In Richmond, Virginia, you encounter monuments, old and new – on Monument Avenue one-hundred-year-old Confederate generals stand alongside, since 1996, a statue honoring African American Tennis icon Arthur Ashe. Nearby, Kehinde Wiley’s new statue, Rumours of War, sits outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a new permanent sculpture moved there following its premiere in New York’s Times Square last year.
But the makeup of Monument Avenue may soon change. Just in the last few days, and after years of activism and organizing across the state, Governor Ralph Northam signed a Confederate Monuments Bill. Starting in summer 2020, local municipalities in Virginia can remove, relocate or contextualize monuments as they see fit.
Last year, in anticipation of the shifts at the state level, Richmond’s Mayor Levar Stoney convened a History and Culture Commission. Its chair, Free Egunfemi Bangura, our guest today, is a tactical urbanist who founded Untold RVA. She pursues ways to memorialize beyond bronze and marble. Bangura illuminates the connections between language and power.
"Commemorative justice, specifically, is a way to raise funds for people that are doing justice work, that are willing to use deliberately submerged narratives that are place-based in their own communities and encourage other people to do the same. And with that money they can put it back into their own projects, whatever that intersectional target spot is and keep the funds flowing and be like micro investors in one another's social justice and social innovation projects," says Bangura.
This episode, we speak to Bangura about her work in “Commemorative Justice,” a term she coined. She also breaks down her projects that have left an imprint on Richmond, and how traveling outside of the country has shifted her thinking on her homegrown projects.
Bangura is a Soros Equality Fellow, a bureau chief at the United States Department of Arts and Culture, and 2019 Monument Lab Fellow. We collaborate together, including on an upcoming project called Shaping the Past, a partnership with the Goethe Institute and German Federal Agency for Civic Education.
Paul Farber: Free Egunfemi Bangura, welcome to the Monument Lab podcast.
Free Egunfemi Bangura: Hi, friend Paul.
Farber: It's so great to be here with you.
Bangura: It's always a pleasure when I get to hang out with you.
Farber: Likewise. I first want to ask you how you are holding up in the midst of this pandemic. But I also know that you were traveling out of the country when the shutdowns were starting to occur. How did you get home, and how are you holding up?
Bangura: Well, that's a three part question [Laughs]. I will say that I'm holding up well. I think my entire life being one of those people that came of age in the early '90s, we just didn't go to college, a lot of us. We chose to pay for college but not go to classes so that we could sit under trees and have these building ciphers, where we would talk about the end of times and how society would collapse and how we needed to be prepared and how Babylon is going to fall one day. And so this is literally what I prepared for my entire adult life. So I feel pretty good. I've been prepared. I'm not one of those people that just didn't know that this was going to happen. So for that, I feel pretty good. As far as my city is concerned, Richmond, I just got some news that all of the people who have passed away from the pandemic in Richmond were black. So I'm totally disgusted about that.
But I'm stocked up up in here [laughs], so I don't really need anything. I have a garden box, I have plenty of food, I have Internet, all the accoutrement, my computer, and I'm good. So I would say yes, I'm definitely blessed to be safe and sound in a well-contained isolation. But as far as the international part of this, two days from now I was supposed to be having my traditional engagement in Sierra Leone, and that's engagement to be married. I know I've told you all about that, Paul. I was totally not supposed to be here right now.
Farber: We say congratulations, but also I'm sorry that you have to delay.
Bangura: Yeah, it sucks. It's like, of all the times I finally decide to get married, and now the borders are closed, so that sucks. In preparation for the wedding, though, I decided that I wanted to gift myself a whole series of dental work and have this new smile and all this stuff. So I went to Turkey, and I left on the 11th of March. So it was kind of crazy. Yeah, because then I was supposed to be there for a week and get everything done, and I have this beautiful smile and I'm grateful for that. But I came home on the last flight leaving Turkey. And it was to the extent that, had I just left a couple of hours after, there wouldn't have been any way for me to get out of that country and come back here, because it just shut everything down and it hasn't been opened since.
Bangura: I probably would have been begging for an airlift or something right now. So I barely made it out. And what was so crazy is that when I got off the plane in DC, it was like the CDC was there and they had all these American flags and they were just waving them at us. And then we walked up to them and they were just like, "Do you have a fever? Have you been coughing?" And I was expecting it to be like, at least shoot the temperature gun at my head. But they didn't do any of that. So I will say that it's very surreal, it's dystopian as hell. And I don't know what's next, but I'm looking for what's going to be the next place to live in the world if it can't be the United States.
Bangura: And it's good, because it opens up stuff to the global reality that some of the things that we practice here in the United States can be well served in other countries. And we'll just continue doing our memory keeper work, and just amplify narratives wherever we go. So for that, on that level, I feel very much a global citizen. So that pretty much is to answer your question. Yes, I'm doing well, and who knows where this wild ride is going to take us.
Farber: That's right. And actually, I wanted to talk to you about travel, because you are from Richmond and so much of your work is based in the city, but you also have increasingly traveled and, as you said, opening yourself up to different perspectives. I know you've been working in Sierra Leone, we went with other Monument Lab fellows to Berlin last summer. And so what has travel meant to you and your work on memory culture, especially over the last few years? I know in this moment of being stuck in place, but I'm curious what travel has meant to you.
