Remembered witnesses of our existence…

(Unedited) Saturday was the last full day of the 47th Annual American Art Therapy Association Conference. For me, the day was about healing and intersectionality.

The morning began with me choosing to rock Beyonce’s, Formation Tour tshirt that I affectionately bought from the “informal economist” the night of the Chicago-leg of the tour aka, the tee I bought from the brotha on tha corna selling memorabilia.

When I arrived at Grand Salon VI, where one of the blackity-black, Blackest things of the entire conference was going to go down, I made sure to sit up close, real close, in the center—not at my usual aisle seat, in the cut.

Saturday morning’s plenary, “Passing the Torch: Alternative Approaches in Art Therapy Professional Practice.”

Four, Black womyn, who were pioneers, in art therapy were honored; and, one Puerto Rican brotha, who is still with us and at the conference, was honored. Not only honored, but the white washing of art therapy is NO MORE. For this to be done at a national conference and to be documented, is huge for the discipline and profession. This ties into the efforts of Black Lives Matter and say her name, not because these individuals were killed by state sanctioned violence, but aligned with these efforts in terms of our “mattering”!!!! We must be remembered and there must be remembered witnesses of our existence supports our mattering. We’ve been in this healing profession from the beginning, and culturally, we’ve always been healers. We’ve always used the arts to heal, it has always been therapeutic, and it has always been therapy. Therapy in the literal essence of the word, “attend, do service, take care of.” Art therapy is indigenous to the African Diaspora.

The presenters embodied each honoree by sharing their best practices of working with people who looked like them, Black/Brown communities. Additionally, the presenters gave their personal accounts of how these individuals helped frame the work they do and inspired them.

Grace Lucille Durham Venture, got her due (her practice as an art therapist was from a “prevention” lens.) She was the first person to receive a Ph.D. degree in Art Therapy.  Her thesis was entitled:  ”The Black Beat in Art Therapy Experiences.” And they used the beat of the drum as the through-line of the presentation.

Also honored were:

  • Sarah McGee (her practice as an art therapist was from a cultural anthropologist lens)
  • Georgette Seabrook Powell (her practice as an art therapist was from a “community-based arts” lens)
  • Cliff Joseph (his practice as an art therapist is from a “social justice” lens)
  • Wayne Ramirez (his practice as an art therapist was from a “special education” lens)

This presentation was palatable for the audience. As therapist we have a thing about “meeting people where they are.” For a profession that is predominately white and female, and from the opening plenary on Thursday where the white female panelists were overwhelmingly at a lost when asked about their white female privilege…and from the “color blind” discussion at the Freddie Gray…and the using of Ferguson to center whiteness and ignore the very essence of what happened in Ferguson being about systemic oppression and “othering”…and many many other sessions at the conference, we see how the field is not only white washed, but there has not been a truly self-reflexive or self-reflective dealing of white privilege, white matriarchy (or patriarchy), systemic oppression etc by the predominately white membership.

Therefore, the way in which this “Passing the Torch,” session was presented was palatable. And now, with this plenary, the previously published study guide Wheels of Diversity Course Material and the mention of these pioneers in other art therapy books, no one can say they didn’t know. At this juncture, you didn’t want to know. Now, the next push is to require that, at bare minimum, each program include ALL pioneers in their intro to art therapy, history of art therapy and cultural dimensions courses. As a profession, this having remembered witnesses of the pioneers starts in the classroom. And for students of color, these pioneers serve as ancestral guiding lights at both ends of the tunnel. I will be sending an email to the professors at my alum, to remind them to include these individuals in their courses. Next thing, we gotta get the Asian history on the books.

Oh, and I got a shout-out in the plenary as I was acknowledged for working in the spirit of Cliff Joseph, a social justice approach to art therapy, with the work I do with my gyrls. It was affirming to hear my name, though I had forgotten that I would be included in the presentation—the sista who presented his narrative told me days prior.

After this session, I felt good. I just started taking usies, with everyone. Lol lol. On this wave of “feel good,” I went to the session on “Conversations on Faith.” The presenter was bouncey, I love to see folk who are excited about their work, and their practice. She started it off strong and with something I say all the time about working in any helping profession, you can’t bypass doing the self-work to do this work for/with others. She reminded us if you’re going to do interfaith work, you gotta know your own foundation, cos if you don’t, you’re doing a dis-service to others and yourself. She presented on an interfaith project she did on reimagining the legacies of Abraham through the faith traditions that come from him: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Very dope project and her presentation resonated.

