National Gallery of Art’s new dean talks diversity, COVID

Steven Nelson, gay news, Washington Blade
Steven Nelson is the new dean of the National Gallery of Art’s research institute that promotes the studies of the production, use, and cultural meaning of art. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

While most of us were just trying to get by during recent COVID quarantines, Steven Nelson accepted a new high-profile job and moved cross country amid the pandemic.

After more than 20 years in academia, multiple publications, awards and speakerships, Nelson was appointed as the new dean of the National Gallery of Art’s research institute that promotes the studies of the production, use, and cultural meaning of art.

In this position at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Nelson will focus on fundraising, leadership and scholarship work to advance the center’s mission and impact. The research center, which was founded in 1979, has been the epicenter of scholarly work on a variety of topics and art mediums.

In July, Nelson retired from UCLA where he was a professor for 20 years and taught subjects ranging from African art, Black power in art and African architecture. He was also the director of the UCLA African Studies Center and an adviser to UCLA leadership on diversity and inclusion strategic planning.

Nelson first joined the National Gallery as the Andrew W. Mellon professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. In that professorship, he wrote two manuscripts for upcoming books titled “Structural Adjustment: Mapping, Geography, and the Visual Cultures of Blackness” and “On the Underground Railroad.”

In addition, he is co-editing a project titled “The Black Modernisms Seminars,” which is a research volume that is part of the center’s initiative on African-American art. The project will be published in 2021.

New role during pandemic

‘My biggest hope is that the museum not only diversifies but also is a leader in opening up pathways,’ said Steven Nelson. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Despite not yet having a solidified housing plan and working remotely, Nelson said his transition to a new leadership role has been smooth.

“Moving in a pandemic has been really interesting and complicated to assess, however, it’s been weirdly more seamless than I thought it would be,” he said.

Nelson said the move also acted as a distraction from “all the really terrible things that were happening in the world.”

The announcement of Nelson’s new role came on March 6, early in the spread of the coronavirus. Nelson had been working in Washington for his previous role but had to return to Los Angeles to pack for permanent relocation.

When not in meetings or writing policy proposals, Nelson said he enjoys learning more about Washington with his husband and says he likes the setup and walkability of the city. When the concerns of the pandemic lessen, he said he hopes to explore local museums in his free time.

Like any new position, getting acclimated to new colleagues and processes is to be expected, he said. Also, Nelson has been in the building since 2018 as the Andrew W. Mellon professor, which made the transition even more seamless, he said.

Nelson also said he is enjoying working with others more directly as a dean. He described his past academic work as isolating, saying research and writing can be more of a lonely process.

“Being part of a larger leadership team has been really energetic,” he said. “I’m a social animal and I really enjoy being part of a team that charts a course forward for an institution.”

When editing applications for Ph.D. programs in the late ‘90s, Nelson said he seldom included his gay identity in his admission materials, while his Black identity was noted in all of them.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Why wouldn’t you be out on all of these applications? If you’re not going to be out, why would you go to xyz institutions?’ I took that to heart and decided to be open,” he said.

Since then, Nelson said that he has always been open about his sexual orientation and that it has impacted the ways he researches, approaches the world and works. He is also planning on promoting inclusion and diversity at all levels at the gallery.

“As a person who is black, gay and left-handed, this is important to me. My biggest hope is that the museum not only diversifies but also is a leader in opening up pathways,” he said. “We’re working on ways to do that.”

Identity has impacted the work Nelson has done in the past, and he said he hopes to “move the needle” for others. He also said his experiences as being the only African American in the room at many times in his life has impacted him greatly, and he said he is looking forward to promoting inclusion and diversity at the gallery to make that reality less common in the future.

Nelson is currently forming a new strategic plan for the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and finding ways for the center to be at the forefront of the entire gallery.

He is also looking at diversity and inclusion actions to take to make several aspects of the museum more inclusive, including making attendants and staff feel more accepted.

In accordance with the rest of the gallery, he said he hopes to “create an institution that fosters excellence in scholarship, that is accessible and that is part of a larger creation of pathways into the profession for younger people.

With ever-changing health and safety guidelines, Nelson said the future of museums is going to look different. He said he sees more digital programming coming up and less focus on physical spaces. New museums and galleries are less likely to emerge, he said.

Following this vision, the National Gallery of Art has already provided programs online, such as lectures, screenings and blogs. The gallery also partially reopened in mid-July to the public, allowing people to observe the ground floor exhibit with timed entries, face coverings and social distancing.

For the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Nelson said digital events have been at the forefront of programming for years — the circumstances of the pandemic have not made a significant difference. He plans to continue these events for years to come.

