Episode 5: The Labyrinth
(Guitar music plays. It has a slow, meandering rhythm.)
Glenn North: There’s a big glass triangle on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins. It’s a sculpture by the artist Robert Morris. When you walk inside of it, you discover it’s a maze, like a carnival funhouse. Except all the walls are made of see-through glass.
Glenn North (echoing in the labyrinth): And I think I was just about to walk into a wall, but I caught it.
Glenn North: It’s hard to describe, but the invisible walls make it even more confusing than a regular maze. It’s really hard to know which way to turn.
Glenn North (echoing in the labyrinth): Oh, gosh. So I thought I was almost out and I don’t think…and oftentimes it feels like there’s a wall where there, when really isn’t.
Glenn North: All you can do when you’re inside of it is grope your way forward, inch by inch.
Glenn North (echoing in the labyrinth): It feels like I’ve been on a very long walk in a short amount of time.
Glenn North: You can probably tell from my voice, I didn’t really like it in there. But I did notice something interesting. It didn’t have any dead ends trying to fool you, like you’d think. It’s a labyrinth. Which means it’s only one path. One way in, one way out. So you can’t make a wrong turn. If you go back over every step you’ve taken, you get to the exit. It’s a little bit like this podcast. We’ve been re-tracing some of the steps that have gotten the Nelson-Atkins to where it is today. The people behind the museum, the neighborhoods they built, the land the building stands on, the stones that were carved, the America it was born in, the one we live in now. Looking hard and really seeing are sometimes two different things, especially when it comes to racial truths. Just like being in that labyrinth, it’s disorienting and uncomfortable. But take it from me, you gotta keep inching forward, even when it feels dangerous, if you ever want to get anywhere.
(Music transitions to theme by The Black Creatures. High vocals keep a strict and even rhythm while a piano and sax swing dance over the top.)
Glenn North: Welcome back to A Frame of Mind. This is our final episode, “The Labyrinth.” I’m your host, Glenn North.
So when the Nelson-Atkins asked me to host this podcast, I thought long and hard about it. Self-examination and interrogation are things I believe in, but I was also concerned about whether the museum really wanted to hear my truth or talk about it publicly. Because in my opinion, one of the biggest problems our country faces is that many white people continue to be in a state of denial when it comes to racism.
(Theme music fades out.)
You know, the writer James Baldwin said that racism is like one of those evil forces in a horror movie, haunting the Black community on a daily basis while everyone else goes around feeling safe, like everything’s normal. I call that The Crazy. This disconnect between two realities, Black and white.
(Slow music with a jittery rhythm builds.)
It’s a state we’re all in, all the time. Our history is so damaged, it messes up the way we interact with each other. So for instance, as a Black man, I have my guard up driving through the suburbs, just like a white person has their guard up in a Black neighborhood. But we don’t openly acknowledge that reality because Black people get exhausted talking about racism, and white people don’t want to admit that it exists. Or that they’re complicit, simply by living in a society that has white privilege baked into it. Psychologists might say something like, Black people suffer from racial trauma and white people suffer from cognitive dissonance. And there you have it, that’s The Crazy. It contaminates everything. One of the reasons why I think George Floyd’s murder threw our country into such a state of turmoil was that all of that damage was so visible, so horrifically on display. I mean, you cannot pretend that things in America are hunky-dory while watching a Black person being killed in a cell phone video. You just can’t.
So why is it so damn hard to have an honest conversation about that? One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of white people are scared they’ll say something wrong, or make a mistake that makes things worse, or get called out for…being white and having privilege. So they don’t engage at all. But that just keeps The Crazy going. So I wanna share a story about something I experienced at the Nelson-Atkins. It has to do with Juneteenth, a holiday that’s very important to Black folks. The Nelson’s been known and loved for a long time for putting on a lot of different cultural festivals. But they weren’t doing anything specific for African Americans. So they came up with the idea of putting on a Juneteenth celebration at the museum. Well. That caused a lot of buzz in the Black community. I talked to Sonié Ruffin about that time.
