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Breaking Bread at the Black Lunch Table in NOLA

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Discussion prompt cards used to steer Black Lunch Table conversations.
Discussion prompt cards used to steer Black Lunch Table conversations.

A small envelope on the table contained several notecards, each one with a discussion prompt related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Our table began with the question, “How have you contributed to #blacklivesmatter?” Only one of the seven people at the table had official experience with the movement, having organized demonstrations at her college campus in Missouri before moving to New Orleans. She spoke about how unhappy she was with the results of the demonstrations; she preferred the context in New Orleans, which she saw as focused on finding and creating healing spaces.

Perennial Properties

Other questions in the deck of cards were specific to our location, such as a prompt to discuss the historical legacy of race and culture in New Orleans. One card asked us to discuss segregation by race, gender, and class in Mardi Gras krewes. In reference to one of the most popular Mardi Gras krewes, one question asked if “masking Zulu” was racist. Another asked if “black Indian” was a racist term, referring to the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians.

The occasion for the discussion was the Black Lunch Table, a project helmed by New York-based artist Heather Hart and North Carolina-based artist Jina Valentine (Valentine is Assistant Professor of Art at UNC Chapel Hill). Both received residencies at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans in the 2015-16 season, and used the occasion to stage two Black Lunch Table events. The Black Lunch Table started out quite literally as a lunch table at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a residency program in Maine, in 2005. Hart and Valentine staged casual lunchtime discussions for the artists of color at the program. The result has been described as an intentionally ironic practice of “self-segregation.” Since Skowhegan, the practice has become more structured, such as the iteration staged at Theaster Gates’s Black Artists’ Retreat (BAR) in 2014. Now, over a decade later, it has become an artistic project on a national scale, with the high profile endorsement of a 2016 Creative Capital grant for Emerging Fields (see their page here).

Participants share anecdotes of "soft racism" at the Black Lunch Table.
Participants share anecdotes of “soft racism” at the Black Lunch Table. (Photo: Blaze Edwards )

For Hart and Valentine, the Black Lunch Table is a strategy to combat institutional racism in the art world, such as the lack of published sources about artists of color. So they decided to simply make their own sources. The lunch table discussions serve as “discursive sites, wherein cultural producers of color engage in critical dialogue with one another on topics directly affecting our community.”[1] Those topics are focused on how race has shaped the participants’s experience of the art world, such as: “Discuss the authorship of Black Art History as related to curating/writing art history generally”; “Discuss your experience with targeted hiring initiatives and/or affirmative action”; “Discuss art practices that rely on non-commercial avenues.” Each lunch table session is recorded, with the intention of creating an archive of transcripts that will be hosted on their website (the archive is scheduled to go live in December). Valentine is working with the Digital Innovation Lab at UNC to create the database, which will be searchable by topic, artist, and place.

Institutions tend to preserve published culture rather than oral culture, so oral history archives have, traditionally, functioned as counter-narratives. Think of the WPA-era oral history projects, such as the Slave Narratives compiled by writers working for the Federal Writers’ Project who traveled the South interviewing former slaves about what it was like to live through years of bondage. Hart and Valentine cite the History Workshop movement as a precedent: a people’s history movement active from the late 1960s to the mid ’80s in England. Citing the Museum of Modern Art’s Artist Oral History Initiative and the Oral History Interviews at the Archives of American Art as examples, Hart and Valentine found that even oral history archives in the art world tended to omit artists of color.

Black Lunch Table held on
The Black Lunch Table project started out quite literally as a lunch table at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. (Photo: Blaze Edwards )

In addition to creating an oral history archive from scratch, the Black Lunch Table also aims to counter institutional racism in populist sources such as Wikipedia. The widely used source has come under fire for reiterating the sexist and racist biases of society at large. The Art+Feminism project, for one, has been working on improving coverage of female artists in Wikipedia. It hosts an annual Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at MoMA in New York, as well as other international edit-a-thons. Similarly, the Black Lunch Table aims to focus on representation of artists of color. They have organized edit-a-thons at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the MoMA library, and Project Row Houses in Houston.

SCAD - Derrick Adams

I participated in the edit-a-thon held during Hart’s Joan Mitchell Center residency on November 17, 2015 (see details here). The organizers had compiled a list of artists based in New Orleans who were either missing articles or whose articles needed improvement. New entries were created for Carl Joe Williams (whom I’ve interviewed before for BURNAWAY—see here), Willie Birch, MaPo Kinnord, and Ron Bechet. The volunteers also improved articles for contemporary artist Tameka Norris and 19th-century African-American photographer Jules Lion. I won’t reveal which page I worked on, as part of the power of Wikipedia is its anonymity, but I will reveal that the process was fascinating. Wikipedia requires multiple independent sources in order to justify inclusion of a subject (they say that the subject must be “notable”), so the supposedly democratic venue actually rests on the less-than-democratic structures of traditional publishing and the art world’s curating and collecting practices.

