“It feels impossible to talk about race or other kinds of difference,” wrote Roxane Gay recently in the New York Times Sunday Review. “But if we don’t have difficult conversations, we will be able to reconcile neither this country’s racist past nor racist present.” This is a refrain we read and hear so often these days, and yet, the conversations remain hard in coming. Faheem Majeed, in his first solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this year, is a notable example of conversation between artist, curator, and museum institution that seeks to expand that conversation with a wider viewing public.
Last week, I saw a film about the life of Julius Rosenwald, an early twentieth-century businessman and philanthropist who financed a series of rural black schools, built and run with the oversight of the Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald otherwise had a life such as that from which the myth of the American dream is made. He started as a merchant on the streets of Chicago, worked his way up in the “rag trade” and eventually became chief of Sears and Roebuck. In the meantime, he made large matching donations to black YMCAs and attracted the attention of Booker T. Washington. Washington took him on a tour of Tuskegee, and soon the two formed a partnership, building what would be called the Rosenwald Schools, funded by Rosenwald and each school’s immediate community, staffed by Tuskegee-trained teachers, and erected by the black communities they served.
“I think not enough people are writing about the Civil Rights Movement—those who lived through it are passing on, and many of them did not document their stories. But one person’s involvement in a period is just as important as an overarching history—I think there needs to be more of that. It encourages individuals to be courageous and work to correct what’s wrong in their countries, their lives. I think curious students and history buffs will read it, but above all, I hope it will empower African-Americans and women.”
There is no amount of being a privileged do-gooder that will do anyone any good if people can’t respectfully co-exist without entirely erasing each other—physically, geographically, economically, psychically—in the name of progress.