A Little Black Girl Floating on the Tides of History
You've heard of Brown v. Board of Education? She helped pave the way. Or, more accurately, she helped us swim there. WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED BY PETER MOORE
WHEN I RECEIVED MY BLANK CLAY MASK from the Fort Collins Museum of Art, it immediately began speaking to me.
“I am a little Black girl,” the mask said. Then she asked: “Do you know my story?”
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My immediate response was: “I don’t, and anyway, are you sure I’m the right guy to tell it?”
I mean: Haven’t old white guys been old-white-guy-splaining the world for far too long?
I received the blank mask as part of an annual fundraiser for Fort Collins Museum of Art. The idea: Provide a blank face to local artists, then sell their wildly decorated masks to museum goers. The mask sale has raised $2 million for the museum in the last two decades, and helped MOA run shows featuring a rainbow of artists. Including this old white guy.
Now it’s my annual challenge: What is the mask trying to say to the world? I’m the medium, they’re the message.
In 2020 (the Plague Year), the mask was saying, “I am a baseball, and do you appreciate how much it hurts to be slugged into the bleachers?”
I have long been under the spell of René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist who altered reality in order to invest it with emotion. In 2021, his “Son of Man”—you know, the guy in the bowler hat with the Granny Smith mashed into his face—served as my jumping off point for the mask.
What does it mean? Something fishy this way comes!
Weird, right? There’s plenty more where that came from.
Last year my friend Tom Lombardo commissioned a mask from me. He’s a poet, and all about elegy. He clued me into the story of L’Inconnue —an anonymous young woman fished from the Seine, in Paris, after her death by drowning. She became a cause celebre in the 1880s—with her beatific smile and unknowable history. She was the Mona Lisa of drowning victims.
So I updated her history with my elegy in mask form.
She now hangs in Tom’s office. And haunts my dreams.
And then this year’s blank mask arrived, and paralyzed me.
Having made my way through such anti-racist required readings as Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I was only too aware of my need to shut up and listen where matters of race were concerned.
Still, I was convinced that the little Black girl was trying to speak to me.
If only I could hear her!
The conundrum traveled with me to France last year. I was strolling through Les Jardins d’Etretat last October when I came across these amazing sculptures half-buried in manicured boxwoods.
It’s called “Garden Emotions,” and it triggered me: Wait, I’ve seen this face before. Right, it was the little Black girl, only (I realized) she was floating on her back in a swimming pool, spitting a stream of water (plus goldfish) up into the air. I didn’t need to speak for her. I only needed to give her a moment of joy on a carefree summer afternoon.
Soon after I settled on that idea, I fell down an internet rabbit hole of articles about swimming pool segregation in the middle of the last century. Talk about your rough waters.
Here’s the artist’s note that I wrote to introduce gallery viewers to the little Black girl:
In 1944, Lopez v. Seccombe—an anti-discrimination lawsuit—cleared the way for people of color to swim in public pools in San Bernadino, California. Ten years later, that case served as a precedent for Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools. This little girl and her goldfish are blissfully unaware of all that. They are simply having a fun float on a sunny afternoon. But she looms large in the history of our democracy. Swim free, little one.
I’d like to think she’s been following her bliss for a lifetime.
We can only hope, right?
But not just hope.
We can act/vote/agitate to see that we’re all free to seek that bliss.
If you’d like to bid on Making Waves, click here. You can scan the QR code to check out the whole exhibition.
Terrific post, Peter! So much to unpack here, omg. Thank you so much for distracting me from writing my book. Was just thinking how every baby that arrives into the world is (and sees) a blank face until all of us badass people get ready with paint, pen and easel.
This is one of my favourite reads of today, Peter - I love your art, and your exploration of what it represents. Such strong stuff - a terrific post!
Your reference to - and gorgeous artwork to represent - 'L'Inconnue' reminds me of a passage in one of my favourite books - I shall have to look it up.