OPEN LETTER TO BLACK FLORIDIANS - REGARDING THE WITHDRAWAL OF
EMBRACING THE LENS: THE BLACKFLORIDA PROJECT
“The victories we do win are not always the victories we fought for, but we should celebrate them nonetheless.” Angela Y. Davis
Open Letter to Black Floridians regarding HistoryMiami Museum "Embracing the Lens: the BlackFlorida project" from photographer Johanne Rahaman.
August 7, 2020
To the Members of our Black Communities of Florida, Friends and Supporters of the BlackFlorida project: I am offering you an explanation as to why I decided to withdraw the exhibition “Embracing the Lens: the BlackFlorida project” from HistoryMiami Museum on July 16th, 2020. To put it simply, it was in the best interest of Black people everywhere.
This is an extremely important exhibition of your BlackFlorida story.
My decision was not made in isolation. I did not do this on my own - I gained much courage from the strength of our brothers and sisters, who are still protesting in the streets and online, collectively holding accountable our government, corporations, and cultural institutions. I am in solidarity with all of you and extend my deepest gratitude to you for keeping me encouraged to do the same.
Embracing the Lens was due to open on March 19th this year, then COVID-19 arrived. I got the news that HistoryMiami Museum was following county orders to close, and the museum released a statement to the public as well. As I waited for a date for the museum to reopen, our brother George Floyd was brutally murdered in Minneapolis. I watched as our brothers and sisters around the US and the world took to the streets to protest police brutality, racism and White-supremacy, and I joined them in protest in the streets and online. As our community was doing the hard work on the ground, I watched organizations and corporations around the world make “Black Lives Matter” solidarity statements. Whether these were altruistic or just trendy, I had no way of knowing, but I did notice that HistoryMiami Museum was silent. So, I sent them a letter asking them to clarify their position. After my prodding, the museum director, Jorge Zamanillo then released an “All Lives Matter” type public statement.
More communication was sent again to the four executive team members and the museum director again reminding them that there was a living archive of Black Lives in their museum, asking how they reconcile their silence with the incredibly Black and radical work by me and the curator, two Black women who ride hard for Black people. They were asked how they individually and collectively advocate and create an environment of visibility and humanity for Black people on staff - in administrative and support roles at the museum. They were asked how we were supposed to consider further work on the show, that was without a doubt so deeply important now more than ever, when our humanity had not been respected on the basic level as well as our processes. They were asked to express where they stood on a personal and professional level, and how HistoryMiami Museum would enter the struggle with Black people in Miami to imagine new futures - to express their truths, not the “safe” PR responses.
The museum’s four senior team-leaders responded with a combination of personal and “safe” professional answers. However, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and trust them to work with the guest-curator and me to usher in real change in such a White-centric institution, that never had to relinquish any power. I stated that there were a few non-negotiables that I hoped would be easy for them all, and I also acknowledged that there were some changes that may have been much more difficult for them to embrace, but we were willing to work in partnership with them to help bring them on the right side history - an opportunity for restorative justice was offered. They were given a list of non-negotiables that were necessary to begin the process of change, and I pointed out some of the obstacles that I faced working with them from the beginning. Here are the items:
OBSTACLES CREATED PRIOR TO MAY 2020
I was discouraged several times by Director of Curatorial, Michael Knoll, from getting a guest curator with these reason: (1) a curator can make or break an exhibition, (2) a curator would use language that would make it inaccessible for museum visitors, (3) It was not an art museum, and history museums work differently (4) I knew my project well enough and could easily curate it myself.
I was asked by Curator of Exhibitions, Christopher Barfield, to explain what a curator does, and what a guest curator would do that the museum could not do. I insisted on a guest curator - I interviewed 2 independent curators and 1 historian and my decision was Dr Jeffreen M. Hayes. I was doubtful that she would be interested, but luckily, she said yes, and made time in her schedule to curate the exhibition.
I chose Dr. Hayes and emailed the museum links to her public credentials. Then I made the introductions via email, and Dr. Hayes provided her Curriculum Vitae to the museum. Dr. Hayes is an internationally respected and lauded Black curator, yet Christopher Barfield asked her to send him proof that she had curated exhibitions, to prove that she was qualified to curate a collection of Black stories by a Black photographer. I interviewed Dr. Hayes for the position and chose her for the job, and yet that was not sufficient.