Nelson said his favorite aspect of teaching at UCLA was the students. The art history and African-American studies programs at UCLA are also very diverse, with students coming from a myriad of backgrounds and experiences, he said.

While Nelson said he is excited for the next steps ahead, he will miss teaching students.

While completing his Ph.D. at Harvard University, Nelson focused his dissertation on African art. He was originally interested in studying modern art, but learning about African art changed his research path.

In 1993, Nelson traveled to Cameroon for a year to research his dissertation on an Africanist art historian, which inspired him to delve into African art research and to continue visiting the continent. Now, he has visited Senegal and other countries.

He also wrote the book “From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture In and Out of Africa,” which analyzes the residential architecture of the populations in far-north Cameroon.

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Mabrie Mortuary in Third Ward Houston is home to a one-of-a-kind art collection from Black artists

HOUSTON, Texas — Mabrie Memorial Mortuary has helped grieving families since 1997.

The family-owned business in the Third Ward of Houston, Texas has adapted how they work with loved ones because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they haven’t changed how they comfort them.

Dr. Herman J. Mabrie III opened his own mortuary and was inspired to comfort grieving families with something that would bring them joy.

“My memory of a mortuary was nothing on the walls, a sort of poorly lit rooms,” Mabrie said. So he wanted to open it up with light, with color.

Mabrie started collecting one-of-a-kind art from local Black artists. Each piece is unique, and the mortuary is now home to dozens of breathtaking creations.

The mortuary worked with the Black Heritage Gallery to find some part pieces.

“You go from one room to the next, and you’re able to truly see the beauty that the artist had in mind and that we had in mind,” Justin Mabrie said.

The family hopes the collection will not just bring peace to someone grieving. They also hope it will inspire young boys and girls as they look at what these Black artists have created.

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How Black Girls Code is driving change in the tech industry

