I grew up a church boy, so one of the preeminent symbols of my sacred childhood was the hand-held church fan. As president of the youth usher board, I dutifully administered these fans on countless hot Sundays for countless overheated congregants inside of that Baptist sanctuary in Maywood.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s face is on the front of many of those fans, which often include information about the sponsor organization or business that paid to have them produced, typically an area funeral home or the church itself.
I don’t know how those fans became so ubiquitous in the Black church, but they were and still are — and in seemingly infinite variation.
There are fans with the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Fans showing King sitting in front of a painting of his mother, Alberta. Fans of John F. Kennedy. Fans of King flanked by Robert Kennedy and JFK. Now the Obamas, Barack and Michelle, have replaced King as objects of ubiquity.
But there’s something about that old monochrome church fan of King sitting seriously, poised, his eyes looking beyond the looker, as if he sees what we do not, that registers an emotion I’d imagine is similar to the feeling an architecture buff gets when walking through a Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Only I never knew this feeling existed in me until last week, when I visited the Brian and ShaRhonda Dawson Collection inside of the Idea Box at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St.
There, encased in a glass display box — and surrounded by other relics of Black life, such as a heavy Bible showing, on its back pages, the names of a Black family scrawled in ink (another relic from my childhood) — lay the old monochrome church fan bearing King’s sacred, solemn face.
The fan has a mysterious, shamanic aura, is both strange and familiar. It is beautiful and banal. It is tragic — a source of pride and a source of shame. I realize in the moment that despite having handled dozens, if not hundreds, of these fans in my youth, today I don’t possess a single one. The fan is a Black cultural objet d’art, with a provenance that is, by most Black people, unknown. That saddens me.
“We don’t think of our culture as being our culture,” said Juanta Griffin, the library’s new multicultural learning coordinator, who organized the Dawsons’ collection into the powerful exhibition that’s on display until early March.
“For instance, we don’t think about [the clothesline] as being a cultural element,” she said. “White folks see that as something to hang clothes on, but we know that’s a [double dutch rope]. That’s something cultural, but we don’t think like that. That is ours.”
As we were waiting for Brian to arrive, ShaRhonda gave me a quick tour of the space. The air is pungent with Griffin’s deliberate curation. The room, scented, reminds me of any one of my aunties’ apartments. Typically, Griffin said, visitors are greeted with music, the kind that might have met your ears while cleaning on Saturdays or getting ready for church on Sundays (if you know, you know).
ShaRhonda shows me her first edition copy of Gwendolyn Brooks’ classic picture book, Bronzeville: Boys and Girls, which is illustrated by the legendary Faith Ringgold. I’m saddened at the very real possibility that there are children, Black children, who have gone through Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School having never read her poetry.
“This all started with Gwendolyn Brooks because I realized that, in Chicago, I couldn’t find an authentic Gwendolyn Brooks at a bookstore,” she said. “They were all compilations and reviews. I wanted to find the actual stuff she did herself and so that put me on this journey of finding out exactly what our ancestors said.
“So Marcus Garvey I knew, but I didn’t realize his wife Amy had a PhD. She was the person who wrote his paper for 10 years. She edited the paper and she wrote most of his speeches,” ShaRhonda said. “And she wouldn’t sell his actual copyright because she didn’t want it to get distorted by other people. I’ve just been searching and searching. I wanted to see what they had to say about their lives.”
In the room, the immediacy of the Black present is intimately entwined with the not-so-distant past. Knotted and woven with ancient history, which by the way reaches back beyond our enslavement.
Griffin said she blended the Dawsons’ personal collection with artifacts from the Oak Park Public Library’s Multicultural Collection. For instance, a basket the Dawsons acquired from the Gullah, the rich Black culture based in the Lowcountry areas of South Carolina and Georgia, is displayed with African baskets Griffin got from the library’s collection.
“These are baskets from Botswana, Nigeria and Tanzania,” Griffin said. “They show the progression of the weaving and how they brought these skills from Africa into North America. So you can see how we were skilled when we came here.”
The African masks hanging on the walls have a powerful immediacy that I didn’t experience when I encountered similar masks displayed inside of the Art Institute of Chicago, which I visited a few years back.
“A lot of European people, when they see horns in a mask, think of the devil,” Griffin said. “No, when you see horns in a mask, usually that’s an agricultural mask and the horns are used to represent growth, the growth of a crop.”
It’s one experience to see these African masks silo-ed in the “Africa” section of a museum. It’s another experience to see them situated a few feet away from the Martin Luther King church fan of your youth and to listen to your docent tell you that King’s DNA traces to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. I looked again at King’s portrait on the fan before returning to the arrangement of masks. I will never look at that fan or those masks the same way again.
ShaRhonda and Brian, who live in Broadview, have dubbed their project Brondihouse, an endearing portmanteau of their first names (they were dating back when that was still a thing, which may be happening again, because I Googled “Bennifer” for research purposes and it’s currently trending).
Unlike Bennifer, though, Brondihouse is a serious and mature cultural undertaking. The married couple have two young Black daughters who are in school in the United States of America, which means that their minds are everyday under siege by the Myth of Whiteness and the myriad things that white people do to disabuse themselves of being responsible for its awfulness.
The irony, ShaRhonda told me, is that she’s been able to acquire much of her collection of first edition books by Black authors because they’ve been so devalued. She often buys them on eBay for bargain prices.
“Unfortunately, well fortunately for me, most white people don’t value Black books as much,” she said, laughing. “Black first editions are a lot cheaper than white first editions.”
Why, then, I asked myself, don’t Black people do more of this? Why don’t I do what the Dawsons are doing? Why, as Griffin pointed out, do so many Black folk accept the constant devaluation of our culture? It’s one thing for white folk to devalue our heritage, but it’s another thing for us to debase ourselves.
You can find part of the answer within the Dawsons’ collection, which is rich with the tension between heritage and progress.
Barack Obama’s glossy, posterized gaze hovers over an old “Vote Jesse Jackson President 1984” campaign flyer, hovers over Dempsey Travis’ An Autobiography of Black Politics, hovers over an original button from Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign and a poster of Shirley Chisholm.
Black people are the world’s pre-eminent survivalists; so much so that an element of futurism is fundamental to our very existence. We are always finding ways out of no way, always seeking spaces of escape, of “making it out.”
But when we do “make it,” we often jettison those aspects of ourselves that, collectively, comprise our cultural lineage, our heritage. Hell, Obama wouldn’t be president if he didn’t publicly disavow and dismiss perhaps the Blackest things about his own personal history — the Black church and Black politics, respectively. Black people have also been conditioned to think that white culture is better than our own.
“Sometimes, in our communities we don’t value ourselves,” Brian said. “We don’t give ourselves a certain importance that we give to other communities. We give that power away, because we assign value to something that someone else says is important.
“You can drive right by Percy Julian’s house and not notice it. Why is that? Because we don’t value it,” he said. “We have all of these things in our individual homes and the thought is that, maybe we should find a place for them. We can cobble together our own little place of value.”
Black history is Brondihouse, the Dawsons said. It’s not just a one-dimensional retelling of Dr. King or a haphazard recollection of slavery. Brondihouse, they added, is communal memory-building, a public act that is not meant to be housed inside of a single family home. Black legacy and culture shuns privatization and selfishness.
While explaining the exhibit, Griffin urged me to mention Lynn Allen, who administered what is now the Multicultural Collection back when it was called the District 97 Multicultural Center and housed at Percy Julian Middle School.
“She made it possible for me,” Griffin said. “She was my bridge-builder and I want to make sure that she’s noted in everything because if it was not for her, this would not be.”
This is Black history.