Unbought and Unbossed /ənbôt and ənbôsd/ phrase. – 1. to beholden to no one. 2. writer Robert Gottlieb created the phrase as a slogan for Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign. See also. Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress (seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives),the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
So my name is Gerald. I’m from the South side of Chicago. Born in 96, so I am 23. I love, love, love, love Black people. I mean, I went to school at Syracuse University and when I first started, being in my studios and we had to come up with work to achieve our assignments and things like that. And I remember, uh, after my first year…or maybe it was like after the first semester going into my second year…. I hit up my high school teacher, my high school photography teacher, who was like a mom to me and she’s the one that I think actually convinced me that I had some artistic skill. And I remember coming back and saying like, I don’t know what I want to make work about it. And I was like, I don’t know. I just don’t understand what I’m making work about or why I’m making work. All I know is I just like my work to be about Black people. That’s the thing I know the most, the thing that I feel the most comfortable in. And one of the things I love the most on this planet.
And so, I think that my understanding of Blackness has really transformed over the years, especially with me going to college and starting to read more, starting to have different friends starting to understand the intersections of Blackness. And the way I define intersections, meaning all these different identities that simultaneously people hold while also being Black. And through understanding the fact that these intersections are simultaneous I started to, especially recently, specify what it means to be a Black woman. I think that for so much of my life, Blackness has been at the forefront or been a part of my community. I began to understand language about it, understand racism, white supremacy, anti-Blackness…all these coded systems that inherently are created to degrade Blackness. But, I think that it always became, as an opportunity, absent of gender.
And so my Blackness became, I think, refined. I started to read more…actually I’m in my room and I’m like looking at books now cause I feel like I want to talk about a few things that I’ve explored…But, you know, the first book I really fell in love with, that helped me understand language about being a Black woman, was Eloquent Rage by Brittany Cooper. And it’s this is gorgeous book…The full title is actually Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Dicovers Her Superpower. And, I knew what feminism was, but like many other Black women, I feel like it was always communicated to me as this white woman dominated range. So it was like this thing for white women who sat on her hands all day or white women who wanted to be equal to her white husband. But it never felt like there was space for me and my identity, especially as a woman with a conventionally masculine name like Gerald. And so, that book was really, really, really, really beautiful. I mean the way she wrote it, I fell in love with her story and began to fall in love with my story. She breaks it up into so many parts that begin to talk about how race, class, gender, small-town, the South, the North…all these different other constructs, other communities, or categories impacted her exploration of her womanhood. I really felt like that was a good jumping point and then I started reading more by Audre Lorde, Sister Outside, bell hooks, Art on My Mind, and various other amazing writers. But, ultimately that really started to transform how I viewed myself and how I started to love myself and began to love my community even harder. And I think that the last thing I want to say on this topic, is that I think that Blackness is way more complex than sometimes it’s communicated. Both when you are a child growing up, but then also what the world tells you about it. And for me, what’s most important is just being able to give space for that.
I feel like that’s what I try to do with my work when I’m thinking about the complexities of my experience, but also how I interact with people, you know? Like, understanding that people… gender wise are on a spectrum…or people’s sexuality…and fluidity…affect how they move around and navigate. And it’s like the basis of why they’re so beautiful and the basis why Blackness is beautiful. And sometimes the way Blackness is constructed — the language or media or entertainment…et cetera, et cetera — we begin to boil it down to make it palatable or to make it easier to process….But it really does the opposite. It actually pins us against each other affirms different forms of oppression. And really… that’s the opposite of what we want. We want to celebrate our story, celebrate who we are. And In a sense we’re defeating that purpose.
So, that’s, of course, a very loaded question. Beauty is a complicated collection of identities, perspectives, and an expression of those different complexities. And sometimes those things, to the naked eye, seem abstract, obscure. But inherently the way they’re arranged, or evenpainted, is what defines them to be beauty– or the object or the person to be beautiful.
I mean last year, fall 2018, I spent a lot of time writing intensely about this concept and the idea of being, for me, to be pretty and to be fly. Like, how does one hold both spaces? How can one also be pretty and fly? How can one just be pretty? Do those two things have to be tied together? Can they lift up and together at the same time? And for me that was like such a hard, hard question…because that would require me to think that I was desirable. to think that who I am, who I innately show up as, is enough. And I think that that was so, so, so difficult.