Glenn North (in conversation): We was like what the hell, you know? (Laughs and keeps laughing.)
Sonié Ruffin: (Laughs.) Can we do that? Can we say bad words? Cause I need to know. I mean, if we can say bad words, let’s go! It was like, whatchya’ll doin? You’re gettin ready to bring Juneteenth to the Plaza? Come on, baby. Let’s get real with me. (Continues under narration.)
Glenn North: You might remember from an earlier episode that the Plaza was built by J.C. Nichols. He’s the real estate developer who used racially restrictive covenants to keep Blacks and Jews out of his neighborhoods. And J.C. Nichols was one of the founding trustees of the museum. Feelings run deep. Especially around Juneteenth.
Sonié Ruffin: First and foremost, Juneteenth didn’t come out of Kansas City. It came out of Texas. Galveston, Texas. Okay. That’s Juneteenth. Let’s get this history straight. That’s number one. So don’t come to me talking about, we gonna celebrate Juneteenth when you don’t even know what it’s about.
(Bluesy music comes in, sometimes solemn and sometimes celebratory.)
Glenn North: I’m gonna break in here to explain what Sonié’s talking about, because a lot of people only have a vague idea of what Juneteenth even is. So when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it didn’t instantly free all enslaved people. Emancipation took a long time to roll out across the United States. Some border states like Missouri were exempt, and other states, like Texas, just ignored it completely, until the federal troops took control. So Juneteenth commemorates the day that those enslaved people in Texas finally learned that they were free. That happened on June 19, 1865. Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
Sonié Ruffin: The Emancipation Proclamation to African Americans is like the Constitution is to everybody else. Right? The slaves that waited in the muck and the mire to hear this document read that they were free. That’s our reality.
Glenn North: So, here’s the thing. The Black community in Kansas City has been celebrating Juneteenth for a very long time. Horace Peterson III, the founder of The Black Archives of Mid-America, started it back in the 1980s. Now the celebration is run by his daughter Makeda. It’s located in an area we call 18th and Vine.
Alvin Brooks: Up until 1964, you were limited in where you would go and you didn’t go to places that you know, you felt at least, you were not welcome and you were treated differently.
Glenn North: That’s Alvin Brooks. He’s a legend in Kansas City. He was one of the first Black officers on the police force.
Alvin Brooks: 18th and Vine was a cultural Mecca for the African American community. You had cultured things there, you know, and that’s where you went, you had the schools, the churches, place of recreation, you had nightclubs, you had the Streets Hotel, you had stores up and down, and so that was your cultural Mecca.
Glenn North: So that’s why we celebrate Juneteenth there. It’s a whole weekend that kicks off with a parade and then there are live music performances, drill teams, food trucks, street vendors, pony rides, I mean, there is literally dancing in the streets. (Sounds of a parade and a drill team weave in and out.) Here’s Makeda Peterson.
Makeda Peterson: I guess it’s the sincere feeling of love that you feel, you know? That sense of community. I really feel it when it’s towards, like, at least five or six o’clock and I see kiddos barefoot with a cotton candy in one hand, a barrette going in this direction, I, I love that. You know, I walk down the street and I see a family of three little kiddos with ice cream cones sitting on the sidewalk, just enjoying the sunset and they’re just chilling. And I think that is what our community, when we have those moments, we feed off of it. Just this sense of we can come together and it could just be a really beautiful day.
Glenn North: So, Juneteenth was this great thing, our thing, for years and years at 18th & Vine. And then word got around that the Nelson-Atkins wanted to do something over in their ‘hood.
Chiluba Musonda: I was offended by that. At the time. Because I’m like, Whoa, that’s our space, and here’s the Nelson invading. This is another example of big institutions with their money and endowments and huge staffs taking over something that belongs to a particular community and group.
Sonié Ruffin: I did not encourage them to do it when they wanted to do it. They needed to learn about what is Juneteenth. They needed to learn and understand. We getting ready to celebrate something that is near and dear to black folks. It’s called freedom. Whatchyou gonna pay for that?
