Published on May 9th, 2023 | by DW McKinney0
Everyday Black Lives
I was introduced to Ajuan Mance by happenstance. Scrolling Instagram in the fall of last year, I stumbled on an announcement for her portrait series 1001 Black Men: Portraits of Masculinity at the Intersections (Stacked Deck Press). The post featured portraits of Black men that Mance had met in-person around the United States, but mostly in the Bay Area. These men—illustrated in shades of blue, fuchsia, and amber—frequented Trader Joe’s, Mills College, and Union Square in Oakland. These were some of the same places frequented by my family members who also lived in the Bay. It was impossible not to look at her vibrant portraiture and see community.
Mance, a professor of African American literature at Mills College, is once again uplifting Black history and community. Her latest book, Living While Black: Portraits of Everyday Resistance (Chronicle), captures how ordinary lived experiences for Black people are acts of resistance in a society that tries to destroy us. As a mother, it was particularly unsettling to review a record of the different ways Black children have been criminalized (or killed) for dwelling in the beauty of childhood. While playing with toy guns, while selling water, while throwing a tantrum, or….the list is endless. Mance sums this all up as “Being a Kid While Black.” And for parents, well the scrutiny we receive for our childrearing is just another moment of “Parenting While Black.” It doesn’t matter if we are jogging, singing, or reading. Many non-Black folks inherently perceive a threat engrained in our actions.
In the middle of reading Living While Black, my mother called me. My father had been driving to his usual neighborhood spot in the early morning hours to walk their dog when police officers pulled him over. As a point of note, my father drives a BMW. It’s several years old and was bought used, but it’s a luxury vehicle all the same. The police claimed the car was stolen and that the plates didn’t match the ones on record. They alleged there was a car theft ring happening in the area and my father was suspected to be part of it. The only reason I knew this call ended on what Mance would liken to merciful de-escalation was because my mother was recounting the story with a hint of humor. My father, of course, had not stolen the car. (And he had successfully reined in his bullheadedness during the encounter.) There was some misunderstanding, an “error” while running his license plate.
I tell this story to Mance during our interview. Partially because the conversation is so easygoing despite the difficult topics we dip into, but also because this is an example of what Mance illustrates in her book as “Driving While Black.” In the context of our everyday Black lives, this is just another thing that happens because we are who we are. Over Zoom, Mance and I discussed this contextualization, finding joy while documenting traumatic events, and the peculiar intersections of racist incidents. – DW McKinney
DW MCKINNEY: Your collection grew out of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Being unable to attend the rallies, your portraits became your act of protest. Can you talk more about that origin story and the process of drawing your protest on the page?
AJUAN MANCE: At that time, I don’t think there were any vaccines. I was putting a lot of time in with my mother who was in her late 70s. And also, some loved ones were using immune suppressing drugs. I just thought I couldn’t necessarily take the risk of being out in the streets, especially if we didn’t know much about what the risk was for COVID. But I felt like I couldn’t sit by and not let anything happen.
I remember following all the coverage of the protests very closely. And I remember one day I saw footage of the protests in Philadelphia. And there were so many people in a long panoramic shot. You couldn’t see where they ended, and a significant chunk of the people were not Black. I was just taken aback. I was really moved. I thought, “Something has changed. Something has transformed in this moment.” I had a feeling that I wanted to do something. What I have done in the past when I wanted to support or explore something around race was to do art. So I decided I wanted to draw in response to these protests.
DW MCKINNEY: Your portraits are not images of specific people, correct?
AJUAN MANCE: That’s right. There are so many wonderful memorial portraits that have been done of African American people who have been killed by police. I was thinking of two things. One was that people who are killed by police, unarmed Black people or even Black people who are in retreat, that’s a small part of the problem. The problem is beyond that. Also there’s the fact that when Black people show up in other places—places of everyday life, certain stores, on their own blocks—they are harassed or have the police called on them. Mercifully, some of that often results in de-escalation.
I wanted to be able to do something that captured the broad range of legal activities that Black people can’t just do without the possibility of being harassed or, at the very worst, killed. But I also wanted to show Black people who are alive and well because that’s the other part of the story. These acts are dangerous for Black people to do, but it doesn’t stop us from doing them.
DW MCKINNEY: Your portraits run the gamut of Aging, Selling Lemonade, and Thinking While Black, but there are very few decidedly triumphant moments like Barbecuing While Black. Was that disparity disheartening to document?
AJUAN MANCE: It was. I had to do a lot of research for this book. And one of the things that was very difficult was the breadth of activities that have been policed. This is just a drop in the bucket. The Barbecuing While Black incident ended up becoming this celebratory moment that’s now celebrated every year. People go back to that same lake and have a huge barbecue. There’s music and everything. That’s not common, right? What’s more common is sometimes African Americans get some sort of redress, some sort of apology. Sometimes there’s a penalty, even if it’s just shaming paid by the person who’s done the harassing or calling the police. But often it’s surprisingly insufficient. That was very difficult to sit with. It’s still, for me, a very difficult part of the book, even though the book is out in the world.
