Moving on without forgetting what we should learn from the Sojourner Truth mural

words by Noor Hindi, photos by Shane Wynn

The controversy over the Sojourner Truth mural at Lock 3 is history repeating itself. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “Well-intentioned white people always repeat history.”   

Though we were both feeling angry and confused, I defended Love Across Akron, the organizers of the project, because I know they didn’t mean to disappoint or hurt anyone in the African-American community. However, pain is pain, even when it’s unintentional. That’s the problem with intent. It’s something, but it isn’t always enough.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a lack of representation in the arts, or elsewhere, period, but it isn’t even the first time this has happened with Sojourner Truth in Akron. So maybe that makes this situation, for people who want a more equitable and inclusive society, the best example of how to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Truth delivered a speech on May 29, 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, but it’s unlikely she ever said, “Ain’t I a woman?” Those words belong to Frances Gage, a white feminist and abolitionist. When she penned those words in 1863 — 12 years after the fact — Gage depicted Truth as a “stereotypical Southern slave,” as Leslie Podell writes at the SojournerTruthProject.com and “effectively erased Sojourner’s Dutch heritage and her authentic voice.” We know this because Truth’s speech was transcribed by a friend of hers and published contemporaneously in the Anti-Slavery Bugle.

Undoubtedly, Gage had good intentions. She advocated to end slavery and fought for women’s rights. Her version of Truth’s speech may have even helped, but it was a grotesque appropriation of Truth and her words.

“Whenever you are privileged in a particular way, there are certain blind spots,” says Dr. Philathia Bolton, an assistant English professor at The University of Akron and scholar of African-American literature, black women writers and critical race studies. “So this idea about Sojourner Truth not just caring about what it means to be a woman, or gender, but also really trying to make a point about the condition of the slave, and how that might have been muted — and the fact that the woman who reflects on her speech 12 years later allows that silence and doesn’t allow that nuance to come across or maybe infuses her speech with sensibilities that relate to the white woman.”

If you wonder why there’s a lack of trust some in the African-American community feel towards the feminist movement, it’s this history of silencing black women. That’s the point of intersectionality.

Love Across Akron wanted to pay tribute an icon with ties to this city, but they weren’t aware of the history around the part of Truth’s speech they wanted to honor. That’s an understandable mistake to make. It’s also an easy one to avoid.

“I think the better question, probably, is, ‘Why didn’t they consult with African American women or scholars?’,” Dr. Bolton points out.

The fact they hadn’t was made obvious when organizers posted a photo from the unveiling ceremony featuring the 50 white women in front of the mural after they helped crochet it. That’s what sparked outrage.

“They’re knitting a project of an African-American woman who fought for civil rights and inclusion of women of color, yet there’s not one around the table,” says Ward 5 Councilwoman Tara Samples. “You would have assumed someone would have had the wherewithal to look around the table and see that there was something missing.”

This anger was a common theme in the community’s initial response. Cindy Michael, who organized the Love Across Akron which received $16,000 from the Knight Arts Challenge and raised another $16,000 in matching funds, later explained she had made some efforts to reach out to African-American sororities at the University of Akron. Even that reveals another problem.

Michael was under contract with OLEK, a nationally recognized fiber artist to not reveal the subject of the mural, which she says made it difficult to reach out to members of the African-American community. Real inclusivity would mean people of color are invited to the table as partners no matter who is being celebrated — not just welcomed to participate if they happen upon the invite or contacted because the subject is black or brown.

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Samples and city councilwoman Veronica Sims organized a community photo with the mural the two days later in hopes of better representing the black community. Cindy Michael attended and says she’s “happy that Tara and Veronica pulled this together to create something that was more inclusive.”

“If anyone tells you that feminism is not intersectional, they are not practicing feminism,” State Rep. Emilia Sykes said at the event.

Although many black women within Akron appreciated the photo retake, not all supported it. Darrita Davis, co-director of community outreach at The W.O.M.B (Way of Mind and Body) believes more attention should have been given to organizing a community forum.

“Black elected officials could have very well organized a community conversation and discussion with black women, black leaders or community people in general with the folks who organized the first event.”

On Tuesday, June 5 council member Margo Sommerville organized a private meeting at The House of the Lord church between the Love Across Akron team and the political figures who were upset.

Pastor Cathy L. Johnson was asked to mediate between the two parties.

“The originators of the fundraiser, they were not afraid to apologize, and they did. Not for intentionally doing something, but people were hurt, and they felt bad. So they apologized for the impact,” she says. “I think it was very courageous for both parties to come to the table. I really do.”

No matter what you take from the events that have occurred in the last two weeks, questions of public funding, segregation and the inclusivity of our city were on the minds of concerned community members and officials. The mural acted as a catalyst for these conversations.

After speaking to residents and business owners in Akron about what they find to be the biggest problems regarding the mural, many of them mentioned funding and the $32,000 used for a mural that won’t be up for longer than a year and which will likely end up in a landfill.