Bangura: Well, Paul, first of all, let me just say, when I was 19 years old I found a credit card and I used it for $89, and it was for a maternity top cause I was pregnant with my first eldest daughter. And I had no idea that that was a felony. And so again, back to my entire adult life story, but it's true. I never anticipated being able to get out of here. I always felt like, "I'm never going to be able to vote. I'm never going to be able to have a gun to protect my family. I'm never going to be able to get a passport. I'm never going to make enough money to leave." These are the things that gripped me early on as a young person. But I'm self-determined as hell, and really, my ancestors speak to me through the language of bright ideas.
Bangura: So constantly for the last 25 years, they've just been pushing these really, really innovative, entrepreneurial light bulbs to me. And I followed many of them. And every single time I've either, won, been selected, been chosen, amplified, elevated, supported. So the last time that that actually happened at a pivotal moment was in 2013, where I just decided that I wanted to formalize my memory work. And I founded Untold RVA, RVA being the acronym for Richmond, Virginia. And it was focused on amplifying deliberately submerged lost narratives from black freedom stories specifically to Richmond.
When I pivoted to do the ancestor work 24/7, it was because I realized in my city, being the South and the Bible belt and people not really being open at that time towards African traditional spirituality, I was just like, "All right, well, how can I present ancestor remembrance," which I believe is really the fuel to push any project, any project, is tying into the blessing of your ancestors and elevating those narratives and those spirits that we stand on the shoulders of. And so I said, "Well, if I do it as a historical project, it won't necessarily come off like it's ancestor altars and incense and sage wands and all that."
So that's how I presented Untold RVA, as a historical narrative reclaiming project. And it was voted to be the people's choice for the creative advancement of the most powerful self-determination narratives in the city of Richmond. And from there, just went up, and I just continued and continued and followed those places where I was told to look ancestrally, with the little voice that speaks to my spirit with sparkles and glitter. A feeling of sparkling. It's weird, I can't really describe it, but it just feels like glitter and sparkles. But anyway, it's like the yellow brick road [Laughs]. But followed that, and it just really started leading me to organizations that were requiring me to travel, like the United States Department of Arts and Culture, the USDAC. And also working with the university community, going in there and encouraging the students for how they can really have cultural humility for deliberately submerged narratives and see how that can inspire their work in different, very, very divergent degree programs.
All the way from first-year medical students to the dance department and art majors and all kind of MATX, graphic design and stuff. The universities call me from all different corners of the school to say, "Hey, how can we bring you to help amplify these narratives and inspire our students?" So long story short, they're calling me from all over and they're saying, "Come on, come on, come on." And I'm ending up in Detroit, at, Allied Media Conference, AMC, all this stuff. And suddenly it's time to go overseas. And so the first time I was even ever asked to go out of the country was Monument Lab. And I remember you guys were like, "You know you need a passport, right? Because we're going to Berlin." [Laughs] I was like, "Oh shit, how do I tell them that I don't have a passport and I'm not even sure if I'm eligible for a passport?"
It's just one of those things you just don't touch. Because it's like you don't want to be disappointed. I tried to get one before and they made me jump through all these hoops. But I said, "Okay, I am going to go and I'm going to formally change my name and I'm going to get my passport.
Yes. you guys really gave me the opportunity at Monument Lab to travel, leave the country, and begin to look at what my work can do in a whole other environment. All right, so let me roll back. Let me roll back.
Yeah, so it was so crazy, because when you guys asked me if I wanted come to Berlin, Monument Lab, I didn't even know if I was going to be able to get a passport. I didn't know if there were going to be barriers, if there was going to be a whole bunch of red tape. It took a while. It took about a year, because they were giving me stuff to jump through. But I got all that done, got my passport, and buff, we were off to Berlin, never having left the country before. Well, to a place that I needed a passport. So I would just say that the Berlin trip was the beginning of my international exposure. And I think I've probably been out of the country every two months since we left for Berlin. And I just realize that that's probably the biggest challenge for American-born African people. Because there hasn't been enough opportunity. I guess we need some sort of diametric opposite to be able to recognize our similitude to the people on the other side of the water where we come from.
And so with me being able to do that, especially in Berlin, the African community in Berlin was so thriving and vibrant. And the Monument Lab team made sure that we had an opportunity to check that out. I remember you guys asked, "What do you want to see, Free?" And soon as I got there, boom, we were seeing it. I was like, "I want to know the people that are like me across the water." And that happened. So I just want to say thank you for popping the seal on that junk [Laughs]. My life has never been the same, and I am a much better person for it. So thank you.
Farber: Well I want to say thank you, not only for sharing that, but going through the process. It's not easy to make that change, to get a passport and to take that leap. So just first I want to express gratitude to you. Everyone on that trip really benefited from your presence. And I think in travel we also learn a lot about yourself and the surroundings. And I'm curious, for you, what surprised you when you started traveling?
Bangura: What surprised me when I started traveling? Okay. Well, so one of the things that I experience, even when I'm here in Richmond and doing talks and stuff, is, you know how it is, you're the speaker and you really just want to chill, but you can't, because you're like, "Okay, I've got to deliver this talk." And so it puts you in this weird, surreal state. And so when you're traveling, especially for something like what we were going for, you're in a sustained timeframe like that, so you can't really just chill. You're always on. So it surprised me that when I went internationally traveling, that I was actually having to be very forceful with myself and be like, "You have to shut off. You can't always be in work mode." Don't you remember when we were in Berlin and I was just like, "I don't know how to just take this stuff in. I'm thinking about work." Remember when we were having those times?
