XXVI.4 July-August 2019
Page: 78
Digital Citation

We need to know

Nia Easley

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In 2015, I began an M.F.A. project that became an installation with an as yet unanswered question behind it: How can design be used to elucidate some of the more complicated and sensitive social issues of our time? To explore this question, I have tried to imagine ways in which the reality of life can be presented to encourage empathy and understanding. This project organically grew to include interviews with members of the public and experts, and research on the history of Chicago through direct accounts and demographic data (i.e., census). That information was then used to design an installation, need to know (or time does not move in straight lines). The installation and the research are intertwined, and although the installation is no longer on display, I continue to receive feedback from it that addresses that initial question.

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This installation featured a wall covered in a giant Kente cloth of choropleth maps of Chicago's Avondale neighborhood, meant to evoke the logic of dividing a neighborhood along demographic or statistical measurements. Bearing a quote from Avery Gordon's book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, the wall reads: "We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere in order to live there." I set the words in the typeface used on street signs to reference the common visual language that we train ourselves to automatically obey. I also used that same typeface but altered, doubled in hybrid form, on the front of a self-published newspaper included in the installation. The type treatment represents how coming together can create something still useful (i.e., legible) but different. As Gordon wonders about Freud and psychoanalysis, I wonder about American history: "What have we lost? Not just repressed or marginalized" [1]. Specifically, what have we allowed to fade away in what we call Black history, which is American history.

My starting point was The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide that was published from 1936 to 1964 by Victor and Alma Green out of New York City. I first read about this guide in Isabel Wilkerson's 2010 bestseller, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. She mentions "green paperback guidebooks that listed colored lodgings by state or city" [2]. Being the child of one of those migrants, I had to find out as much as I could about these guides; my interest was piqued. Luckily for me, the New York Public Library had just uploaded its entire collection of Green Books as high-definition scans, easily searchable online. The Green Book was a guide that eventually covered all 50 states, listing businesses that would serve African-American customers. I wanted to explore what a contemporary Green Book might look like and started with my current neighborhood in Chicago, a community known as Avondale. In addition to my being a transplant to the area, the biggest hurdle to overcome was that it is no longer legal to discriminate based on race. In a way, it was easier to design the Green Book during the Jim Crow era because businesses clearly either did or did not allow Black people.

I began by trying to determine my criteria for inclusion in a contemporary guide, which meant acknowledging intersectionality when it comes to contemporary forms of inclusion and exclusion. During Jim Crow in the U.S., the singular criteria for legal discrimination that the Green Book addressed was race—in reality now, as then, we can be separated and people can be excluded based on gender, age, sexuality, physical ability, religion, economic status, and/or citizenship status. From my experience of the neighborhood over two years, there were no business owners in the area who would turn anyone away based on these distinguishing characteristics. I informally polled people in the neighborhood about visiting local businesses and public places, but no one could point to any place that they would currently avoid for safety reasons. There are also already ratings systems like the Better Business Bureau and Yelp where you can find some approximation of this information. I would walk into establishments and try to gauge how welcome I felt, but that is such a subjective experience affected by so many factors that it seemed an unreliable way to determine whether others would be safe. I knew I would have to talk to more people, and eventually decided against making a list of businesses altogether. The particular aleatoric way in which information came to me, and keeps coming, helps to shape iterations of this project.

ins02.gif need to know (or time does not move in straight lines) 2018 installation shot.

A friend who was aware of my research introduced me to a Chicagoan, Katie Jordan, who had participated in the Great Migration [3]. Jordan is a distinguished woman who made her life in Chicago as one of the first African-American fitter tailors at the Henry Lytton clothing store. Eventually she was elected as the first woman president of her local union. Her strength and determination are a hallmark of the migrant experience. Her life, lived mostly on the west and south sides of Chicago, is typical of the Black experience in this city. However, as we talked about traveling, she insisted that she was not intimidated by other parts of the city or deterred from going anywhere by racism. She told me a fantastic story of living in Arkansas and drinking from the "white's only" fountains.

ins03.gif need to know (or time does not move in straight lines) 2018 installation detail.

