This past month of September we have been taking I Am My White Ancestors to the streets! Actually to street fairs, parks, and farmers markets. Here’s the scenario. At each Portland area location we set up a single portrait on a moveable stand and hang out for about two hours. Ideally we have four people: Two to keep the fabric panel from blowing over from the wind and two to wear signs and try to engage people. The signs ask in large type “Want to end racism?” Under that is the name of the project. Our goal was to talk and listen to people about white history and ending racism.
So what was it like? It was performance, sales, and an attempt to make connections. In other words it was exciting and terrifying. There we were, standing in front of a huge image of a white person with the word racism hanging around our necks. There was no doubt that we were going public as white people. Of course that was the point, to publicly claim my family history warts and all and take responsibility for how that has affected me now. The pop ups just made this more real since I was not protected by a gallery or institutional environment. My helpers and I were on the same level as panhandlers, buskers, preachers, or the Jehovah’s Witness women that seemed to be at every corner. We were all competing for the attention of the street.
The locations varied in how open people were. The first one at the Belmont Street Fair went well because it was warm and sunny and people were there for fun and entertainment. The second pop up we planned at Portland Saturday Market was rained out. Denny and I got kicked out of the third location, Director Park in downtown Portland, because we didn’t have a permit. The fourth was at my local farmers markets in Cully, a small community based market where people hang out, eat and listen to music. Not only did we have a prime spot on the main aisle, Doug was my helper that day. As a former salesperson he modeled reaching out to people walking by and not just waiting for them to express interest. The fifth was at Portland Farmers market downtown and the vibe was a mix of people set on buying their food and leaving, and sketchy street people. It was also windy and we only had two people so my poor ancestor Ragnhilde kept being pushed over. We only lasted an hour. The sixth was back at Cully Market. It was their last market for the season so it was packed with neighbors and shoppers. For the seventh I was rained out at Portland Farmers Market again.
People’s reactions varied. Some glanced at us and scurried past, their shopping bags banging around their knees. Many slowed their step and looked longer, then smiled and waved. If they appeared curious, I smiled wider and called out “it’s a pop up art project.” Often that was enough for them to stop and talk. If they were interested in knowing more I gave them a postcard with info.
Many people didn’t know how to respond and I would ask them to share who their people were. It could be a challenge for people. One women started to describe how her family came from Scandinavia but abruptly stopped saying she was not able to talk right now because she just came from an acupuncture appointment. People of color tended to avoid us. This was as it should be since our target audience was white people and our goal was helping them do their work to end racism.
Since the project is based on my vulnerability and openness about my family, it gave people permission to wonder and share about their families. One man revealed that he was born in Romania and his family fled the country in the 1970s because Jews were being lynched. That was the day I displayed my ancestor Magdalen Stroman, my Swiss ancestor who supported the Basel massacre of Jews during the Black Death in 1349.
This week the rains have returned so I am considering packing the ancestors away for the winter. But come next spring and summer I’ll be out again. I am recruiting helpers who want to learn to listen to white people and talk about ending racism. Please contact me if you want to be involved. Thanks to Jane Keating, Denny Karas, Doug Deaton, and Susan Bennett for helping out.