I mean I have a ton of stories of how I started to explore different ways of expressing myself or expressing so-called-beauty and how I’ve been able to see different communities of people or people in general react differently to me when I visually show up in different ways. So, like, if I have Marley-twists, which are like these long…almost look like braids… but they’re twists and sometimes I wrap them up in a bun…but the point is that it’s a longer length of hair than my Afro… Or if I show up in a dress…or if I choose to wear a baseball Jersey… like how do these different forms of expression complicate the way people interact with me? And also complicate the way I see myself because of those interactions?
So, one of my favorite things that I had, through this process, discovered is that I began to see different fictional characters or different personas of people that I felt like parts of my body aligned with. And I started to construct my own understanding of why I thought I was pretty and fly– both and separately at the same time. And so I created this triple Venn-diagram where it’s Olivia Pope, Nola Darling from the Spike Lee series She’s Gotta Have It, and Missy Elliott. That’s my definition of what it means to be pretty, for me.
I think strength. It’s really interesting. I’ve just created my moodboard for this year. I have intentions that I set for myself and just things that I want to get done in a year. But when creating a mood board, I don’t really go into it like, Ooh, I want to find deep images and neat words or whatever. I kind of let things come to me. And when I finished my moodboard for this year, I realized that like all these images — which is a variety — are images of just Black women, feminine Black women, masculine energy Black women. Looking at my moodboard, I saw a lot of strength and a lot of power. That’s how I see Black beauty. A lot of strength… A lot of power throughout various centuries.
So if I define beauty as the juxtaposition or the collection or the way these different identities are painted…or the way things are being expressed…The way they are expressed is what defines the beauty. I guess, Black beauty would be those things within the context of African ancestry. So the way in which, any point in time, if you want to talk about us originating from the continent and just the different traditional and indidgenous designs, culture, food, music…Like, those things and how they affect who we are now, several generations later, even “removed” physically from that continent. How have those things, or the ancestral memory of where we are originally from, impacted or even added a second layer of how we express ourselves? Or how we take these different identities that we hold? That creates a second layer context of how those things are beautiful.
You know, there’s like very, straight-out, obvious things that people like just reference, right? Like, the way musically, like beats, can be traced back to different parts of the world…how drums are made…how they sound in ceremonies or celebrations…You know, instantly when I hear a beat in a particular way, just like immediately I know that, Yo, this somebody from the diaspora produced this beat….
But then…like deeper, like the way we carry ourselves, particularly when I’m thinking about Black women, it’s just like a certain finesse, you know, that that is like rooted in strength, rooted in beauty, rooted in care and tenderness. You know, I think that there’s a lot of tropes out there that would, you know, make Black women the mammy, Jezza Belle, the welfare queen… All these other things that minimalize the different parts of who we can be. But in essence, Black women have this finesse, this strength, and this tenderness, that’s unmatched, right?
Oh, the food! Just like this common memory we have that I can only trace back to just like ancestral memory, or how I deem it as ancestral memory. Like when people be on Twitter or be on Instagram and they’d do like the whole Thanksgiving thread where people are talking about like, Oh my auntie do this, or My mom’s food look like this, or they look like this when they done cooking or everybody going and taking a walk before dinner or all these different things that are very like related on a minute level to our personal lives…But it’s like literally everybody’s like, my family do that too. Or my people do that too. Or I know somebody who do that too. And it’s just like, for me, that’s the essence of Black culture…of like who we are as a people. No matter how much things feel so…like, this is just how my mama does this thing. It’s like this ancestral connection to each other and to our past and our future of who we are. And I think just will always be super identifiable no matter what we do.
And, you know, the way I’ve always understood where that comes from is thinking about the Amazonian warriors. These beautiful women. It;s incredible to see how…a “myth”…but also attributed, I believe, to the Dogon Tribes…where these women held government positions, these women were running the household, they were hunting. They were like leading and doing this shit, right? And so when you think about all the ways in which Black women are just like embodying that essence and idea, you see that thread in everybody. No matter if they’re doing it in the conventional way, as some people try to deem us to be…you know, taking charge…or it’s just like raising children…like a single parent home….
So a lot of my work talks about the sense of “strange fruit”. So I think about being another generation from the song, where that originated, where Nina Simone and Billie Holiday singing… I’m like a generation, a younger generation from there, connected to that lineage. And, you know, in the song, it clearly the depicts a lynching happening is it’s creating a metaphor between a lynched Black body and some weird, odd, essentially strange, not realistic fruit growing from the tree. And in that scene you get this very intense visualization of anti-Black violence and you understand the physical repercussions of that violence. But what I’m focusing on or what I try to focus on is, like, the residuals of that. And so, you know, a lot of people could say, contemporary lynchings are police killing us in the street. And a lot of my work tries to think about other lenses in which that violence is being passed down through these ancestral connections.
