Editor's note: Tereneh Idia, a Pittsburgh-based writer and designer, interviewed five Black women in Pittsburgh on their work in art, music and journalism.
“When and Where I Enter” is the title of the 1984 book by Paula Giddings on the importance of African American women in justice movements in the United States. It is also a personal mediation, a path-making, space-preparing chant I say to myself when I, as a Black woman, embark on the many journeys of the day. “When and where I enter” reminds me of my inherent value as a human being and my special gifts, legacy and inheritance as a Black woman. “When and where I enter” is my version of Dustin Hoffman’s “Hey I am walkin’ here” in the film Midnight Cowboy.
When do I enter? Now!
Where do I enter? Here!
Making a path and space for yourself is a challenge for all of us. In Pittsburgh, it is an even bigger challenge for a Black woman. All too often, when we talk about Pittsburgh, our reference points and icons are usually white. If they are Black, they tend to be male.
To begin to shift this story and present the important role that Black women in Pittsburgh are playing in media and the arts locally, nationally and internationally, I spoke to several Black women based in Pittsburgh. All are entrepreneurial and experts in their own path-making.
The value in their stories — like the journey of Black American women throughout our nation’s history — provides insight into where we can grow and thrive as a city, country and world.
Keisha N. Blain, 34, Oakland
Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and editor-in-chief of the newly relaunched The North Star — first published by Frederick Douglass in 1847. She is an award-winning historian and writer who looks at Black justice movements from a national and global perspective. Blain’s most recent book, “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom” won the 2018 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize and the 2019 Darlene Clark Hine Award from the Organization of American Historians.
Question: How does Pittsburgh reflect and understand the critical part played by local Black media on American history?
Answer: Many people do not have an understanding of the importance of Black media, Black history or even Black activism. I find that to be the case across the United States. Pittsburgh is no exception in this regard. But I also find that people are generally interested in learning more and, as an educator, I believe that it’s my responsibility to help expand the knowledge of others, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do this at the University of Pittsburgh where I teach classes that center the ideas, experiences and history of Black people in the United States and abroad. My students, many of whom are from the Pittsburgh area, are engaged in my classes and they are especially interested in discussing hot-button topics like race and politics.
Q: The North Star was a seminal newspaper started by abolitionist Fredrick Douglas in 1847. What would you like the people of Pittsburgh to experience, learn or share from The North Star?
A: I hope the people of Pittsburgh will come to view The North Star as a crucial platform for addressing inequality and other injustices in the city and beyond.
Q: Given the important role of media to tell the story of community, what local media have written about your work?
A: With the exception of the Pittsburgh City Paper, I don’t think other outlets covered my research, my work with The North Star, etc. At least I don’t recall any other outlets doing so. It is no secret that media outlets tend to privilege the same groups of people who we privilege in every sector of American society. ...While mainstream outlets tend to deemphasize marginalized groups — often touting the ill-informed message that readers have no interest — The North Star provides a platform for Black people and other marginalized groups and we seek out the kinds of stories that are otherwise overlooked.
Q: How do you view Pittsburgh as a place to live and work?
A: I have found a welcoming and vibrant community on and off campus, especially from other Black scholars and activists. Pittsburgh, like other major cities in the United States, has many challenges, especially as it relates to race relations. But I have been encouraged by the amazing work of scholars and activists in the city who are committed to improving the lives of Black and Brown people.
Kendra Ross, 43, Banksville
Kendra Ross is a scholar, activist and artist. And, you may not realize it, but you’ve also heard Ross sing. If you have listened to Lauryn Hill, Quincy Jones or Talib Kweli to name a few, you have heard her warm honey smooth alto. Her first solo album “New Voice” was released in 2007, and her second album "The Multitude" is expected later this year. She recently rocked out with a legendary line-up of Black rock goddess for the Black Girls Rock concert honoring Betty Davis.
The multifaceted Ross is currently working on her Ph.D. in the community engagement program at Point Park University. Her research is focused on Black women in the Hill District. “I am looking at the ways in which their work continues to sustain the community and serves as a form of resistance to neoliberal development and racism. ...I hope to continue to...develop models with communities and peers that demonstrate how arts and culture can continue to help transform lives and communities throughout our region and beyond.”
Q: Why Pittsburgh, why the Hill?
