had trepidations moving here is a vast understatement.
But Raleigh, specifically the people of Raleigh, have been warm and welcoming in ways I never would have anticipated. I was prepared for “Southern hospitality” and am still bracing myself for the day that someone swipes me with the dreaded “bless your heart”, but until then I’m embracing the genuine niceties. The city has a renewed energy that’s fueled by creativity, development and investment and as a result, the area is growing and thriving. With that growth comes the questions of societal cost and displacement that result from the predictable markers of gentrification and speculative real estate. It’s through that lens that I look at Raleigh: mindful of and respectful of the voices that have been here, yet embracing change and the small slivers of progress that come out of change. Part of this is asking the important question of “who or what was here before?”
I ask myself this question when I walk around downtown Raleigh’s refurbished buildings, bars and coffee shops; to my surprise I don’t have to go too far to find answers. Historical markers and civic preservationists have done a good job citing areas like Black Wall Street that were thriving Black economic centers–of course you have to look and always have to dig some more. Coincidentally you don’t need to step far to see the city’s confederate history either. That’s a post for another day.
All of this is leading to today’s first Artist of the Day post that’s once again care of the Google Doodle. A few weeks ago I was reading up on diners in Raleigh, wondering how the city addressed calls for desegregation and protest in the 1960s. The Greensboro sit-ins were the catalyst to lunch counter sit-ins across the state, including Raleigh. February 1, 2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in at Woolworth’s where Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, all students of North Carolina A&T, staged a peaceful protest in defiance of racist Jim Crow laws that prohibited them from simply sitting down to enjoy a meal at a department store lunch counter.
Karen Collins’ diorama of miniatures depicting the event is not only an important educational tool, her chosen medium is a fantastical portal into Black history that exposes some of the eerily relevant societal failures that exist today. In the wake of the protests that subsequently took place on February 10th, 1960 in Raleigh, the “solution” to the protests wasn’t to desegregate–they simply shut the lunch counters and diners down (temporarily). Then Raleigh mayor W.G. Enloe, in a response to the peaceful protests would later comment in a statement: “It is regrettable that some of our young Negro students would risk endangering Raleigh’s friendly and cooperative race relations by seeking to change a long-standing custom in a manner that is all but destined to fail….” Take a moment to think about that response and how loud and wrong it is-now compare that to present-day reactions to “taking a knee” in protest of police brutality.
While I was in L.A. I sadly never came across the work of Karen Collins, but I love the fact that her story and her art are being shared broadly today. Her artistic raison d’être is why Black History Month continues to be vitally important to the young and old today. Our stories fail to live on in the absence of stewards who work tirelessly to preserve these memories. This is why voices like Karen Collins matter. Cultural erasure under the auspices of “development” and growth only happen when we leave voices unheard.
For more on Karen Collins, see this great video by Atlas Obscura below:
February 1960 sit-ins move to Raleigh, N.C., Teresa Leonard – THE NEWS & OBSERVER (RALEIGH, N.C.). February 13, 2013