Look at Lunchtime, February 2021
Tyre “T.J.” McDowell Jr., assistant vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, discussed his responses to the photograph “Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama 1956” by Gordon Parks in a Zoom edition of Sheldon Museum of Art’s Look at Lunchtime series.
At Nebraska, McDowell is responsible for Student Life and Leadership including ASUN, Civic Engagement, Parent and Family Programs, Student Involvement, Residence Life, Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, and TRIO Programs.
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[00:00:09.000]So welcome to Sheldon Museum of Art look at lunchtime and
[00:00:15.120]give a few moments for more people to join us but we are
[00:00:19.170]really honored today to have T.J. McDowell Jr., Assistant
[00:00:23.820]Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at the University of
[00:00:27.060]Nebraska-Lincoln for today's program. Throughout his career,
[00:00:31.320]Mr. McDowell has worked to make access to education more
[00:00:35.070]equitable, and has provided strategies and resources for
[00:00:38.640]academic success to youth, young adults and their families.
[00:00:43.620]Today, Mr. McDowell will discuss his responses to this
[00:00:47.100]photograph by Gordon Parks, outside looking in Mobile,
[00:00:51.450]Alabama in 1956, which is currently on view at Sheldon in
[00:00:56.880]the exhibition barriers and disparities housing in America.
[00:01:01.770]There are live captions for this program, should you wish to
[00:01:04.530]use those. And I invite you to submit questions and comments
[00:01:08.340]using the q&a feature at the bottom of your zoom screen.
[00:01:13.530]And now without further ado, I will turn it over. Welcome,
[00:01:21.120]Thank you, Aaron. And thank you to the Sheldon Museum for
[00:01:24.270]inviting me to participate today. I'm a lifelong Lincoln
[00:01:28.710]resident. And so I know what a treasure the Sheldon is for
[00:01:31.830]our community. I've also been really grateful as I've
[00:01:34.590]watched the Sheldon, work really hard to make sure that
[00:01:37.500]there were diverse collections, that diverse displays in the
[00:01:41.760]museum, and the outreach to the community. So I'm really
[00:01:44.580]grateful that you're doing this, I think this is a really
[00:01:46.950]cool way to get people connected to the Sheldon, and I'm
[00:01:49.500]really honored to be asked, and I want to be clear before we
[00:01:53.400]get started is that I'm not an art critic. So I'm not going
[00:01:57.000]to be critiquing the camera angles, or the lighting or the
[00:02:01.020]technical aspects of this particular photograph, I'm going
[00:02:04.500]to really be sharing my reactions, my response is my
[00:02:07.200]reflections on the piece and what it represents to me. And
[00:02:10.950]so that's my plan. And I'm going to do three things. One,
[00:02:13.860]I'm going to start with a little background on Gordon Parks,
[00:02:16.980]because he's a really interesting guy and made some really
[00:02:19.860]amazing contributions to society. A little more background
[00:02:23.190]on the photo, and then and then I'll go into my reflections
[00:02:26.010]on the piece and why, why I chose this piece for my look at
[00:02:30.510]lunch. So Gordon Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, in
[00:02:35.550]1912. He died in 2006. So he lived a long and fruitful life.
[00:02:41.910]Gordon Parks is probably best known as a photographer, and
[00:02:45.090]his he was the first African American staff photographer at
[00:02:51.180]Parks through his work, challenge stereotypes and brought
[00:02:53.790]attention to inequities and social injustice through his
[00:02:56.940]work. He was also also an author and composer and filmmaker.
[00:03:02.640]He was the first African American to write and direct the
[00:03:05.070]Hollywood feature film, the learning tree in 1969. And he
[00:03:09.990]also directed what I consider a classic movie shaft in 1971.
[00:03:17.190]So a little background on the photo. So the photo was part
[00:03:20.550]of what is now referred to as the segregation story, which
[00:03:23.670]was shot off while on assignment for Life magazine. While
[00:03:27.390]the photos were taken in 1956, this particular photo
[00:03:30.390]was not discovered and printed until 2012.
