Bearing witness to an elder gave me a newfound appreciation of growing up. We piled into the rare book room at the Strand, a quaint cozy place, think the library of a wealthy businessman with minimal time to read. Once off the elevator, there are breakfronts displaying coveted first editions: Huckleberry Finn, Mrs. Dalloway, etc. Titles that I skipped over on my summer reading list in favor of books like Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers or Assata by Assata Shakur, neither of which are encased in glass.
“Name?” I give my mother’s name, this experience being her gift to me. I’d come to hear Carrie Mae Weems discuss her seminal work, “The Kitchen Table Series,” a collection of black and white photos that star her as an nameless, yet all encompassing Black woman—the ones we engage with on a daily basis, the one that raised me—sitting at or hovering over a kitchen table, which is the centerpiece for the goings on of her life. A Black woman who’s also a mother tending to her daughter’s hair, comforting her man, a (probably shit-talking) spades player, and ultimately lover of self. A projector in the corner of the room rattles off about 50 images or so—a makeshift retrospective—a portrait of the artist about to grace us with her presence.
My friend and I squeeze into two foldout chairs three rows back. I survey the room, shifting my weight from cheek to cheek, skeptical about the chair’s ability to hold me. I notice everyone in the room has some sort of writing instrument and notebook, and I feel underprepared, relying solely on my memory to record the night’s remarks. Speaking of remarks, a bookstore employee addresses us from a podium to introduce Adrienne Edwards. She’s a curator, whom I’m slightly familiar with because of the group exhibition she put together, Blackness in Abstraction, http://www.pacegallery.com/exhibitions/12802/blackness-in-abstraction which traces “the persistent presence of the color black in art, with a particular emphasis on monochromes, from the 1940s to today.”
Adrienne Edwards wears a white dress and beads around her neck, looking like an extra in the Lemonade video. Her dress connects her and Carrie Mae Weems’ influences to the present. It’s the kind of dress my great great aunt wore while giving out advice and performing remedies that included dealing with menstrual cramps to getting revenge on cheating husbands. A dress my Nana more than likely wore to her baptism in the little lake by the wooden shack that doubled as a place of worship. A version of that dress matched the crisp white frilly socks and bobos I wore to Memorial Baptist Church during my first communion, sneaking more than one wafer off the plate.
After a reading of an essay from the preface of The Kitchen Table Series book, the reason we’d all converged in that room, Carrie Mae Weems, arrives full of gratitude, thank yous, and genuine tangible warmth. She thanked us all, she thanked her friends, and the man who helped the book come to fruition. I’ve been raised to respect my elders by default, but in that moment, what I felt transcended that. What I felt was a notch higher than admiration, yet Carrie Mae Weems still seemed to me very much human. Her humanity, along with her humility, instantly put me at ease. She was thanking me, when I was thankful to be in her presence. I turned to my friend and said, “That’s my Auntie Carrie!” Because she is. She seems like the auntie you could talk about sex and relationships, the one who doesn’t play pious and always gives smart, timely advice.
Carrie Mae Weems started off by asking how many of us were artists. I didn’t raise my hand, I took too long to contemplate my status as an artist. Half the room had already come to the conclusion they were artists themselves. She discussed a variety of things with us. Such as, around the time the Kitchen Table Series was conceived, she wanted to expand feminist discourse to include Black women, who weren’t represented in the theory she was reading at the time. She spoke on feeling her emotions, those she couldn’t articulate, through Toni Morrison’s words, which reaffirmed for me the importance of writing and representation. That someone somewhere might feel my own writing so strongly was the source of much contemplation. She also talked about the decision to make herself the star of her own photo series, the flexibility she needed to execute the work put her in that position. Flexibility that included waking up at 4 AM to shoot the pictures. About 12 pictures per roll of film, which she developed herself, and the deep admiration she felt at the sight of her own work.
Adrienne Edwards and Carrie Mae Weems basked in a mutual love for one another and their contribution to the art world. (One as a creator, and one who uses theory to interrogate those creations and put them in context within a larger framework.) Then they extended that love outward into the audience. I felt it, as did the people who decided to ask questions. Only three were allowed; I didn’t get the opportunity to ask mine, which was: “What is the process of writing the text that coincides with her images?” Carrie the photographer is well known, but I wondered about Carrie the writer. Instead there were questions like, “How do you stay true to yourself as an artist?” One really drawn out statement masquerading as a question. Then, there was a remark as opposed to a question.