A: I am working in the Hill because it's where I was drawn to when I got back. It's that simple. I had no idea I would be studying in a community engagement Ph.D. program or that I would be consulting local community artists on a project plan. I was looking for a home in the community and was spending a lot of time there with folks I've known since childhood. I saw folks doing work that I believed in within a place that I've always had an affinity for and jumped in. It just felt right.
Q: In a city where women are not celebrated as much as they should be, and Black women in particular, what kind of community exists for Black women to support one another?
A: First off, I honestly do not believe there is a city, town or village on Earth where Black women are celebrated as much as they should be. I know that some places do it better than others, but at the end of the day, Black women have always been our own best thing. Personally, Black women in Pittsburgh have been a blessing to me over these past five years. They are the reason I am able to live here. …l live in Pittsburgh but I am a Global citizen...meaning, I don't get caught up in the Pittsburgh stuff because my spirit cannot be contained in any one place. ...I also know (since I live here and grew up here) that the city can be very oppressive and that I enjoy some relative privileges that not all Black folk enjoy here. It's complicated and it's difficult, but it's doable. ...I can live here and still enjoy my life because I make sure that I move about life and the world on my own terms.
Njaimeh Njie, 31, Bellevue
Njie is creating on her own terms as an independent multimedia content producer. From photography to filmmaking, she creates work that got her recognized as Emerging Artist of the Year in 2018 by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. She has won numerous grant awards and has been featured in the Huffington Post. Her genre-busting public art project of murals in the Hill District has redefined what it means to create art for and in community.
Q: How does being a Black woman impact that experience of being an artist in Pittsburgh?
A: I’ve had a range of ‘networking’ experiences in the Pittsburgh art world. On one hand, I feel fortunate to be a part of a dynamic and generous creative community. ...Being in more traditional art world environments has at times been a different experience. I think there’s value in consistently being in spaces with people who can advocate for your work and/or connect you to opportunities you may not otherwise have. As a Black woman, this can be a daunting task because these spaces do not always feel welcoming. While I’ve had great experiences...I have to ask myself if I really want the attention of someone who’s barely willing to acknowledge my presence in a room.
Q: How did you learn about or were exposed to art as a career?
A: My dad Saihou Njie has been a multidisciplinary artist for my entire life, so I grew up making art with him, watching him create and seeing him exhibit work. My mother Valerie Njie recently retired from Bidwell Training Center after 37 years, but about 20 years ago turned her passion for photography into freelance work as well. Seeing both of them in action, I’ve always been conscious that one could pursue a career as an artist.
Q: How has being featured in Huffington Post impacted your career?
A: There was a Huffington Post Black Voices article about my first project, ‘Power(ed) by Grace: Musings on Black Womanhood.’ It was nice to get that sort of exposure so early in my career, but it also validated that Black folks are hungry to see visual representations of their everyday lives. I’ve definitely carried that with me in the work I’ve done since.
Kilolo Luckett, 46, East End
Saying Luckett has both national and international reach is far from hyperbole. Recognized art collector and musician Swizz Beatz (Kasseem Dean) follows her on Instagram and has purchased artwork from shows she has curated. In addition to her work as a curatorial consultant at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, she has pulled together shows in New York City and worked with artists throughout the African Diaspora — from the Americas, Europe and African continents.
Q: I began by asking her via email how she learned about being a curator.
A: As a child, my parents didn’t take me to museums. It was through libraries that I was first exposed to the visual arts by reading books about artists and art movements. But I didn’t know what a curator really was until college when I took my first art history class. I fell in love with art history and took advantage of the myriad cultural institutions around the city. I sought out people who I could learn from who then became my mentors and collaborators, many to this day.
Q: What are or have been some of the challenges and opportunities of being a Black female curator in Pittsburgh?
A: I’ve learned to surround myself with people who are positive, rigorous and think critically in a productive way. For every high, there is a low, and I make sure to learn from my failures no matter how painful. I love organizing exhibitions and events, especially doing the research and working with artists, art administrators, galleries and collectors. People are hungry for fresh ideas and projects. Some of the drawbacks are that some people, especially people with power and influence, see the work that I do as niche or trendy. It’s a reality, but I don’t let those backward views prevent me from doing my work. I seek out people who want to learn and engage in meaningful ways that will benefit Pittsburgh as a whole.
