Last month, I visited one of my favorite cities in the contiguous 48 – San Diego. I was there for work (which is usually the case), but I made sure to pack my Canon so I could capture some of the sights of ‘America’s Finest City.’ During my visit, I found myself downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
While I anticipated an eclectic ensemble of shapes, colors, and sounds inside the museum; what I discovered was a portal back into a time of resistance or perhaps it was a more of a mirror reflecting how the history of this country has shaped the present-day. The collection on view was titled “Go Tell It” and it explored relationships between art and forms of political speech and protest. Each piece of art challenged me and I left pondering many questions. While the museum is relatively small, the halls spoke volumes in that confined space as I examined my own human condition and my contributions to my culture and my community.
The most striking exhibit was the the Garrett Morgan safety hood allowing the wearer to breathe in a hostile environment by James Crosby. Crosby re-invents one of Garret Morgan’s inventions: air filtration hoods originally designed to protect firefighters from smoke. Garret Morgan (1877-1963) was a black inventor from Cleveland, Ohio. Crosby’s exhibit features five white hoods ominously hanging along a long rack — each with eye holes posed menacingly towards onlookers.
My first thought was that these hoods were a variant of the infamous white peaks of the Ku Klux Klan. And even as I observed the exhibit, my body tensed. As a black man, there’s still something chilling about a white mask no matter what form it takes. As I read the placard on the wall next to the exhibit, I learned that Crosby connected Morgan’s invention to a larger narrative: blackness in America.
“While these masks allow their wearers to see and breathe, they also obscure their identity. Crosby connects this invention [safety hood] to Morgan’s other products, such as profitable skin-bleaching and hair-straightening creams, in turn revealing the complexity of Morgan’s historical legacy. For even as Morgan was a civic leader in the Black community, his products encouraged and commodified the erasure of racial signifiers. Crosby’s revision of Morgan’s masks, here isolated and ominous, foregrounds the question of race, pointing to a society in which Blackness has often been hidden not only as to achieve success but also as a way to survive.”
As I stood face to face with the mask, I pondered the question. Am I diminishing my blackness to fit into the world around me? Or am I unapologetically, defiantly, and loudly…black. The eye holes of the mask were unnerving the longer you stared at them, but perhaps it was the reflection I saw inside that terrified me. Could it be of a man that loves his people, yet in someway betrays his essence by putting on the mask, even for a moment. As I left the museum, I felt immense gratitude for Crosby’s art and the moment of self-reflection. And as I traced my steps under the generous sunshine I smiled at the beauty of blackness and our tenacity to survive, to flourish, to excel — mask off.
I encourage you to check out the photos below and let me know if any of them speak to you.
Location:1100 & 1001 Kettner Boulevard
Ticket price: $10
Featured art (from left to right):
Row 1: A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, Dread Scott, 2017; Go Tell It (Microphone), Mario Ybarra, Jr., 2006
Row 2: With All the Holes in You Already There’s No Reason to Define the Outside Environment as Alien, Jenny Holzer, 1983; Dirty Starts, Tala Madini, 2008
Row 3: the Garrett Morgan safety hood allowing the wearer to breathe in a hostile environment, James Crosby, 2015
Row 4: One Big Union, Andrea Bowers, 2012; Crowning II, Andrea Chung, 2014
Row 5: Crowning I, Andrea Chung, 2014; Crowning V, Andrea Chung, 2014; 32 Pools, Lisa Williamson, 2014