The museum asked me to find an exhibition designer, and suggested that I hire someone from one of the communities I’ve worked in, then kept reminding me that the candidate must be qualified and experienced in designing exhibitions, as if I would recommend someone who wasn’t. Dr. Hayes said that she prefers to design her exhibitions - Christopher Barfield asked Dr. Hayes to submit proof that she designed exhibitions in the past.
In January, I learned from someone outside of the museum that there was a Black assistant curator on staff at the museum for over a year, who would have contributed the important Black gaze to a project from the inside. Knowing my desire to have Black voices surrounding a project that’s dedicated to the Black community, it should have been apparent to the curatorial department that their assistant curator, Anita Francois would have been a much better fit to work with Dr. Hayes and me on this exhibition.
The marketing department repeatedly erased both the curator and me, the photographer, from the online calendar of the show, email marketing materials, and social media posts. They did not use my handle to tag and link-back to me posts that contained my images, nor did they credit me as the creator of the images. I communicated this several times to the marketing, curatorial, education departments - it was corrected only on one occasion. In my last letter I asked the Marketing Director, Michele Reese to go back and correct it all - to date it still has not been done.
The marketing department selected a PR firm that lacked connections to Black media outlets and Black media personalities, and therefore missed important opportunities to directly reach the Black communities.
I asked from inception for the exhibition to be free to the public - I was told that the museum could not afford the loss in revenue. I asked for the opening night to be free to the Black community that helped create the images, I was told that the marketing department needed to recover the costs of the opening reception. After much pressure, the museum finally agreed to make the reception free to them using a VIP code, provided that they registered online. Several elders tried to sign up using the VIP code and repeatedly encountered issues on the website. When I told the marketing department this, they said that they replicated the sign-in process and did not see any issues, then asked me to have the elders contact them directly so that they can help them signup. After more pressure, the museum finally decided to remove the $10 fee from the website and make the opening reception free to the public.
BLACK LIVES MATTER - MAY 2020
While the world was in an uproar over the murder of George Floyd, the museum ignored it until I brought the issue to their attention by asking the leadership team to clarify their position on the continuous murders of people who could very well be the people in Embracing the Lens: the BlackFlorida project exhibition that hung on their walls, by the hands of a racist system that favors whiteness, and those with proximity to whiteness. Museum director Jorge Zamanillo responded to messages from me saying that he would write a statement, both times erasing Dr. Hayes from the thread. The museum director then released an “all lives matter” type statement that did not even address the Black community and failed to directly address and condemn police brutality. Their social media account then followed up with a series of virtue-signaling posts containing images of Black people, which simply confirmed that they had images of Black people in their archive.
The days following, the museum continued to use Black death for more virtue-signaling, this time, using mostly non-Black POC minors to create a series of protest signs - this was still the outsider gaze, and proved the museum’s lack of a reach into the Black community, and their centering voices of mostly non-Black POC, this mirrors the same lack of Black representation in the institution.
The museum spoke clearly about COVID-19 and added a large legible statement on their website. In contrast, their statement about Black Lives Matter was not clear and a small illegible jpg of the statement was added to their website.
A quick check in its social media history for 5 years revealed that the museum failed to acknowledge Juneteenth, however as Juneteenth was “trending” this year in circles outside of the Black community, the museum jumped on the bandwagon with an educational post about it like most other institutions and corporations. This is disturbing for a couple reasons: (1) this is a museum that deals with history - Black history is American history, and (2) The previous 4 years the museum posts, on and adjacent to the Juneteenth holiday, featured LGBT pride, Spring Break, Bayfront Park, and a father’s day greeting to the “father of Miami” White-supremacist, Henry Flagler.
LIST OF REQUESTS AND MUSEUM’S RESPONSES
REQUEST 1: In looking at the museum’s calendar of cancelations due to COVID-19, I noticed something called “The Flamingo Ball” - upon reading about it I discovered that the museum had an award called the Henry Flagler Award. I asked that the museum retire the Henry Flagler award, and all regalia attached to the White-supremacist who, as written in the Washington Post “built his tourist empire — and modern Florida — by exploiting two brutal labor systems that blanketed the South for 50 years after the Civil War: convict leasing and debt peonage”.
