The A Sense of Place project uses the power of African-American and African diaspora art and culture to help build a more loving and supportive multicultural community in Vermont. A beautiful, rare African-American owned farm serves as our platform to push for racial equity and empower a growing network of Vermont artists of African descent. We are a team of artists, culture bearers, and public health change agents.
Like everyone, we were caught midstride by COVID-19’s upheaval of our work and lives. We are now holding weekly Zoom meetings with our collaborating artists to support each other and to create art. We are mobilizing relief funds and identifying opportunities for our artists to earn income while staying at home. While many arts and culture nonprofits are doing similar things, there are extra layers of effort, fatigue, and frustration that we must fight through because we are Black and working in the margins. In a population that is 95% White, many Black people in Vermont, including our artists, are often socially excluded. The Clemmons Family Farm, one of the handful of Black-led arts and culture nonprofit organizations in the state, struggles against social exclusion, too, as our leadership role is often either discounted or totally ignored. The pandemic has amplified the inequities that African-Americans live, struggle and die with every day.
Our resilience, and the endless bounty of our art and our culture, are what save us.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties,…
Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of my mom’s favorite poets. She liked to read his poetry to us when we were kids, including We Wear the Mask. It took a long time for my 8-year-old self to decipher its meaning. I still remember the feeling of shocked self-awareness when I finally figured it out. Inspired by Dunbar’s poem, Maya Angelou wrote her own poem, The Mask that really hits home.
The mask that Dunbar and Angelou wrote about is part of the armor of resilience that African-Americans learn to wear every day. It is our “survival apparatus” that helps hide our intergenerational pain, sadness, anger, frustration. If revealed, these emotions could cost us our lives or our jobs or our security... except, perhaps, when we reveal them through our art. Through our poems, paintings, songs, and music, we help others begin to understand what it feels like to watch our people being decimated during this pandemic. Although African-Americans are 13% of the US population, in some areas we make up more than 50% of all Covid-19 cases and 60% of the related deaths. Black artists, families and communities in Vermont are vulnerable to the same racial inequities that have enabled COVID-19 to kill so many of our people across the country. A Sense of Place is mobilizing the collective creative brilliance of Vermont’s artists of African descent to help our people and the wider community come together to fight the systemic racism that is feeding this pandemic.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
When I put a mask on for the first time to go into a store, I felt my stomach drop, I felt dizzy, my heart felt heavy. It brought me back to when I first moved to Vermont. My first experience at the coop was buying something and then walking out the door only to be harassed by one of the employees who thought I was stealing, and then checked my receipt and apologized. I quickly realized that being Black in Vermont meant I need to turn up my Whiteness, I need to make sure that I smile as much as I can so that the White people see me as a good person and will like me, I need to smile, laugh and seem like I’m not a threat. I need to dress differently, I need to prove my goodness constantly.
When I put on my COVID mask and it covered my smile I felt unsafe, I felt threatened, I felt the same fear I felt when I first moved here, the fear of not being able to prove to White people that I'm a “good” Black person, that I'm a “nice” Black person, a harmless Black person, that my proximity to Whiteness is close enough that they shouldn't hurt me. When I put the COVID mask on, I remembered how much my experience has been wrapped in people-pleasing for fear of being...Black in the presence of Whiteness. It covered my smile, my last semblance of feeling a crumb of safety in Vermont. (FaceBook post, April 24, 2020)
I love using the word resilience to speak about life in this time of COVID-19. As an African-American artist, to me the word resilience speaks to the beauty, pain, and creativity our ancestors carried with them and the legacy of resilience passed down to help us to navigate these exact moments. Resiliency is something that Black artists carry and for many of us, it feeds us and our ability to bring together community, create change, shift culture, and build resilience for the next generations.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
-Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1896
It’s the weekend. I put on my face mask and walk into the neighborhoods of Winooski to check on the families I work with. I want to find out what’s really happening, how things are going for them. I serve resettled refugees from East and Central Africa. I say hello, standing outside of their house and looking through the doorway. I am keeping six feet between me and them.
I pull out my cell phone and play my new song for the families I am visiting: Hakuna Lolote, which is Swahili for there is nothing… there is nothing that we cannot overcome. The Clemmons Family Farm and Artplace America commissioned the song and I wrote it for my community. It reminds us that we have overcome many terrible things in the past- so many terrible, terrible things-- and that we can do it again.
“Let’s dance!”, they say. And suddenly we are making a music video on the spot, as we laugh, dance, talk, and film ourselves. Watch our video here!
Many of these families have survived war and continue to suffer from its effects. Stay-at-home orders and being warned to protect oneself from coronavirus—another murdering invader-- brings memories of trauma and new anxiety for refugees. Their income and language barriers in Vermont add to their vulnerability.
Still, we have our music to inspire us and to remind us that solidarity and holding onto our belief in humanity will help us overcome anything. Hakuna Lolote. There is nothing, nothing we cannot overcome. Together, we have the resilience we need.
Amber Arnold is the Clemmons Family Farm’s media, communications and outreach adviser. She is also co-steward of the Susu Collective and founder of Sacred Vibrations, a daughter, wife, and mother of three.
KeruBo Webster is a singer-songwriter and collaborating artist of the Clemmons Family Farm. She is also co-founder of KeruBo Productions, LLC, a social worker, professional translator, daughter, wife, mother and grandmother.
Lydia Clemmons is the Clemmons Family Farm’s president and executive director of the A Sense of Place project funded by ArtPlace America. She is also a daughter, mother of a teenager, and the manager of her family’s historic 148-acre farm.