Farber: Yeah, it takes a few days to figure out how to be open. And also, it is important to protect yourself in those spaces too. So it's always a balance. But yeah, I absolutely remember, and seeing it play out over the course of a week was important for everybody.
Bangura: Right. Because everyone wasn't as intense as I.
Farber: Which might feel like a month. A week might have felt like a month.
Bangura: For some people, I know, because there were people there that already knew how to do that, and I didn't. And so I was like, even though I think a lot of times people may look and be like, "Oh, she's older, she's got it all together," or whatever, but I was really a neophyte when it comes to the experience of travel and just taking in. No one was really asking me to output on the Monument Lab trip to Berlin. It was more so an opportunity to just be able to observe and let it really marinate within my spirit. And it wasn't until the end that anybody asked us anything, really. But I just didn't know how to set all that to the side and take in. I was constantly in thinking mode. And this is probably something a lot of folks are going to have to deal with right now, as they're on their quarantine, and realize that you don't have to constantly be putting work in. You can just exist and it's enough. And everything will get to you the way it was meant to get to you.
Bangura: Might not be the way you thought, but it's going to get to you. So I have a long way to go with that, because I am definitely one of those self-determined people that has high expectations for herself. And I think maybe because I'm a late bloomer a little bit, I always think about remaining time and legacy and leaving something behind that is going to inspire, and I'm acutely aware of what kind of ancestor I want to be. So it's difficult for me to just shut down and allow things to happen. I'm always trying to make something happen. And that was the opposite of the whole point of going to Berlin and just taking in all of the ways that commemorative expression had occurred in a society that might necessarily not be what we are coming from. And so I think looking back on my photos from that time has been really cool, because I can revisit in my mind the things that I didn't notice while I was in that heightened state of output. It's an interesting way of looking back. Thank goodness for photos.
Farber: Is there anything that you can share that's caught your eye or has come to your mind?
Bangura: Oh, about that day? Yeah. I remember one conversation you and I had and stuff, and it was one of the last days. Remember when we were in that garden kind of like, after we had seen the stumble stones, the gold, ... For those who don't know, in Berlin there are these [Stumble Stone] monuments … It was a guerrilla tactic, really. This man had really taken it upon himself to remove some of the bricks and the cobblestones and replace them with brass and have the names of those who lives had been lost in the Holocaust on those blocks. So they were very site specific. And he'd done all the research, and the city had not embraced this at first at all and he just did it on his own. And they're exquisite pieces of work. He's a cobblestone expert now, and all of it's so beautiful. And I remember ...
Farber: And they're all over Europe and South America, there's 70,000 of them.
Bangura: Oh, see, that's one of the things that I probably didn't allow myself to take in, because I was probably ...
Farber: Thinking of something else.
Bangura: Exactly, thinking about, "How can I, dah dah dah dah." But yes. Okay. But I remember we were in the, I don't want to say a garden, remember that building that got shot up real bad? And I was just like, "How?" Remember, it was like a church in the back and then there was a residence right beside it. And it had all the mortar fire, and if I'm not mistaken, the church, Martin Luther King had come and spoken in.
Farber: That's correct.
Bangura: Okay. So we were in that, I guess, commemorative park, and there were the stones stacked up. I was like, "You know, I don't know if I really want to be here for this whole thing. This doesn't really relate to my specific interests," or whatever. And something, I can't remember exactly what you said back to me, but it played back long after, and I realized, you don't have to have an acknowledgement through your own culture for something that someone has gone through when it comes to memory keeping. It's just the simple fact that you can be inspired by someone else's narrative. Right? Because I'm just so hyper-focused on black freedom narratives in Richmond, that it might not have really occurred to me that this could be a pivotal moment for someone, such as yourself, who comes from a background of people that were directly affected by what happened there.
So many times that thought has come up, that conversation that we had, and many times I look at it from different angles and I'm like, "You know, Paul so quietly taught me that there's a thread that runs through memory culture keepers across the planet." And it's all that we acknowledge and represent the fact that these things should never be forgotten and we have to support one another anyway that we can. You don't have to understand, you don't even have to know the narrative, but you roll up your sleeves and you support one another immediately when called. And so I've been a better colleague as a result of that trip. I've been able to expand. I can keep my own narrow focus, but then I can be extremely expansive because of my colleagues' work and anything that they need, I'm hands-on for and I recognize the malleable nature of memory culture.
Farber: Well, I appreciate you saying it. I want to just add, not only do you bring critical questions, but you bring a generosity. I think part of what we kept finding together, and what some of us have found in our research beyond that, is that it's not an either/or black freedom struggles live in Berlin, they live diasporically. And so how to not let go of the questions that you have for the particularity of your work, but just looking for connected differences and looking for connections to be able to share.
Bangura: That's true. I mean, I don't know Paul, I really dig your work and I love so many things about how you've put this project together. I mean, we always start ... When I give you the list, do I not always start with your typeface?
Bangura: That was probably one of the things that really drew me first. I was like, "Oh, this has got a beautiful, clean design aesthetic. Ooh, what's this? Monument Lab?" I remember that day when I first heard and just going on, I just really appreciate the way that you've been able to democratize so many of these historical narratives and memory keepers' work in such a way that the value has been really amplified for people that will be remembered, but that are doing the remembering right now.
I lived through a time, in my city, where my work was deliberately submerged, right along with the narratives I was trying to elevate and amplify. And I struggle with that today. Even in the midst of having stuff on BBC, Al Jazeera, and CNN, all that stuff, I mean, that doesn't matter. There's those that are out there that are like, "Just make her go away and make what she's saying go away. We don't want to hear it." So I think that there's so much to gain when you kind of get out of the center of your own cipher and start to go to the outer edges and see who you can connect with and who's going to cross your little Venn diagram.
