The Through My Lens: Art is Life photography workshop, which took place November 8 and was sponsored by the Play to Win Foundation, Nike, and Microsoft, gave several of Miami's teenagers the chance to express themselves and their life experiences through art. The opportunities and validation the workshop provides is in stark contrast to the teenagers fighting a corrupt system in Ferguson, Missouri, some in chaos, others in silent pleas. This essay is a look at how a city can uplift its youth or tear them down, inspiring them or teaching them that they don't matter.
The photography taken during the workshop will be featured at the FusionMIA 2014 African American Abstract Masters exhibit featuring the BET Art Lounge December 3 at Mana Wynwood Production Village (318 NW 23rd St., Miami) and lasts until December 7. Admission to the BET Art Lounge is free. Visit fusionmia.com.
Ferguson is now in leagues with Birmingham, Alabama; Los Angeles; Greensboro, North Carolina; and other cities in which riots, protesting, and police brutality have taken precedence. In all of these cities, race is the subject of the unrest. More specifically, what's at the heart of the protests and riots is the right for black life to be counted as legitimate. It is a fight to live.
Miami, like Los Angeles, has lost much of its affiliation with civil rights events only on its surface. To many, these places are only party towns in with only celebrities, sun and glitz to offer. But deep at its core, these cities have painful memories.
Old Miami was much like the rest of the South, complete with intense racial divides. Despite Florida being one of the states listed in the Southern Manifesto opposing desegregation in schools, Florida moved to desegregate in the early 1960s. Even still, racial tensions blew up. "Despite gains realized by Miami's African Americans in the aftermath of desegregation, poverty and crime remained disproportionately high among the race," states HistoryMiami, "while black anger over the perceived inequities and biases of the criminal justice system led to a series of searing riots, beginning in the summer of 1968, at the time of the Republican Party's Presidential nominating convention on Miami Beach."
Miami faced another riot in 1980, after several white Miami-Dade police officers were acquitted after the killing of Arthur McDuffie. HistoryMiami states that the riot was "the worst race riot up to that time in American history," with damages resulting in $50 million as well as 18 deaths. Today, Miami isn't considered an old southern town. But some of the same racial tensions still exist.
These tensions have to be exorcised somehow and, thankfully, teenagers of color in Miami are able to turn to the arts to release their feelings and share their stories with the world. These photos decorating this article, taken by local high school students, exhibit intuitiveness and passion that, unfortunately, could be overlooked by society if it isn't willing to cultivate them.
The average day in the life of black Miami -- the questions and promise in a boy's eyes, the simple sartorial choice of red socks with sneakers, a girl praying, men playing a board game -- is shown with respect and normalcy instead of offensive exoticism. Giving teenagers a chance to tell their stories is empowering for them and their city. Contrast to this the teenagers in Ferguson, some who are peacefully protesting and strategizing, while others are ready to burn down buildings.
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While setting buildings on fire doesn't make much sense on the surface, both the teens who strategize and the teens who burn have the same anger -- the anger from being unheard, passed over, and denied. And now with the disappointing decision from the Ferguson grand jury, their anger includes the pain of not being loved by their state, of not seen as being worthy of innocence.
The teens in Miami surely feel the same frustrations with the verdict from Ferguson. But Miami also has a cushion for its youth. The Knight Foundation provides tons of opportunities for expression and groups like the Dream Defenders give young Miamians a constructive outlet for activism. Even the Through My Lens photography workshop, during which the photos in the articles were taken, were backed by local artists willing to invest in the community as well as corporate sponsorship. As Elijah Wells, one of the students participating in the workshop said, "I think it's amazing--just the fact that big corporations like Nike and Microsoft can actually do things like this for the inner-city kids, because we never have things like this happen."
That's not to say that there's no one in Ferguson willing to invest in its youth. But it would seem that, sadly, many of Ferguson's teenagers have never been allowed to express their truth. They have been told directly and indirectly that their experiences and feelings don't matter, simply because of their skin color. Unfortunately, some feel that the only way they can show that they exist is to use fire, since other outlets have been stolen from them by their town, the state, and in many ways, America itself.