[00:03:36.360]So that's an interesting little background on the photo. So
[00:03:39.750]I want to share my reflections now on the piece and why I
[00:03:43.050]picked it. And I'm going to start by telling you a
[00:03:45.720]conversation that I had with my dad about why black people
[00:03:50.100]do not swim. And I promise you, I'm going to link it in I
[00:03:53.400]promise you are connected. But so had this conversation with
[00:03:58.440]my dad, I'll get there. But at a very early age. I had this
[00:04:03.090]idea that black folks did not swim.
[00:04:07.830]In my mind, it wasn't just that we did not swim. In my mind
[00:04:11.640]it was that we could not swim. It's not that something was
[00:04:15.210]wrong. We couldn't swim. I did not know any black folks on
[00:04:18.450]swim teams growing up.
[00:04:21.180]And then in 2008, my father and I, who black were watching
[00:04:25.800]the night the 2008 Olympics and there was the relay where
[00:04:29.790]Colin Jones was a member he was a black swimmer and it was a
[00:04:32.280]really exciting relay where the United States came back in
[00:04:35.190]just one at the very at the very end. So I'm sitting with my
[00:04:39.300]father watching this and I need to tell you that my father
[00:04:43.530]is is petrified of water. He doesn't like lakes pools ocean.
[00:04:48.030]He doesn't believe in watersports. He thinks anybody who
[00:04:49.980]does them is crazy. And so I asked him after watching this,
[00:04:54.270]this really I said, I said
[00:04:57.990]pops, why don't black people swimming
[00:05:00.000]My dad is 89 years old.
[00:05:02.850]He's from rural Mississippi, a little town called
[00:05:05.310]Centerville. So he grew up in rural Mississippi during a
[00:05:09.600]time when there was legal segregation. black folks went to
[00:05:12.270]separate schools drank from separate drinking fountains
[00:05:15.660]didn't have access to many public facilities had to black
[00:05:20.310]person was walking on a sidewalk and a white person came had
[00:05:22.170]to get off the sidewalk, go to the side. And you know, the
[00:05:25.350]lynchings and all that stuff. So he he's, he's relaying
[00:05:27.630]This, to me what he said about why black people didn't swim
[00:05:31.320]a perfectly great sense. And I'm embarrassed that I didn't
[00:05:34.620]think of it before. But he said growing up in Mississippi
[00:05:37.560]black folks that have access to the public swimming pools,
[00:05:40.710]so if they're gonna learn how to swim, they had to learn in
[00:05:42.450]the river, the lake and that was dangerous. So it wasn't
[00:05:46.290]that that black folks couldn't swim. Like I literally got
[00:05:48.690]physiologic there was a physiological thing. I used to think
[00:05:50.880]we were too dense. It was more about access or lack of
[00:05:54.600]access to swimming pools, which is the reason why they
[00:05:57.600]didn't do it. So before that conversation with my father, I
[00:06:01.830]had always had in my mind that I wanted to do a triathlon. I
[00:06:05.820]used to always watch on Saturdays in the fall the Ironman
[00:06:08.550]World Championships from Kona ice, get all inspired and
[00:06:11.010]excited, but then I'd go
[00:06:13.200]Yes, I'll never do that because I can't swim, because black
[00:06:15.990]people don't swim. So after that conversation, I decided I
[00:06:18.660]was gonna teach myself how to swim. I watched YouTube
[00:06:20.580]videos, I went to the downtown why, which I'm very
[00:06:22.950]disappointed is now closed, and, and taught myself how to do
[00:06:26.820]the crawl stroke and the swim. And after that, I completed
[00:06:32.640]three half Ironman distance triathlons. My father still
[00:06:37.110]thinks I'm crazy for swimming in lakes. And every time I
[00:06:39.540]would do a triathlon, I'd hear my father's voice in my head,
[00:06:42.720]saying, boy, you ain't got no sense. And I'm also proud to
[00:06:45.780]report I don't want to brag, but I was also a very
[00:06:47.460]successful triathlete in the male black male 14 over
[00:06:50.520]category because I was usually the only black male in the 14
[00:06:56.340]But when I tell you that story, because when I first saw the
[00:06:59.820]photo, and as you see it on the screen at the black children
[00:07:02.910]outside the fence, looking into what looks like an amusement
[00:07:06.210]park, I thought of what my dad said about pools. And I first
[00:07:10.830]saw this photo, I imagined my dad being one of those
[00:07:13.770]children sitting outside that fence looking at the pool that
[00:07:17.730]he couldn't go into.