Q: Is it more difficult for Black talent and events to garner attention from local media?
A: Working in the arts and culture world, over the past two decades, I’ve noticed that many Pittsburgh media outlets cover the same homogenous people, organizations and groups centered on European aesthetics. ...Pittsburgh’s media needs to be consistent with covering Black talent. And this means stepping outside your comfort zone and operating from a level of care.
Q: You have also launched your own consultancy group and are working on other projects. Anecdotally, it seems there are many Black women in Pittsburgh who are entrepreneurs. Do you feel that has to do with opportunities in Pittsburgh or lack thereof?
A: I think it’s both. As a Black woman creative entrepreneur, you got to both seek out and make opportunities. ...My creative practice is rooted in providing an experimental contemporary art platform for critical thinking, dialogue and expression dedicated to Black culture. After working at a few mainstream Pittsburgh institutions, which are overwhelmingly white, it was sad to see many decision-makers make misguided, myopic decisions on hiring and programming. I’ve also watched arts and cultural entities make small strides that involve working with Black women. However, a lot of Black women feel isolated working with cultural institutions, whether it is full time or as a consultant, because the work environments can be hostile toward non-Western perspectives. It’s a paradox because there is so much talk right now about embracing a comprehensive diversity and inclusion work environment yet most white people lack proximity to Black people.
Alisha B. Wormsley, 41, East End
Wormsley is carving her own path in traditional and new cultural institutions here in Pittsburgh, throughout the country and around the world. She may be best known for her “There Are Black People In The Future” billboard in East Liberty, the conversations that ensued about gentrification, public art and Black Pittsburgh. Recently, she was selected for the President’s Postdoctoral Fellow program at Carnegie Mellon University and had successful public art projects in Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh and in South Africa. The Office of Public Art also nominated her to feature a display in London as part of the British Airways partnership with the Pittsburgh Airport.
We began our email Q&A with a question about the video, performance and gathering multimedia installation piece called Streaming Spaces in Market Square in Downtown Pittsburgh the spring of 2019.
Q: The programming around your powerful piece in Market Square engaged so many different media, artists and community. Could you talk about how, what and why you wanted to provide through this public art project?
A: Well, I think collaboration is crucial to art making, especially in public spaces. If Ricardo [Iamuuri Robinson, Pittsburgh-based artist and creative collaborator] and I are trying to create a vortex of ancient futurism inspired by a movement of Blackness, it should not just work as a spectacle but a platform for interactivity with the community of people who share the same energy and purpose as this vortex.
Q: In a city that is not seen as an art-buying city, how does an artist become a full-time artist? How does being a Black woman impact that process?
A: I'm not dependent on buyers because of the nature of my work. My work with institutions is a battle because I am at odds with the limitations of this so-called supremacy (inferiority really, fear) which is a choice because I hate the art world as a capitalist regime. As a Black woman who recognizes and is working to tap into her immeasurable power, it’s a benefit. I have been able to do work I'm proud of. I have been a full-time artist for over a decade who has always taught. Teaching is a big part of my practice. Not entirely sure if it's because of balance, inspiration or necessity. This system's limitations don’t allow for a fully creative existence. There are literal checks and balances that have to be made to capitalism.
I'm actually looking into alternative ways of living that other creatives are and have been developing.
These could include alternatives to capitalism, other forms of commerce, different ideas of wealth and power, mysticism, and spirituality.
I think that's why collaboration is so important to me. If we find as many ways as possible to work together and support each other to buy property and land then we can direct our own making.
If one was to take a map of the world, place a large red pushpin in Pittsburgh and then in each of the places where the work of the women featured in this story worked, created impact or influence, you would see dozens of locations from New York to New Orleans, London to Lagos, Washington, D.C., to Detroit (just to name a few). As Pittsburgh’s global reach increases, not recognizing the contribution of Black women in Pittsburgh is beyond an oversight — it is negligent. A celebration of our multicultural reality and the important role of Black women in Pittsburgh’s past, present and future is the only way to begin to tell the full story of our region.
Correction (9/5/2019): A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Paula Giddings' last name and misstated the year her book was published. It was published in 1984.
Tereneh Idia can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Samuel Marks.