The idea for American Origin Stories was inspired by a novel I’m writing. And that novel was born on a mountain in Africa, starting as a question within.
Who am I? Where do I come from?
Being Black in America and h having ancestors who were enslaved (and ancestors who enslaved) means constantly questioning things about yourself. And having others constantly question you.
What are you mixed with?
Where’s your family from? No really? Where are they from…from?
So I used art – in the form of literature and podcasting, any storytelling really – to try and get to the root of it all. I imagined taking a metaphorical and literal journey to discover the past.
I’d planned to travel to Colorado and interview my living grandparents, parents, and other family. Then travel to South Carolina, to a place known as the Black Ellis Island, where my maternal grandparents are from to learn more about their history and the overarching story of slavery and all its horrors. And finally, end up in West Africa, at the Slave Castle to experience where this American origin story began, and a different story was cut short.
But, because of COVID – my plans for the podcast were reimagined into something new. Something meant to focus less on tying history to specific places – the land where my ancestors were born, enslaved, stolen – and focus more on the stories that bind us.
For 14 episodes I told stories, starting with the experience of learning that we are black. Then, telling how that realization and the truths that come from it, seep into our everyday lives, how we work, who we love, the way our identities are shaped, & whether or not we connect with our ancestors.
Then, amidst the Corona virus crisis, an uprising began. The Black Lives Matter movement spread seemingly as quickly as the virus but it was not meant to kill, rather, it was meant to cure an illness at the heart of American Origin stories: racism born from slavery. The American Oppression, inextricably linked to American freedom.
So, the podcast was reimagined (again) to form the BLM series. We discussed how COVID isn’t the first pandemic, endemic, or disease outbreak to disproportionately impact Black people. Instead, we have a legacy of indirectly and directly taking the brunt of these crises.
We discussed the violence that Black people have suffered since the literal beginning of this country. In every decade of US history, Black people have experienced horrific violence by other civilians that was motivated by racism.
And we learned that it’s not just the civilians with their vigilante justice keeping the "social order" intact. It’s also the state, which has sponsored violence against Black bodies, also since the beginning.
Technology has allowed us to bear witness to this violence, even if we have not experienced it personally. We have been exposed in the ills of the prison system through work of people like Bryan Stevenson (EJI) & Ava DuVernay (13th); seen videos of violence at the hands of police officers against people like Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor; seen it in the streets with the stabbing death of 17-year-old Elijah Al-Amin or Ahmaud Arbery, and in the harassment of 911 calls by those with false claims of fear – such as Amy Cooper and the hundreds of others.
We have seen the footage and we have taken to the streets because we are FED UP. We are done with the status quo of these United States. We are on the edge of change, the likes of which this country has never seen. But, being a part of a revolution can be incredibly draining and confusing.
So for this final episode (for now), I focus on the way we can each use our own life's work to contribute to the cause. We can't all be on the front lines but we can all play a role in this movement.
Artist Azikiwe Mohammed (featured in the New York Times), plays his part through artwork. In our interview, I focus on the city he created - New Davonhaime - a place where Black people matter - where they can feel seen & heard. This place may not exist yet, but can soon.
Hear more on the episode!
See more installation work at: AzikiwePhoto.com
Azikiwe Mohammed lives and works in TriBeCa, NYC. He earned his BFA from Bard College in 2005. His work has been featured across the country.
396 Wortman Ave., Anna Zorina Gallery, New York; NY
Blackest Night: A Survey in Blackness, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA
90 – 91 + 2011 – 2019, Visions From Home, Mindy Solomon Gallery, Miami, FL
Auntie / Uncle Julius: Welcome, Always, Public Swim Gallery, New York, NY
Jimmys Thrift Of New Davonhaime, Ace Hotel Chicago, Chicago, IL
Black Labor, Rush Arts, New York, NY
Jimmys Thrift Of New Davonhaime, Knockdown Center, Maspeth, NY
Armor Photo Studio: House Visits Welcome, Long Gallery, New York, NY
Potential Futures / Black Receipts, IDIO Gallery, Brooklyn, NY
Black Internet, gallery: SENSEI, New York, NY
Frequent Aberrations 2009-2012, 7Dunham, Brooklyn, NY
A Thugtrospective of Realness: A solo effort from Azikiwe Mohammed, Panda Gallery, New York, NY