Racist Halloween decor defiled an old Clinton Hill home. My family used to live there.
My grandfather moved to Brooklyn from the south, leaving a racial terror behind. This month, depictions of a lynching went up in his old window.
On Oct. 23, 2019, several news outlets highlighted the outrage of Clinton Hill residents after Dany Rose, co-founder of painting studio ArtShack, prominently displayed what she alleges were Halloween-inspired paper dolls outside her Waverly Avenue home.
It was to my surprise and horror that I immediately recognized my childhood home in the photo, which captured an art display depicting four brown child-like figures with nooses around their necks and ankles that hung in its front windows. Instantly, I experienced a range of emotions, including heartbreak, anger, frustration and disappointment.
The co-owner of ArtShack is part of the same couple that purchased the property from my grandfather’s estate when he passed in 2010. I am convinced my grandfather is rolling in his grave to know Rose and her husband used his former home to display racist art, resembling lynching, for children and families in the community to see.
I haven’t lived in Brooklyn in more than 20 years but will always remember my childhood home in Clinton Hill. I spent most of the 1980s in this beautiful community that was filled with colorful people, structures and histories. I remember my block, between Greene and Gates avenues, where children rode bicycles and played stickball under the watchful eye of neighbors.
The elders of the community were the ones rallying families to protect young people from being ravaged by the crack epidemic, which was steadily spreading across all of New York City’s boroughs. And judging by the tone of recent social media posts and protests that are urging for the boycotting of ArtShack, the Clinton Hill community continues to display the resilient spirit and love its residents have for one another.
I am writing to provide some additional context to explain why my family and I view Rose’s display as personally problematic. It is a perspective that pays homage to the socio-historical significance of the property, both in terms of its relevance in U.S. Civil War history and to my grandfather’s personal experiences as a black man from Columbia, South Carolina.
My grandfather purchased the Clinton Hill home with money from the GI Bill when he fought in France during WWII on behalf of the U.S. — a country he would return to after the war, only to see his fellow service men in uniform be lynched or beaten and chased from their Columbia communities. You see, black privilege did not afford many, including my grandfather, any passes to live freely and without persecution by others who saw his brown skin.
Leaving the racial terror of lynch mobs and white supremacists behind for a new life in the north, Clinton Hill also meant there was hope for himself and the next generation of his family to have peace — the same peace he helped fight for in WWII. He and another neighbor were one of the first Blacks to integrate this neighborhood. This is the home I grew up in.
This Clinton Hill home is the same house that was originally built in the late 1800s for a postmaster that served the Civil War’s Union Army for NY. While the home was later rebuilt in the 1930s, I remember learning this historical fact when I was in junior high school and sharing it with my grandfather and the elders on our section of the block.
My grandfather was proud because he saw how history had come full circle: two men (one white and one black) who served the U.S and fought for freedom and realized their “American Dream.”
When my grandfather passed at age 97, the realtor, my father and his sister shared this history with the new owners. We all knew the home was in dire need of extensive renovations and TLC but wanted to make sure Rose appreciated there was much history in the bones of the home worth preserving. At the time, Rose and her husband expressed their interest in creating art opportunities for all children and their families in the community. Apparent by their recent display, however, Rose’s initial appreciation for this historical narrative of the property was seemingly forgotten.
Art is subjective, however, all creatives understand interpretation and perception are at play when it comes to how their art’s message will be received by others. Creatives must adhere to this unspoken rule or should not display their work for public consumption. Otherwise, displaying such art is about ego and the need for attention and not about the art itself. Was Rose’s intention to be inflammatory and divisive?
In this instance, Rose should have taken into account not only the historical, cultural, social and political significance of nooses and brown figures (whether intended to represent people of color or that brown paper bags were used as a material) but also its representation of lynching while being across the street from a predominantly black- and brown-populated elementary school.
Their display is just another example of how racial ignorance and insensitivity perpetuates racial trauma and the reification of anti-black racism under the guise of white privilege and whiteness is highly problematic.
Dany Rose also must be held personally accountable, regardless of the letter of resignation she submitted to the board of ArtShack on Oct. 25. Rose’s letter of resignation is a symbolic gesture that does not erase her initial intention and final decision to hang the artwork in the windows of her private residence, nor does it lead the public to assume she will not be involved, in any capacity, in a nonprofit she co-founded.
The vestiges of racial discrimination and racial terror are ones we all will continue to contend with unless we can have an honest conversation about today’s race relations and actually make the effort for real change. Public apologies become lip service, if the behavior is not actually changed – even if the displays are taken down. No child in Brooklyn — of any color — should see an image of a child in a noose.
Real, transparent community engagement and outreach should be the singular goal of ArtShack Brooklyn in order to make amends for this horrific example of “Halloween fun.”
Yndia S. Lorick-Wilmot (@profyndia) is a sociologist and the author of Stories of Identity Among Black Middle Class Second Generation Caribbeans: We, Too, Sing America and the digital media project entitled “Journeys of Belonging to Blackness.”
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