(Slow bluesy music comes in.)
Glenn North: So in steps Kreshaun McKinney. She worked in the museum’s education department when this happened. Kreshaun’s a major advocate for local artists with a lot of street cred. So when this Juneteenth thing came up, she found herself smack dab in the middle of it, fielding a lot of questions.
Kreshaun McKinney: We did not have a Juneteenth program set in stone. We did not want the museum going in and presenting itself as the white museum thinks this is cool to do now, so it’s going to want to take it over. We were like what should we do? How should we do it? How can we compliment what you do? And we definitely had our critics.
Sonié Ruffin: We had to have some real serious Come to Jesus meetings. First and foremost, this was not the first time, the Emancipation Proclamation, the actual documents, were taken to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1980.
Glenn North: That’s right. In 1980, the Emancipation Proclamation was sent here from Washington, DC, so the public could see it.
Makeda Peterson: The motivation to bring the Emancipation Proclamation, to have the conversations more from the African American perspective, that came from my father. I don’t think it was any coincidence that he chose the Nelson, that he wanted to do it there. I think, with the history of Nichols and all that, you know, those layers that shroud the Plaza.
Glenn North: So here’s what went down. Thousands and thousands of people waited in long lines just to see that document sitting in a glass case inside the museum. It was a profound moment in Kansas City history. We were on the world stage. And the Nelson-Atkins was pivotal in making that happen. But when all this Juneteenth stuff came up, it was clear a lot of people at the museum didn’t know that that was part of their past.
Makeda Peterson: We started talking and then one of their archivists or their historians said, well, let me go research and figure this out. And it was like, wait a minute. We had the whole…? And really, they saw the connection with my father, like, wow. It had really fallen off the radar.
Glenn North: It goes back to that question of how history gets recorded. Who’s telling the story? And whose story is being told?
So anyway, the upshot of all this, the museum didn’t do a Juneteenth celebration that first year. They sat down with Makeda and Sonié and a whole lot of other community leaders to figure out how they could participate in Juneteenth in a way that made sense for us. Because sometimes being an ally means letting someone else be in charge.
Sonié Ruffin: What the Nelson was smart to do, they listened. We came together and everybody started learning about, what is this? Is it a holiday? You know, is it a celebration? Is it—it’s some of everything. It’s not barbecue and potato salad and beans —it’s a document.
Glenn North: To me, this whole thing was an example of the gray area between inclusion and cultural appropriation. Those are dicey waters. Because sometimes it feels like, why do white people have to own everything? Even the holiday that we created to celebrate our freedom. So I’m gonna say something kinda bluntly to white folks who might be listening. You just can’t expect to be met with open arms all the time. Your great idea might be challenged or rejected entirely, no matter how good your intentions are. You might even get the side eye. Or be pushed away. Because the fact is, when you have a history of being betrayed and violated over and over, you don’t just get over it. So this is the work. Hearing that—and hearing why—without running for the hills. And then reaching out again, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation might be.
Sonié Ruffin: For the institution to say, look, we’re going to open up these doors to everyone in this community to celebrate the people that they have dismissed. You don’t begin to know what that does to a person, when you’re talking to an 85-year-old person and they say to you, “I couldn’t come to the Nelson when I was a little girl. Because I was Black.” I mean, they’re changing the trajectory.
Glenn North: Let me just clarify one thing because we looked into what Sonie said. And as far as we could find, the Nelson-Atkins never had any kind of official policy that kept Black people out of the museum. But I heard this again and again from people in my community. Like Alvin Brooks.
Alvin Brooks: I remember going there as a, as a fifth or sixth grader. I remember being there and not seeing any white kids. And people that I’ve talked to, they could not remember when they ever went there they ever saw anything but black kids, which makes me think that there was quote unquote Negro Day.
Glenn North: So the truth is, there wasn’t a Negro Day. But the truth also is, it felt that way to Black people. And that’s what I mean by the Crazy.
