Visiting a North American museum while black

The greatest courtesies have always been extended to me in musuems in the United States. This  has a great deal to do with the fact that I am black.  Which is not to say that courtesies are not extended to everyone, of course.

Staff stop to ask if there is anything they can help with or explain.  I am continuously surveyed by professional surveyors circulating in museums.  I rarely have to ask people to let me pass in a museum because people step out of the way as though I were some kind of unstoppable river.

This last, of course,  is the phenomenon where white, black and Hispanic people in the United States are always aware exactly who is where in the public spaces in which we find ourselves.  In museums, however, I am aware that this alertness has nothing hostile, predatory or anxious about it.  On the contrary.  Which, of course, is one of the reasons American museums are the friendliest places to me.

Relative to their numbers in the population, few African Americans regularly visit generalist American museums except under very particular circumstances.  A high number of guards in the museums I visit, though, are African-American.  They are almost invisible.

So there we have it:  black guards all but invisible.  Black visitors noted, watched, welcomed.   Bizarre race stuff.

The oddness is pointed up in this sculpture of headless guards in The Whitney by Fred Wilson (born 1954), Guarded View, 1991.

The featured image in front of the guards without heads is a piece made by David Hammons (born 1943), Untitled, 1992.  He made it primarily of cut hair which he collected from African American barber shops.  The hair falls off the structure as living hair falls off our heads as time passes and we age and (almost?) all things change.

Whitney 2-1-1       Whitney 2-3-1

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