And so one thread that I think about is this idea of the exceptional Black and I define Black exceptionalism as this idea that you have to be over achieving and like accomplishing and succeeding in this gravity defying way. And if you don’t do that, then pretty much your life doesn’t matter and you’re a disgrace to your community. You know, there’s a lot of people sacrificing for you and if you don’t go above and beyond in this way, you’re letting all them down and you’re essentially wasting what they gave for you, sacrificed for you. And so for me this idea of being an exceptional Black came from ways in which we categorize Blackness as a whole.
One of my pieces, it was like a part of this larger installation where it’s like just kind of Thanksgiving style table and it has all these different strange-fruit servings…kind of like, there’s a little bit of this, you could have a side order of this… and each strange dish had a label. And so from left to right it was sex workers, the next dish was Black elites, the middle dish was exceptional Black, the next dish was working class and then the final dishe was, prisoners. And so reflecting on the ways in which everyone — Black and non-Black people — categorize who’s being a “good Black”, who’s being a “bad Black”, I started to understand how this “exceptional Black” plays a role in keeping that scale weighted because it creates a sense of possibility similar to the American Dream to set the possibility that you could break this, breakthrough these systems, and move forward. But, in reality, there’s only so much you can do because the idea of the exceptional Black, it can never be fulfilled. It’s impossible to be this perfect gravity-defining thing. It’s physically impossible.
And so, the ways in which these constructs are made are to reinforce not to be Black. You know, that’s the whole point. It’s like we’re already inherently seen as strange, inherently seen as bad, inherently seen as toxic, inherently seen as unhumane. And so a lot of my work, we’re often questioning what it means to be bad, but we never questioned what to be “good”. A lot of the things that I feel, in my experience, I’ve been trained to be this “non-bad Black” and to see these other people who go down other paths in life, to see them as undesirable and not to be loved. It’s been inherently training me to hate my own people. It’s been inherently trained to hate people around me. Inherently trained that if I show any sign of weakness or of moving in that direction, to hate myself and not hate the system has created all of this.
So within these societal pressures that are inherently confined to view what is good and what is a bad Black, it has totally complicated even the way I perceive gender and how gender is “absent” in this whole entire thing. You know, how when we view sex workers, it’s a very specific lens that comes into play with gender. I think that these systems are all blended in this way where…you know… you pull yourself up by the bootstraps and you do the thing, you achieve the thing, you can break through all these things. But, we all know that’s inherently designed for a specific version of a human, a specific version of a person. And that does not include Blackness in a lot of ways. And so to undo that…to unlearn what it means to be successful…to unlearn what it means to love my community and love myself…Means to start questioning these same systems that started to “reward” me. The same systems that allowed me to go to Syracuse, but not somebody else who was “smarter” than me, not go. You know, the same systems that allowed me to move forward when others moved back. It’s to start questioning, Okay, why was I chosen? Or this luck? Or is this the luck of the draw? It’s really beginning to start pointing the finger in different directions rather than at myself or other people.
I will say, for my own mental health, I won’t put too much into detail with this question…But, yes I have. And in multiple ways. One of the most prominent ways was when I was at school and a lot of experiences I had where I felt like people were…um…you know…I won’t fabricate and say that somebody called me the N-word or someone spit on me…Even though my friends did have that experience, it’s not like that cannot happen today… but particularly speaking to me… it was really the way in which my professors, the dean of my school, and different students on campus, exploited me, exploited my body, and the ways in which I was inherently undermined in a way where I felt unsafe to even just do the thing that I needed to do — which was go to school and get my degree. Which was a constant to everyday thing for me, an everyday thing for each other.
I think that in a lot of ways I didn’t know I was absorbing violence or that I was experiencing a lot of violence. I mean, there’s defining moments, where I was just like, Okay, that was fucked up, but the whole experience was very toxic. And I think that for me, it left me extremely raw. I don’t want to say shattered, but it was an experience that was really draining. It sucked the life out of me. I never felt so worthless, so used, so disgusting. I think that it wasn’t until after, when I saw these things, that I realized that this is inherently designed for me to feel like this and experience this. Inherently designed for me not to graduate. It was deterring me from doing that. And I think that just because you’re not getting called the N-word or you’re not getting hosed down, some might not view those inherent systems to be connected.