Glenn North: I want to say something else here that feels related to all this. Sometimes what we do as Black artists just isn’t for white folks. Sometimes it’s just about things that are uniquely Black—by us and for us. It’s not that white folks can’t appreciate or enjoy it, but that’s not what we’re concerned about. It’s showing the world what we know, without apology or explanation or any need for white culture to validate it. And that should be ok. I wrote a poem about this. It’s called “Why Black Folks Like to Dance.”
(Joyful music by Eclipse comes in. Keys dance along the top, bass steps up and down, drums are steady and laid back. This is dancing music.)
You study the darkness
of my body, desiring
to know the curve
& the line, whips scarred
my back but they never
broke my spine,
to steal what’s inherently mine,
you want to move like me,
to groove like me,
to boogaloo like me
but your body can’t
move like mine
‘cause it never needed to…
I cakewalked out your slavery
& you couldn’t lynch my blues
yeah, you try to dance
like me but you stuck
with two left shoes.
My hips undulate with a passion
that shakes pine cones loose
my frame contorts in ways
that Sherlock could not deduce
with every oppressor I face
& throughout every abuse
my movements possess
a beauty only struggle could produce.
I keep it movin’ with a quickness
with a panther’s agility
got a lindyhop too fast
for the naked eye to see
I call my left leg Malcolm
And Martin is my right
I can march the streets
of Birmingham at noontime
& dance all Saturday night.
how you could love my music,
my walk, my talk, my style
but hate me so intensely…
Why am I so reviled?
May not ever get the answers
on this side of eternity
but one thing is for certain
I’ma keep on doin me
I’ma dance like
there’s no tomorrow
And sing at the top
of my lungs
shakin my big black
until the final bell is rung!
(Music by Eclipse ends. Music shifts to a slower R&B sound. It’s still dancing music, but this one’s low and smooth.)
Glenn North: So cut to a year after all that Juneteenth business. The Nelson-Atkins did work out how to do something for the holiday. And what I saw at the museum kinda blew my mind. It has to do with what I was just talking about, something that’s a part of Black culture here in Kansas City. It’s a dance called the 2Step.
De Barker: This is magic to us, what this does for us.
Glenn North: That’s De Barker. We call her The Queen of Kansas City 2Step.
De Barker: Years ago, the Lindyhop was in the big ballroom. And then the venues got smaller and quaint, kind of a juke joint type of atmosphere. So the dancing had to be calmer and close up and smoother and controlled because the places were smaller. And so people used to step in like one box, just one little area. You mirror each other and then you synchronize and then it becomes a flow. It’s a conversation piece. It’s a soul. It’s a vibe. It’s just a lot to us.
Rodney Thompson: It’s uniquely Kansas City like nothing else.
Glenn North: This is filmmaker Rodney Thompson.
Rodney Thompson: You know, we have jazz and barbecue, but everybody doesn’t have a barbecue restaurant. Everybody doesn’t play an instrument. But practically everyone takes ownership in the Kansas City 2Step. It embodied kind of a Kansas City cool that’s unique to Kansas City.
(Under narration, a crowd cheers and chatters, weaving in and out of music with a low groove.)
Glenn North: So back to the Juneteenth celebration at the museum. What I stumbled into in the lobby was so unexpected and so beautiful, all I could do was shake my head in amazement. There were hundreds of Black bodies in that space, doing the 2Step like the museum was all theirs. Couples gliding across the marble floor, grooving and swaying, and De getting them into the flow, and people laughing and talking and twirling, and kids trying it out. And white folks standing aside, so we could just be free and do our thing. I’m telling you, it was off the chain.
De Barker: Growing up in the seventies, the only time we got to go to the Nelson was if we were on a school bus tour, that’s the only time we got to step in the Nelson. So that, that was huge for me to be asked to walk in there and then doing the dance that we love and we do, and that’s relevant to our culture and our community.