Yeah, sometimes they're not going to interlap in the center. They're going to barely touch, but they're still touching. So go over there and see what you can gain and what you can give. When I founded Untold RVA in 2013 and I was part of the Feast RVA startup competition, it was full of community, social justice and really more like social innovators and design-minded people, folks that were somewhere a part of the creative economy, people that were community designers and stuff like that, that attended this dinner for 50 people who had paid $25 a piece. I was selected as one of three people to present a Pecha Kucha style five slide presentation on what I wanted to do, and it was all about how I wanted Untold RVA to amplify these narratives on the sides of buses and inside buses. And all the people who voted overwhelmingly chose Untold RVA to receive the funds that were raised from the sale of those dinner tickets.
It was absolutely intersectionality because those people didn't know anything about black freedom narratives because that's the whole point. They were deliberately submerged, but they believed in it. Plus the fact that I can make a damn banging ass slide deck, which I think Paul, you might be able to agree with me on because that's probably been my favorite thing to do with my Monument Lab time, is build slide decks. I love it. I love a slide. But no, that's how that happened and it was absolutely intersectionality. So I really believe that sometimes you have to move beyond your own neighborhood and see how you can speak the language of those who can turn out to be very supportive of your mission.
And you kind of have to put down a lot of your preconceived notions. As a matter of fact, before I started doing the history work full-time, I had a vegan food business and I was catering events and they were all black cultural events. At first, the name of it was Blacktastic Snacks and everybody in the city knew about it. I would not prepare food for any events that were not black cultural events. I just wouldn't do it. I was like, "This food is made to enhance melanated people. Period. End of discussion. Blacktastic Snacks. That's it."
Farber: Take us back for a moment. There are all kinds of stories that circulate throughout the country about the history of Richmond. Can you take us back to your first memories of encountering history in Richmond?
Bangura: Okay. I want to take it back to high school because ... Well, no, I'll take it back to sixth grade. I still have this book on my shelf, it's called Old Egyptian Stories. I was a book thief [laughs] if it had something black on it. I went to an all white middle school. In my life, I have been the only black student in the entire township, that lived in the only black family that lived in the township. I have been the only black student in my whole school classroom, all that stuff, right.
I remember back in, I think it was sixth grade, I had this amazing English teacher by the name of Ms. Mansfield, and she taught us the importance of having really good handwriting and this just locked in. So now I have this really architectural handwriting that people are like, "It's a typeface. That's amazing."
But anyway, I go and say all of that because I remember I found this book and it was Old Egyptian Stories and it was the only thing that I'd ever seen in our library. We didn't even have any books with black characters in them in our library. So I took this book and I was like, "Wow, why don't we have any of these stories in our history class?" And so I began to make a book and I just kind of was writing about any black character from anywhere that I heard about. Some of them I had to actually make up because I just didn't know, I was filling in the spaces.
And then by the time I got to 11th or 12th grade, I was in AP European History and there was a stomach churning disgust every day. It was a great class, the teacher was really cool, but I was like, "Why have I gotten to the point of AP History and I still am not learning about black history?" So I just decided that I was going to run as a historian in my school. And the night before we were set to vote, I was running unopposed, and the teacher who was sponsoring the, I guess the council, she called someone that lived across the golf course from my family and she was like, "Hey, you should run because there's only one person running," and she wrote her name in on the ballot and she won.
I promised myself I would always become a historian. And so I just feel like that was the earliest part of when I saw that history was going to be controlled by the dominant narrative, and that the dominant narrative was going to do nothing to try to make sure that people had a balanced understanding of their own history, and that you weren't going to learn anything about Richmond or the struggles of Richmond. Matter of fact, I didn't even know anything. This is long before I knew anything about the struggles of Richmond.
To answer your question specifically though, there was a space still there in Richmond and it was covered by asphalt. It was a parking lot, and we found out that, due to some research this old white lady did, who had an old Richmond family who had been here for the longest, she found a map in her attic, and it showed that there was something on the map that if you were to lay that map onto the map that we have now, you would see that it was called the "Old Burial Ground For Negroes." The old term, not what I'm saying now. And she was like, "There's enslaved African bodies up underneath here."
And so I saw in the struggle for reclaiming that land and that space, that people were using very antiquated language to describe it. That's really where I decided that my presence needed to be focused and concentrated, is to develop a lexicon for how people can ethically and equitably describe things that had been not talked about since so long in the past that the language was now completely inappropriate. So I began to pour libation down there. I was asked to come and do some community engagement events and they honored me with, Defender of the Year in 2007, for doing that work. I just stayed with it and stayed with it, and now last year, the University of Richmond selected my company, Untold RVA, to produce the largest site-based work that had ever been commissioned by their university.
And this is a major university. So I was able to use the resources that they put behind the project to hire a bunch of people to amplify and elevate the narrative of someone who lost their life on the city gallows right there where that parking lot stood. His name is Brother General Gabriel, as I call him. Some people call him Gabriel Prosser. But it just breaks my heart to imagine why we would call him by the name of his enslaver, Prosser. So I just call him Brother General Gabriel because of his brilliant, strategic, military mind to organize a revolt and an insurrection with, we don't even know how many, could have been thousands of people, who were planning in the year 1800 to set it off against the enemies of black freedom in Richmond, and to liberate the entire country from slavery.
