I know Carla because she’s my niece. She moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles to become an MFA student in Photography at UCLA and I teach at UCLA. I was very interested in her work because, not only is she very talented, but I also wanted to collaborate with her on a project that incorporated her vision with my expertise in African American women’s history. I proposed to her us collaborating on a five-part project that would highlight Black women’s history during distinct periods of time. We began with the “middle period” of African American women’s history, that is the Jim Crow era.
Could you please explain the concept behind the project?
We would depict African-American women’s history over five key historical periods. We decided Jim Crow as the first time period. We currently are completing the Middle Passage period, which is the one we are working on now. The other three time periods we will center on are: slave era, Civil War and reconstruction; the Civil Rights and Black Power movements; and contemporary society into the future.
What do you envision for the future of this project? Could you describe your aspiration for the final piece?
The project manifests in totality as a complete domestic and intimate family space — a house. We wanted it to feel like it was very personal, as if our own female ancestry was encapsulated in the project. We thought about family and we thought about home, so each period of time that we envision would have an iteration in a different room. The Jim Crow era is the living room; and the Middle Passage, is the dining room. The additional period installations will be bedrooms and a family room. We also will have a garden space, which both reflects back and forward.
We hope that the audience will be able to move from one time period in one room to the other, always remembering that these women, who are parts of families or parts of communities, are key, essential beings within their societies, their cultures, and their communities. Females really are at the heart of Black Life.
Of course with the Coronavirus problem, we are trying out to figure out how to proceed. We are ready to assemble Middle Passage, but we don't know how to show it because it is a room and is meant for people to walk through it and to experience it in that way. We are supposed to take part of it and show it in the Inclusive Museum Conference in Lisbon, Portugal in September, but we can’t do that now. It’s been frustrating.
Bitter Earth beautifully blends artistic expression with historical research. As a scholar and historian whose focus is at the intersection of gender, race, family and social conflict in America, you — together with Carla — are creating a piece that helps us further understand the complexities and depth of the Black female experience through participation in an installation work. How do you envision this project existing in relation to your academic work?
This project really goes hand in hand with my academic work because I focus on African American women, gender, race and conflict. I also study families and communities as a social historian. I have written books that expand the colonial era through contemporary society. As such, the historical context that I bring to our collaboration derives from the research that I conduct for my written work and my public and university lectures. It’s a wonderful vehicle with which to reach other audiences and to imagine and experiment with the best ways to do so through the structure and brilliance that Carla’s vision imposes.
Given the current work of the Black Lives Matter Movement, how do you see your work relating to what is going on today in America?
Because I focus a lot on racial conflict, it does indeed relate very closely and unfortunately to these kinds of issues that we see playing out in our society today. I had been studying the place and displacement of African descendant people in American society for a long time. My work always addresses that part of that displacement that is driven by racist ideologies and conflicts. I look at the abuses during the slave and Jim Crow eras that led up to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond to our present day. I wrote a book about the 1992 insurrection in Los Angeles driven by inequities and inadequacies of our criminal justice system. These problems are very much at the center of the social justice movement that is unfolding today.
In 2013, you published The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins, wherein you told the story of the murder of Latasha Harlins and the ensuing light sentence given to Soon Ja Du, and then explored how this case factored as a key moment leading to the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising. How have the events of 2020 paralleled the early 1990s and how do they differ?
We recognize some definite parallels. The outrage by large numbers of people within the African-American community, and allied communites as well, both nationally and globally, driven by the deadly harm done to a Black person without reason and without risk and consequences. There are not consequences because the criminal justice and legal systems uphold this inequality. They have done so across the generations.
Do you have any resources you would like to share with our audience that you think may help them understand today and process how to move forward?
I would hope that people would avail themselves of all the wonderful voices that can be heard online through the various news and media apps and platforms that are available to learn as much as they can about racial and other injustices in our society across time. Listen to these voices, not only from the African American community, but also from the Indigenous communities and from Latinx communities, from female communities, from the transgender communities and homeless communities, etc.. There are so many groups of peoples that have felt abused, that have felt displaced and who believe, with good reason, that the institutions within our society that should be protecting them are, instead, abusing them. This is why this movement that is occurring now has really just set the globe on fire. People from all aspects of life and places have stories about this kind of institutionalized and customary abuse in their own places of residence, and they are saying they refuse to be a part of it.
Brenda E. Stevenson is an internationally recognized scholar of race, slavery, gender, family and racial conflict. Her specific intellectual interests center on the comparative, historical experiences of women, family, and community across racial and ethnic lines. Race and gender—the ways in which these two variables interact, intersect, collide with, emphasize, run parallel to and sometimes isolate one another—are at the center of her work. Her book length publications include: The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke (Oxford 1988); Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (Oxford 1996); The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots (Oxford 2013); and, What is Slavery? (Polity 2015).
Professor Stevenson is the past Chair of the Departments of History and the Interdepartmental Program in African American Studies at UCLA. She is a Distinguished Lecturer for both the Organization of American Historians and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Her interviews and commentaries can often be heard on NPR affiliates and other media outlets.
Carla Jay Harris's mission is to document intellectual, emotional and psychological environments. Born in Indianapolis, IN, but raised traveling the globe as the child of a military officer, her social and artistic development was impacted tremendously by the geopolitical and natural environments she encountered. She trained as a photographer; however, in recent years, she has developed a multidisciplinary practice that includes photography, installation, collage, and drawing. This transformation was inspired by her desire to bring together her interests in image-making, space, and spectatorship. Her interest in installation is rooted in her desire to create space for cross-cultural dialogue - creating such spaces is an outlet for political and social activism.
Carla’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at the California African American Museum, CA; the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, CA; the Southern, Charleston, SC; Smack Mellon, Brooklyn, NY; and the Museum of Fine Arts Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. She recieved her MFA from UCLA in 2015 and she currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.
Interview by Zoe Lemelson.