Jordan did not feel that her experience in Chicago had been limited in any way. She felt called upon to stand up for herself and others in the face of injustice and had done so on numerous occasions that she detailed for me in our time together. The following quote is from one of her stories about the shop floor: "Sisters! Brothers! Give me your attention! I have something to say. You are to be respected at all times. You are not in prison, you can look up when you want to. You can talk to each other if you want to. Look up!" [4].

In an effort to understand how all of these historical forces are relevant now, I was rapidly learning as much as I could about the neighborhood. I leaned on the work of Forgotten Chicago, an organization that seeks to "discover and document little known elements of Chicago's infrastructure, architecture, neighborhoods and general cityscape, whether existing or historical" [5]. It published a book about Avondale, highlighting the growth from township to Chicago community area [6]. The historians of Forgotten Chicago, particularly Elisa Addelsperger, led me to the North Side collection at Sulzer Regional Library. This collection held many artifacts, photos, memoirs, and other books about the area, several of which I later referenced in the installation as well.

This material evidence of the social reality somehow works to make that experience more real.

Avondale is known as the neighborhood that built Chicago, thanks to the workers, tools, and materials that traveled from here to the rest of the city. Historically this neighborhood has been home mostly to immigrants: Polish, Mexican, Filipino, Korean, and, according to a map from the 1880s, there was an early "colored" section [7]. Several transit lines run through the neighborhood, including buses and the subway. The Dan Ryan Expressway cuts through the heart of the neighborhood, a point of contention for longtime residents—some love the access; others hate the constant flow of high-speed traffic. The current state of Avondale is obviously a result of past decisions made by people at the individual level and at the policy level. Having come to this project through a historical document, I did not want to lose that connection to the past, even as I was drifting from my original inspiration, the Green Book.

The Green Book has enjoyed a revival in popular culture. It is featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In the past year, there have been several art shows, including Derrick Adams: Sanctuary and Unpacking the Green Book: Travel and Segregation in Jim Crow America, both at the Museum of Arts and Design. The Oscar- and Golden Globe—winning movie Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promises) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), premiered in 2018. This renewed attention has been enthusiastically received, even though we already knew with absolute certainty that segregation was a fact of life. This material evidence of the social reality somehow works to make that experience more real; I was not the only artist who felt compelled to action by encountering this object. Although there were other travel guides in this era for a Black audience, the Green Book is distinguished by its longevity and its scope, overshadowing all the others. It not only covered the entire U.S. but was also distributed nationwide at Esso Gas stations. The Green Book is an important material document for understanding the period in which it was made. At the same time, present-day conditions preclude a remake of the Green Book. It cannot possibly be the same.

There is a quote in the Smithsonian exhibition: "There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication, for then we can go wherever we please and without embarrassment" [8]. It is true, technically, we can all go wherever we please, but there is no guarantee that we won't be embarrassed, harassed, or worse. In fact, as I was researching this project there was a new story every few weeks about white people calling the police on a Black person for mundane daily activity (barbecuing, talking with friends, napping in their own dormitory's common area, hanging out in a Starbucks.). As I was attempting to design a useful contemporary Green Book, I realized this problem transcends how to navigate actual city streets. So I turned to the people and the history of the neighborhood. Having already learned about the "colored section" of Avondale, I knew Chicago's early development had been troubled. This had been a sizeable community. The only trace now? Streets named after residents long gone.

ins04.gif The Negro Motorist Green Book: 1948.