[00:07:20.580]And you can't see the children's face. But you can see their
[00:07:24.840]body language and and as they look with anticipation, you
[00:07:27.960]can't see the people in there.
[00:07:30.750]So I imagined my father, outside looking at the pools and I
[00:07:34.920]thought about this photo, Gordon's photo of it. That was
[00:07:38.040]from a time and an error. When black folks were on the
[00:07:41.070]outside, looking in at a lot of things, amusement parks,
[00:07:44.520]pools, on the outside looking in movie theaters and social
[00:07:47.850]clubs, neighborhoods, public schools, colleges and
[00:07:50.700]universities, certain jobs. And Gordon Parks, this
[00:07:54.450]photograph is a powerful reminder that we are not too far
[00:07:57.720]removed from that segregation as a law of the land.
[00:08:02.340]So the other thing that it did for me is, I was born and
[00:08:06.090]raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, and born in 1972. So I grew up
[00:08:09.780]in the 70s, and 80s, as a black as a black child, and
[00:08:14.340]although not prohibited from going into certain spaces and
[00:08:18.330]places, I didn't always feel welcome. So I, I had that
[00:08:22.020]feeling at some times of being on the outside looking at
[00:08:25.350]myself. And I still have it and I think part of it is a scar
[00:08:30.870]from my childhood where I had and I don't have time to go
[00:08:33.780]into all the experiences that cause me to feel that way. But
[00:08:36.750]the scar I have from childhood where as a grown man who has
[00:08:39.330]been relatively successful in Lincoln, Nebraska, there's
[00:08:41.520]still a lot of places where I don't feel comfortable. Well,
[00:08:44.460]I don't I feel like I'm even if I'm at the table, I feel
[00:08:47.100]like I'm still on the outside looking in.
[00:08:50.460]And then I begin to think about who in our society today who
[00:08:54.570]is currently on the outside looking in various spaces and
[00:08:58.980]places in our society. And I think that's a question we need
[00:09:01.860]to ponder. So, as a result of that, I've developed this goal
[00:09:06.330]that I have with, with every community I'm in wherever I'm
[00:09:10.110]at, I want to create a space where everybody can be their
[00:09:13.140]fully authentic self, where everybody can share their, their
[00:09:17.220]selves and our identities and have those identities
[00:09:19.260]acknowledged and celebrated and valued. In the community
[00:09:23.070]where no one's on the outside looking in.
[00:09:25.950]But Gordon Parks this photo reminded me of, of my own
[00:09:29.610]feelings of being on the outside looking in, and that's why
[00:09:32.250]I chose it.
[00:09:37.770]So now you're gonna believe it. Take a few questions. We
[00:09:40.380]have a few
[00:09:42.040]few questions. Yes, we do. We do have have time for
[00:09:46.180]questions. And Ms. Charley Foster, also from the University
[00:09:52.540]of Nebraska just submitted a question who is still feeling
[00:09:56.920]as they are on the outside looking in
[00:10:00.570]I think I think there's any number of groups who, who may
[00:10:03.360]still feel that way. Daca students, you know, work at the
[00:10:08.430]University of Nebraska, where we still have some students
[00:10:11.160]who aren't eligible for financial aid, I think immigrants,
[00:10:19.439]I mean, there's any number of folks who I think would feel
[00:10:21.779]like they're on the outside.
[00:10:27.480]Yes. And, and, and Miss Foster, thank you for clarifying
[00:10:31.350]that really question and agreement? And yes, thank you. Yes,
[00:10:35.190]thank you, Charlie. Thank you for tuning in to
[00:10:41.490]have Marilyn wolf has her hand raised. So let me let me
[00:10:47.370]unmute this here.
