Enews June 2021 Volume I

Gabrielle Lyon

Read Time 6 minutes
June 1, 2021

“What I try to do… is create a relationship so that the viewer, standing in front of my work, comes away from the work transformed, comes away from the work differently than when they came to the work. And hopefully, then, takes that transformed moment into the world.” – Dawoud Bey, Public Humanities Award Acceptance Speech, May 10, 2021

JUNE 4, 2021

The public humanities foster reflection, spark conversation, build community, and strengthen civic engagement. They provide vehicles for reflecting on who we are as individuals and who we have been – and can be – as a society. In our current moment, the public humanities are being used to unearth and illuminate historic memories that have often been overlooked, buried, and forgotten.

Dawoud Bey, Martina and Rhonda, 1993. 

In the shadow of the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, the country is understanding anew the implications of the horrific 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Refugees from that horrific event fled to Illinois; Illinois was also the site of multiple massacres of Black residents, in 1917 in East St. Louis and, 1919 in Chicago, during America’s “Red Summer.” We can learn about these events from testimonials captured in original source materials such as newspapers and special reports, but humanists invigorate these histories in ways that contextualize our current moment. For instance, American History Tellers situates 1921 Greenwood, Oklahoma and the creation of Black Wall Street in terms of the displacement of Cherokee and indigenous peoples and a strategic movement by Black pioneers that underlines the intersectionality of today’s social movements. Filmmaker Bayeté Ross Smith employs archival photos to create immersive 360 scenes of racial terrorism events from 1917 to 1921 in “Red Summers,” and juxtaposes what we currently see with what was once reality. Last year’s Public Humanities Awardee, Eve L. Ewing, uses poetry and speculation to blur the line between past and present in 1919: Poems.

Cover image from The Crisis, Vol. 14, No. 5. (September, 1917) by Frank Walts

Making the otherwise invisible, visible, is central to the work of Illinois Humanities’ 2021 Public Humanities Awardees, celebrated in our 2nd annual virtual event on May 20th. Public Humanities Awardees Tonika Lewis Johnson and Dawoud Bey use photography to enable us to “see” in new ways. Dawoud’s work (currently on display at the Whitney Museum in New York City) spans street photography of young people in Chicago and Harlem to large scale photographs that help us imagine what it might feel like to be on the Underground Railroad. He calls upon the institutions of his chosen arena – museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces – to “be a part of the larger civic conversation and to use the moment of engagement with the work in an institutional setting in a way that reverberates back out into the world.” Tonika’s documentation of daily life in Englewood rewrites simplistic narratives of the Chicago South Side neighborhood in which she was raised. She investigates what urban segregation looks like and how it impacts Chicago residents by visually connecting residents who live at corresponding addresses on the North and South Sides of Chicago through projects like Folded Map and Inequity for Sale. You can hear their powerful statements (and read a vibrant community chat) here.

Photograph by Tonika Lewis Johnson

This Spring’s special edition of Rapid Response, RE:PLACE, featured multimedia pieces created by graduates of this year’s Odyssey Project. Students explored – through discussion and mapping – the multiple ways in which justice and injustice organize our relationships to our city, our neighborhoods, our homes, our land, and even to each other. Re:PLACE poses the question: “What does a just city look like?” and helps us collectively imagine possibilities.

We MUST have opportunities like the ones created by our Public Humanities Awardees and our Odyssey graduates to equip us to increasingly recognize the ways in which systems, places, and people disenfranchise communities marginalized by white supremacist systems -and the ways in which racism and segregation keep us from being able to imagine a just and antiracist society for all. The efforts by Tonika, Dawoud, Eve, our Odyssey graduates, and programs hosted throughout Illinois by Illinois Humanities are intended to do just this: ensure access to humanities as a tool for learning and transformation. These are the experiences that equip us to (in the words of Audre Lorde) move from “divide and conquer” to “define and empower.”

The public humanities aren’t just what we DO through education, public programs, and grant-making. For all of our staff at Illinois Humanities, they are who we ARE. Each one of us believes passionately in our mission and the value of the communities we are part of. It’s part of why we take so seriously our role in the second round of COVID-19 Emergency Relief and Recovery Funding. Thanks to the National Endowment of the Humanities’ American Rescue Plan funds and additional support from generous donors, Illinois Humanities will be distributing more than $1M in general operating and humanities project funds. (Y tenemos aplicaciones en español.)

In the past year we learned profoundly the ways in which public humanities organizations across the state are integral to residents’ sense of well-being, resilience, and connectedness. We are committed to supporting Illinois’ public humanities sector to emerge from the pandemic stronger, better networked, and more visible. The deadline to submit an application is July 15th. We will be holding a public information session on June 9. Registration is free.

Illinois Humanities is incredibly grateful to all of the people, donors, and sponsors who helped make the 2021 Public Humanities Awards an incredible success. We’re energized as we look ahead to the summer: To the launch of our six-site travelling exhibition, Voices and Votes; to hosting a full roster of teens in our Sojourner Scholars program and, at the end of the summer, to announcing this year’s winners of the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Competition. Our Road Scholars will be on the road (coming to a town near you!), our Envisioning Justice commissioned artists and humanists will be collaborating on a new activation kit; our staff will be rolling up our sleeves to think in new ways about how we can more fully and intentionally embrace our commitment to making the public humanities accessible in ways that can enable our state to change from “divide and conquer” to “define and empower.”

We encourage you to support our work anytime by making a donation here; and we hope you will join us at an Illinois Humanities program soon. There are lots to choose from!

Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director


Illinois Humanities, the Illinois affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a statewide nonprofit organization that activates the humanities through free public programs, grants, and educational opportunities that foster reflection, spark conversation, build community, and strengthen civic engagement. We provide free, high-quality humanities experiences throughout Illinois, particularly for communities of color, individuals living on low incomes, counties and towns in rural areas, small arts and cultural organizations, and communities highly impacted by mass incarceration.

Learn more at ilhumanities.org