Another event that Hart and Valentine hosted at the Joan Mitchell Center was a Black Lives Matter-themed iteration of the Black Lunch Table recording sessions. A similar session had been held in January 2015 after the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Valentine explains, “Part of the reason we organized that was ‘what are we doing?’ We’re sitting in front of Facebook and practicing ‘clicktivism’—signing petitions and reposting things and emailing our representatives, but it didn’t feel like it was doing anything.” Acknowledging that a discussion doesn’t necessarily do anything either, she explains, “at least it provides some sense of empowerment, or hope, at least. It will feel good to talk about these things.”[2]

The author questions whether the workshop achieves its objective of dismantling institutional racism and cultivating change.
The author questions whether the workshop achieves its objective of dismantling institutional racism and cultivating change. (Photo: Blaze Edwards )

Two sessions occurred on March 12, 2016, with about four or five tables set up at the center’s Bayou Road campus. A morning session was open to anyone who responded to the invitation, while an afternoon session was reserved for invited people of color. Among the participants at my table in the morning session were two emerging artists-in-residence at the JMC (one previous resident and one current), a CEO of a local health care organization, a community organizer from a politically powerful family in New Orleans, and a young poet/charter school high school teacher. The group was diverse from a racial standpoint, so it did not reiterate the self-segregation of the project’s origin.

The set-up is like a cross between a cocktail party conversation game and a consciousness-raising session. As a postfeminist, I’ve always been curious about the ’70s-era consciousness-raising sessions. I’ve assumed that it must have been cathartic to share one’s experiences and realize that they are not individual experiences, but rather symptoms of structural problems in society. I imagine that it must have felt good to find allies in the fight for a better, more equitable society.

Discussion veered from person to person, covering institutional racism in housing, incarceration, education, and “Katrina” (the term is local code for what happened after the hurricane). One card asked the group to discuss experiences of micro-aggressive or institutional racism. The term “micro-aggressive racism” was not familiar to everyone, so the first task was to define it. Several people shared examples of subtly racist and discriminatory comments they encounter in their daily lives.

The format is designed to establish a circle of trust and equality of voices at the table, but that was not my experience. Instead, it became a theater of interpersonal dynamics, with the usual dominant and passive personality types. The cards were not spread around the table or shared, but remained with the one or two individuals who claimed the power to open the envelope. One participant divided the cards up into groups by topic, arrayed in a grid in front of her that made it difficult for the rest of us to see, thwarting the organizers’ intention for an equitable conversation.

In a handout, Hart and Valentine explain the lunch table idea as “a discursive site where social connections are made, social hierarchies revealed, and power dynamics are played out.”[3] These sound like potentially negative characteristics, and they bring up bad memories of my experiences with lunchroom social dynamics as a teenager. So I followed up with Valentine to share my experience and ask how it compared to her intentions and other Black Lunch Table events. Valentine admitted that she has noticed that there are always dominant voices, and that when she is participating at a table, her teacher instinct kicks in and she tries to draw out the more quiet participants.

For weeks after the session, I was troubled by the lack of catharsis that I felt. It was hard to really connect with people in only an hour or two of conversation. It made me think about how hard it is to get to know someone, and how much time it really requires to build a relationship. In my professional life, I have the benefit of time: at least a semester to build a relationship with a student, or maybe the three years of our MFA program, or the years of working with colleagues at the university and in the community. One hour is not enough, especially if I’m never going to see this person again. And I do think that relationships are the answer to eradicating racism—that we should spend time getting to know each other and appreciating our diverse backgrounds and points of view.

I had a frustrating sense that the artists were preaching to the converted. We all agreed on what the basic problems are, but we never got around to discussing solutions or creating strategies to move ahead. What was the point? Will real change come from this? Can we stop institutional racism? Is that possible? Is it worth isolating race at the expense of considering how it is interwoven with other forms of power? Say, sexism? Or capitalism and class inequality? How should white participants discuss experiences of racism given that they have benefited from white privilege? These are all really hard questions, and they are questions that we have all been asking this summer as event after event makes it increasingly obvious that something is very wrong and that something really needs to be done. It is not easy to sit with these questions and acknowledge that there are no easy answers. I am grateful that the Black Lunch Table is encouraging us to do just that. At least it’s a start.

[1] Handout at the Black Lunch Table event, Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans, 12 March 2016.

[2] Interview by the author with Jina Valentine, at the Joan Mitchell Center, 23 March 2016.

[3] Handout at the Black Lunch Table event, Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans, 12 March 2016.

Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.