It was literally awash because the rain came down that night, washed out the bridge, people began to snitch, everybody dispersed. Gabriel was on the run from August 30 to October 10, and he was hung on the gallows, which are unmarked except for the installations that I've put down there now. He and his, what they call co-conspirators, but I say his squad, they were given a gubernatorial pardon by Governor Tim Kaine back in 2007 actually, to say that he was wrongfully executed by the state and that he should be forgiven.
And then back, I guess it was 2018, I proposed to our mayor that we should have a week to commemorate not only Gabriel and his co-conspirators as they call them, but also the innovation and the real impetus behind current black freedom struggles in our city, the young people who are getting proclamation, so every week, the week of August 30. It's just been an amazing time to be able to call in people from all walks of life to contribute to a week's worth of programming around Gabriel.
Farber: You just described, in many ways, how you were able to take a profound hurdle, a profound kind of gap in the story and react and build, not just programming or awareness, but change. You talked about language and lexicon being so important. When you encountered those gaps way back when, how did you go about not just changing the language for yourself but for a city?
Bangura: Well, that's the whole beauty of projects like Monument Lab and the USDAC. No one's really going to listen to you when you're just you pushing against the systemic inequity that we were born into. But when you have the weight of a project who's got a website, who's got foundation funding, who's got people from the dominant culture that are supportive and pushing up your work as high as possible, and making connections, then people start to listen differently.
I mean, nothing that I'm saying is changing, it's just that now ... I mean, shoot, I was selected for the Soros Equality Fellowship for 2019-2020 and how do you not listen to a Soros Fellow? These things all pile onto each other's shoulders. So I know that the USDAC was an open door for Monument Lab, which was an open door for Soros, which is an open door for Al Jazeera, BBC, NPR, PBS, all that stuff. Somewhere along the line, these are people that use their societal privilege and said, "Hey, I heard about this chick in Richmond who is doing this thing. This would make a really good story."
I mean, I can literally point to all the people who use their privilege in order to amplify. So I do that myself now. I always have, but having more resources allows you to make more systemic change. And so my project's really, the focal point is to be able to find folks that are talented in different ways and tell them about these narratives that I've been able to excavate and ask them if they're willing to contribute their work in a very curatorial way. So that if they're an artist, or they're a singer, or a songwriter, or an MC, I'll say, "Hey, can you work on this Gabriel project? Would you like to help me? Or can I help you to do what you were going to do, but can you use this narrative as the baseline?" And it has happened over and over and over again to great acclaim. Relationships have been formed.
I can't begin to imagine what it would be like doing this work without that collaborative spirit undergirding everything.
Farber: Just in the last few days, your state of Virginia has made headlines because after years of pushing and of activism, Governor Ralph Northam just signed a Confederate Monuments Bill, that starting in summer 2020, local municipalities will have the ability to remove, relocate or contextualize monuments as they see fit. How do you view this milestone assigning that bill and how would you place that in a larger context of struggle, especially related to your work and other memory workers, who've been doing this for long before there was a bill?
Bangura: Well, it's funny you should ask me that because, so one of the beautiful outcomes of 2019, for me, was that the Mayor selected me to sit on his newly formed history and culture commission, which was meant to translate the recommendations of the Monument Avenue topic, I guess you could say, which was to identify what the community wished to see happen with all of the monuments that are in our capital city. It's interesting, we both live in commonwealths, so a lot of that stuff is kind of similar. As a matter of fact, I can trace how many people would be running away on the underground railroad to Philadelphia. It's just weird, there's a lot of connects between our two cities. But anyway, these folks got together for the better part of a year, maybe into the second year and they queried the community.
I was in one of the first meetings that they had in the Virginia Historical Society, which is now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. And it was literally like a block away from the neighborhood where the monuments are, now there's a Kehinde Wiley statue like right in front of both of those and the VMFA and all that, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. So, it's like something to replace the monolithic type of energy that's on there, except for Arthur Ashe, who is a 1970s and '80s activist and athlete who has his statue, that was placed at the end of Monument Avenue in Richmond, so that's the only black person on the whole Avenue. But our city built an entire resurgence of the wealth of the dominant culture, people who had inherited money from slavery right after the civil war, and in the early 1900s they built these palatial estates and along the promenade they put these statues to these folks that consequently had denounced their American citizenship to then secede from the United States.
And how in this world we're actually having a conversation about whether we should take down or keep up these monuments for people that weren't even American citizens, even when they die, they never even got reacclimated. And so all these statutes are up and they had this community engagement series by the Monument Avenue Commission, which some of my colleagues were sitting on that commission, people that are well known and prominent in institutions of memory in the city were on that. But then when it came time for them to then implement any of this, we didn't have any authority because the governor, had not signed this bill that just got signed the other day.
So, at the beginning of 2019 the mayor said, "Hey, I want to put in my own commission for history and culture." And he asked me to sit on there and when I found out that we were going to be working on things like Shockoe Bottom, which is the area in the city that the African ancestral burial ground and all of the auction houses, and all the factories where our honored African ancestors and societally forgotten, African ancestors were working from cradle to grave in these, I guess you could call them, basically factories. They were factory workers that were owned, so-called owned, by these factories and all this area, Shockoe Bottom ,was under the purview of the History and Culture Commission of how it needs to be commemorated. When we had the vote, I had to kind of push a little bit.
