What MoMA's Architecture and Blackness in America Exhibit Can Teach About Black Spaces

When people ventured back into the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see Reconstructions Architecture and Blackness in America, they encountered something that doesn’t often happen in museums: a relationship with space and place rooted in the Black experience.

I remember the first time I walked into MoMA myself. I was a little bit sleepy, but enchanted. I’d been booked on the first flight to LaGuardia from Raleigh-Durham International and later that evening, I was due at a fancy party, part of the fancy weekend sponsored by a major environmental company that brought together several young environmental influencers over the course of the Memorial Day weekend of 2013.


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But before that, the shiny black Lincoln Town Car brought me to my first solo New York City trip in style and over ground, allowing me to see and feel rush hour in NYC. I checked into the hotel they put us in right in the heart of Times Square on 44th Street.

After going to the original Warby Parker store in SoHo and walking a bit around Bryant Park and the well-known and loved library branch there, I waltzed into MoMA and I lingered long in its Jacob Lawrence prints, half of which were in this collection and the other half that would await me a few years later when I dropped by the Phillips Collection in my new hometown of Washington, DC.

As stoked as I was to be in the presence of modern Black art from a titan of the Harlem Renaissance, I was even more excited to see this latest representation of many, many Black artists, planners, and architects. We take for granted that the Smithsonian has both a museum of African Art and of course the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I take for granted that it’s a train ride downtown. So many folks still don’t have this much Black arts and culture easily accessible and some places still don’t see why that’s important, even with the year we’ve had. That’s why my first trip to MoMA was so exciting. At the time, we didn’t have some of these cultural institutions hosting Black art and culture so easily accessible.

Despite the fact that due to pandemic restrictions and time, I wasn’t able to go to the museum myself to see the work, the work has come to me in so many serendipitous ways.

Over the course of the past year, the Alexandria, Virginia, waterfront became a refuge for myself and my partner as we sought relief from needing to mask ourselves and stay inside to keep the deadly pathogens of COVID-19 from stealing the joy of exuberant Black laughter and storytelling out of our lungs.

While a site of a major chattel slavery market, Alexandria also was home to generations of free and proud Black Americans and continues to be an integrated—while gentrifying— source of community. Its free public waterfront always features public artwork and several artists, including myself on occasion, work out of the Torpedo Factory art studio and co-working space. This past summer summer Olalekan Jeyifous’s Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies was the featured point of art at the adjacent ALX Community space.

Jeyifous’s MoMA exhibition piece, The Frozen Neighborhoods, speaks to an Afrofuturist adaptation of the world after a similar ecological tragedy, with a much more dramatic and devastating ending than the one that’s listed. He’s also re-imagined a parking deck in Durham, North Carolina where I’ve often parked on trips to the city for meetings and meetups in the storefronts and old office buildings of Downtown Durham.

Jeyifous’s last name is remarkably similar to mine and it’s very close to the way my dad and several of his peer elders and relatives would also pronounce it, infusing it with a special mix of Black North Carolinian pride of making this our land for centuries after our ancestors being forced to this land.

Which brings us to the real portal jump that this exhibition drew out of me:

I don’t have any physical or name connection to MoMA exhibition artist Emanuel Admassu, but I’m drawn into his contribution Immeasurability and its status as a literal portal to a world, where a Waffle House could magically appear in a field and enclose people in the feelings of 4 am, post-club hopping Black Atlanta.

It also takes me to a Waffle House, but a different one: This trip to the Waffle House I’m taking with my father would have happened in May 1992, in my six-year-old body, at about 5:30 am.

This portal smells of breakfast and that specific mix of waffle batter and warm syrup that would be placed in front of me, while my dad encouraged my imagination, against the backdrop of a rising sun next to the Randleman Road I-85 interchange in Greensboro, NC. Those porcelain-like balls of light hanging over the tables would take a backseat to the slanted windows surrounding the diner’s sunrise spectacular. The yellow walls would melt into my yellow waffle and it would melt into my mouth under that perfectly warmed syrup.

To the surface, it’s a simple daddy-daughter moment in the early-1990s but for me, it was magical and enchanted. That same enchantment I would feel in those halls of MoMA in 2013 and would need when I would get a phone call the following morning that my dad had descended into the portal of the ancestral realm.

I’m going to light a maple-colored candle in my home and plan my first major post vaccinated trip, to a Waffle House, since unlike this exhibition and the people mentioned, it’s always open and will always be waiting for me when I get there. To enchant me, in an ordinary, but affirming, way.

I hope museums continue to take a page from public art, from urban design and architecture and from the push for equity that we’ve had over the past year, also triggered by an ancestral movement—though not expected or wanted—of George Floyd entering into the ancestral portal.

And if you, like me, didn’t get the chance to see Reconstructions but are intrigued by its unique presentation of Black spaces, the museum is offering up an easy way to do so: Reimagining Blackness and Architectue is an online course that endeavors to treat participants to “recognize how race and racism shape architecture and the built environment.” Registration is now open, and currently free.

Kristen Jeffers is a self-described Black, queer, feminist urbanist lecturer, and writer, who has advised city planning committees and spoken extensively on Black communities. You can learn more about her work and hire her here.

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