In Chicago, the segregation can be palpable. Recent research correlates racial isolation to the perpetuation of prejudice and the reinforcing of stereotypes by limiting the scope of experience [9]. As a young Black person growing up on the south side of Chicago, I never would have expected to find this early African-American community on the northwest side. In following the trail of the Green Book, I discovered another barely visible bit of history. And it was not just me—no one I spoke with on the street was aware of this community. Whether the erasure is intentional or a side effect of time passing, it is important to me to revitalize this knowledge in a compelling way. The newspaper in my installation details some of what I learned; it also asks people to contact me if they have any information on the African-American families that lived in Avondale. While I have not heard from anyone yet, this project is ongoing.

ins05.gif The Negro Motorist Green Book: 1949.

Part of Chicago's segregated organization is due to patterns of settlement following various waves of immigration, yes. But it is also due in large part to racist housing practices. One function of the Green Book, in Chicago, was to get African-American travelers into the predominantly Black neighborhoods. Obviously that is where most of the businesses would be, whether they were listed in the guide or not. One criticism of the civil rights movement is that when businesses were forced to open up to all, it drained money from the Black community. So, one possible contemporary version of the Green Book could be a directory of the Black-owned businesses, as TeQuila Shabazz did in her Neo-Green Book. However, I was interested in doing this work within the neighborhood where I am currently living, and there are no Black-owned businesses.

In interviewing the people in Avondale, I tried to ask open-ended questions without leading them toward any particular conclusions. Do you live in the neighborhood? If yes, do you rent or own? How do you travel through the neighborhood? How do you like the neighborhood? How do you experience community in the neighborhood?

Everyone I talked to likes Avondale. Almost everyone told me that they generally feel safe walking around, and when asked if they would change anything, they generally did not want to see much change. When asked why they liked it, the most common answer was diversity. I had to wonder if they were saying that because I was the one asking. Completely unprompted, whether they lived there or were just passing through, almost everyone mentioned gentrification. They ranged from benign comments, "It's changed a lot over the years," to more blatant statements such as "I'm seeing a lot of gentrification around Chicago and it's taking away from the communities rather than giving back." This would appear to be the most threatening aspect of life in Avondale today, but I suspect that "gentrification" has become a metonymy for the issues that generally divide us today—race, class, ethnicity, immigration status. Through uncovering this hidden community, I hope to broaden the story of the neighborhood for everyone while simultaneously answering my own question: How can those stories help us today? If you happen to know the family of Mrs. Francis P. Graham, Mrs. Martha Pounds, or Martha Dawson from Avondale, Chicago [10], could you please drop me a line? Thanks.

back to top  References

1. Gordon, A.F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2008, 57.

2. Wilkerson, I. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Random House, New York, NY, 2010, 203.

3. The Great Migration was the relocation of approximately 6 million African Americans between 1915 and 1970 from the southern states to northern and western states, mainly to escape the worst of the Jim Crow laws and to seek economic opportunities.

4. Jordan, K. Interview by author. Apr. 28, 2017. Katie recounting her life as a young woman moving to Chicago and working for Lytton's Department Store.

5. Kaplan, J. Mission Statement: Forgotten Chicago. Forgotten Chicago History Architecture and Infrastructure RSS;

6. Kaplan, J., Pogorzelski, D., Reid, R., and Addelsperger, E. Images of America: Avondale and Chicago's Polish Village. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2014.

7. Map of Logan Square as it was in 1881 composed by John Stehman and drawn by Edward Sieja, Architect. Logan Square Community Collection [Oversize 5]. Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

8. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. The Negro Motorist Green Book: 1948. New York Public Library Digital Collections;

9. Designing the Transformation. Liberal Education Fall 2016. Truth, Racial Healing, & Transformation 102, 4 (Nov. 30, 2016), 36–38.

10. Letter written by Mrs. Frances P. Graham. Logan Square Community Collection [Box 1, Folder 5]. Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

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Nia Easley is an artist and designer working in Chicago. She is experienced in a wide range of creative techniques from the handmade (painting, drawing, serigraphy, knitting) to the digital realm (Adobe design tools, Maya, rapid prototyping). A storytelling radical, she hopes that one day we can all be free. [email protected]

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