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Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently unveiled an in-your-face mural spanning two city blocks that reads “Black Lives Matter” only steps from the White House. This moment, Friday evening (June 5), instantly rocked social media as a historical moment for this nation.
Last week, Bowser was thrust into the national spotlight after President Trump unleashed military force on peaceful protestors for a photo op in front of a church. She decidedly took the opportunity to remind congress of why she’s been pushing so hard for D.C. to become America’s 51st state. “Because of our lack of statehood, the federal government can encroach on our city streets in the name of protecting federal assets,” Bowser told MSNBC on Thursday (June 4). So, she took bold action to push back.
The Black Lives Matter mural is not to be mistaken as an act of rebellion, rather a communiqué of control as it ends near that same church. “It is a clear statement that the streets of D.C. belong to the people,” said local pastor A. Michael Charles Durant who was personally invited, among other clergymen, by the mayor to attend the street sign unveiling of an all-new Black Lives Matter Plaza.
About seven local artists from varying ethnic backgrounds were tapped to execute the mayor’s eye-catching vision in less than 24 hours. For artists like Keyonna Melissa Jones, a native Washingtonian, a mother and full-time artist, this project held great significance.
Jones is the founder and executive director of Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center (CHACC), the first art gallery in the southeast neighborhood that’s aim is to expand artistic opportunities and spur economic revitalization for the youth of Wards 7 and 8 through arts and culture exploration within the African diaspora. She opened CHACC five years ago to enrich the community where she grew up and is now raising her two children.
“In southeast, we’ve been continuously fighting within our city to get resources, to get respect, to get acknowledgement and find value in us as a community,” Jones told REVOLT. The quadrant has one of the highest rates of crime, gang activity and substance abuse in the city. It also has the city’s highest concentration of poverty.
“My space is for black people and everyone knows it,” Jones continued about CHACC. “White people can come, but they must understand that they’re coming to support what we’re already doing.”
Even with Jones growing up in an underserved community, she spent a great portion of her life in spaces where she was one of few — if not, the only person of color. She reflected on her own experiences with discrimination and racism: “I’ve always found myself in these spaces correcting white people when they make fun of my name, Keyonna. They judge me by my name before they even meet me. I’ve had people say inappropriate things about my hair in the workplace. I’ve had insubordination from white co-workers who were supposed to be taking my leadership, but didn’t want to because of me being Black and being a woman. I’ve experienced plenty of it.”
Jones also sees herself in Mayor Bowser. She was shocked, yet honored, to be selected to contribute to the planning and execution of the “Black Lives Matter” mural.
“I’m honored to have my city led by a Black woman,” Jones declared. “For the mayor to have chosen such a bold move, I think it’s phenomenal.” She went on to describe the project as art activism and commented on it’s viral impact. “[Art activism] can be quite expansive. This [mural] became a global thing in seconds,” the artist added.
Jones, who prides herself on being “in tune” spiritually, believes that a higher power stepped in to help this vision come to life. There had been terrible storms in D.C. up until two hours before the painters’ 3 a.m. meet up at 16th and K Street Northwest. City resources including D.C.’s Depart of Public Works were dispatched to block off the stretch of land for the artists’ safety and to clear away any remaining water on the cement canvas.
By daybreak, city workers and passersby who realized what was taking place also jumped in to contribute. “It became interactive,” Jones said. “People wanted to help us. People came up [to us] and said, ‘Thank you’ for doing it, and asked what they could do to help. It really was incredible to see how people came together to make this happen.”
While she is unsure of Bowser’s reasoning for selecting the color, she believes the color yellow has a certain underlying meaning.
“As an artist colors mean everything to me,” Jones explained. “Yellow means willpower. It comes from your solar chakra. It’s where you have the umph to do what we need to do right now, and I think that’s the biggest symbolism.”
When it comes to race relations, Jones is skeptical. She said: “This experience doesn’t feel any different. I’ve known about white people my whole life. This is what they do. They can mobilize and act like they’re with you… But, give some things time and things can quickly shift back to the way they were. So, I want to be optimistic. I want to be positive. I want to be hopeful, but I’m also not going to be naïve, and think that we have really broken a mold here and racism is going to be cured in 48 hours. That’s just not where I am.”
Jones finds through her personal experiences that most are ignorant to white privilege. “White people are always looking for us to educate them, and that’s just not our jobs. Many of us are still educating ourselves,” she said.
Overall, the artist hopes that the community sees the value of art through this project regardless of their personal thoughts about Bowser or her politics. “Everybody has a role. This movement. This ‘Black Lives Matter’ [war cry]. This fight that we’re having — it’s international now. It’s a global fight that we’re having right now, and everybody has a role,” Jones declared. “Some people are going to go out and protest. That can’t be me… so, I transfer my energy into my art where it does something else.”
She admits that she was initially intimidated by the scale of the art piece, as she doesn’t traditionally paint murals. “I didn’t even really know what the project was,” Jones recounted the call she received from her girlfriend about it. “I was like, if it’s from the city, it’s not going to be a small budget … so I was like, ‘Alright. Bet. Let’s do it. Plug me in.’”
This mural is not the first time Mayor Bowser has shown her devotion to DC’s art scene during her eight-year term. In 2016, she launched 202Creates to amplify and celebrate D.C.’s creative economy through digital media marketing, content creation and original television programming. The city-funded initiative connects residents with government resources, educational opportunities and a space to grow creative businesses through events and networking, which makes it possible for people like Jones to support themselves through their passion.
“They value art, and they value artists, and they recognize the strength that art can have as a movement,” she said. “Art saves lives. Especially now in a time where things are just very energy heavy and extremely emotional, a lot of people can’t find words for how they feel and so I think that’s the beauty of art. You don’t necessarily need words. Art is healing in every sense of the word.”