I remember putting my foot down and gritting my teeth a little bit. I remember pulling rank a little bit, but when it came time to vote for who was going to be the chair I ended up being the chair of the History and Culture Commission. So, now, still serving as chair, we're moving into our year two and every month we have meetings, public meetings to determine what we're going to do with these monuments. And who, but me, is the chair of this commission that will determine how we move forward in dealing with these things? And I was the person that was on the other side of the table, I was the community practitioner. Now I'm able to bring these very same perspectives and represent the city. And so, I think based on my colleagues that are on this commission, all of us agree that contextualization has to be a creative endeavor if we're left with no other choice but to contextualize, oh you know what Paul, guess what?
Bangura: I meant to tell you this a while ago. Remember when we were in the African section in Berlin and there was that was that sign and it had two different versions of the same story of how African-
Farber: Yes, in the African Quarter
Bangura: Yep. So, I took the picture of that and the story of that about how they had two different divergent groups. One that was more apologist of the colonization and one that was more radical. And they gave each one a side of the same sign to tell the same story. How about I took that to the mayor? Loved it. So, when we contextualize, if it ends up being contextualization before we're able to move to full removal, which I don't know, we're still in the throes of deciding, now we know we have the ability to decide on our own, but the decision has not yet been made. We just know that we have to focus on contextualization as our first priority.
Bangura: And do you know when I brought that idea to him, I was basically saying we do not need to come to consensus about this issue, consensus waters down both peoples' perspective. Why not put the perspective of two divergent groups on either side of a sign? Actually, I proposed a four-sided, like a kiosk, like a four-sided, like a obelisk, and one side would be from one divergent group that felt that the statue should remain up and they thought that it was their heritage. The other side would be from those that came from the perspective of taking it down for many different reasons. And then there would be one that was the language of the city that was actually produced by the History and Culture Commission. And the fourth one would be ways for people to connect further and they can go around all four of these pillars and they can learn and extrapolate their own opinion about all of this stuff, and it could go all down the street, and he loved it.
Well, because of the COVID-19, our budget, which was going to be sizeable enough to make this happen, has been completely sacked. I just found out the other day, COVID-19 issues are going to make that be more of a priority than working on this memory work. So, we go back into my sweet spot, which is people powered and very guerilla [Laughs]. So, we might have to go there after all, which I think we should have done anyway because I don't necessarily think you need $20,000 for sign or $10,000 for a sign to make an impact. You and I both know a poster, a dollar-50 cent poster, wheat pasted on something can change the trajectory of your entire city and bring people together, and amplify and elevate lost narratives in ways that static $15 million statues can never do. So, it's time to get creative and I'm the right person for the job now, because I didn't think we needed to spend a whole, whole, whole, whole, whole lot of money putting up a lot of new statues to be the counterpoint to what's up there anyway, so.
Farber: Yeah. You talked about the composition of Monument Avenue and mentioned the addition, recently, at least nearby, of Kehinde Wiley's Rumors of War. And so, when you look into the future of Monument Avenue, do you see the Confederate monuments coming down? Do you see a process that needs to happen in order to address the roots of white supremacy? You can speak for yourself as opposed to your official role. But I'm just curious, what do you see in the future or what would allow you to get there, to know that process?
Bangura: Yeah, I mean, it just, bottom line comes down to projects like Monument Lab, we don't have to wait. You know what I'm saying? That's my personal speaking, not as a city representative for the work, I just feel like we don't have to wait. What do we have to wait for? And especially not now when there's no money to do anything anyway, something has to be done, you know? So, I love the way that people use low cost, high visibility interruptions to the built environment, to disrupt and to amplify and elevate the things that have been deliberately submerged. That is tactical urbanism. That is the space that I occupy along with my comrades to the left and right. And we get the job done and we don't need $5 million to do something.
When the Kehinde Wiley statue went up, I had to ask myself, why are we doing this? Is this something that can be looked at as a continuation and a contextualization, and an expansion of something that really needs to be done away with? And so now that we have Kehinde Wiley, what are we going to take everything else down and leave Kehinde Wiley? I mean, I don't understand. And I also don't understand how when that was the gilded age, it costs a lot of money to get a statue, like the money that it cost them to get those statues up. People don't realize it, but those statues were really put up as something to enhance the sale of real estate back then in Richmond, because they made a grand promenade and they knew that they wanted to make sure that they had an area that they could feel comfortable and that it was home for, well you say "white supremacy," but I don't believe that white folks are supreme, so I can't really use my mouth to say that.
But I will say for those who were trying to subjugate other folks, wanted their own little neighborhood and so no, Kehinde Wiley's statue is not on Monument Avenue but it's like a block away. And so I'm just hoping that the solution doesn't end up being something that takes so much financial resource to be able to use something that fits with the streetscape there. I'm hoping we can use things that are more on that side of tactical urbanism, and street art, and technology and things that the kids that are going to be 70 in 60 years, are going to feel are reflective of society as it evolves.
If we keep on doing things to mimic what was done in the early 1900s I don't know how much progress we're going to be able to make. At some point we have to turn a corner, and there are other things to spend money on, living, live people that deserve the opportunity. For instance, I would love to be able to take the money that the next proposed statue, if there is one, that's supposed to tell of black narratives and go on Monument Avenue, I would love to take that money and then put some black kids through school to become a historians and culture keepers. Let them travel the world and learn about how it's done at the Goethe Institute or how it's done in Senegal, or Sierra Leone, or South Africa, or Berlin.