Then I went to a focus group, “The Sting of Stigma.” I went to this session for my presence to be a support to others, as I do not have a mental health diagnosis. It became apparent though, that I was also there for a more unintentional, greater reason: I ended up addressing how for Black therapists (as students and professional), or any other group who has been oppressed, sharing one’s mental health status can be tricky due to a history of our competence being challenged, and how we have been treated by systems (including medical and mental health systems); so disclosure, means an intersectional whammy where multiple aspects of our identity causes one to falsely challenge our competence. Moreover, I addressed historical trauma of being Black in these americas, so though I do not have a mental health diagnosis, I experience cultural trauma in the context of my collective identity.

Following this session was the awards luncheon. I was pleasantly surprised at the food. It was a salad and you choose your proteins. Simple, right? But it was such a great idea and it was good. That black bean patty was the BEST I’ve ever had. I didn’t realize there were so many awards/recognition offered by AATA. One of my new goals is to a. publish an article in the journal (that goal isn’t new, but what is…) b. win the best paper of the year award. #Goals

After lunch, I tried to go to a session that talked about work with law enforcement professionals….look, I tried! But, it was triggering to hear the presenter defend cops actions by using the argument of cortisone levels being high and hypervigilance. Why is it justified for law enforcement to harm/kill people cause they are stressed, but it’s not justified, nor is there empathy or compassion for Black/Brown/Indigenous people who also have high cortisone levels, hypervigilante etc to respond to being tracked, surveillanced, oppressed, killed…etc.? Tha fugg!

To this end, another sista and I said it was time to bounce. We went to the Reginald E. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which was down the street from the conference hotel. We had 2.5 hours to get back before the annual meeting of the membership. GREAT DECISION. I’m a museum junkie. Like, for real, for real. Lol lol lol. And the first thing I saw when we entered was the paper machine for the AFRO newspaper. Yaaaaasss, the paper is still in circulation. We started on the 3rd floor and worked our way to the 1st floor. If you are in BMore make sure to go get you some her/history.

The current special exhibit: Question Bridge: Black Males is open until September 30, 2016. “This innovative video installation probes black men as they ask and answer provocative questions to each other such as, “Why am I a traitor for dating outside of my race?” “What’s your greatest fear?” The videos were collected from 150 men from across the U.S., then woven together to simulate a real-time conversation covering themes of family, love, education, violence, and more…”

The other special exhibit: BMORE Than The Story is open until September 4, 2016. “The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police became a tipping point for a community plagued by poverty, low academic achievement and limited economic opportunities. The overriding narrative of the media coverage was pejorative and full of scorn.” This project seeks to offer a counternarrative through a series of visual and performing art works.

We made it back to the hotel for the annual meeting, but I had to leave early to go to dinner with my BMore/DC sistas. Lebenese Taverna’s food was tastey. The watermelon with olive oil and pistachios, was to die for and the grape leaves were very tastey, but the main course was sista-gyrl time. We had our own Question Bridge, but the Black womyn installment, minus us videotaping ourselves. Lol lol lol.

After dinner my night ended with the “closing reception” of the conference. It’s the annual par-tay. We in BMore, right? So, I thought the party would be soulful. At least the dj, right? Wrong answer! But it was still fun dancing and communing. The funniest thing was the wobble. The white art therapists, especially the younger ones have been studying youtube videos…lol lol. They were ready to wobble. I was so tickled by their commitment to the steps and as I told a couple of them, “be smoooooth with it. Smooth out your movements.” One told me she couldn’t because she was busy concentrating and she didn’t want to miss a beat, I almost passed out laughing. It made for good fun though.

Before I left for the night, the elder-most sista art therapists told me they “needed to talk to me.” Lordt, they had their mama voices on. One told me earlier that I often come off as rough and hard, I cracked up laughing because my passion, love and straightforwardness is misconstrued and misread as rough and hard. Her point was that she saw a “softer side” when I talked about the work I do with my students, my gyrls. Anyhoo, they shared what they wanted to talk to me about and it was cool.

Back in my room, I packed. I slept for a few hours and then headed to the airport early Sunday morning for a 7:30am flight. Experiencing BMore in the early morning included seeing those who were without homes and seeing womyn surviving by being in the sex trade. There is a grittiness (not grimey, but grit…something to sink your teeth into) about BMore, that’s very different from D.C., actually it reminds me of Newark’s grit. Surviving. Resilient. Hope…at promise.

Seeing ya next year AATA.

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