I am fortunate that art is core to the personal and professional for me. It is rare that I am in NYC on business and I don’t get to stop at a gallery, library, or museum to see spectacular art. This recent visit included the Black is Beautiful Kwame Brathwaite exhibit at the New York Historical Museum. Mr. Brathwaite used photojournalism as a tool in his activism. He is known for popularizing the “Black is Beautiful” phrase. Born in New York, he spent his career documenting Black life and culture in Africa and Harlem. I remember being introduced to his work via an assignment given by Mrs. Vivian Harrison, my 6th grade teacher in Camden, NJ, where my parents had migrated from North Carolina in search of better jobs and education.
As an adult, I now realize Mrs. Harrison was creating a classroom and assignments that were designed to teach us the United States history the books didn’t provide. She built, and I do mean built, a classroom that you stepped into and were transformed. The classroom featured an aesthetic that was 100% different from our school that had sadly resembled a prison. It was because of teachers like Mrs. Harrison, Mrs. Jamal, Mrs. Johnson, Mr. McBride, Mr. Sutton, and Mrs. Weddington that somehow the design of the school never seeped into my psyche. I happily entered that building, where I learned so much and felt respected and safe.
In retrospect, Mrs. Harrison’s classroom reminds me of the work of another artist, Mickalene Thomas, who ironically was born in Camden, NJ, though raised in northern NJ (I wonder if she ever crossed paths with Mrs. Harrison). In the same way that Mickalene Thomas has staged some of her work to resemble living rooms and other spaces in Black/African American homes of the 70’s, Mrs. Harrison’s classroom featured an aesthetic designed with beauty and formality, while simultaneously making you feel cozy and special. She had couches, table cloths, curtains, plants, and classroom rules that aligned with her aesthetic for success. We could not enter her class with sneakers, because she expected young people to care about their appearance and to show up professionally. She wanted us to be dressed as neat as possible within our means (she knew many of our families lived at or below the poverty line). She taught us how to write beautiful penmanship, she focused on speech and debate skills, our desks were laid out with great specificity, and a table with a cloth and a vase of flowers greeted us. During certain assignments like creating our Black History collages, she had us explore accurate American History that acknowledged and prominently featured the role Blacks/African Americans played in building the United States of America, while music by Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, and others played softly in the background.
In her way, she was sending the message of the title of Kwame Brathwaite’s beautiful and poignant exhibit that is focused on the assets held by Black people and the encouragement to use them to develop self and community. Brathwaite’s exhibit transported me back to my 11-year-old self watching Mrs. Harrison in awe and respect of her ability to create this alternative and powerful educational experience. She was stern, she demanded excellence, and she taught with intention and grandeur that helped to build the knowledge, self-esteem, and confidence we needed to prepare us for the bigger world outside her classroom doors.
Thank you Mrs. Vivian Harrison and Kwame Brathwaite for the beauty, brilliance, definition, and education.
Photos from the Kwame Brathwaite Exhibit at the New York Historical Society through January 15, 2023 https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/black-is-beautiful-the-photography-of-kwame-brathwaite
Tammy Dowley-Blackman Group, LLC is a certified National Supplier Development Council Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Small Business Administration (SBA) Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB), and Women’s Business Enterprise Network Council (WBENC) woman-owned company. The company is comprised of a suite of brands, including TDB Group Strategic Advisory, a management consulting firm, as well as Looking Forward Lab, which offers a full-service learning engagement model focused on Gen Z workplace development and support for their managers.