According to Michael, the yarn that was used for the project was donated to Love Across Akron through Red Heart Yarn. None of the people who participated in the project were paid.

Asked about how the money was spent, she says, “I don’t think I’m at liberty to share the budget.” But when she spoke to The Devil Strip at her fundraising event on February 23, 2018 at Compass Coffee, she mentioned a few expenses they were trying to cover.

“We have travel for OLEK and her team to come twice. And we have rental space for the workshops. And we have to rent a space for OLEK to put it all together. And the contractors that we’ll need to hire to put it up. And then promotional things and events.”

Some community members were upset that a white, Polish-American artist benefited financially from the project instead of it going to a local person of color.

Yvette Thompson, founder of Fadia Young Women’s Program, which offers financial literacy programs, college and job readiness training and self-awareness and acceptance courses, says, “It’s extremely frustrating. Give us an opportunity to obtain grant funding. Give us an opportunity to show what we can do with a grant and they will see change and they will see a different.”

It’s worth noting the Knight Arts Challenge itself was open to Akron area artists, businesses, nonprofits and community groups, and it was advertised each year it ran in Akron. Its chief goal, Knight Foundation program director Kyle Kutuchief says is that “winning projects must take place in or benefit Akron.”

That includes bringing outside artists to work in Akron, as the Knight Foundation has previously done with Theaster Gates, a nationally recognized social practice installation artist based in Chicago.

Kutuchief also noted Knight turned to a “diverse panel of local readers and judges that reflect the community to help select winning ideas for the Knight Arts Challenge.”

Full disclosure: The Devil Strip is a recipient of a two-year $35,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant for the Live at Lock 4 concert series, and in 2015, publisher Chris Horne was a reader for the first round of projects submitted to the Akron Knight Arts Challenge.

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Although black leaders and community members are upset, many are optimistic and hoping this incident leads to more productive conversations about diversity and inclusion in our city.

We asked them what organizations can do to better represent them. Here’s what they had to say:

Reach out early in the process of organizing events and projects.

Nichole Epps, community member:

“You can’t decide last minute you want to include someone. This event [speaking about the photo retake on May 31]  was organized in less than 24 hour and we’re here. There are many outlets and avenues where you can get the information you need. It’s not that hard. And include me. Not just in things that reflect people that look like me. But in general.”

 

Be intentional about inviting people.

Sunny Matthews, motivational speaker:

“You cannot be inclusive if you’re not making intent to do so. I hear ‘we talked to this one person.’ But you don’t to just one person of color and think you’re going to get all people of color. You reach out. You contact the main ones, like NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], you contact the local ones, like The W.O.M.B, you contact individuals to make sure they’re there. Also, when they’re there, you make sure they have a voice. This stuff doesn’t just happen accidentally.”

 

Develop relationships with communities BEFORE reaching out to them with something you need.

Isis Maat, community member:

“If anyone wants to get in contact with any organization, the first step is to first develop a relationship. It’s really not that hard. The people here in this city I’ve found are very willing to open up.”

 

 

 

 

Communicate.

Yolanda C. Clay, owner of Natural Beauties Brand:

“I think today is the beginning of sitting down together. If you don’t know better, you can’t do better. So sitting down together, bringing all races together, all women of color to have that conversation.”

Darrita Davis, co-director of community outreach at The W.O.M.B (The Way of Mind and Body):

“Communication. That’s always the key. You step outside your comfort zone and you come and you walk into places and you have a conversation. You don’t send emails. If you wanted this project to be massive and you wanted more people of color to be involved, you had to knock on somebody’s door that was a person of color.”

 

Attend inclusivity and diversity training.

Beth Vild, Chief Operating Officer at Big Love Akron

“You can’t just read an article online and call yourself an ally. It takes action. [Training] is going to give you real life experiences and connection and communication that you can’t get through armchair online activism because I don’t even really consider that activism.”

Big Love Akron will be holding a “How to Be a Good Ally” workshop on Sunday, June 24 at 1111 Carey Ave for people who want to learn about microaggressions, implicit bias and institutionalized oppression.

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The list above is only a starting point and the beginning of a conversation centered around making sure the Akron community is diverse and that people feel included.

“[Sojourner Truth] means freedom. She means representation of strong black women. She means we need to be included. We need to be represented” says Clay.

To view the mural, visit Lock 3 at 200 S Main St.

How to Be a Good Ally

Sunday, June 24 3:30-7:30pm

The Big Love Network, 1111 Carey Ave.

To find out more information about the Sojourner Truth mural, please visit thesojournertruthproject.com. Credible and peer-reviewed articles and biographies on Truth can be found within the following texts:

  • Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter.
  • “Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth’s Knowing and Becoming Known” by Nell Irvin Painter.
  • “I Don’t Know How You Will Feel When I Get through”: Racial Difference, Woman’s Rights, and Sojourner Truth by Teresa C. Zackodnik.
  • Go to bit.ly/2JxdazW for a short piece about the 1851 Women’s Convention.

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