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in the tech industry from the classroom to the boardroom. But for women of color systemic inequities have further restricted education in terms of STEM and also tech jobs. So now what I’m joined by Kimberly Bryant CEO and founder of Black Girls CODE, an organization with a mission to help educate one million girls in computer science by 2014. Kimberly, thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you for having me. Kimberly, from your study experiences studying engineering through to moving into the workforce and then starting Black Girls CODE. Can you give me an idea of just how underrepresented women of color are in the industry? Sure. So when I achieved my degree, which was Back at the end of the 80s it was actually a time when there was a peak number of women, that were receiving degrees in computer science. So that time around I would say 34, 32% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science were given to women of color, And since that time that number has really declined significantly, and I think the startling part of that for me is that when I was going to college I Really did not have many other women or in certainly not many black women that were in those college classes with me. Now that number is probably about 12 to 14% better Bachelor’s degrees in computer science that are going to women and for African American women, that number is probably about 3%, 2to 3%. So it’s declined quite significantly since, 20 plus years since I’ve graduated from college myself, which is one of the things that I find It’s so important about the work that Black Girls CODE is doing to really build and re establish that pipeline, at least to where it was. When I graduated myself That is a significant decline and. Obviously, it’s a big reason why Black Girls Code exists. Now, but can you tell me a little bit about the organization, the work that you do and the education that you provide for young women? Sure. So Blackrose Co. was founded back in 2011. 11. Our focus is really based on trying to make sure that we create a solid, talented pipeline for the tech industry specifically focused on AI Young women of color. So we really start as early as six or seven years old. We work with girls until they’re 18. And they’re off to college. And also we’re working with them as alumni, to really give them the skill sets to be a part of the tech industry. So we’re teaching everything from. App development,referics,web design,game development,artificial intelligence. We try to touch as many different emerging fields in the Tech industry. Yes we possibly can,so that they have an opportunity to find work Where they fit or where their, their primary interest is, and we really try to give them the skills to be able to tap into that field or that specialty within the tech industry as much as they really are interested in doing. How are young girls getting involved. Is it part of community outreach on your behalf? Do they have to show some sort of aptitude or interest before sort of enrolling in the program. Well, that’s a great question. We really have it over the last 10 years now found that girls find us in a multitude of ways. Interestingly enough, parents are still some of the primary feeders to our program as well as teachers. So We do a lot of marketing on various social media sites with various means of utilizing our web list and our mailing list, etc. to really get the word out around what we’re doing. And we often find that parents have a student at home. They have a child that Has shown an interest in computer science. They don’t have to necessarily have an aptitude already, but just an interest in learning. And that’s when they reach out. For example, this morning I was actually in conversation with a parent that was trying to find out about a summer program that we have that virtually started today and finding out how he could get his two daughters in even though Registration is closed. [LAUGH] But that’s generally how it happens is that a parent will see what we’re doing and that will connect to what they’re seeing in terms of an interest from their child at home and they will look for ways to get them involved. We have started to do some partnerships with other organisations that work with youth but not necessarily our teaching coding. So we’ve done some things with Girls Inc. We’ve done some things with Boys and Girls Clubs in different parts of the country. And we also really work closely with schools. So oftentimes it’s the teachers that Recognize they have a student in class that could benefit from a program like Black Girls code and they look for ways to get their students involved and make sure they understand there’s an opportunity like this. He mentioned the virtual program. I mean, obviously, is that a result of the pandemic? I just want to get an idea of like how this situation has affected how you teach the program, and Level of access for young women of color as well during this time. Yes 2020, has been a quite interesting year for us. We came out at 2019, which was a bit of a rebuilding year internally for VGC. We’re adding team members and it was a really challenging year for us for many reasons and so We really worked very diligently at the end of 2019, the beginning of this year to prepare and really set really solid plans on what we wanted to do in 2020. And we saw all of that quickly trickled down the drain in early March, when we saw the shelter in place. We saw the pandemic really impactful. Both our cities offices in Oakland as well as the office in New York, and also in two different cities where we have chapters in the US and we had to make a really difficult decision that we could not do those workshops that we have Plan, we these workshops that we do will primarily happen on the weekends, we can have anywhere from 75 to 100 students plus another 30 or 40 volunteers. In those spaces at one time and we recognize that we cannot, you know, we cannot safely do those events during this pandemic and as in the early days of. The pandemic we really start made a decision then to push everything off take every workshop that we have planned off of our calendar, and then hope for the best that it would get better later in the year. We were cautiously optimistic and maybe a little bit Naively optimistic at the time that we would be able to go back and do these in person workshops in May or maybe even June, but we couldn’t get even people to talk to us about event spaces and we really are Finally came to the conclusion in April that if we wanted to continue to engage our community, we had to go virtual and that’s exactly what we did. So we quickly pivoted into virtual offerings. We redid our curriculum so that we could teach some of the things we would normally teach in a seven. Now our workshop on a Saturday. In an one hour introductory session during the week virtually. Then we decided to take our summer programs virtual. So, now we’ve probably done about 15 different summer classes since middle of June or so. This is the last week of our summer programs. We’ve reached about 350 400 students all across the US whereas we would have only been in a few specific cities normally, but everything has been done virtually. So. That has been a significant impact on how we deliver our work and how we do what we do. But it’s also opened up opportunities for us to expand. Spanned our reach much further than we would’ve done had we not been forced to go into this virtual learning environment. I think we’ve reached to date about six thousands students that with all the different virtual events, and work shops, enrichment activities we’ve done And we probably reached about that many in the course of a full year, last year, so our reach has increased exponentially, just because we have really been forced to pivot into using this virtual learning model to support our work. That’s really interesting that it’s opened up more possibilities just by going entirely virtual. With that in mind with black holes could having been around for almost ten years now can you tell me a few sort of success stories or some inspirational appearances by the young women that have gone through your program and where they are now? Of course, so I was actually really thinking about this recently in that Now’s the time when most students are about to go back to school back to college. And as we go into this this 10 year, almost 10 year anniversary, some of the students that participated in Black Girls CODE when I was still teaching those classes back in 2012 They just graduated and they’re going to enter their freshman year. One of my students Kimora Oliver who started back with backward Blackwell’s code, I would say in either 2012 or 2013. just graduated. She is going into majoring in nursing but minor in computer science, very unique combination and we’ll be starting her freshman year at Howard University and I’m really excited about it. This next batch of students that are really starting to graduate and go off to college, because those are literally the first cohort of students that actively started when I was still the one at the front of the classroom. My daughter, who is here now with Me at home. She’s actually in the midst of doing a virtual internship with Microsoft. And she is going into her junior year she’s the reason that I really started black girls school and just to see her interest continue to Really grow within the industry and her still be active and actually be working as a summer intern at a company like Microsoft is is really something that I’m really hugely proud of. Another student that I have is going into her sophomore year at USC. She’s a game developer. She’s actually doing