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A reflection on Black History Month

I’m quickly approaching my five-year NYC anniversary, and one of the things that never seems to get old in this city is the bounty of museums. From the Met, Guggenheim, and Cooper Hewitt Design museums that comprise a large portion of “Museum Mile” on the Upper East Side to the Museum of the Moving Image and New York Transit Museum in Queens and Brooklyn, respectively—the list goes on.

The Brooklyn Museum, however, is one of the museums I have benefitted from the most. The museum is not only filled with various pieces of African, European, and Asian art and artifacts, but the roaming exhibitions they host are engaging and offer a unique look at different types of artistry. From their exhibition on Sneaker Culture to Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland to Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, visitors are able to get access to different artists and hear stories they might otherwise never be exposed to.

Moreover, it was during this year’s Black History Month celebrations that I had the opportunity to listen to a conversation between Hilton Als and Kehinde Wiley which made the Brooklyn Museum feel a bit more special. Hilton Als is a distinguished cultural critic and author. Kehinde Wiley is a celebrated portrait painter, who may best be known for his portrait of President Obama in the National Gallery. Throughout the evening, the two men held a lively conversation about how race, masculinity, power, and representation have shaped portraiture throughout history and even in Mr. Wiley’s own work. As I sat in the auditorium listening to the two men speak, it was powerful hearing how Kehinde was introduced to art: he was raised by a single mother who enrolled him in a weekend art program that gave him something productive to do on weekends. It was this experience that became a launch pad and propelled Mr. Wiley into a larger world of art and portraiture that would allow him to not only express himself, but also be a source of inspiration for many new artists as well.

While the conversation was wholly entertaining and informational, the moment that resonated with me the most was the sacrifice his mother made that allowed him to not only attend the weekend arts program, but also allowed him to go on a trip to present-day Saint Petersburg to study art. Throughout those experiences Kehinde talked about bringing his “full self” to show not only that he deserved to be there, but that he could also have a voice through his art. This eventually led him to creating the bold portraits that he is now known for, which are sometimes interpretations of famous paintings shown through the lens of Black and African-American men and women. This can be seen clearly in his work “Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps.”

As someone who works in the creative industry and tries to advance diversity and inclusion where possible, being able to bring your “full self” to work and everything that you do is undoubtedly important, but it can also be a little exhausting. Sometimes you have to navigate the choppy waters of convincing your clients of the importance of having casting specs that reflect the demographics of their target audience. Sometimes you have to battle micro aggressions from colleagues and inform them of the reasons why certain stereotypes are hurtful, even if they are said in a “light-hearted” manner. And sometimes you are forced to wonder if in the end any of it is really worth the effort. However, it was the persistence of Mr. Wiley that really stood out to me. In the times when he was told no or wasn’t given the opportunity to show his worth, he didn’t allow that to be a complete hindrance to his progress. He instead used those moments as further motivation because he knew the sacrifices his mother made. He knew who he was and where he wanted to go. Similarly, when it comes to the ad industry, there are many times when black and brown voices aren’t allowed into the room and even when they are, one must ask if they’re really allowed to be their true selves. Moreover, there are times when those black and brown voices don’t even know that the creative industry could even be a place for them, so they never seek out the opportunity in the first place.

As we approach the end of Black History Month, it’s my hope that we continue to make progress in introducing diverse faces to the world of marketing and advertising and encouraging them to consider it as a viable career. Whether it be through programs like MAIP, AdColor, Ad Fellow, or MPMS (Most Promising Minority Student program), or through employee resource groups, outreach and retention, there are many avenues for success. Because at the end of the day, there could be another Kehinde Wiley in the making, they just need to be given the opportunity to explore and learn.

Author: Cameron Allison, Account Manager, Digitas North America