What I Realized When I Took My Biracial Preschooler To A Racially-Charged Art Exhibit

by Andrea Coghlan
Originally Published: 
A red poster for the exhibition of Hank Willis Thomas behind an oversized black Afro pick comb
Courtesy of Andrea Coghlan

“Are we making the responsible choice as parents?” asked my husband as I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and banana into our son’s dinosaur-covered backpack. We’d made a last minute decision to take a trip to the Portland Art Museum that dreary Sunday morning.

It was the last day of “All Things Being Equal…” a multi-media exhibit by Hank Willis Thomas that — among other things — examines the ways in which Black people have been continuously exploited under America’s enduring consumer culture.

“It’s fine,” I assured him. “It’ll be good for us to get out and experience some culture.”

Within the hour, we found ourselves in the museum lobby among an interesting cross section of the city.

Graying parents with their acne-covered teenage children. Retirees. Hip grad school types. Young mothers with infants strapped to their chests.

Everyone was dressed in their Pacific Northwest Sunday best: upscale performance coats, knit beanies and thick-framed glasses.

With his little left hand in mine and his little right hand in his father’s, our three-and-a-half year-old was enchanted by the exciting, new museum-going experience.

He smiled brightly as we passed a rendition of “Guernica” fashioned out of NBA jerseys and provocative photographs that equated professional sports to slavery. He hummed a tune from Lego Movie 2 as we inspected an image of “The Door of No Return” in the shape of an Absolut Vodka bottle.

Courtesy of Andrea Coghlan

Whenever my husband or I attempted to break our three-person hand holding formation to get a closer look at a piece of work, our son immediately voiced his disapproval.

“Where’d daddy go?!” or “Where’s mommy?!” he’d demand.

The fact that he wanted us together as a family during the whole museum experience was sweet. But his loud, adorable voice within that particular context embarrassed me.

Still, we dove deeper into Willis Thomas’ exhibit. And as we did so, the absurdity of the situation became more clear to me. Experiencing art that deals so directly with Blackness in a city renowned for its lack of diversity was disorienting.

Yes, I saw more people of color at the exhibit that day than I see on a day-to-day basis in Portland. But still, there weren’t that many of us. And our presence drew attention.

In the museum, I would often catch people’s ricocheting glances. First from my Black face, to my husband’s White face, to our son’s Biracial face. Their expressions would soften after calculating the equation of our multiracial family. Then came the patronizing smile.

There were also the museum-goers who were offended by the presence of our young child. For those people, nothing was more disruptive to the act of consuming art created by a Brown man than nearly tripping over a small Brown boy.

There were moments I wondered, “Did we make the responsible choice as parents bringing our preschooler here?”

Throughout my childhood, I have memories of my family taking me to art museums. The most treasured is of a trip my mother and I took to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was 1998 and I remember how excited she was to see the Unicorn Tapestries. I knew nothing about the tapestries, aside from the feeling of anticipation they elicited in my ever-composed mother.

It took one 45-minute trip on the Long Island Railroad and a subway ride before we reached the Upper East Side one summer morning.

As the largest museum in the United States and one of the largest museums of the world, the Met is a beast. According to its website, “tens of thousands of objects” are on display at any given time in the two-million-square-foot museum.

That day, however, my mother wasn’t concerned with the tens of thousands of objects. She was concerned with just the seven Unicorn Tapestries. As their permanent home at the Cloisters underwent renovations, she’d seized the opportunity for us to view these works at the Met’s flagship location.

Together, my mother and I stood in an expansive gallery surrounded by the massive, 14th century Dutch wall hangings. She explained the hidden religious themes. We peered at the fabrics and inspected their intricate details.

We bonded.

More than two decades and a cross-country move later, I’d learned about the Hank Willis Thomas’ exhibit after attending a talk by curator/activist/social media guru Kimberly Drew at the Portland Art Museum. I’d been following Drew and her sexy, Black, artistic exploits on Instagram for some time.

During her lecture, Drew spoke at length about making art accessible to those who don’t always see themselves in traditional art settings (read: Black and Brown people). And as she spoke, it dawned on me that as a Black person, I’ve always felt that I belonged in every gallery and every museum I’ve ever occupied.

I’ve seen the Borghese Gallery, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Centre Georges Pompidou, and in every instance I felt I had an unquestionable right to be there.

Am I fortunate? Undoubtedly. Entitled? That too. Is it obnoxious to mention museums I’ve visited abroad? Sure.

But I only mention it to make this point: My mother — a Black woman — showed me from a young age that experiencing art was my birthright.

And now that birthright is my son’s to inherit.

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