a virtual workshop, a virtual internship at Electronic Arts EA this summer in game development side. So those are just a few. We even have some students that are, You know I graduated already and have started their careers in a working at several different tech companies. So we’re really starting to see the success of the program really coming to fruition and many of the students that I would say over 90%, about 95% of our students major in a STEM field when they go to college. And probably about 80% of them either major or minor in computer science. And so that’s thousands of. Alumni that have come through our program to date. That’s one of the things that I think will make a tremendous impact on the industry in just a few short years. Absolutely. And those are some great numbers there in terms of women that are going through the pipeline and entering into STEM careers. But once they’ve finished their education, formally an entering into the workforce So I want to touch a little bit on diversity in the tech industry. So just to kind of a broad question, in your opinion, why is diversity so important for tech companies to promote in terms of equality and diversity in the companies and the people they hire in the stuff that are currently there? Well, I think it’s extremely important that tech companies improve their diversity numbers for, the very specific business imperative that the demographics in not only the US but in the world are gradually but significantly shifting, and it will continue to shift over the next few decades. So it’s important that The composition of tech companies from a workforce perspective, be more, I would say reminiscent of the demographics that those customer bases actually are representative of. So it makes more sense to have folks that are Creating the products that are building the prototypes that are coming up with the ideas of the products that will be offered by companies are representative of those customers that are going to use it on the tail end. It’s important that women have a seat at the table because we’re heavy heavy tech adopters were heavy social media users Same thing for African Americans, Latinos, we are more early adopters in terms of technology than our peers. We utilize and we consume a lot of tech. We participate in a lot of the social media platforms, etc. So, I think it’s really important for that reason. From a business driver perspective to ensure that The folks that you’re building for are included in the process of the products that you build. I think it’s also important that tech companies and desk tech enabled companies as well. Diversify their work pools so that we can shift the type of products that are used or that are created by the tech industry and how companies create those products. I think when you have only one demographic creating these products We miss these opportunities to create technology solutions or utilise technology solutions to solve some of the big hairy problems that persist in the world. So I do believe in terms of certainly bringing women into the. The industry, it allows us to open up the funnel of what we utilize tech to create. There’s been several studies that have shown that some of the reasons that girls are interested in technology is because they are changemakers. They are change agents. They’re They are very interested in not using tech just for the sake of using technology but they want to use it to solve a problem in their communities, health related problems and social justice problems. We’ll say health care problems and it’s important to have more women in the room because we will really utilize tech for good, if you will, for a higher purpose, I believe. And I think that’s one of the reasons it’s important to create a more diverse tech industry. With organizations like Black Girls Code addressing, as you say the pipeline of women entering the industry, what are then some specific ways which you think that tech companies can help foster diversity when they actually actively hiring for tech roles. Well, that’s very interesting. I believe that the tech industry has certainly utilized some tactics to bring a more diverse talent pool into play when they’re looking to fill roles. So there’s certainly been many companies that have invested in anti bias training. They’ve utilized things such as the Rooney Rule to bring in diverse fleets of candidates when they’re looking to hire. They’ve even looked at some of the the intake process and how they either do or don’t or change or modify some of those gates that they have in terms of the assessments that they give to candidates when they’re coming into very technical worlds. I think that those certainly have helped to improve the diversity of the candidate pool. But I think one of the things that could possibly be an opportunity maybe not in the future as more and more companies go virtual you Then now that that we have an opportunity to bring in candidates that don’t necessarily need to live in Silicon Valley, they don’t necessarily need to live in New York. That opens up opportunities for some of these talent pipelines and places like that. Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia, Savannah, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, where there’s certainly pockets of diverse talent pools that could be Brought in to these openings but not necessarily interested in moving to a place like the Bay Area. So there’s an opportunity there to really create increase the tech pipeline from a diversity standpoint. By way of proximity to talent not necessarily need needing to live in the places where many of these companies are headquartered. However, I honestly believe the bigger hurdle for those companies is how do they retain that talent? That’s one of the things that we’ve seen evidenced over the last 10 years is that although they can attract talent in the door They can’t sustain and keep them there for a variety of reasons. And if they don’t solve that problem, we’re going to be in this never ending cycle of bringing and feeding organizations like bikers co feeding talent into companies but not being those companies not being able to keep They’re until they can really create change and move to the top of those organizations. Some of those issues that you talked about in terms of retention of talent is that to do with systemic issues, such as racism? Absolutely. I think one of the things that’s been shown in many of the studies as is that although those companies are able to attract talent, they’re coming into environments that have some deep relationship. Rooted systemic issues. There are some environments hostile work environments that they encounter. They have often experienced a lack of opportunity to progress and to go into higher roles with it. There’s certainly. A barrier to progressing and being able to advance and be promoted within their field. And all of those things are things I think that the tech industry is still challenged with. And and so there are some really Re imagining recreation of, I would say those environment, those work environments so they’re more hospitable to a diverse talent pool and diversity and equity is really a part of the fabric of how. They advanced and promote as well as develop their diverse talent. There’s still gonna be issues in terms of very low numbers which is what we see ten years later. The numbers are better for women. The numbers are not better for People of color. Sure, and one sort of final question I wanted to ask. You’ve spoken before about sustainable change, when it comes to promoting diversity, rather than being part of just a moment in history. It’s a movement, rather than a moment. Can you explain a little bit more about what that means, and what that might look like, going forward? Yes, I would I would explain that from Black Girls coats own experience and in this moment in time, over the last I would say month or two, we’ve had an overwhelming support from individuals, corporations. Just a heavy spotlight on the work that we have been. Doing for 10 years. And it’s the very first time in our history that we’ve given. We’ve really, really gotten support commensurate to Meeting some of the very, specific needs that we have to grow and sustain our organization. And it’s because of this movement that has really focused on diverse communities and equity and diversity and inclusion and that’s a part that we’re grateful for. I think that one of the things that’s a bit disappointing is that some of the events that have happened have really been the catalyst for this change, and that it has taken 10 years to happen, just for organizations like Black Morse Code, and others Just to level up to get to a point that we can actually drive some of the changes that we know will make this industry more inclusive. And I think when we get past if this moment does become a sustainable movement I think there needs to be some deep thought in terms of, how do we change these structures? How do we address these systemic issues so that companies can be More diverse by design, right? Not there’s something that needs to be fixed after the fact. How can we design for diversity and inclusion and equity? How can we ensure that Leaders of nonprofit organizations, like myself, are given the support that they need to work on a level playing field. How can we address some systemic issues in our educational system so that we can remove these barriers that cause inequities for students of color? or students that are in under resourced communities. So I think now is just a moment that makes a spark. The work happens after this, the work, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I think that’s still at on the other side of this moment. [MUSIC]

