By Kayla Johnson
Open until January 21, 2019, the African American Museum in Philadelphia features a thought-provoking exhibit titled, Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past.
On view in the exhibit are 35 digital and multimedia photographs created by Philly-native John Dowell. Dowell reimagines the seemingly simplistic cotton plant and does a fine job of projecting his inspiration for the collection: a story and a dream.
As a child, his grandmother would tell him of a recurring dream she had, a dream in which she got lost in a field of cotton that loomed over her like a maze with no exits. The photographs depict cotton as a component of modern, urban landscapes, one portion dedicated to the landscape of Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a community founded by free black Americans on what is now known as the western edge of Central Park. The community was stolen and destroyed so that we can now recognize it by such a name. Visitors to this exhibit are also given the opportunity to experience firsthand the tedious work of picking seeds from bols of cotton. Two bowls of cotton bols rest before a cotton plant monument where visitors are called to rest, reflect, and leave photographs of their ancestors to be honored as well.
A plaque in the exhibit reads, “Cotton As a Symbol. This is a memorial to those who died right out there in the fields and were buried in unmarked graves, and it’s a warning to us not to forget what came before.”
The entire collection spoke to me, with a redundant message screaming that history repeats itself and we are presently living on the battlefields of those that have come before us, battles both victorious and consumed by defeat. However, one particular photograph and its title caught my eye. The Healing Table. The photo depicts a modern black man stretched out on a black bench amidst a field of cotton.
With this inspiration, I fashioned a poem, the documentation of my perspective on the “cotton” that litters the realities of black Americans to this day.
Be sure to visit the African American Museum in Philadelphia to interpret, be inspired, and, best of all, imagine just how many other “ghosts” of years past exist still within our current society.
our streets have been scrubbed into forms unrecognized by those that paved them
but their blood cannot be erased
the dank, deep stains cannot be washed away, though attempts are still made
to rename the days
blood faded to the shades of white
images burnt behind the whites of swollen, anguished eyes
so please don’t walk here
please take another route
please show some respect and take your shoes off at the door of this nation
my mothers are trying to rest
and my sons are making their bed
Kayla Johnson is a junior at Masterman High School, as well as a member of the STAMP Teen Council. She represents the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the National Museum of American Jewish History. She has a strong interest in the many mediums of storytelling, especially those of filmmaking and poetry.