Last evening, I witnessed a life-changing conversation.
I had the opportunity to attend an incredible conversation between two remarkable individuals, Lonnie Holley and Josie Duffey Rice, at the United Talent Agency‘s new artist space in the heart of Midtown Atlanta, right across from the High Museum of Art.
Lonnie Holley’s art exhibit, “Their Eyes Were Always On Us,” is currently displayed in the UTA art gallery for viewing from now until April 29th. The ambiance of the space was perfect, with an open feel that allowed for creativity to flow and for attendees to feel comfortable enough to engage in conversation and introspection.
The conversation itself was… there is no one word to describe the conversation.
Lonnie shared his stories and experiences of being a young black boy growing up in Jim Crow Alabama in the early 1960s. He spoke of the horrors of living under Bull Connor‘s tyrannical rulership and the trauma that he and so many others had to endure just to exist.
Lonnie also reminded us that, while there have been major legislative victories in the civil rights movement, the fight for racial equality and social justice is ongoing and that we must never stop pushing for progress.
As an artist myself, I related so much to Lonnie’s stories and experiences. As a young gifted black girl from Alabama, who also attended a newly integrated institution, the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, I felt Lonnie’s pain. I could feel his confusion and deep remorse for the things he had to endure, just to exist.
What Did You Write Down?
Lonnie asked Josie during the conversation, what did you write down?
Here are my raw notes, no edits— from Lonnie that really resonated with me:
- Spirit had me.
- You came from a good home but you didn’t want to stay in.
- My art is my recuperator, it keeps me balanced.
- I had to pick 100 pounds of cotton and got my ass beat if I didn’t.
- He called it the dick in the hole, put us in a whole and said beat him.
- Spirit sent an investigator. I was the investigator, I survived.
- What happened at Mount Meigs?
- Shared a story about the roots in a grave he was in, one day as he ran away from Mount Meigs. He said the roots gave him a hand! The roots will give you a hand, to pull you up out of the mess that you’re in.
- He said darling what you wanna runaway for? Black man took his fist and knocked him back out.
- A big ol cedar tree was there they tied my arm, tied my leg, body stretched…
- And asked him who did I want to whoop me? He ran away from Mr. Glover so he chose Mr Glover.
- He was shell shocked he would beat you to death.
- Mr. Holloway told him, “shoot him 150 licks!” His thighs were splitting open, took the stick and knocked him out. Over 70 hours he had been knocked out 3 times by grown ups. He was almost 12 years old at the time.
- What do you do? The woman that you (he) loved had died. He felt like he was a nobody.
- When he beat me, those 150 licks I had to be dragged out.
- It was a rough time.
- He saw every crack and cranny of the stones.
- The story had to be told, because so many didn’t make it. I was fortunate enough to make it. I will be a spokesperson for those who didn’t make it.
- I am interested in so much. I remember the trees, the rocks, red ribbons, blue ribbons, white ribbons.
- Lonnie did a piece called I never had a trophy.
- Our struggle is a togetherness, no matter who we were we are in that struggle together.
- A Tuskegee Airman, Walter, noticed my art. He lived down the street from my Grandma’s house.
- It’s okay to take a shot, it’s called a comforter.
- Started making baby tombstones. And there’s a piece that has the whole history of humankind.
- The artist should not change the title for no one else.
- Lonnie has a piece called Baby Being Born
- My granddaddy used to always send me National Geographic magazines.
- My (Giselle) grandmother dug the grave for 3/4 little girls that died in that church bombing.
- Bull Connor didn’t want nobody to tell nobody else.
- The buying of the ATL airport, it was all done and swept under the rug.
- How do you work through the pain? Being submissive. Means that you submit to the art and to the works that you are creating.
- You can only change your life when the old life is “taken away.”
- What makes you follow up with that promise? When you (Giselle) see Grandma get up and start walking because she knows you’re in the room.
- I told a little boy put it down. But when you pick it up? Make sure it’s the truth. The truth we have to put down is words.
- Drop it in your digital journal.
- Serve the ancestors.
- A broken piece of Cadillac glass they busted the windows bc he was driving a Cadillac. Lonnie made an art piece out of it. Lonnie wrapped it in a garment and put it on a stone and the glass splatted all over his lap.
- Serve the spirit, Serve the ancestors.
- Many of one, flowers bloom even without seeds. We are seeds.
- “You are somebody’s seed.”
- Earth Flowers, art piece in downtown Atlanta.
I recently stumbled across a film titled, “Six Degrees of Separation” is a 1993 American comedy-drama film directed by Fred Schepisi, based on the play of the same name by John Guare.
The film stars Will Smith, Stockard Channing, and Donald Sutherland. The film explores themes of social class, identity, and human connection, and is notable for its exploration of the idea of “six degrees of separation”. The title refers to the theory that any two people on Earth are connected by no more than six social connections. The film suggests that our relationships with others are often more complex than we realize, and that we are all linked in some way, even if we don’t realize it.
This film was moving, and reminded me of my personal relationship with Lonnie. We are both from Alabama, and we both used our art as a way to heal ourselves from the painful experiences we endured as black folks living in Alabama.
However, Our Trauma Is Not Your Entertainment
I must admit that I was uneasy and uncomfortable sitting in a room full of white artist enthusiasts, watching them consume traumatic experiences from this elder black man. I was uncomfortable with their laughter during certain parts of the conversation, even though Lonnie was merely expressing himself the best way he knew how. It was a stark reminder that, while we have made progress, there is still so much work to be done. It was a show to them, but a harsh reality to us.
Overall, the conversation between Lonnie and Josie was truly enlightening and powerful. It was a reminder that we must continue to push for progress and fight for the rights of all people, no matter their race, gender, or background. I am grateful for the opportunity to have attended this event and for the important conversations that it sparked.