I proposed renaming it the Dana A. Dorsey award, after the son of formerly enslaved parents - a self-made millionaire and philanthropist, who arrived in Miami around the same time as Henry Flagler started the Miami segment of the railroad, and worked on the Flagler Railroad as a carpenter. Seeing the need for homes for Black railroad workers, Dorsey purchased a parcel of land in Overtown and developed rental properties to accommodate them. He also owned, and subsequently sold what has now evolved into the wealthiest, exclusive enclave in South Florida - Fisher Island. The first Black-owned hotel and the Negro Savings Bank were also owned by Dorsey. He created a legacy from nothing, and outshines all that Henry Flagler, who was born into wealth, has done. Dana A. Dorsey became a member of the Baha’i faith, a pacifist religion, during the last 20+ years of his life.
RESPONSE: “The staff and our Board Chair agree that we need to address Henry Flagler’s past in our museum, and it is our strong recommendation that we immediately retire the award. I will seek to implement the retirement through appropriate internal procedures.”
ACTION: The museum never acknowledged Dana A. Dorsey as an option for renaming the award. Their resident historian, Dr Paul George made a media appearance where he defended the protection of statues of Christopher Columbus, Ponce de Leon, British slave-traders and the confederate generals. He did so with such nonchalance, which is one symptom of White Supremacy. To quote him: "I think it's important that we don't totally destroy a statue because I think it's really a learning thing. We bring a lot of youngsters to the museum every year with our education department and I just think it's a good teaching experience. You can talk about the life of that person looking at both the good and the bad part. And I still think we're kind of like in the early stages of what to do with these things. I was kind of pushed when I saw the statue of that slave trader in England that was thrown into the sea. I would have rather have had it preserved somewhere with the proper description of his life and what he represented, much of which would have been negative."
Then on July 1st, Dr George appeared again in a July 9th interview in Miami Today newspaper, where he spoke directly about Henry Flagler: “Flagler was a great promoter and just a great businessperson. He became one of the co-founders of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller. He understood the potential of the area. He built a grand hotel, which opened in 1897, the Royal Palm Hotel. He developed a lot of the land with housing that Julia Tuttle was giving him. He would develop a harbor for Miami.
He supported a lot of tourist activities that went on here, really hung our shingle on tourism in those early years and eventually on real estate, too”
Though this is his opinion, it is rooted in racism and positioning oppressive individuals as good with a few minor bad character traits. Dr. George’s commentary is akin to Donald Trump’s response to the racists in Charlottesville and his unforgettable statement that there are good and bad people on both sides, in the face of upholding systemic racism.
MY CONCLUSION: The museum will remove Henry Flagler’s name from the award, but they are still very much invested in telling a one-sided story of Flagler, that upholds White-supremacy and erases his role in convict-leasing and debt peonage in Florida to build his empire.
REQUEST 2: I asked that the eighteen-member Board of Trustees be balanced with more than just one token Black man. That it be representative of the communities with which they engage.
RESPONSE: “We agree that the board should be more balanced. This is an area that we, including trustees, recognized needed work last year. We have taken actions and met with several Black community stakeholders. We are also working on mechanisms to make board participation accessible.
Last year we added only two new board members, a Black candidate, and a female candidate. Our new Board Chair has started the conversation with our board regarding his intentions to implement new diversity guidelines and efforts.”
MY CONCLUSION: The previous year a Black candidate and a woman were added to the 18-member board, and there was a conversation with the board about implementing new diversity guidelines, but no solid commitment to add a percentage of Black board members.
REQUEST 3: I asked that their hiring practices change to include Black candidates for leadership and staff positions: there is one Black woman in management, and 3 Black staff members - mainly in docent and community outreach roles. I noted that in South Florida White-Latinx is still White optics and benefitting from whiteness. If every department head was truly committed to “doing better” as they offered, then they must hold themselves accountable for the racial makeup of their work environment - from the top down. I recommended that they source and recruit from the 4 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Florida, and from the local Black communities.
RESPONSE: “We agree that we do need to continue to increase Black representation on our staff. While we have a diverse staff that includes Black, Asian, and Latinx people, with diverse lived experiences, we have a ways to go in increasing Black representation. Working with our local Black communities has been one mechanism to recruit and we will continue to push other avenues, such as advertising positions in AAAM.
Two of our last four full-time hires are Black, Anita Francois, our Assistant Curator, and Tanya Desdunes, our Membership Manager. Our Black educators lead programs, inform content, and work with the public in multiple capacities. We work with local community groups, clubs, colleges, FAMU, etc. to recruit and we have intentionally hired Black educators to our staff.”
MY CONCLUSION: They understood the need to increase staff representation, but the token positions they’ve filled for assistant-curator and membership manager (sales), and the 3 Black educators they have intentionally hired for docent and community outreach is sufficient for now.