You know, I feel like, as someone who loves my community and loves the South side of Chicago, wants it to only be as great as it is destined to be…. You know, I, early on, wanted to come back to my city and be this leader, be this beacon of hope. I wanted to open up my own art center or just like do things that really would shape my community and give it the love and economic development that it needed. So with that understanding, I developed this idea that whatever career I had, had to be selfless and it almost could not be self-indulgent. Like, just giving back to my community, that’s what it’s going to be self satisfying.
And when I decided to go to school, go to Syracuse, a lot of things that were changing in my life. I had been a competitive athlete for pretty much my entire life, since I was like five years old up until that point, And I decided to stop playing and that was a huge change and shift. And I was supposed to be an engineer and I decided that I wasn’t gonna do that. And so all these things are changing about who I thought I was and who I wanted to be. And I decided to just go for art. I’d been prepared, I’d been creating a portfolio for like six years, So I was able to use it to go to school. But, I think it didn’t click until my final year at Syracuse and I finally was like, I’m getting an art degree. Like, I’m about to be an artist. And I don’t even know if I’m capable. I don’t even know if that’s something I want. And that was such a huge shock to me… that I’d been dedicating all this time, pretty much a whole decade of time, to making art and hadn’t even considered that I was going to be an artist. And that was, like, really huge. I didn’t really know that many artists in my life. Didn’t really know that many artists in my family. And I was just like, What am I doing? This seems like, you know, a risk. It seems weird. It was like a bunch of feelings.
And I remember my capstone professor, we didn’t talk about this stuff, but she was really patient with me my whole entire senior year… And, I remember graduating with this new-found confidence that I had the ability to convey thoughts. And it wasn’t until later, when I started making my own work outside of college, that I had the ability to be an artist. And I think that for me, that’s the most powerful, positive thing in my life right now. I’m almost two years out of college…pretty much have not lived permanently in Chicago in almost six years, and I’m an artist, and I’m proud of it. And it’s selfish for me, but it’s exactly what I wanted to do as a kid. I wanted to help my community and be a part of my community and serve my community. And I feel like that’s what’s most important to me right now. It’s the thing that is making me undeniably happy. Makes me feel smart and makes me feel loved. It makes me feel like I’m doing something for me and I’m doing something for my community too.
I’m a person who likes to dream and think long-term…But, I think a lot of stuff has been changing in my life where I haven’t really been thinking critically about that as much. I do think I want to be a professor of some sort, but I hate the way these systems, these academic systems thrive on racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, everything, all the isms. And so it makes me very apprehensive about that. But, the thing that I love about studying academia is this ability to believe that you are smart and that there’s people in the world — before you and in the same time period as you — who are also smart. And you can read about them, you can learn about them, you can make contributions in that field, in that work. And I think that for me, being able to really teach Black people is the ultimate goal. You know, be able to tell Black people that they’re smart and give them the space to do what they’re inherently designed to do, which is create and be wonderful. So, I do think I have aspirations to be a professor one day. I guess it would be at a HBCU or maybe it would be another type of college…
But, um, I also want to just travel too. I think that’s important for me, that’s a long term goal: continue to travel, continue to connect with people around the world. Prince has the saying that a citizen citizen in the world, not of the world, I think is how he does say it. Like, he kind of lives everywhere simultaneously and he’s not bound to one location. And so, I think for me, I would love to continue to travel. I love Paris. I love the Black people in Paris. I love the Black people everywhere and I want to see it. You know, one of my professors used to say there’s Black people in Antarctica, and I want to see them too, you know. I think those are my two goals — to one day be a professor and to keep traveling as long as I can.
I have to just go back to the idea that I’m always questioning myself… Is that we’re always taught what it means to be a bad Black, you know, cause “Blackness” is inherently terrible or destructive or strange…it’s perceivably all those things. So we’re always trying to be cautious of not being that Black or the bad Black or whatever that means. But we never question what it means to be good. Which I guess, means to be compliant or rewarded from this system. I think that would be my go to: What does it mean to be a “good Black”? And how can we challenge that? How can you refute that? How can you go against that? How can you use your identities to support and love the people around you who may also be following a “good Black” perspective, but also who may be inherently seen as a bad Black…How can you think about those things?
I….“don’t think about that”. I mean, I think about Black people, so therefore I think about society, but I don’t think about my dream for society. I kind of just think about what’s necessary for me, necessary for the people I’m around. And it’s just kind of moving those directions or orchestrating actions to move in that direction. But as society as a whole…I don’t know….