[00:10:52.740]Now, and I think you you're able to unmute yourself, just
[00:10:56.640]dead. Can you hear me? Yes. Okay. So
[00:11:02.640]I've been a fan of Gordon Parks for a long fascinated with
[00:11:13.590]I have his book sitting right here. And I just find I became
[00:11:18.360]aware of this
[00:11:21.150]aspect of his work. More recently, I moved here from
[00:11:25.080]Atlanta, and they have an exhibit on some of this stuff, for
[00:11:27.570]example. And the tone is very different from what, you know,
[00:11:34.590]like his, his his life photography, and it's very different
[00:11:37.830]from shaft. Right. So can you talk about his,
[00:11:44.250]you know, it was his state of mind in this period of his
[00:11:47.460]work different than then in other parts of his career?
[00:11:53.490]That's a great question. And I'll disclose right off the
[00:11:56.280]bat, I'm not really a Gordon Parks expert. And don't know
[00:12:00.360]that I could speak to his state of mind. But I do know that
[00:12:03.180]a lot of his work was challenging stereotypes of particular
[00:12:07.050]about black people. And, and, and highlighting the in
[00:12:11.880]justices, that that black folks and that we experience in
[00:12:16.980]society in the United States in particular, and he captured
[00:12:19.890]people that were sometimes controversial, Malcolm X, Cassius
[00:12:24.480]Clay, who became Muhammad Ali, and I think he was he was
[00:12:27.150]trying to help
[00:12:30.150]society see the beauty and the strength
[00:12:33.480]in black folks, but then also see the injustices that were,
[00:12:36.600]were still plaguing our society then.
[00:12:39.390]And that we're still dealing with to some degree today.
[00:12:43.530]Thank you. We have a question from JD Miller, what are some
[00:12:47.430]concrete steps we can take to be more inclusive and
[00:12:51.150]welcoming to everyone?
[00:12:54.540]Thank you for the question. JD, hope you're doing well. I
[00:12:59.010]think one of the things that I that my training teaches me
[00:13:02.430]is that one of the things that we have to do is we need to
[00:13:05.010]do this internal examination of our own prejudices and
[00:13:08.760]biases, that keep that are barriers for us having
[00:13:11.970]relationships with other people. So I think oftentimes, for
[00:13:15.810]many of us, it's easy to go right to the external endpoint
[00:13:18.450]to the the atrocities we see happening in society
[00:13:22.110]externally. But I think the works, if we're going to really
[00:13:24.930]make changes on this issues, we each have to start with our
[00:13:26.910]own assessment of our prejudice, prejudices, and
[00:13:30.240]stereotypes, confront those and then find ways wherever
[00:13:34.680]we're at that we can call out injustice so we can bring
[00:13:38.130]awareness to those issues, and that we can really embrace
[00:13:42.210]people who are different so that we get to that point where
[00:13:44.610]people feel like they can be their fully authentic self, and
[00:13:47.730]that our interactions are supportive and affirming and
[00:13:50.010]validating to people.
[00:13:54.720]That's good. Another question from Dr. Sanjay Friday. Thank
[00:13:58.830]you for your recollection on this tj. As she writes, as I
[00:14:02.730]look at this photo, and being a proud native Mississippian,
[00:14:06.690]I am reminded of how often we think of these photos as in
[00:14:09.810]the past, but it but the reality is that we are still
[00:14:13.080]combating issues of segregation. How can we utilize photos
[00:14:17.130]such as these for ongoing learning towards issues of today?
[00:14:23.460]Thank you, Dr. Friday for that, that question. And thank you
[00:14:26.280]for being on as well. Um, you know, I think
[00:14:30.180]examples like this, this conversation we're having right
[00:14:32.760]now, this virtual conversation where the Sheldon is, is
[00:14:36.420]using art to help be a catalyst for these conversations. So
[00:14:40.140]I think that that's an important part. And, you know, you're
[00:14:43.350]right, we're still dealing with this. We're, I mean, we're
[00:14:46.290]still people living who experienced segregation. And so, I
[00:14:52.950]we got to continue to bring awareness to these issues and
[00:14:54.870]that and and call out what are the new forms of segregation,
[00:14:58.440]what are the what are the new
[00:15:00.000]WAIS world presents, what is the new ways we're making
[00:15:02.040]people feel like they're on the outside looking in? and have
[00:15:04.500]those conversations and then confront those issues.
[00:15:09.450]Go for another question from Andrea wanqi. And apologies if
[00:15:13.440]I if I mispronounced the last name. Thank you, Mr. McDowell.