In Richmond, Black Dance Claims a Space Near Robert E. Lee

RICHMOND, Va. — Janine Bell lived in Richmond for 35 years before visiting Monument Avenue. But that changed in July, when Ms. Bell threw a gathering honoring Emmett Till under the shadow of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Standing at the base of the three-story pedestal supporting the Confederate general’s likeness, Ms. Bell, the artistic director Elegba Folklore Society, welcomed a small sea of drummers, dancers and bystanders banging on plastic buckets to an event she called the Reclamation Drum Circle.

“We are not playing today,” she said, and invited all present to move and sway to the music. And so began an extended jam session at a park long considered a whites-only space. The drum circle, held on what would have been Emmett Till’s 79th birthday, was the latest in a series of dance happenings — some spontaneous, some thoughtfully choreographed — drawing Black dancers to the Lee statue.

ImageDrummers playing at the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee monument during a drum circle and ceremony organized by the Elegba Folklore Society.
Credit…Brian Palmer for The New York Times

“My grandfather never could have imagined this,” a sweaty Lito Raymondo said after performing a solo in the circle’s center. “This is a revelation.”

The gathering united a disparate group of dancers: community organizers who take African dance classes, modern dancers and self-taught dancers like Mr. Raymondo, whose style fuses African, hip-hop and the martial arts. He said he regularly comes out to “do his part” with the Folklore Society, a group that promotes African culture in a city with a robust Black dance community.

The festivities have been going on since early June, when Richmond’s mayor and Virginia’s governor vowed to take down the huge statues of Civil War leaders erected along Monument Avenue. Four of those statues are now being stored at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. But multiple lawsuits and court injunctions have prevented the bronze Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveler from joining them.

While the judges deliberate, Black artists and residents have been invigorating the space. “Whether it’s Black people playing basketball or musicians or dancers, life is happening,” Ms. Bell said. “And when life happens, there is optimism for the future.”

Credit…Brian Palmer for The New York Times

Some dancers go to make political statements; some want memorable photos. Maggie Small, a longtime star of Richmond Ballet, said dancers were drawn to the general’s shadow because they are living in a time when “articulating your thoughts with words” could be overwhelming. So they are using the vocabulary they have, because “dance is a universal form of communication, of expression and of catharsis.”

It was a dance moment that went viral: Photos of two young dancers, Ava Holloway and Kennedy George, both 14, turned out and on their toes, each raising a fist against the backdrop of the statue’s graffiti-covered pedestal. Among those who reposted on Instagram: Beyoncé’s mother. “This is art,” the Black activist and author Shaun King said in an Instagram post, accompanied by a fire emoji.

Ms. Holloway and Ms. George, who study at the Central Virginia Dance Academy, had run into each other while posing at the monument for family photos. At the request of Marcus Ingram, a photographer in Richmond, they returned to the statue the next day, on June 5, for a more formal shoot, which was also captured by a freelance photojournalist.

