Natalie’s 2014 Year in Review


2014 was another year of stretching, juggling, creating, wife-ing and mommy-ing. It was also a year to accept when it is time to let go, even to the things you really love…


ARTS & SOCIETY photoIn 2014, I signed a publishing contract with The New Press to write a book of profiles of artists and how they reflect and affect social change given trends in globalization, technology and social inequality. The New Press is a nonprofit I greatly admire for publishing many high-impact, game-changing books such as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,”  and also heavyweights such as Alice Walker, Kimberle Crenshaw, Ira Berlin, to name-check just a few. The book’s genesis was the first conversation project I did as a fellow of the Interactivity Foundation:  The Future of the Arts & Society in 2013. It will build on months of conversations with the artists and lay people who were panelists, as well as hundreds of people who participated in subsequent arts & society discussion forums sponsored by IF. I am still trying to raise money for travel. But the plan is to dust off my passport to observe artists in action in a variety of contexts and genres, do some participant observation with an experimental theatre company, host more conversations about art. It’s a massive creative challenge to do all the research and pull it all together into coherent narrative. But I’m very inspired by the artists I have already started working with, and fully intend to enjoy the ride.

What’s Going On? The 2014 Remix

Soul of the City students in front of the Marvin Gaye mosaic at the entrance of Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington.

Soul of the City students in front of the Marvin Gaye mosaic at the entrance of Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington.

This past summer I was the lead scholar for the D.C. Humanities Council’s Soul of the City project. As part of DC’s summer youth employment project, I worked with a group of 16 young people from ages 14-22 on a transmedia project that examined the life and legacy of DC native Marvin Gaye. The students created a digital humanities site, which you can check out which included 3 podcasts, a virtual, audio/video tour of DC sites that shaped Marvin’s life and art. And finally, the Soul of the City young people collaborated in their own 2014 remix/update of What’s Going On?, which they wrote and performed with some composition and production help from the great musician Kokayi and WHUR deejay Kyle Murdoch. They  shot and edited a music video for the song (with the help of the talented filmmaker Saaret Yoseph (of See/Line fame) near the mural of Marvin Gaye in Shaw. Of course that mural was covered up shortly after we shot the video to make room for…drum roll please…a new condo. In D.C., we are trading the funk for the condos. Yup, that’s what’s going on!


Me interviewing the future mayor of DC on education issues.

Me interviewing the future mayor of DC on education issues.

I published a few pieces for The Root, one on the over-use of ADHD drugs with children, and another essay on how the viral street harassment video was culturally insensitive and deployed tired cliches about black masculinity. I wrote the cover story for the ACLU’s magazine, “War on the Poor,” which should be released in January 2015. It was a look at how, thanks to debtor’s prisons, harsh landlord tenant laws and excessive court fees and enforcement for petty offenses like seat belts or speeding,  being poor is increasingly becoming a crime in the United States. Very depressing but enlightening.  I also mentored a group of academics at Emory University on behalf of The Op-Ed Project, which is a fabulous community of journalists and thought leaders committed to diversifying the world’s conversation. I moderated several public forums in both local D.C. and national Washington. One was a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill about media images of black men in the wake of the Ferguson, and another on behalf of members of the Congressional Black Caucus about preserving black heritage. And running up to the D.C. mayoral race, I conducted three live back-to-back interviews with all three mayoral candidates about education issues, sponsored by a coalition of parents in Washington, D.C. that was livestreamed on the Web and drew some excellent coverage in the Washington Post. I presented my research on the Diasporic dimensions of go-go music at a conference called Revisiting Our Black Mosaic Symposium, led by the fabulous  Smithsonian Anacostia Museum curator Dr. Ariana Curtis.


Prizm Artists at Cracker Johnson House

Prizm Artists at Cracker Johnson House

I returned to Art Basel Miami Beach 2014, to get in some book research, but also to perform a grim task: Saying goodbye to Cracker Johnson. Ten years ago, my family bought the 1926 house built by an iconic historic figure in West Palm Beach, a mixed-race bootlegger and numbers runner named James Jerome “Cracker” Johnson (1877-1945).  After years of endless renovations and opening it to the public for tours and events, financial pressures have forced us to put it on the market. (The fact that we were selling made the local newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, which published an article on Dec. 9, 2014. )

The Freshwater area of West Palm Beach is equivalent to once-legally segregated neighborhoods such as Washington, D.C.’s U Street, but it remains severely depressed and undercapitalized. We incorporated The Freshwater Project as a nonprofit  to do the work of preservation, research and community dialogue there. But after 10 years of losses on the house and no end in sight, we can no longer afford to continue the bricks and mortar work. We have been in denial for years that things would improve.

To think about what is next, we hosted a small reception during Art Basel Miami week with a group of artists visiting Florida to exhibit in the Prizm Art Fair. This panel of artists and creative workers participated in a dialogue with us to help us imagine new ways to do the work of telling stories and preserving black history can continue in the virtual, creative and other space. Among the participating artists included: Holly Bass, Adrienne Gaither, Stanley Squirewell, Larry Cook, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Amber Robles-Gordon. And it was moderated by the D.C.-based cultural workers Jess Solomon and Michael L. Chambers II.

Not gonna lie: Tears were shed. (OK, mostly my tears.) I blame my sweet sister Denise who has a knack for invoking very specific and powerful memories with just a few words. But beyond the personal, I feel sad that there is so much work left to do the bring the house back to its original glory. I feel sad about how much more work there is to do in that community to be released from the chains of segregation and poverty that took hold after legal segregation ended.

I feel sad that so many black families, have like us, seen their wealth evaporate thanks to the housing and mortgage crisis. But I feel 100 percent sure that we gave it our very best shot–and that is enough. Our hope is that by allowing someone else to buy it at current market rate, they will have an opportunity to tackle the project with a fresh eye, fresh beginning, and most importantly, fresh financing. The event was wonderful. (Shout out to Jess and Michael, cultural la la las extraordinaire who have been partners and friends in so many projects in D.C. and came down to help out with this one.) My mother Serena and I left the discussion bursting with ideas for how to continue the work through our nonprofit. I am sure I will write more later. So. Many. Stories. In that house. You have no idea.

Anyways, I’m ready for 2015 and whatever new and unexpected wonders are in store. Bring it.