But I do want to take a stab at the question. I went to a talk yesterday, Angela Davis came to U Penn’s campus and I was able to score some tickets to see it and it was really good. And one thing that felt consistent in how she spoke was like this endearing, complicated, level of love. And before she spoke, cause this is their MLK speaker series, they read a quote from Martin Luther King, of course, and they were talking about how he was starting to have a lot of pushback against the Vietnam War and he was explaining to people, cause there was this one guy who was outright and forward-facing about like, I didn’t fight and basically saying…He was like, how can you be unpatriotic, basically? And uh, you know, Martin Luther King was explaining “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”…and this idea that justice is indivisible, is what they were saying. And I thought that was such an interesting concept because that means that love, to some extent, is indivisible.
So when people say, Black lives matter and if you’re at this Black Lives Matter rally and there’s Black who want to show up and support… but it’s not wheelchair accessible, you are creating a special specific love or communicating a specific love for a specific group of Black people. And so I think this idea of what my dream for society is…to understand that love for humanity and love for people is not indivisible. You can’t strategically place emphasis or interest in specific kinds of people without r basically saying that that can’t be applicable to everyone. So I think when we think about injustice and when we think about supporting, advocating, creating resources, accessibility for people, that is my definition of giving people their basic needs…which is my basic foundation of love.
When we think about not trying to separate these ideas of injustice or making excuses for that…It’s about calling stuff out. You know, I think it’s about accountability, essentially. And accountability looks different in every circumstance, but I think the first step of accountability is the idea that there’s something or somebody that you need to be accountable to. And so that requires you being in spaces where you’re being challenged. With people existing or having different identities that you don’t hold. And so you’re being familiarized in a way where you’re not creating oppression or attention on them… But you’re able to learn to say, Hey, I actually had been creating an assumption or walking around with an assumption in a way that is inherently undermining people or friends or family members that I care about who hold a different identity, that I don’t hold.
And so I think that, you know, step one is just like trying to educate yourself, trying to ask more questions, trying to put yourself out there and just saying like, Hey, I’m not gonna be 100% right, but I’m going to damn sure try.
And so, it would be accountability. And the first step is research, the second step is trying to, every day, practice what you’ve learned and how you’re trying to make space for more people who feel like they’re in different parts of the world, that you’re not always in.
First, for real: Stay Black, stay hella Black, stay Black, stay hella Black. My clay brother and I talk about that…but my little brother, he always says, What’s up, Black person? And I think that’s just like what you need to wake up and think about, how you need to greet yourself or greet your fellow Black people, as like a term of endearment. I think that it’s real simple, it’s real chill, just stay Black, stay hella Black, I think is my first go to.
I think the second one is…want to be a better version of yourself. Be a better version of yourself for your community, better version of yourself for yourself, better version of yourself for your future self…You know…not to treat others how you want to be treated, but more of like if you want to be an upstanding person, the loving person, the giving person that you think you can be… make efforts, make goals, make resolutions that go towards that so you can show up for yourself and you could show up for the people you care about. So always work towards being your best self.
And the third rule is just always know you’re enough. No matter. Just like always, always know that you’re enough. Sometimes we’re always trying to doctor ourselves, or change our appearance, or manipulate or… Another thing that I talk about in my work is this idea of “blood bending”. I don’t know if you ever watch Avatar? I’ve used this concept to describe how I’ve manipulated myself, but for the benefit of getting what I need from other people. Particularly manipulating my womanhood, manipulating my desirability. So, just, default knowing you’re enough and that there’s no need to manipulate it. There’s no need to be this exceptional person. There’s no need to do any of these things because who you are innately, who you are authentically is all that is needed.
I guess, you know, I think that they should, the non-Black friend / white friends should, every day, take time out to just really think about the ways of your life and think about the ways in which you assume privilege. And this could be for cis, straight, American born… all these different things that equate to privilege… middle-class, upper-class… you know, all these things that equate to a privilege, not just when it comes to their whiteness….and how can you challenge those things and effectively move and dismantle systems that inherently give you privilege and give other people a disadvantage.
Yeah, I don’t really think about non-Black people anymore. I mean like I have tons of non-Black friends, or being specific, tons of white friends, but I don’t pour my energy into that anymore because I find that it is not really effective or conducive. I think that one-on-one relationships that I have with my non-Black / white friends are very intentional because they respect my life and respect my boundaries and respect things about myself that I feel like has made me a better person. I’m not inherently going and overdrive trying to explain why racism is terrible to my friends. So, I don’t know if I can really adequately say if I have advice for my non-white friends…
Interview Date: January 28, 2019
Story posted on June 19, 2020
Personal links: geraldbrownart.com