Kreshaun: Somebody pulled me over and was just like, Kreshaun. You brought the 2Step into the museum! (Laughs.) So—what else can we bring?
Glenn North: Sometimes reckoning with all our racial problems feels like that dance. Two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes clumsy, sometimes in the flow. But I’m telling you, in that moment, watching all those Black folks doin the 2Step, I saw what was possible. That day, the museum was a place where everybody belonged.
(Music transitions to a lighter sound with plucked strings. It’s forward moving and optimistic.)
So it’s time to close out this podcast. I wish I had some easy answers to wrap it all up in a bow. I really do. All I can offer is my testimony. From this one spot, looking at one museum, in the middle of America, right now. If we want to be better, if we truly want to change, we have got to keep calling out The Crazy in all the ways we can. Is a podcast enough? No. Is it something? I hope so. ‘Cause the honest truth is, my city is beautiful and my city is brutal. Just like the country I live in. Sometimes, when I get tired and down —and I do—I think about what it would be like to be me, a 55–year–old Black man, in Galveston, Texas, in 1865. Born into slavery. Never known anything else. How could I possibly have imagined that things would change? And then Juneteenth happened. Growing up in my time through the 70s and 80s, I never imagined there could be a Black President of the United States. And then Obama happened. (Archival recording of Obama with a crowd saying, “My fellow Americans.”) And so here we are now, with people marching in the streets, and 2Steppers dancing in the Nelson, and me making a podcast trying to imagine a world beyond The Crazy. My heart is hungry for that world, even though I don’t know what it looks like. Or how to get there, except to keep on inching forward, step by step, just like when I was inside that glass labyrinth. Museums have a role to play, I think, if they do the work of honestly facing what they’ve been and rethinking what they could be. I would love to see the art on the walls of that kind of museum.
(Theme music rolls in.)
Thanks for listening to A Frame of Mind, the podcast of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. This season was co-written and produced by me, Glenn North, and my creative partner Christine Murray, with editing and sound design by Brandi Howell. Our junior producer is Duaa Mohamed. Interview recording by Tim Harte and studio engineering by Simpson Sound Lab. Fact checking by Kate Carpenter. Our theme music is by The Black Creatures. Additional music by Eclipse. Our cover art is by Two Tone Press. Our community advisory board includes Jimmy Beason, Jose Faus, Allan Gray, Ron Jones, and Nia Richardson, who were instrumental in guiding this conversation from the outset and keeping us honest along the way.
Special thanks to every single person we interviewed who gave us their time and their truth. This podcast would not exist without their voices: De Barker, Wanda Battle, Dove Deattie, Alvin Brooks, Myles Cheadle, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, Mona Cliff, Lucky Garcia, Adam Hamilton, Justin Ikerionwu, Alex Kimball Williams, Muenfua Lewis, Kreshaun McKinney, Chiluba Musonda, Lee Pentecost, Makeda Peterson, Sonié Ruffin, Alex Ponca Stock, Erik Stafford, Rodney Thompson, Vi Tran, Angel Tucker, and Jake Wagner. Thanks also to our Nelson-Atkins interviewees Linda Battle, Tara Laver, Rachel Nicholson, and Julián Zugazugoitia.
And finally, a huge shout out to everyone at the Nelson-Atkins who made this podcast happen, including our creative partners Jocelyn Edens and Kim Masteller; Anne Manning, who championed this project from the start; Brent Bellew and the teen producers who helped us frame our early ideas, and the podcast working group at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Every time we thought the museum wo uld say hold up, put the brakes on, don’t go there, they in fact said yes, yes, keep going.
This five-episode podcast is produced with generous support from Bank of America, N.A., Trustee of the John W. and Effie E. Speas Memorial Trust.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is just one of a constellation of museums in Kansas City that includes the American Jazz Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the Black Archives of Mid-America, Brice R. Watkins Cultural Center, the Kansas City Museum, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, to name just a few. Come visit and see for yourself. There is a lot to love about my hometown.
(Theme music ends.)