Those are the ways that I feel that if we have any say about how things are going to go, let's be creative and let's just be a little bit more conservative with the way that we spend this money on projects. And that one project doesn't have to cost $5 million or the 1% fund that takes $1 million to put up one statue. Can you imagine how many tactical urbanism projects we could have up, with that kind of money? Good gracious.
Paul: I want to ask another question about language.
Paul: You pointed out, really powerfully so, the problems of using a term like white supremacy. And I know in other parts of your work, you've been very clear about making sure to address the everyday violence of language, making sure to address it in your theory and your practice. Would you say just a little bit more about how you approach it. You're trying to not reinforce them, but you're also trying to build new awareness.
Bangura: Right. I mean, Paul, look, the two of us... That's probably one of the reasons why I dig you so much. It's like, we both get it. It's like, if you don't have the words to describe what you're talking about, that's the biggest problem right there is we don't have the words. You're doing nothing but perpetuating this systemic inequity without the language that you can reclaim the narrative. You have to reclaim the narrative, but you can't use the language of the oppressor to describe the condition of the oppressed. Right? So it requires us to have a lexicon of our own. When we were in Berlin, I told you that the book that I wanted to write was going to be a lexicon that included many different short stories, a page long, that told about folks that are doing memory work, when they replace toxic words with things that are more upliftful and more respectful of the narratives that had been deliberately submerged.
Bangura: And that, I wanted them to tell me about where they learned the word, who they learned the word from, if they made it up themselves, how they applied it, and what has been the response of the community when they tried to introduce it into the lexicon, into the community space. One of the examples of which is the African ancestral burial ground, in Richmond. I mean, okay, I'm just going to tell you, I'm sitting there, we're in our history and culture commission meetings. As I told you before, I'm the chair. And they're like, "Hey, it's finally time for us to make some new signs to be able to show people where the African burial ground really is." And so here's the language. This is coming from planning, from my city's planning department. And they're like, "Here's the language." And the sign currently says, "Old Burial Ground for Negroes."
Bangura: And I was like, "Over my dead body are y'all going to make a new sign that says, 'Old burial ground for Negroes.'" And then they were like, "Negro Burial Ground." I was like, "No." I, personally, spent $200 on a sign from grocery money and had my home girl put it in her truck, hanging out the window, for a nine foot sign, a nine by two foot sign, to put up at the burial ground that says, "African Ancestral Burial Ground. This site is protected by the self-determined descendant community and all those that support the amplification of black freedom narratives in the city of Richmond." Sign says this. It's up there now.
We did not have language to be able to say, "African Ancestral Burial Ground," until I put it up there. I'm not the only person in our country that's coming up with words that need to replace the ones that are really messed up. So that's the reason why I wanted to do this book is so that I could shine the light on those who are replacing this language and making sure that we can just enter it into the everyday lexicon of memory work. And then once it leaves out of us saying it, you start to see people in the legislature using it and stuff. For instance, one of the ones that I teach folks, every single time if I do a lecture, one of the first ones I say is that you cannot say, "The slaves."
When you say, "The slaves," you're talking about a person. You are not talking about property. They were not slaves. Even though you don't know people by name, you can say the enslaved African ancestors. By saying, "Ancestors," you're saying that there's someone that deserves a place of high honor in our society. By saying, "African," you're acknowledging where they came from. And by saying, "Enslaved," you're talking about their condition, not their identity. And so when you hear someone say, "Enslaved African ancestors," and take the time to make that pivot, you know that they're trying to do something to align with this equity issue of replacing these toxic terms. And so it's like, well, now you know, there's your tribe.
When you have the appropriate language to be able to really extricate the white supremacy, as folks like to call it, but we can say, "White insanity," and be spot on. And the myriad terms that people have come up with to replace these toxic language choices, that is where we are executing our self determination. That's the main thing.
Paul: There's all, kind of, verbal gymnastics that go on around calling out white racism. I mean there's language like, "racially charged, racially tinged." How do you navigate that? I mean, you're speaking a bit about it, but how do you find a way to hold people accountable and be direct, but also kind of usher in a new lexicon?
Bangura: Right. Again, I am definitely going to point the flashlight over at Monument Lab again, because people do not listen to you unless you have someone from the dominant culture saying that you should be listened to. So that is the reason why I appreciate how much you have used your privilege to create a space of legitimacy for those of us who are doing this work. I'm not saying anything different because, suddenly, Paul said, "Come on, be part of the Monument Lab Squad." It's just simply that now, the USDAC or the Soros team or Monument Lab is saying, "You should listen to this person. They're really saying some real shit," you know? And it helps to cross over that insurmountable hump. We have to work together. and the togetherness means stay true to your culture, but at the same time reach out to those who do have societal privilege that can help to amplify what you're saying.
That's been the way that I've navigated it. Because I'm telling you, I have not said not one single thing different as a result of being a Monument Lab Fellow that I was saying before that happened. It's just that the platform has enabled the legitimacy of what I'm saying to reach those who could, potentially, be in academia that wouldn't have listened to what I said until Soros said, "We picked her." So yeah, man, bottom line is that we are stronger together. And we need to really start looking for opportunities to share in our work, the way Monument Lab gave us the opportunity to do so. Because, I mean, the brilliance of people's adaptations to these toxic environments, especially through language, that's the three things that were taken away from us through colonization, land, language and culture. And language isn't always just your indigenous tribal dialect. It could, actually, just be in the way that everybody speaks to colonized language and the words that they use to describe stuff.
