On a number of occasions when I used to work at the State Department, foreign diplomats asked me to comment on the poor treatment of Africans Americans in the United States.
While I personally had a strong background in African American history and literature and could comfortably address the subject, I often hesitated to get into the issue. As a U.S. official focused on foreign policy, I wasn’t trained or accustomed to responding to such questions.
Years later, I find myself thinking of those moments as a lost opportunity.
I could have shared so much about the history and contributions of Africans Americans to the United States, from the entrepreneur Madame C.J Walker to Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall.
I could have talked about the contributions of writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and W.E.B. Dubois, who beautifully and honestly wrote about the African American experience of racism and slavery as well as of family and community.
I could have been more forthcoming about the obvious economic, social, and political inequalities that exist between black people and everyone else in the United States.
I could have acknowledged what the rest of the world already saw and knew.
But I didn’t.
Part of me wanted to stick to the default position of “defending the United States” that I typically took when confronted with discordant views of the country.
But now I realize that representing the state does not mean glossing over our challenges and history. Defense requires honesty, wisdom, and candor about where we’ve been, and where we don’t want to go again.
That’s why I think it’s so critical for students of international affairs to become well versed in American domestic politics, especially now as politics in the United States are leading to major transformations in its relationships with other countries.
For example, economic stagnation in the south and the departure of manufacturing jobs in the midwest have pushed segments of the American population against global trade deals, leading to ruptures in relations with a host of countries, from Canada to China.
Global Citizens, Local Communities
So, what of African Americans in this vein?
From the protests in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement to the impact of health care policy on African Americans, race relations in the United States have gotten substantial media coverage around the world in recent years – and as a result, can have broad significance and impact on how the world views the United States and its citizens.
As future leaders who will spread out across the globe, students should be in a position to address this topic just as well as any others they will face in their careers.
In response to a growing interest and need to understand these issues, The Big Picture is incorporating U.S. domestic issues into the already rich and diverse events available at Johns Hopkins SAIS.
Doing so allows us to act as citizens of the world, both overseas and also embedded in our local communities.
That’s why during Black History Month this year, we partnered with Gallery O and a group of local artists to curate an exhibit focused on the African American experience in Washington, DC.
Gallery O is located in the historic H street neighborhood and run by Dolly Velhow, an entrepreneur and art collector who has amassed a large collection of folk art. Dolly and her team introduced us to several D.C. artists whose work we featured in a Johns Hopkins SAIS exhibition and reception that was open to the public and brought together members of the policy and art communities together.
Included in the exhibit was Nigerian-American artist Chinedu Felix Osuchukwu’s piece “MLK Kneeling,” an oil painting of Martin Luther King Jr. kneeling with a group of civil rights workers in prayer in Selma, Alabama on February 1, 1965. The group had just been arrested on charges of parading without a permit.
Artist Sheila Crider’s work pioneers the idea of “blackstration,” a form of emotive, non-representational work that stresses formal internal relationships using African, American, and Asian art practices and that employs craft techniques and three dimensional presentation.
Painter Jay Durrah’s style involved adding multiple layers of pigment to produce colorful portraits of people, and the layers of color represent many ethnicities; reflecting the way that each person is uniquely beautiful.
Amber Robles Gordon uses mixed materials to create a visual representation of hybridism, examining gender, ethnicity, and social experiences in the African American community.
Photographer Katie Dance’s Limitless project focused on young boxers who train at Nomis Boxing Gym in Washington, D.C. Her photographs capture young black men expressing their unique identity, and the poetry accompanying the poems, written by the subjects of the photos, capture the sense of community that these boxers find at Nomis Gym.
Joy Sharon Yi, also a photographer, displayed her Barry Farm project, a photo essay that documents the Barry Farm housing projects in Washington, D.C.. Her work and its accompanying website document the legacy of discriminatory urban renewal policies in the United States.
Award-winning photographer Lloyd Wolf shared his work on the singing and marching bands of African Americans churches around the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Delaware. An African-American sacred music form that was developed during slavery, the singing and praying bands of the Chesapeake Bay have origins in West African religion, Christianity, and African American ring shout traditions.
Documentary photographer Chris Suspect exhibited his work on a community of LGBTQ African Americans who started their own church in southeast D.C.
The Ties That Bind exhibit pushed us beyond our policy bubbles to understand the significance of the black community in the nation’s capital, where so many critical moments in African American history took place.
And for those of us who will go one to represent the United States around the world, at home, or for those who will engage with Americans and their government, the people and the perspectives of the The Ties that Bind exhibit will better equip us to have more constructive conversations.
Cover image photo credit: Miki Jourdan
Exhibition photo credits: Noel St. John