The girls became famous beyond the James River, accepting appearance requests from, among others, the “Today” Show and a John Legend music video. Both said they remain crushed that they had to miss out on their eighth grade graduations, final dance competitions and spring recitals. Instead they got horrible blisters from running barefoot on asphalt while “Today” show cameras rolled. (“I thought I’d never dance again,” Ms. George said, pulling out her phone to display a photo of a giant purple welt on her foot.)

Credit…Julia Rendleman/Reuters

They said they understood why pictures of them balancing on point became symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why other dancers want to be photographed at the site. The words scrawled on the monument reflect a world “that is tough and hard and scary,” Ms. George said. “But it’s reality, and people have to deal with it.”

Among the copycats who have won their approval: Morgan Bullock, a 20-year-old Richmonder who does Irish dance, and who last year became one of the first Black dancers to finish in the top 50 at the World Irish Dance Championships. The Guardian photographed Ms. Bullock jumping off the Lee statue’s pedestal, arms at her side and hair flying, her white blouse and billowy leggings in sharp contrast to the colorful expletives graffitied on the plinth behind her.

“She is the very definition of an angel,” Ms. George said. Ms. Holloway added, “It’s like she’s floating.”

When Ira Lunetter White, a dancer in Richmond Ballet, visited the statue, he wore a white T-shirt and black pants, similar to the classic uniform of a male dancer in a “black-and-white” ballet by George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet. Mr. White, who has performed several of those works in Richmond, traversed the statue platform adopting signature Balanchine positions. He and the photographer Meghan McSweeney called their series “Ode to Arthur Mitchell,” in honor of City Ballet’s first Black principal dancer.

In one of Ms. McSweeney’s favorite images, the words “Uplift Black Voices” appear beneath Mr. White’s feet. “That is literally what Ira has been trying to do his entire life,” she said. Mr. White, 27, was introduced to dance through Minds in Motion, a program that sends Richmond Ballet ambassadors into fourth-grade classrooms. He’s now in his sixth season with the senior company, one of five dancers of color out of 17. He’s always been fortunate, he said, to have Black mentors and colleagues, but recognizes that in ballet beyond Richmond that’s not always the case.

Credit…Meghan McSweeney

“Now is when we need more voices, more faces being seen and being heard,” he said.

Chief among local role models is Ms. Small, a biracial dancer who became Richmond Ballet’s first Black Clara in “The Nutcracker” 23 years ago, and went on to have a long career with the company.

Ms. Small retired from Richmond Ballet last year, at 34, and now serves as the company’s grant writer. Last fall she sent out an email offering to visit Virginia dance studios as a master class teacher, and was shocked when every single school said yes. “So much for finally having weekends off,” she said, with a laugh.

A critically lauded dancer who landed on the cover of Dance Magazine, Ms. Small never made race her calling card. “There is not a single narrative to capture what it is to be a Black dancer,” she said. “I was homegrown; that was my narrative.”

It’s wrong, Ms. Small said, to assume that the Black dancers at regional companies remain there because they aren’t good enough for bigger companies in New York or Europe. Over summers Ms. Small made it a point to seek out-of-town opportunities, including at the National Choreographer’s Initiative in California and with Jessica Lang Dance in New York, but always came out thinking, “Richmond was the place that fed my soul,” she said. “I felt comfortable to be the dancer I wanted to be.”

Credit…Brian Palmer for The New York Times

And it’s not lost on her that in this particular moment of history, dancers from her hometown have become symbols of a national movement. Ms. George and Ms. Holloway, both honors students, aren’t sure yet if they’ll pursue professional careers in dance. But they are proud to train at a supportive, diverse studio in a city that elevates Black dancers.

“Richmond,” Ms. Holloway said, shaking her head. “If Richmond can do it, in our city of Confederates statues, than any other city can, too.”

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Why Haven’t We Had a Black Woman Country Star?

Frankie StatonFrankie Staton

Frankie Staton is gregarious and exuberant. Her laugh starts deep in her soul and ricochets off the walls around her. Her facial expressions — the kinds of looks only Black women can give — often reveal far more than her words ever could. Staton is also 66 years old, so there’s no putting on for me and my recorder during our interview. No, as she makes her way through her seventh decade on this planet, Staton is as assured as she’s ever been, especially when she’s talking about her love of country music. 

“I sat in my house in the great state of North Carolina and saw this movie about this woman driving to radio stations from Butcher Hollow, Ky.,” Staton explains. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’ ” 

In the spring of 1981, shortly after arriving in Music City, Staton played her first jam session. Years later, she marvels at how that night yanked off the rose-colored lenses through which she’d previously viewed her journey to Nashville. Despite being the first person to sign up for the open mic, Staton was passed over time and time again, only to be questioned about her ability when she was finally allowed to take the stage.

