How I Got Woke

On Tuesday evening I was able to participate in an amazing experience with other artists and instigators on the First Coast called Intersecting the Arts: Storytellers hosted by One Voice. For me, the experience was transformative. It was the most vulnerable I’ve ever been in an audience of this size. As I reflect, I feel as if a great weight has been lifted off of me. Darkness has come to the light and the light has overcome it.

Here is a LINK to my talk that I gave. I begin at about the 13:00 mark.

The following post is an essay that I wrote to prepare me for my talk:

How My Community Ravaged My Life (How I Got Woke)

by Thony Aiuppy

The following threads converge in the telling of my story of what it looks like to be a creative agent in my city today:

– A drive to learn and better understand my local and regional history
– Personal relationships and experiences that led to hard conversations, asking myself tough questions, and seeing blind spots in my life
– Local and national tragedies that have happened over the span of the last five years

My name is Thony Aiuppy. I’m a visual artist and art educator living here in Jacksonville, Florida. My family chose Springfield as our neighborhood in 2011; we’ve been there for five years. The thing we are drawn to most about living in Springfield is its diversity. It is truly a great urban neighborhood full of history. This is the setting for which my journey starts in regards to the story of the work that I make as an artist.

Before my wife and I lived in our beloved Springfield we spent our first year in the suburbs, three years in Riverside, and a year at the beach. After the end of our year at the beach we had a decision to make. I was in grad school at SCAD as a distance learning student studying painting and was close to moving into my studio at CORK. I didn’t want to drive across the ditch everyday to go to the studio. It wasn’t feasible. We had to move. We decided on Springfield because of the diversity of people and its location to downtown and my studio.

One of the reasons I wanted to pull more from the African American experience in my work is because I hit a roadblock. I had an issue within my work that I was blind to at the time. This is in early 2013. While I was writing my thesis paper, one professor on my thesis committee told me that he was concerned with the content of my paper because the historical and the southern gothic paintings I was making concerning life in the South was devoid of any persons of color. It was true. This was such a shock to me. I had let my privilege get in the way of telling a more complete and compelling story in my work. There was a piece missing and this was it.

I began delving into the history of the neighborhood and the city. This investigation and awakening to Jacksonville history worked in tandem with my desire to read and learn from the Southern Gothic canon of O’Connor, McCullers, and Faulkner. I wanted to find local masters of the writing craft and found the works of Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson. James Weldon Johnson rang a bell. There was a school named after him? And wasn’t he once the principal of Stanton?

I was drawn to the gothic writers because they described a South that was quite tangible. You could feel the heat and taste the air in their writing. At times the work was dark and grotesque, violent even. This was the embodiment of the South I wanted to express visually. However, to add soul I looked to Johnson and Hurston because they were able to personalized their experience to me. I could distinctly imagine the landscape when I read their words. They gave me a sense of place, of grounding.

When I researched Johnson I pulled up Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, God’s Trombones and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (as well as Along This Way). I found out that he was also a prominent leader in  the NAACP and did an innumerable other things to progress civil rights. I did similar research on Asa Philip Randolph and his work with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. This interest in unsung heroes of our city’s history was so invigorating that I began to make portraits of some of these figures for my thesis work: Johnson, Randolph, and Abraham Lincoln Lewis. These portraits became integrated with portraits and figure paintings I created of fictionalized characters from Southern Gothic literature.

From 2011-2013, I was asking the following questions:

– How did our city get so big? It seems that there are folks who say this as if its a badge of honor, some accomplishment. What’s the deal with that?
– Who are these unsung heroes of Jacksonville? Why aren’t they honored? Why can’t people put their faces together with their names? They know the building or the street, but not who the person was or what they accomplished for the city or nation.

My research lead me to learn about Axe Handle Saturday and the racial tensions that preceded our contemporary conditions. I learned about the 1901 Fire. I learned about LaVilla and what it looked like before the neighborhood was torn down (before that monstrosity of a court house went up). I learned about the consolidation of government in the 60s and the white flight towards the suburbs. I learned so much and most of it had a racial component. My stomach churned and I gritted my teeth. I couldn’t, but at the same time understood, why our city is a shell of itself and why even today we can’t get people downtown. It’s an awful truth.

I graduated SCAD November 2013. By that time I was in my first year of teaching at Henry F. Kite, a Title 1 elementary school on Jacksonville’s Northside. The school sits on a little hill at the corner of Lem Turner and Soutel. I spent about two years there and got more of an education from those students about race, life, inequality, and injustice than I was able to give them as an art teacher.

Everything I had done beforehand in terms or research of the city paled in comparison to the experiences I had as a teacher in that little school. Much of the learning process for me was a struggle. I had preconceived notions as to how I believed I should be treated as a person or respected as a teacher. At first, I didn’t get respect and wasn’t treated the way I thought I should and it wasn’t the fault of the students. I had it in my mind that it just happened, it was expected of others to respect and listen to me. Many of the students didn’t like me and didn’t care what I said. I didn’t know how to handle conflict with students of color and it was a learning process. I was willing to learn and I would have to extend extra amounts of patience to myself and my students because they didn’t know how to relate to me either. It was usually older students; the older students ended up having the most beef with me. Over time I was able to gain a rapport with my students, most of them anyway.