Bangura: The fact that you'd even say, "You owned somebody," how dare you. So the cool thing is, is that you can tell a person that and you can pretty much figure out who you want on your team with how quickly they embrace that new language that you give them.
Paul: I love you Free.
Bangura: I love you back.
Bangura: It takes one to know one. That's all it comes down to. It just takes one to know one, man. We're tribe. We're tribe.
Farber: You know, Free. We could keep talking all day, but I want to let you go on a final question.
Farber: You coined the term commemorative justice to talk about your work, to talk about a movement, and it's a really important term. And so, I want to just ask you, how did you come up with the term, but maybe even more so, how do you utilize that to do the work that you think is important and also connects with so many other people doing the work of memory culture?
Bangura: Okay. Well, commemorative justice was literally born at Allied Media Conference. I was invited to attend. I got out there, I was presenting on the first trip. I'm so sad that we didn't have it last year because they had their 21st year, they took a by year, wanted to wait. And then this year we have the pandemic, so I really wanted to get back there because it's just like a homecoming of people with ideas to use justice and equity as being the intersectional thread that we used through all of our work in the many sectors. Whether it be magic, whether it be film, whether it be a yoga, whatever it might be, as long as it has roots in justice and equity, we all came together at Allied Media Conference talking about how we can use the media to push all that forward in our society.
And so, I started looking at commemoration and memory work, and the tactical urbanism that I was using for these historical narratives that were deliberately submerged through the lens of equity and justice. And I was like, okay, we need to be able to look at what the purpose of this stuff really is. I mean, to tell someone, "Oh, you should remember your ancestors. You should remember Gabriel, you should remember Mary Bowser. You should remember, Harriet Tubman, or you should remember Sarah Mapps Douglass," or whoever, right?
Why? I mean, yeah, I'm telling you that you can prosper when you remember your ancestors, but I felt like there needs to be a creative economy element to it all. And that a person could figure out how they could monetize the amplification of these narratives. So, commemorative justice is specifically meant to sustain the work of people who are in the memory culture sector. And that I can show case studies and paradigms upon which I've been able to bring folks from my colleague circle and have them speak to a group that's willing to have some sort of compensation to those speakers for sharing their best practices.
And that's field notes from the frontline in Communiversity. Those are the two mechanisms that I use to push that information out as a commodifiable project-based offering that people can book and bring folks to come and talk about all this stuff. So, commemorative justice, specifically, is a way to raise funds for people that are doing justice work, that are willing to use deliberately submerged narratives that are place-based in their own communities and encourage other people to do the same. And with that money they can put it back into their own projects, whatever that intersectional target spot is and keep the funds flowing and be like micro investors in one another's social justice and social innovation projects. And that really is what commemorative justice boils down to, just honoring your ancestors, elevate those lost narratives, find a way to commodify your subject matter expertise.
Bring in your colleagues, make sure you share whatever you make and to support when there's no other support. If you happen to be a designer, then design for the brother, help the sister, use your place of privilege to get someone else's foot in the door. And once your foot is in the door, y'all kick it off the hinges and then let everybody in and that's commemorative justice.
Paul: Free Egunfemi Bangura, Thank you so much for this conversation and for all of our conversations.
Bangura: Always a pleasure. And I will always be here. If you call me, I'll come running, double time. I appreciate you, Paul, and everything that you've brought to our sector. And as it grows and as it expands, just know that we are our ancestor's wildest dreams. We stand on their shoulders and this is what we were born to do. Power to all the people that are in our little bubble. May it be, so.
Free Egunfemi Bangura is an independent historical strategist and social entrepreneur from Richmond, VA. In 2013, she founded Untold RVA and Untold Tours to inspire non-traditional audiences with bold typography, audio enhanced street art, and urban exploration.
Bangura was selected to join the inaugural cohort at Monument Lab in 2018 and has been credited as the originator of the international Commemorative Justice movement. She is a member of Richmond Memorial Health Foundation’s Health Equity Artists cohort, a bureau chief at the United States Department of Arts and Culture, a founding member of the BLK RVA action team, a faculty advisor at Initiatives of Change USA and the elected chair of Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s History and Culture Commission.
In 2018, Bangura established official City of Richmond commemorations entitled Black Freedom Day and GABRIEL WEEK. Last summer she guest lectured, produced, and co-directed Brother General Gabriel, the largest site-based performance ever commissioned by the University of Richmond.
As a 2019-2020 Soros Equality fellow with Open Society Foundations, Free has focused on creating innovative people-powered strategies to amplify the emerging Commemorative Justice movement as an essential component of the Black creative economy.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Free recently joined the faculty at Richmond Urban Ministries Institute (RUMI). She quickly reformatted her existing COMMUNIVERSITY platform to move RUMI's program participants through a 90 day intensive featuring online coursework featuring her handpicked roster of independent community based subject matter experts, collectively known as the Field Notes from the Front Line speakers bureau.
Bangura's current interactive street art project is Black Monument Avenue, a three block urban exploration experience in Richmond's majority Black Highland Park neighborhood. Visitors can safely explore this outdoor museum by driving through and calling a dedicated phone line with unique access codes for hearing songs, poems and messages about each installation. Neighbors, tourists and curious visitors to Black Monument Avenue will be greeted by large format african patterns adorning the streetscape alongside bold, colorful statements affirming the appreciation for ancestral remembrance and reclaimed memory culture.
Free Egunfemi Bangura’s work has appeared on NextCity, BBC, Al Jazeera, PBS, and NPR. Reach out to her with ideas for collabo projects and guest lectures via [email protected]