A woman all the way in the front commented on how Carrie empowered her to call herself something other than a singer/songwriter. A more complicated artsy sounding term, like a sonic messenger or something similar. My first impulse was to roll my eyes, less at her new broader identity, and more at the fact that she got to the microphone before I could. However, I refrained, and instead found myself congratulating her. Carrie Mae Weems’ Guggenheim retrospective empowered her to see the value in her voice, which I’m all for. I want to see Black women out here getting it.
Finally, we get to the book signing portion. It was my friend, another girl, and me. We had our name printed on sticky notes so that Carrie Mae Weems would know how to spell them when our time came. I snuck a picture of her signing someone else’s book. In that photo, she seems in her element: joyous. My turn came and I thanked her for existing. I told her that I’d spent time typing “Black women photographers” in Google, looking to find myself represented in all art forms, both high and low. She seemed so grateful for my comment that I was taken aback, almost moved to tears. I smiled and smiled and continued to smile a bit more. And she returned the favor, while writing “for (redacted) from Carrie M. Weems” into my copy. She commented on how she was happy to see “young sisters” at her event. I enjoyed the visibility. She then wished me the best of luck with my “work” a vague term, but one that was applicable nonetheless. Adrienne was next. Carrie Mae Weems peeled back several pages, in search of a particular spot, and signed her name in a very experienced cursive, as if, she’d had practice autographing books, much in the way I do in the back of my journal. It was a surreal moment, quick, but not impersonal.
As I sauntered back toward the elevator, practically floating, I blurted out, “I can die happy now,” before correcting myself: “No. I have a LOT more things I want to do in life.” Assuring myself more than anything, saying it aloud in hopes of solidifying that feeling. I want to age, gracefully. Not just in appearance, either. I want carry with me into my old age a lasting body of work and peace of mind. Here this woman was discussing with us something she made 25 years ago, but that in Adrienne’s words, “transcended time.” That isn’t hyperbole, it does. The series itself is older than me and half my peers in the room, all of whom probably first engaged with it through Tumblr, in search of images that mirror our realities.
To produce something everlasting? That requires living. And with lived experience comes age. I’m often so caught up in the idea that my accomplishments are more significant depending upon the age I am, which is a notion I haven’t completely rejected, but am slowly moving away from. As certain obstacles appear, I am getting a taste of what it’s like to watch time slip away, unable to produce much of anything because of unexpected circumstances. Circumstances that include mental exhaustion, death, just wanting to take a break. I wrestle with the fact that I’ve essentially been spending my summer catatonic. Clearly I am not moved enough to wake up before 1 PM. Life happens, sometimes. It’s unpredictable, and gets in the way of “work” (writing, podcasting, filmmaking, the other million things I wanna do) at any given moment.
When she wished me luck with my work, it was like she looked into my eyes and saw someone unsure but trying to figure it the fuck out. Or rather, that’s what I took from that moment, because that’s what I so needed at the time. An “I see you girl!” acknowledgement that I’m trying my hardest to close the gap between who I am and who I want to be. Like so many others before me, I’m winging it. Hoping for the best, knowing I’m talented, capable, and still not yet completely secure. So in that moment, I got some of what I needed to sustain me for a little while longer.
In the back of my mind, there still lingers vision of a future me, equal parts attainable and unattainable. Versions of myself a little further into adulthood, past the phase of professional uncertainty, wiser, filled to the brim with stories. I’ll sit in a cozy room similar to the one in the Strand, filling out a beautiful dress, laid baby hair, adjusting my glasses. As I sit, I’ll begin rattling off my lived experiences, speaking in a cadence that shows I’m an experienced public speaker. A hand wraps around a microphone with rings on each finger from the world over, the other hand used to add emphasis to the points I’m making, Cartier bracelets adorning my very established wrists. I’m both asking and answering questions like the media personality/renaissance woman/bad bitch I’ve worked so hard to be. The audience sits at my feet, completely engaged, laughing at my jokes. Not out of nervousness, but because I’m funny (duh), and they’re genuinely happy to be in my presence. At least, that’s just one of many images I conjured up while clutching the book to my chest on the train ride home. ♦