“I told the band I wanna do ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ in the key of D,” she says. “And they said, ‘You know keys?’ I said, ‘That’s the key of the record, right?’ They said, ‘How do you know that?’ And I said, ‘Because I play it.’ ”

Staton brushed off the players’ dismissive attitude and kept pushing toward country music stardom, toward her own brown-tinted version of Loretta Lynn fame. In the meantime she landed gigs at restaurants and lounges around town, playing piano and singing, singing, singing. That kept the lights on while she continued to chase bigger stages. It also put her son through private school. 

“In the beginning, I didn’t really see all the racism because I was trying to survive,” says Staton.

These systemic issues were around before Staton, and they persist to this day, shackling both long-established artists like Mickey Guyton and Rissi Palmer and rising talent like Reyna Roberts and Brittney Spencer. And once Staton fully understood this — once she saw how the industry’s baked-in biases would likely prevent her from ever becoming a marquee artist — she shifted her focus to songwriting. No one listening to the radio or attending live shows by white artists who’d cut her songs would ever have to see the Black woman who’d held the pen.

But while Staton made connections around town, she consistently fell short of a real breakthrough. Once, one of her friends heard her humming a tune — an original called “Leading Lady,” which Staton wrote with Tammy Wynette in mind — and offered to introduce her to a publisher she knew. Without telling the publisher that Staton was Black, the friend landed the meeting. But after listening to only half of the tune, the publisher accused Staton of bringing in someone else’s song. “I don’t believe you wrote that,” he told her. 

All the while, Staton was still playing gigs, still trying to break in on Music Row. She even landed a spot on Ralph Emery’s morning show that she held for 10 years. 

“People were watching, and I had fan mail,” Staton says. “But I was never allowed to cross that line.”

The truth is, Staton would have just kept going anyway, banging her fists against doors that kept slamming in her face. She would have continued fighting this battle alone, in fact, and she would have said nothing of her bruised and bloodied knuckles. But fate intervened and gave her new purpose.

In the fall of 1996, music journalist Bruce Feiler published an article titled “Has Country Music Become a Soundtrack for White Flight?” in The New York Times. The piece addressed the genre’s color line that, once drawn by record label execs who sought to divide the sounds of the South into white hillbilly music and Black race records, was now seemingly etched in stone. 

Like Staton in her early days in Nashville, Feiler was hesitant to attribute the dearth of Black faces to racism. For him, “Nashville’s new broadened constituency, which is both younger and better educated than in the past, makes such blanket dismissals hard to support.” Instead, Feiler believed that the country music industry served as visible proof that Black and white audiences were drawn to different kinds of music. He even quoted a Music Row executive who upheld the notion that there weren’t any Black people in country music because Black people just weren’t interested in it.

‘’I’m not saying that bigotry and racism don’t exist in our business,’’ Tim DuBois, then the head of Arista Nashville, told Feiler, ‘’because they do. But I guarantee you that if there were a marketplace and if there were a talented person out there, few people in this town wouldn’t sign that talent.’’

When Staton read Feiler’s article, she nearly choked. She saw DuBois’ words as an insult and an attack. Most importantly, she knew they were a lie. Staton had been in Nashville 15 years by then — a full 50 percent longer than the decade most folks around town say that it takes to break in. She’d seen firsthand that talent couldn’t keep doors from slamming in your face. Not if you were Black.

In the end, Staton also viewed DuBois’ words as a rallying cry. If he didn’t believe there was Black talent in Nashville, she was going to show him. And once she did, she expected the label and publishing deals to rush in like a flood. 

Staton co-founded a nonprofit called the Black Country Music Association, and began hosting regular showcases at songwriter haven The Bluebird Cafe, creating a space for the best Black performers to prove themselves worthy of a genre that their forebears helped to create. There were artists who flew in from around the country to be a part of the show, and she vetted them all, even choosing the music they would sing. Thanks to her industry connections, she was able to secure songs that had been put on hold by signed artists.

Staton the Aspiring Country Singer-Songwriter had become Staton the Fairy Godmother, and she was hell-bent on proving Feiler, DuBois and similar white folk wrong. Even when she was called a control freak by the Black artists who wanted to sing songs they’d written, she never let up. If she controlled the narrative, she assumed, she could ensure a Happily Ever After. 

Unfortunately, despite earning national and local press coverage for the showcase, not one artist ever saw success beyond the Bluebird stage. That was bad enough for Staton, but the plight of one artist in particular shook her to her core. 

Valierie Ellis, a Black woman from Ashland City, Tenn., with a voice both big and buttery, should have been a contemporary of Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Instead, Staton recalls, Ellis became a volunteer firefighter in her hometown and helped maintain the family farm.