REQUEST 4: I asked to move the show to a community space that is free to the public, where the majority audience is Black and POC, such as the ARC in Opa-locka, and to travel it through the state in other community-based spaces, while History Miami retained its title as producer and sponsor - to make it fully community-centered, courtesy of the museum.
RESPONSE: They believed it to be more significant to open Embracing the Lens and feature the stories it tells at the museum, and have a version of the exhibition at other venues. They prefered to explore the possibility of free days for the Black community to remove the cost barrier. However, they needed to explore potential funding for this as they stated, they were going through a major financial crisis.
ACTION: Declined request
MY CONCLUSION: HistoryMiami Museum passed on a great opportunity to be a true community partner within the Black community by insisting on keeping the exhibition in the museum and insisting the Black community come to them to see the exhibition on their terms and for free on select days that were convenient to the museum. Once again, they showed that their interest in community outreach goes as far as walking tours, and asking for the donation of family archives and collections from the Black community.
REQUEST 5: Revise all current social media posts to credit me as the creator of the image in the post - include my handle @johannerahaman in the comments and tags, as requested in the past, and that all future posts and email marketing must be approved by me before going live.
RESPONSE: The marketing director acknowledged that when I first brought to their attention that they failed to appropriately credit me in their social media posts, their social media manager began tagging me, and would continue to tag me in each photo from the exhibition.
MY CONCLUSION: The practice of the social media manager, and the marketing department seems to be one of disregard for the image creators, that they deem an “oversight”. Many photos on their social media page are not credited to the photographers. None of my images are credited with my name as the image maker. Copyright and intellectual property are unimportant to the marketing department.
REQUEST 6: I asked to revisit our honorariums, considering the amount of time and energy that went into creating this show - the number of hours that I, the photographer invested in the physical act of sitting to source, edit, organize images for the show, and audio for the installation has surpassed the equivalent of 1 month of sitting consistently - from 7 pm every evening till midnight, up at 4 am until I had to prepare for work, and from 4 am to 10 pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Taking days off from my job and using up vacation days. Dr Hayes and I both did ourselves a disservice by accepting pennies to the dollar to prepare for the show.
RESPONSE: “The institution has limited financial resources, even in the best of times. We would review their budget to determine if we can increase the amount, but in the past few months this task has been complicated by the pandemic’s impact on our finances.”
ACTION: None, however in an interview in the Miami Today newspaper a week later, resident historian, Dr Paul George, when asked how the museum is funded, replied, “A good bit comes from the county and from membership fees. We’ve been really successful in securing a lot of grants, both statewide and to a smaller degree countywide and even federal.”
MY CONCLUSION: While the images of Embracing the Lens: the BlackFlorida project were valuable to the museum, the photographer and guest-curator were not. All the physical and emotional labor that was expended was not respected or valued.
Since I started creating this important body of work in 2014, the BlackFlorida project has grown exponentially, and tells a fuller story of us Black Floridians. This project has no other parallel in its scope and intention - all this was made possible by you, the Black communities of Florida: from Key West to Jacksonville. In my eagerness to do the show at HistoryMiami Museum, I failed to do my due diligence, or I would have learned things about HistoryMiami that would have deterred me from accepting the invitation from them to exhibit the project there. I regret this.
HistoryMiami has overlapping systems of structural racial bias that support systemic inequity within their organization. I tried to work with them to create concrete changes to remedy these biases. While the museum’s leadership team spoke enthusiastically about doing better and making changes within their ranks, when it came down to working together to help them get on the right side of history, they defended all the systems they claimed to want to change. I believed all their personal statements and gave them the benefit of the doubt – I thought that their intentions matched ours, however they were not ready to move forward with the messy business of change. Perhaps they may use my suggestions in the future and truly make HistoryMiami - South Florida’s only history museum - inclusive of more than just our stories in their archives. Perhaps they will eventually make room for Black voices at the table, because a table that lacks our presence does not tell a truthful story.
I withdrew the exhibition from HistoryMiami Museum on July 16th, 2020 and all 173 pieces of artwork are now in my possession. I know in my heart and soul that this decision is the right one. I know that your stories, our stories deserve to be told, heard and seen in public spaces. I know that you deserve to be respected, loved and cared for, and this is the foundation for the BlackFlorida project. My plan is to travel the exhibition within the Black communities of Florida post-COVID, through spaces that are community-centered and free to the public, where the love and care will be felt throughout the entire process, from beginning to end.