Representation matters. Authentic representations of women matter. I think that too often, our public representations of women are enveloped in the language of the extraordinary. The first American woman to become a self-made millionaire: Madam C. J. Walker ... The dresses of the first ladies of the United States ... Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to seek the US Democratic party's presidential nomination —
As a museum curator, I understand why these stories are so seductive. Exceptional women are inspiring and aspirational. But those stories are limiting. By definition, being extraordinary is nonrepresentative. It's atypical. Those stories do not create a broad base for incorporating women's history, and they don't reflect our daily realities. If we can collectively apply that radical notion that women are people, it becomes easier to show women as people are: familiar, diverse, present. In everyone's everyday throughout history, women exist positively — not as a matter of interpretation, but as a matter of fact. And beyond a more accurate representation of human life, including women considers the quotidian experiences of the almost 3.8 billion people identified as female on this planet.
In this now notorious museum scene from the "Black Panther" movie, a white curator erroneously explains an artifact to Michael B. Jordan's character seen here, an artifact from his own culture. This fictional scene caused real debates in our museum communities about who is shaping the narratives and the bias that those narratives hold. Museums are actually rated one of the most trustworthy sources of information in the United States, and with hundreds of millions of visitors from all over the world, we should tell accurate histories, but we don't. There is a movement from within museums themselves to help combat this bias. The simple acknowledgment that museums are not neutral. Museums are didactic. Through the display of art and artifacts, we can incite creativity and foster inclusion, but we are guilty of historical misrepresentation. Our male-centered histories have left our herstories hidden. And there are hard truths about being a woman, especially a woman of color in this industry, that prevents us from centering inclusive examples of women's lives. Museum leadership: predominantly white and male, despite women comprising some 60 percent of museum staffs. Pipelines to leadership for women are bleak — bleakest for women of color. And the presence of women does not in and of itself guarantee an increase in women's public representation.
Not all women are gender equity allies. In the words of feminist theorist bell hooks, "Patriarchy has no gender." Women can support the system of patriarchy just as men can support the fight for gender equity. And we often downplay the importance of intersectionality. Marian Anderson was one of the most celebrated voices of the 20th century, and the Smithsonian collected her 1939 outfit. After the white Daughters of the American Revolution denied her access to sing in Constitution Hall, because she was black, she famously sang instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a crowd of over 75,000 people.
And in libraries all over, including museums, you can still find the groundbreaking 1982 anthology, entitled "All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave."
Demands for the increase of women's representation does not automatically include Afro-Latinas like me ... or immigrant women, or Asian women, or Native women, or trans women, or undocumented women, or women over 65, or girls — the list can go on and on and on.
So what do we do? Targeted initiatives have helped incorporate perspectives that should have always been included. I arrived at the Smithsonian through a Latino curatorial initiative whose hiring of Latinx curators, mostly women, by the way, has raised the profile for Latinx narratives across our institution. And it served as a model for our much larger Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, which seeks to amplify diverse representations of women in every possible way, so that women show up, not only in the imagery of our contemporary realities, but in our historical representations, because we've always been here. Right now though, in 2018, I can still walk into professional spaces and be the only — the only person under 40, the only black person, the only black woman, the only Latina, sometimes, the only woman.
My mother is African-American and my father is Afro-Panamanian. I am so proudly and inextricably both. As an Afro-Latina, I'm one of millions. As an Afro-Latina curator, I'm one of very few. And bringing my whole self into the professional realm can feel like an act of bravery, and I'll admit to you that I was not always up for that challenge, whether from fear of rejection or self-preservation. In meetings, I would only speak up when I had a fully developed comment to share. No audible brainstorming or riffing off of colleagues. For a long time, I denied myself the joy of wearing my beloved hoop earrings or nameplate necklace to work, thinking that they were too loud or unscholarly or unprofessional.
I wondered how people would react to my natural hair, or if they viewed me as more acceptable or less authentic when I straightened it. And anyone who has felt outside of mainstream representations understands that there are basic elements just of our everyday being that can make other people uncomfortable. But because I am passionate about the everyday representation of women as we are, I stopped presenting an inauthentic representation of myself or my work. And I have been tested. This is me pointing at my hoop earring in my office —
Just last month, I was invited to keynote a Latino Heritage Month event. The week of the presentation, the organization expressed concerns. They called my slides "activist," and they meant that negatively.
Two days before the presentation, they requested that I not show a two-minute video affirming natural hair, because "it may create a barrier to the learning process for some of the participants."
That poem, "Hair," was written and performed by Elizabeth Acevedo, a Dominican-American 2018 National Book Award winner, and it appeared in an award-winning Smithsonian exhibit that I curated. I canceled the talk, explaining to them that their censorship of me and my work made me uncomfortable.
(Applause and cheers)
Respectability politics and idealized femininity influence how we display women and which women we choose to display. And that display has skewed toward successful and extraordinary and reputable and desirable, which maintains the systemic exclusion and marginalization of the everyday, the regular, the underrepresented and usually, the nonwhite. As a museum curator, I am empowered to change that narrative. I research, collect and interpret objects and images of significance. Celia Cruz, the queen of Salsa —
yes — is significant. And an Afro-Latina. The Smithsonian has collected her costumes, her shoes, her portrait, her postage stamp and this reimagining ... by artist Tony Peralta. When I collected and displayed this work, it was a victory for symbolic contradictions. Pride in displaying a dark-skinned Latina, a black woman, whose hair is in large rollers which straighten your hair, perhaps a nod to white beauty standards. A refined, glamorous woman in oversized, chunky gold jewelry. When this work was on view, it was one of our most Instagrammed pieces, and visitors told me they connected with the everyday elements of her brown skin or her rollers or her jewelry. Our collections include Celia Cruz and a rare portrait of a young Harriet Tubman ... iconic clothing from the incomparable Oprah Winfrey. But museums can literally change how hundreds of millions of people see women and which women they see. So rather than always the first or the famous, it's also our responsibility to show a regular Saturday at the beauty salon, the art of door-knocker earrings ...
fashionable sisterhood ...
and cultural pride at all ages. Stories of everyday women whose stories have been knowingly omitted from our national and global histories.
And oftentimes in museums, you see women represented by clothing or portraits or photography ... but impactful, life-changing stories from everyday women can also look like this Esmeraldan boat seat. Esmeraldas, Ecuador was a maroon community. Its dense rainforest protected indigenous and African populations from Spanish colonizers. There are roads now, but there are some parts inland that are still only accessible by canoe. Débora Nazareno frequently traveled those Ecuadorian waterways by canoe, so she had her own boat seat. Hers personalized with a spiderweb and a spider, representing Anansi, a character in West African folklore. Débora also sat on this seat at home, telling stories to her grandson, Juan. And this intangible ritual of love in the form of intergenerational storytelling is common in communities across the African diaspora. And this everyday act sparked in Juan the desire to collect and preserve over 50,000 documents related to Afro-Indian culture. In 2005, Juan García Salazar, Débora's grandson, and by now a world-renowned Afro-Ecuadorian scholar, traveled to Washington, D.C. He met with Lonnie Bunch, the director of the museum where I work, and toward the end of their conversation, Juan reached into his bag and said, "I'd like to give you a present." On that day, Débora Nazareno's humble wooden boat seat became the very first object donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. It is encased, displayed and has been seen by almost five million visitors from all over the world.
I will continue to collect from extraordinary historymakers. Their stories are important. But what drives me to show up today and every day is the simple passion to write our names in history, display them publicly for millions to see and walk in the ever-present light that is woman.
(Applause and cheers)