A call to action


Hunter Mallette

Christa David, “Make Me Wanna Holler The Way They Do My Life”

Local sculptor Sabrina Leonard approached Johnson State College at the beginning of fall with an immensely powerful and timely art idea: a performance piece that would highlight racial inequality, with heavy emphasis on Black Lives Matter.

The show ran from Nov. 14-20, and students and staff helped Leonard gather materials, dye fabric, hang donated artwork and more.

Leonard was inspired by a book that came out in 2015 by a writer for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coate. “I was hugely inspired by ‘Between the World and Me’ and Coates refers to white people as ‘dreamers’ — that we have dreamed ourselves white, dreamed ourselves superior, and simultaneously we dream that racism doesn’t exist,” said Leonard.

This symbolism of dreaming thus led to the idea of pillowcases.

“After the week in early July that saw the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille and five officers in Dallas back to back to back, I knew I had to do something,” said Leonard. “I knew that I had blood on my hands and my silence needed to be broken.”

Leonard was shaken and could not find any protests in Vermont or an active chapter of Black Lives Matter. She approached a close friend who was also disturbed by the militarization of police, but unfortunately their plans to do a performance art piece fell through.

“I connected with Michael Zebrowski, who wanted to partner with me on this issue. He then introduced me to Isaac Eddy, who felt equally moved to act and he offered up space in the gallery during October and November, and that’s how ‘Awaken’ was born and became a gallery show on the JSC campus,” said Leonard.

According to Huffington Post writer Julia Craven, over 194 black people have been killed by police in 2016 alone.

After doing research on her own about injustice and racism, she realized what systemic racism is and how we all play a part in that. “I wasn’t aware of, or ready to accept, the many other aspects of white supremacy, its causes, history, repercussions or my role in it,” Leonard said.

After putting up flyers asking students to participate, JSC Sophomore Brittney Malik was the only student to contact Leonard.

“I knew when it came to the opening it was essential that her voice was the one leading us. The white members of the collective did this work to prepare ourselves to be of better service in a black-led movement, as the brick layers and not the architects,” said Leonard.
Malik performed the poem “Let America Be America” by Langston Hughes on both opening nights of the show.

“I think this poem was perfect with what is happening in the U.S. in terms of injustice and racism. Although it was written in the 1930s, the topics discussed in the poem still apply today. It even fit with the recent election, and the final line of the poem is, ‘And make America again,’” said Malik.

Leonard’s sister-in-law became the next person in the chain to get involved with this pillowcase performance piece. Leonard’s sister was the social media advocate for the project and made a call for pillow cases to be donated. Around 100 pillowcases flooded in from over eight states that were used, new, recycled and the like.

The idea for the pillowcases was also born from Ta-Nehisi Coate’s “Between the World and Me,” which is a novel in the form of a letter that he writes his son, detailing the racial injustice they will always have to face. The giving up of pillowcases, for Leonard, mirrored the giving up of “the dream” as Coate’s and his son must do.

The dyeing and sewing of the pillowcases was a collaborative process that happened on campus at times. Gallery interns Becca Stancliffe and Bronte Grover, as well as Leonard’s long time friend and Americorps colleague, Sarah Waters, helped dye pillowcases.

“But mostly it was me at home dyeing pillowcases in my bathtub. It was really strenuous — made me really appreciate my washing machine — dirty and lonely work,” said Leonard. “There was a lot of time for reflection.”

The wall on the left side of the gallery sports multiple types of artwork from artists of color. Leonard’s sister voiced her concerns from the beginning about how it would probably remain a white show, with no people of color involved.

“Of course, I had wanted this to be a combined effort with people of all races working together, but we got far fewer volunteers than we’d hoped for . . . I’d reached out to friends of color but didn’t want to pester them, knowing that it’s not their job to hold my hand and explain racism to me, to explain what I’ve been willingly blind to but they’ve known for their entire lives,” Leonard said.

Through a search, Leonard and her sister, Tara, began looking outside Vermont for artists that could contribute. Christa Meyers and A’Driane Nieves contributed collages and paintings.

With the collaborative works of many artists, “Awaken” aimed to awaken the viewer out of this dream state known as being American.

“We need to understand how slavery has shaped our current situation and we need to consider reparations,” said Leonard. “We need to understand how we got here by seeking out and listening to people of color. We need to understand how we are complicit in and contributors of white supremacy.”

This show was an effort to not only awaken the viewer, but to honor all those who have died in recent events. It is a call to action. To get involved further, Leonard asks that you research Black Lives Matter and consider joining the Vermont chapter and to support the organization financially. To view the art works of Christa Meyers and A’Driane Nieves, visit ChristaDavid.com or AddyeB.com.