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I Am Black: Translated


Hernease Davis
Photo-based Artist and Consultant with The Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum
Born: Los Angeles, CA
Live: Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, NY

I see you. I know very little about you, but out in the open, amongst strangers especially, I have a sense of a part of you. I am aware, whether I like it or not - whether we both like it, or not. It has only been after being in therapy for a number of years that I am able to begin ignoring you. Having visions like mine, like ours, well, we know. No matter where we are, I can catch your eye when I really need to. Having visions like yours, like ours, it creates a connection that often makes me extremely uncomfortable. Remember the other day, on the G-train, you got on with your son at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. It was so crowded, and I was busy reading in my seat. I looked up just as you grabbed on to the pole for dear life as more people pushed passed you into the car. I only had a few seconds to do it, so I reached out, touched your arm and asked if you wanted my seat. I knew you needed my seat, but I was raised to ask you first. I quickly got up, and told you a little too strongly, “Go ahead and sit down.” I knew the train was about to start, but you didn’t, and you really needed that seat, my seat, since no one else could see you. “Thank you.” “You’ welcome.” I took your place, grabbed onto the pole just in time, and pretended to read.

I see you, but I am always wondering if you’re gonna make fun of my shoes again. You used to call out my glasses and my cargo pants, but then you really liked my hair. You were so confusing. Now, I am less concerned, thanks in part to my therapist. You have seen enough cargo pants to leave me to my own poor fashion choices. I have worn enough cargo pants to realize where I prefer my pockets. And, look. You wear glasses. That had nothing to do with me, but you always feel more comfortable when I take out my contacts and wear my tortoise frames too. I understand why you were so hard on me, but I had no intentions of betraying you for my love of army green. My glasses were correcting my vision for me, not my vision of you. We talk in spite of these past pains of difference and fears of disconnection. The stakes for us sticking together felt high, didn’t they? Yes. Well, now, I am so glad I can love you and not care what you’ll eventually say about my shoes.

Last Sunday I went to Spring/Break, an art fair. I usually avoid art fairs, but this one was located in rarely seen sections of the post office near Penn Station. I’m nosey. If the art was bad, at least I could explore the building. The art was good, though. The first floor was amazing, and I settled into my happy introverted stroll through old office spaces converted with creative voices. On the second floor, I wandered into a “thrift shop”. The walls were lined with that fake wood used to line our den growing up. The carpet, the picture frames, the paintings - it was filled with things that were odd and oddly familiar. The “thrift shop” owner (the artist) sat at a desk, drawing “Volume 3” on a white album cover with a black sharpie. He was wearing a curly gray wig, a squiggly stripe shirt, and cat pants, but I walked over anyway. “Excuse me, can I look in these photo albums?” “Sure, you can look through anything you’d like. Take a seat!” I wasn’t planning on staying long, but I sat, and opened the first photo album. It was filled with early 20th century and late 19th century photos. Filled! Were these his family members? How does he have so many of these pictures of old family members? I felt jealous. My family had managed to preserve old photos of my relatives, but not this many. Before I could ask how, he looked up from coloring in the huge “3” and answered, “I have been asking Black people who come in here to send me old pictures of their family members. When I receive them, I put them in there.” I stared at him. “They trust you with these?” I was shocked. To me, these photos were precious, rare, artifacts. He understood, “I know right? But I ask, and people have been sending them.” Huh. He handed me another album, “These aren’t mine either. They all belong to Black people who have come in my thrift shop.” I opened it up and felt an unbelievable wave of comfort. These were the most Black people I had seen all day. “If you recognize any of the locations, let me know.” That brick house reminded me of Auntie Mae’s, and those colorful houses looked like Uncle Ernie’s old block. I asked, “Where are you from?” I don’t remember his answer, but I do remember him saying, “My family is from The South,” and I remember I answered back with a smile, “Like most of us.” After making another round of the Thrift Shop, I sat to listen to Volumes 1 & 2. They were all entitled “My First Time.” Each were short, giving me a chance to listen to them over and over again. With vivid descriptions and careful details, the voices recalled how painful and tragic racial awakening could be. My First Time realizing I was Black. None of them sounded anything like my story. I sat back and watched you flip through the photo albums. These were not your stories, either, I’m confident of that. But we all know our own, though, don’t we? That moment we were both called out and made to look at the world all too keenly. From a young age, our visions were honed in a way that is unbearable and supernatural. I saw you look up at the Shop Owner, as if you had just recognized something too. I sat in that chair, on purpose, until the line of people behind me gave up waiting. In that chair, in the midst of this swirling art fair, in the midst of an arena where it is so rare to encounter an “us”... This store was mine/ours. This art was for me/us. You continued to flip through the next photo album. I took off my headphones and touched the Shop Owner on his arm and asked for Volume 3. He gladly handed it to me. I placed it on the record player, put on my headphones, and sat back in my chair.