Back in January, I got an email from photographer Cornell Watson. He had just finished up an artist residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and wanted to share the outcome of it.
Instead of trying to hash everything out here in my own words, I think it’s best to let Watson’s photos, and his artist statement for “Tarred Healing,” do the talking:
“There is much to celebrate about the Black community's contributions to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and America's oldest public university, The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The Chapel Hill Nine and the Freedom Fighters helped shape America into a more idealized version of itself. Black leadership is embedded in our history through pioneers like Howard Lee, one of the first Black mayors in the South. We also remember the multitude of trailblazers that shattered ceilings at UNC such as Leroy Frasier, John Lewis Brandon, Ralph Frasier, and Karen Parker, the first Black students and first Black woman student enrolled in this prestigious university.
“Through their work, we also acknowledge the physical contributions that, in stone and mortar, are the foundations of the institution which are inherently the result of chattel slavery. The blood, sweat, and tears of our enslaved and free ancestors have seeped into the soil, floors, walls, and stones of this community and university. It is only through their determination to survive and persist that we are here today. Their spirit of unbroken resilience continues within us because there is still so much healing and trailblazing work to be done.
“James Cates, who white supremacists murdered on campus, still needs us to fight for justice. Nikole Hannah-Jones showed us that we still need to fight for equity and equality. The UNC board of trustees showed us that we still need to fight for diversity. Rogers-Eubanks still needs us to fight against environmental injustice. Our ancestors still need us to fight for our history to be remembered and honored. We still need to fight and dismantle institutions of white supremacy. We still need to fight for reparations. We need to recognize with intentionality the many forms in which our diverse community seeks healing.
“This photo series, a combination of conceptual and documentary photography, is a reflection of our truth through places, people, and systems in Chapel Hill. It is an unapologetic archive of our feelings and emotions. It is a vessel for self-healing. Despite continued obstruction by whiteness, we will heal, even if it is tarred.”
You can see more of Watson’s work on his website, here.
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