I believe that I was a threat to my students. I walked into their community and their culture and demanded certain things of them, things out of their comfort zone. They weren’t comfortable around me. There was this weird tension that I had to deal with in the classroom, but then I began to pick up on some of the issues that these students had at home, whether by asking questions directly to the student or indirectly asking their teacher about why they were acting out or pulling into themselves: students living in their car, two fifth graders sent to Juvie for assault in my first year, one assault with a weapon, parents locked up in prison, mom’s in prison on mother’s day, then the time an uncle escaped prison and was trying to find a girl and her family. These are situations where students have to be grown ups and kids at the same time. The school was under performing when I got there, there were 12 and 13 year old fifth graders, free breakfast and lunch and free meals over the summer because of the poverty in the neighborhood.

This is the education I received from these students. My eyes were opened in a new way to the disparities on the Northwest side of this city that I call home. The system, the city, is against the poor communities in this city. And not just the schools: access to food, transportation, and housing are also major concerns that go unnoticed because of institutionalized racism; not personal racist attacks, but approved policies passed through our local government that disenfranchise the least of these.

The racial tensions in this city are so thick you can choke on them and I’m tired of people being ignorant of the problems our city faces because they have their blinders on. This also includes the violence done against persons of color by law enforcement.

These lessons were a hard pill to swallow and left me trembling and tearful on some days on the drive home. I had a hard time fathoming the amount of loss, brokenness, and hardship in the lives of my students. Their lives are not just hard and they need to pull up their bootstraps and get to work. Their lives are hard because a group of people have lived and functioned as if they are better than others and have created legislation to oppress and suppress the lives of my students in the Northwest side.

At the end of 2014 I resigned from my school because I began teaching at UNF and MOCA and was getting some painting commissions as well as other opportunities. Public education was never a goal for me but it is one of the best things I ever did. It changed my perspective and worldview in regard to race and culture. In between working these jobs I continued my body of work from my thesis but now began incorporating contemporary scenarios I was reading in the news, things locally and nationally: Fergeson, New York, Baltimore, Charleston, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin.

Some questions I began to ask in 2014/15:
– How is the system set up against communities of color?
– Why don’t/can’t people see real disparities in the largely AA communities in our city?
– How did the city get here? Is there a way to change it?

Due to cellphone cameras and social media’s ability to create viral videos, police became policed and the rise of the public sharing police beatings and shooting along with the other issues arising in the news like the militarization of police forces came to a head in 2015. It wasn’t like there was less of this, its just that technology began to expose these illicit practices. These false accusations, beatings, and killings, were perpetrated mainly by white male officers, men who look like me. Anger, frustration, shame, all these emotions rose up in me. I was confused and felt quite a bit helpless. All I knew to do to process what I was feeling was to paint it out, paint the grieving and the uncertainty of our time in relationship to our complex history as it regards systemic and implicit injustice and disparity towards persons of color.

Then in the Summer of 2015 I was asked to hang a show in Brew Five Points. I got a little news coverage and had a mixed response on social media. Most of the backlash came when folks learned that a white guy was making paintings that talked about race.

The paintings that I create are in a way visual short stories. I use southern gothic themes, local history and its connection to contemporary events in the news to create images that ask questions about race, gender, and labor among other things as a means for me to understand myself and my position in a world and and a region that is always changing and still has to deal with its tumultuous past. As the quote goes, “Know thyself.” These paintings help me to deal with my issues and blind spots. They are open for interpretation but are painted from a perspective of introspective examination. The paintings are less parables and more like short stories.

You’re never going to find a pat answer for what unfolds in the images that I paint. Life doesn’t work that way and my paintings don’t have to either. What I want to do is raise questions and unload my brain of what I’ve learned and how I have reacted. The paintings that I make are geared more to an audience that tends to look white and polite. I tend to think of these folks and a primary audience outside myself.

Many of the people who look like me may say and believe that they aren’t racist or prejudiced against persons of color. Many of those people have an analytical approach when it comes to American history. They do not have an emotional connection or investment of the history that shapes their experience like many of my black friends do. By this I mean to say that for the most part, my white friends only know about history as events in time, as far as their education has allowed them to learn, but they do not have a grandparent or a great-grandparent who was born or grew up as a slave, like my African-American friends have, who have been taught about the lives of slavery, peonage, and extreme hardship. My work is here to lift the veil, un-cloud the eyes of folks who live in their privilege and comfort without ever having considering the cost of it, the blood, sweat, and sacrifice that was spent so that you could live the life you take for granted in so many ways. Life is more complex than your individual experience. We live a shared life as a community in this city. What you vote yes and no to, where you buy your groceries, where you send your kids to school, all these decisions affect the whole and where you benefit you disenfranchise others.

There is a direct tie to my community in the work that I make. My neighborhood is a great example of a life lived in diversity and the dealing with the struggles and tensions that make it a great, and at times, a challenging place to live. As an artist I find it important to connect people to the work I make, hopefully leading to impactful connections between themselves and others who are different, willing to ask hard questions, self-examining for blind spots, and taking personal responsibility to change behaviors and attitudes about race as well as asking questions about systematic racism and micro-aggressions.

Here are some questions you can take away and think about, asking yourself on your own time:

– Do you often see people of your race/ethnicity in negative roles on TV or in the movies?
– Were most of your teachers from the same racial or ethnic background?
– Did your school textbooks strongly reflect your racial or ethnic group?
– Have you ever been discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity or gender?
– Have you ever been stopped and questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, social class or gender?
– Can you easily avoid being around people you were trained to mistrust?
– Can you go shopping alone pretty assured that you will not be followed or harassed?
– Can you easily buy posters, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, and coloring books representing people of your race?
– Do you have to train your children to be aware of systemic racism in order to protect them?