From Kara Walker to Colin Kaepernick: Racial Justice through Media and Art, a Conversation features Soledad O'Brien, Joy Reid, and Kai Wright, with James E. Johnson moderating, and Tara L. Conley providing opening remarks.

For more visit: The School of Communication and Media Colloquium Series webpage (livestream there as well).

Transcript of Opening Remarks (by Tara L. Conley)

To cite this speech in APA: Conley, T. L. (2018, November 12). Opening Remark. Address presented at From Kara Walker to Colin Kaepernick: Racial Justice through Media and Art, a Conversation in Montclair State University, Montclair.

Good evening, everyone. I’m Tara Conley, Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Media here at Montclair State University. I’d like to welcome you all to tonight’s event.

Last Thursday I had a chance to see Kara Walker’s exhibit at the Montclair Museum of Art. This was the first time I’d seen this particular exhibit. I was meeting with James Johnson, our moderator, to go over some ideas for tonight’s event.

As I walked parallel to the curved wall along which the Virginia Lynch Mob marches, James says to me, ‘where are you?’ Now granted, he may have actually asked me ‘what do you think of the exhibit?’, but what I heard was ‘Tara, where are you?’

Though my body was present on the 2nd floor of the museum, my mind was elsewhere.  Looking at Walker’s Lynch Mob and listening to the sounds of her Karavan, transported me back to September 2005, two weeks after hurricane Katrina: Seeing news clips of Black American citizens waiting to be rescued from rooftops, walking across bridges with blistered feet, sprawled out along the periphery of American sports arenas.

Now, I know white survivors of hurricane Katrina suffered too. But indelible in my mind are the images of Katrina’s Black survivors.

Indelible in my mind is the hypervisibility of Black suffering set against the American imagination.

Back in the museum, along the wall of the Virginia Lynch Mob depicts what appears to be, at least phenotypically, a white child holding a toy gun. Next to him, is a black child holding a rifle in his mouth. A black blotch of paint appears to shoot from the back of black child’s head. It looks to be his brains.

I told James, “that’s Tamir Rice. Tamir couldn’t play with a toy gun. He couldn’t be an imperfect child. They shot him dead. Tamir, unlike the white child depicted in Walker’s Lynch Mob, never got a chance to play,” I said.

I’m transported to 2014, now in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. It was 2 years after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, 5 months after Eric Garner was killed by a police officer in Staten Island, 4 months after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, and 1 month after Tamir Rice was shot by a police officer in front of a gazebo.

I was downtown Cleveland, standing side-by-side with local protesters. They shouted, “fists up, don’t shoot! Fists up, don’t shoot!” I joined them, chanting out loud in the name of Tamir and others, “fists up, don’t shoot!”

Four months before in Ferguson, protesters put their hands up, but by time the movement reached Cleveland, we were putting our fists up.

If Black life in America were a painting, it would look like a series of bodies and gestures expressing pain and joy on a canvas of colonization, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and white supremacy.

So, of course then, it makes sense that in 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee in an American sports arena to protest racial injustices against Black Americans.

He, like many others who came before him, kneeled as a sign to signal us to stop: To slow America down.

Kaep compelled us to consider not just the expendability of Black life, but also, and most importantly, the humanity of Black life.

But how do we slow down, to allow ourselves time to process our history and connect it to the stories of our lives? How can we do this in today’s media and technological landscape?

What questions must we ask about representation and dissemination?

How do we get to the matter of Black life in ways that are not diminished on social media and waterdown by soundbites and talking points?

Perhaps we start by asking:

What does the matter of Black life sound like?

What does the matter of Black life feel like?

What does the matter of Black life look like in a world were all we want is joy?

When you arrive on the 2nd floor of the Montclair Museum of Art, you’re greeted by Kara Walker’s words printed on the wall. She makes it plain, [quote] “The work is difficult because the history is hard.” [end quote]

Tonight, it is my hope that you all leave heavy. But heavy in the sense that allows you to feel both the pain and joy of our history, and in the sense that you’re weighed down by questions. I look to our esteemed panel tonight to guide our thinking so that we can see what Kara Walker’s work inspires us to reckon with: that is, the humanity of Black life in America.

Thank you.