“When Valierie didn’t make it, that broke me,” Staton says. “There was just no excuse. None.”

Linda Martell, Courtesy of Sun Entertainment CompanyLinda MartellPhoto courtesy of Sun Entertainment Company

To be clear, Staton’s heartbreak didn’t have to happen.

In 1969, a dozen years before Staton came to Nashville, another Black woman arrived from South Carolina. Her stage name was Linda Martell, and she’d been playing R&B and soul music in clubs around Columbia, S.C., since she was 14 years old. Indeed, she probably would have kept singing soul music if not for a show performed in front of a rowdy group of Air Force men in the spring of ’69. The crowd dared her to play some country music, and Martell, a Southern girl with Southern music pumping hard in her veins, happily obliged.

“The show we ended up doing was a mixture of R&B and country and Western,” Martell told Tennessean reporter Jack Hurst that June. “I can’t remember any of the others now for sure, but I know I sang ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ ”

Martell’s renditions of the Don Gibson and Hank Williams standards were impressive, certainly as much as Staton’s jam-session take on Loretta Lynn. But the two women have massively different career trajectories, namely because Martell was fortunate enough to follow the meteoric, albeit improbable, rise of Charley Pride. 

Beginning with 1966’s “Just Between You and Me,” Pride landed nine consecutive singles in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart through the close of the decade. 1969’s “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again” rose to No. 1, and they were just the first two of 29 No. 1 hits Pride has had to date. Not bad for a former Negro League baseball player, a man known to disarm all-white and potentially hostile audiences by joking about his “permanent tan.” 

Pride’s success was enough to make the idea of Black artists more palatable for execs who would have never considered the prospect years before. As a result, when Shelby Singleton — owner of a stable of independent labels known for releasing Jeannie C. Reilly’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” — heard the demo Martell cut after her impromptu country gig, he was all-in. Martell became the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry in 1969 and the first Black woman to chart a country song with 1969’s “Color Him Father.” In 1970 she released her debut album, Color Me Country, on Singleton’s Plantation Records.

It was the only country album she ever recorded. 

“Linda Martell just didn’t have the industry support Pride had, who was on RCA and had the huge support of both his producer Jack Clement and Chet Atkins,” explains Amanda Marie Martinez, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA who is completing a dissertation on race and the country music industry from the 1970s to the 1990s. “Martell was recorded by Shelby Singleton, an odd and divisive character in Nashville who borderline marketed her as a novelty. Second, being Black and a woman brought her increased skepticism throughout the industry. And besides these factors, CMA marketing leadership encouraged the industry to continue to market the genre as a product for whites only.”

Unfortunately for Staton and every other Black woman who would follow, Martell’s failure to break big has been treated as a pessimistic prophecy. In an industry that fails to do right even by white women, the prospect of a Black woman ascending to stardom needs the support of a success story. There must be an artist who the skeptical suits could look to before pulling out their checkbooks — like they pointed to Pride before Darius Rucker, and Rucker before contemporary chart-toppers Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown. But Martell couldn’t provide that. 

“By the Reagan era, fewer Black artists broke through,” Martinez explains, “and this, combined with the lack of much precedent for being a Black woman in country music, has made it all but impossible for a Black woman to make it in country.”

Miko MarksMiko Marks

But that hasn’t stopped Black women from trying. We are nothing if not persistent. Just ask Miko Marks, who made her way to Music City in 2003 after growing up listening to Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings in Flint, Mich. Her work got recognized by national outlets like People Magazine, and she’d spent her college years at Grambling State University performing in a band with future neo-soul icon Erykah Badu. Still, success proved elusive.

Marks played the CMA Fest three years in a row, but as her crowd grew each year, so did efforts to tamp down her progress. 

“The third year, I was left without a sound engineer,” says Marks, “and my husband had to work the machine. But we still left with a standing ovation.” 

The last blow sent Marks to California for good. She was informed of a new rule that required performers to hit a sales threshold and have a song in the top 40 of Hot Country Songs before being allowed to play the largest showcases. These were criteria nearly impossible for an independent artist like her. 

Marks’ voice aches with longing as she reflects on the years she spent chasing Music City success. “In trying to pursue the gates of Nashville, I discovered that they were high fences made of stone.” 

Marks may have been forbidden from scaling the fences that greeted her in Nashville, but her very presence, along with the heavy lifting done by Staton and Martell in the years prior, began to dismantle them, stone by stone. And thanks to Marks, Staton and Martell’s decisions to stand proudly as Black women in country music, those stones have been laid end to end. The path is far from complete, but the beginnings of it are there for today’s artists to follow and build upon.

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

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