During the earlier days of the internets, I searched for “careers in Anthropology.” I was sailing on unchartered waters with my newly declared major going into college. I knew I loved studying cultures and the people that enriched them. I don’t remember much about what my search turned up other than a video of a group of women from Mexico making tamales from scratch, with onlookers there to learn the process. A young woman narrated a portion of the video, sharing her experience as an intern. I immediately kew wanted to do that but I was a long way from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C. from my home in Illinois. So when I was able to pull on that blue t-shirt, “staff” printed on the back, and rock my 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival lanyard around my neck as the Social media Coordinator this summer, a resounding “Mama we made it” rang through my head.
“Basque: Innovation by Culture” and “Sounds of California” were the two coinciding themes of this year’s Folklife Festival, celebrating the diasporic arts and traditions of both communities. There was a featured program “On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today” to offer space for critical discussion on forced migrations and immigration stories. I enjoyed being in the space for the work that is possible because of their mission and ability to allow cultures to speak for themselves. I was excited as a black woman working with a black female director of the festival, and to see the range of ethnic backgrounds, and experiences that come together to create what is the Folklife Festival.
I felt unapologetic. I felt safe. I had a uniform that set me apart from the onlookers, and the Festival was just the cosmopolitan place I needed to work without apprehension.
So when the volunteer conducting visitor surveys asked if I was part of the Festival, both of us in our discernible t-shirts, it only stung a little when I thought, “really?” Or when the cashier in the Marketplace offered an apologetic chuckle when she almost forgot my staff discount. I can never say with certainty it was due to race, but as a black woman there is a feeling of “not quite with the band” that is triggered by moments like these. Nonetheless, these moments were extreme enough to slow my stride.
Every year, the Folklife Festival takes place over the course of two weeks to include the 4th of July holiday, followed by a two-day break in between the Festival days. Unfortunately, those following days of the Festival were troubled by the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in St. Anthony, Minnesota.
Returning back to the Festival after my time of restoration was overwhelming but I got the sense it was business as usual. No moments of silence, no acknowledgements. It wasn’t until after the Dallas shootings that same week, that we were extended an opportunity to grieve for what felt like for only those in Dallas, but I had already been on the brink. I did everything not to let my tears fall at my workstation, as business as usual took place. I felt alone, in a trailer full of people, drowning in frustration and unable to talk to anyone. I had never experienced working through pain and grief like this in a workplace setting, and I didn’t know how or where to channel my emotions.
With the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I was reminded of the reality of a Smithsonian badge not shielding me from institutional racism, discrimination, and antiblackness.
I experience museums through an insider-outsider mentality, or what Du Bois termed “double-consciousness.” When the male security guard sees my badge, and passionately says to me directly, “represent.” It feels like a father’s one-word edict. Like hearing him say, “if you don’t do nothing else with your life, you better represent. Make us proud.” When our eyes always find a place to lock.
I am reminded how the terms of what I do may not always be legible to my community, but I always am. They see me, and they know what it means for me to be here, in this space, with a badge.
Inserting myself into institutional spaces means to feel safe isn’t akin to being raceless or post-racial, as we often liken to “diverse” spaces. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival gives space for a multitude of diverse backgrounds, traditions and cultures and we have to share in all of it, even in the less than savory. Especially. Intersectionality is more than all of us being in a space, but sharing in it.
Truth, grief, empathy. The burdens of institutional and systemic racism should not and do not belong to one group.
It is why I hold appreciation for LA-based Filipino rapper Bambu on the Sounds of California Stage, a rapper who speaks on police brutality, immigration, and community issues, for not scripting his emotions or language in his performance despite often rapping to a largely white crowd at the Festival. Or for the Bay Area-spoken word organization, Youth Speaks, for not censoring themselves. It may seem silly in regards to the use of profanity, but when we talk about lives mattering to the larger societal structure, we have to listen when the subaltern speaks. It means something when I insert myself into these spaces, assert my presence by moving close to the stage for a photo, or use the staff entrances, something many might not consider significant, and venues such as the Folklife Festival must continue to be used to confront and challenge our perceptions.