[00:15:17.280]Your story and insight into this print is wonderful. Has
[00:15:21.390]your father did your father see this picture? And what did
[00:15:27.360]No, I haven't, I haven't showed it. To my to my Dad, I'm
[00:15:32.940]I'm going to I'm going to show it to him. He's he's been
[00:15:36.900]sometimes having these conversations with my father's heart,
[00:15:39.090]because I think it was so painful some of the stuff he
[00:15:42.060]experienced growing up.
[00:15:45.120]And so I'm gonna show it to him go and have a conversation,
[00:15:49.200]I would have invited him but
[00:15:51.660]he doesn't believe in the internet. He thinks that's the way
[00:15:53.460]people get your bank account information is still all your
[00:15:55.410]money. So otherwise, I haven't streamed this, but I'll show
[00:15:58.920]him and tell him about my talk later.
[00:16:03.930]I have another question from Stephanie Mitchell. The tiny
[00:16:08.070]red flower in the right hand margin of the Florida of the
[00:16:11.340]photograph could symbolize what would bloom in the years to
[00:16:14.760]follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his mission of
[00:16:19.500]equality and inclusiveness, for example. As of 2021, have we
[00:16:24.420]done the hope in that 1956 flower justice?
[00:16:30.840]It's a great, great question, Stephanie.
[00:16:37.440]it'd be disingenuous that we have not made progress, that we
[00:16:40.950]have not progressed in some aspects. But we still have all
[00:16:46.230]kinds of examples of inequities that continue to persist in
[00:16:49.200]terms of networking on a college campus in terms of college
[00:16:52.110]access, and college success when students are on campus. I
[00:16:56.100]think when we look at society, there's all kinds of examples
[00:16:58.890]where we still have work to do. We've made progress, but
[00:17:01.290]there's still work to doing. And we all need to be engaged
[00:17:03.930]in this work. This isn't work other people do. This is work
[00:17:06.360]we have to do.
[00:17:09.660]I don't know if we've done it fully justice though,
[00:17:11.160]Stephanie, we have more work to do.
[00:17:14.430]It's, it's nice. I can't see anybody's faces. But I know the
[00:17:18.420]names of many of the people asking questions. So
[00:17:21.780]thank you to everybody who's on and listening. I think I
[00:17:25.230]want to be mindful of everyone's time, there's one more
[00:17:28.230]question that I will read, in addition to the the multiple
[00:17:33.660]things that attendees have been entering into the chat, as
[00:17:38.280]well as into the q&a. But from Vanessa Saunders, thank you
[00:17:42.870]for this experience, when I observe this photograph, I am
[00:17:46.590]also reminded of the perception of the opposite inside
[00:17:49.650]looking out. How do those who view these outside
[00:17:55.980]looking in taking action even within our own communities?
[00:18:01.470]I don't know, I think right thinking about both the outside
[00:18:04.350]looking in, but then maybe also the inside looking out. And
[00:18:07.350]and I think maybe building on what you've been talking about
[00:18:11.970]in terms of actions that
[00:18:15.210]we should be taking to ensure a more inclusive society?
[00:18:20.700]Yeah, I think I think the point is, is that we all have to
[00:18:23.850]do this work, that this is work that we all should be
[00:18:26.520]commissioned to do. And when we when we don't do it, we know
[00:18:30.690]that those consequences are significant and drastic. And so
[00:18:34.560]we all have to be engaged in this work this, the change in
[00:18:37.500]the sustaining the hope that's definitely referred to
[00:18:39.780]doesn't happen because some people do the work. We all have
[00:18:42.120]to be involved in doing this work and making these changes.
[00:18:47.490]And I think with that, I want to really thank you, TJ
[00:18:53.610]McDowell, Jr. for taking the time to speak with us to speak
[00:18:59.070]with everyone who is in attendance, and be so generous in
[00:19:04.110]your sharing your story, your experiences, your reflections
[00:19:08.340]responses to this photograph, and for answering the the
[00:19:13.650]really wonderful questions. Thank you so much. I wish you
[00:19:18.090]all well. Take care. Thank you, everyone.
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