DW MCKINNEY: How did you keep your intent focused on uplifting Black joy, life, and resistance when so much of the backstory is rooted in trauma?
AJUAN MANCE: I think for me, one of the things that I often say is that my work is shaped by a lifetime of looking at Black people, and it’s also shaped by a lifetime of being with Black people, being in community and in family. Our strength is our capacity to see the beauty and the power and the wonder in each other. I kept my focus on that. Yes, I need to provide these definitions. I need to do this time line to provide context, but if they’re multiple audiences for the book, for the Black audience, I want that audience to see that I see us.
DW MCKINNEY: I really loved the bold colors and patterns, which add an extra dimension to the portraits. It reminded me of Kehinde Wiley. Who are your artistic influences?
AJUAN MANCE: Well, Wiley is one of my favorite artists. I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition that he has in San Francisco right now at the de Young Museum. I really like artists like Aaron Douglas from the Harlem Renaissance. The way he draws our whole histories is this wonderful tableau. I think Kara Walker is such an important artist. My work is very different from hers, but I think the impetus behind it, to put on display in some ways the perversity of racism, really inspires me. Edmonia Lewis, who was a Black sculptor when Black people were not full-time artists and women were not full-time artists. She was creating beautiful work based on her ability to see and tell stories about Black people, to which very few other people had access. I am inspired by a lot of the early Dutch masters because they did so much painting of everyday people. And I’ve always been mostly inspired by paintings of everyday people.
DW MCKINNEY: In the book’s “time line,” you mentioned how video recordings change people’s believability in the claims of police brutality. Yet even now, people who are doing this sort of witnessing are also put in danger. How do you think we can continue to bring attention to these instances of police brutality?
AJUAN MANCE: In many ways, I think racism lives in secrecy. Some of the most egregious crimes of the civil rights era happened behind closed doors. Some of them have been right out in the street where everyone could see them, but the things that were happening to Black people in the white homes where they worked, in the factories that they worked, behind the public eye, cameras really transformed them.
When you do show up at one of these incidents and start to record it, you are putting yourself in danger. But you are protected in some ways because when one person gets a camera out, other people do too. Generally, that has a protective effect, or people are protecting each other inadvertently. When multiple people have cameras, then they’re kind of creating a safer space for themselves. I read many African American people opining about the secondary trauma of seeing videos, especially of people being murdered by officers, but also of people being harassed. It is painful to watch. I don’t watch [videos of] a Black person being killed. I don’t want to see it. I don’t need to see it. But I do think it’s important that it’s out there because in a racist society that’s built on the denial of the white-over-Black hierarchy, in a society in which there’s such an extreme level of denial and disbelief, we do need eyewitness testimony in the form of those videos.
DW MCKINNEY: You also mentioned Oscar Grant in the time line. You wrote that he was a butcher at your favorite local grocery. Did that mean you interacted with him?
AJUAN MANCE: I don’t remember if he was one of the folks who I ever bought food from, but he was behind the counter at Farmer Joe’s Marketplace. When we learned what happened to him, my partner said, “Oh, yeah, we’ve seen him.” The market was raising some money for him at the register. I don’t know how long he had been there, but he was one of the younger folks behind the butcher counter.
DW MCKINNEY: I ask because something that’s really struck me is the small world nature of these incidents, how they connect to each other. George Floyd’s girlfriend was Daunte Wright’s former teacher. The night Oscar Grant was murdered, my aunt was the BART conductor who was driving the train at Fruitvale. It’s just really strange how the long arm of racism touches so many of us.
AJUAN MANCE: There are so many incidents that if we actually drew a web, everybody would be touched in some way, shape, or form. Most of the incidents don’t end up going viral. Most of them don’t end up resulting in calling the police, or if they do, the police don’t hurt anybody. I’m a middle-aged African American professor, and I can think of two incidents in particular in which I was pulled over just because I was Black. As soon as people walk up to the window and see someone who looks nerdy or someone with gray hair—they profile in some really bizarre ways—they either try to make excuses for themselves, which happened in one case, or just wave you on. But that’s me. My brother, who ironically is a criminal defense lawyer, has been pulled over many times. And not to mention the ways in which we’ve sometimes been treated in stores. We all have a handful, at least, of these incidents. Or we know someone [who has]. It’s all a ubiquitous Black experience to, at some point, be told by other people’s actions that we are wrong just for being there.
All images are (c) Ajuan Mance, and are taken from Ajuan Mance’s Living While Black: Portraits of Everyday Resistance (Chronicle, 2022).
Find the book at your local indie or here on Bookshop.