Saturday, April 7, 2018

There are Black People in the Future

For the past month The Last Billboard has been exhibiting Alisha Wormsley’s text “There are Black People in the Future.“ Alisha is a celebrated Pittsburgh-based artist and cultural producer (winner of the 2016 City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Award for...
"There are Black People in the Future" 2018 by Alisha Wormsley. image courtesy of The Last Billboard

For the past month The Last Billboard has been exhibiting Alisha Wormsley’s text “There are Black People in the Future.“ Alisha is a celebrated Pittsburgh-based artist and cultural producer (winner of the 2016 City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Award for Public Art) whose work explores collective memory and the synchronicity of time, specifically through the stories of women of color. Alisha’s text for the billboard comes from her ongoing art practice, particularly her interest in Afrofuturism.

Last week, The Last Billboard’s landlord, We Do Property, forced Alisha’s text to be taken down over objections to the content (through a never-before evoked clause in the lease that gives the landlord the right to approve text). 

I believe in the power, poetry, and relevance of Alisha’s text and see absolutely no reason it should have been taken down. I find it tragically ironic, given East Liberty’s history and recent gentrification, that a text by an African American artist affirming a place in the future for black people is seen as unacceptable in the present.

The artist will be part of a public panel discussion about the text and its removal hosted by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in the next few weeks. More information to come.

- Jon Rubin, Founder and Curator of The Last Billboard
(source:, April 3, 2018) 

The above statement was issued earlier this week in response to the removal of artist Alisha Wormsley's text in East Liberty. Its removal and the subsequent outcry from the community are yet another in a series of never ending heartbreaks in the story of East Liberty, the neighborhood that we love and yet breaks our heart on a nearly daily basis. You can read more details of it here in the Post-Gazette, or in the CityPaper, or here via WESA. Tony Norman wrote about it in his column in the Post-Gazette as well.

The landlord has since released a statement saying that, given the community support of the artwork, they are willing to have the artwork reinstalled. But frankly, the offer of reinstatement is completely beside the point.

The artwork's removal, the manner in which it was done, and the outcry are symptoms of the big, deep, and painful issues at play in the community and the inability of the powers that be to accept responsibility for and engage in the dialogue that challenges them and makes them uncomfortable.

East Liberty has undergone tremendous change in the past ten years. Even if one views some of these changes as positives, it cannot be denied that the speed and the scope of this transformation has shaken the community to its core. Displacement is happening on many levels - physical, cultural, and economic. And with this displacement comes the threat, both real and perceived, of erasure of members of our community most impacted by the development and displacement - people of color, seniors on fixed incomes, persons with disabilities, low-income working families, and all the ways these groups intersect.

When community members raise concerns about the role of institutionalized racism and white supremacy in the transformation of the community, they, we, are told "no, no, everyone is welcome in the new East Liberty..." What goes unsaid is the subtext of "...if you can afford it and if you are willing to behave as expected..."

Up until now, no one has been leading the way in facilitating the difficult and challenging conversations that need to happen for this neighborhood, for this city, to move forward in a truly inclusive way that benefits ALL of Pittsburgh. None of the powers that be - those with the powers imbued by money, access, privilege, and yes, race - are willing to put themselves out there to create forums for these conversations that will make them uncomfortable about their roles in the trauma inflicted by these changes. Instead, the burden is continuously placed on the shoulders of those with the least power and access to resources.

The removal of this artist's statement from the public sphere and the subsequent outcry from the community is a call from all of us to have these conversations, no matter how uncomfortable they may make each of us about our roles and our position and our responsibility in this. We ask, no we demand, that time, energy, and resources be contributed, from those with such in hand, to the community so that this conversation can be had.

The Kelly Strayhorn Theater is hosting an open conversation about art, public space, and how we talk about art as a community on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 at 4:00 pm. This conversation will be an opportunity for East Liberty to examine the different aesthetic and cultural values in our uniquely diverse neighborhood. We encourage you to attend this event, but this meeting should not and cannot be the only opportunity for this critical conversation. This is a dialogue that must continue. And the resources to have these conversations must be freely given to allow the people to truly lead.

I want to close with the statement that Ms. Wormsley released yesterday, April 6, 2018. As always, she speaks with poignancy, grace, and true light. You can read the statement here on her website (and learn more about her powerful body of work as well), but I want to share the full body of her text on this page:

It started out as a black nerd sci-fi joke. A response to the absence of non-white faces in science fiction films and TV. Very much a response to many Afrofuturist writings, like Florence Oyeke’s: “After all, to quote musician Gabriel Teodros: “If we don’t write ourselves into the future, we get written out of tomorrow as well.”  — Afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.”

This phrase became my mantra.

The work has become an archive of information, histories and myths that continue the diaspora’s apocalyptic narrative. I choose the term “apocalyptic” consciously, as it is informed by the slow demise of Black American neighborhoods. (And Still We Thrive). This body of work has already taken many forms: video, installation, street art, performance and now the billboard.

I knew what it could mean in that East Liberty the moment Jon asked. It’s what it could mean in this city, country, world. What conversations could arise, what PTSD could be addressed, and just seeing something so obvious stated in this social climate is reassuring to some–to me. It becomes magical, as fantastic as a prophecy.  

I am deeply saddened by it’s removal. And yet I am comforted by how my Pittsburgh has stood up! I think we all know what it is to have discomfort. Let’s begin to work on methods to constructively investigate that discomfort without using power over anyone or anything else.  It is not my calling to lead people in any given direction. An artist who inspires me told me, “Your job is to promote thought, not to tell people how to think. To provoke feeling, not to tell people how to feel.” However you might feel, whatever you might think, THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.  
Finally, this text is a sentence I do not own, it is for anyone who wants to use it. Please. Take it.


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