When I came to the Boston area 15 years ago, I had no interest in staying after I got my graduate degree. I had already heard many cautionary tales about the covert racism. I spent months asking the question I now get from other transplants: “Where can I connect with other black people in Boston?” In response, I created The Collier Connection — a business dedicated to creating event experiences, sharing access to resources, and working with companies to shift the way that black people navigate the city.
Last year, I helped 500 black people take over Regal Cinemas and Game On in the Fenway to celebrate the opening night of “Black Panther.” Picture hundreds of people in dashikis walking down Brookline Avenue.
This year, when I approached the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston about a June screening of “Boyz n the Hood” to honor the work of John Singleton, it was with the same intention. Seeing the brilliant commentary on the complexities of a common black experience in America at an institution of so-called high culture would make a statement — that black people belong at the MFA, and all of the other arts and culture spaces throughout our city.
After all, many times black art (often stolen pieces from Africa) and black culture (often appropriated) are on display in these spaces, yet we are not even invited in. Rather than waiting for an invitation, I created my own to the black community. Earlier this month, hundreds accepted the invitation and attended Black AF at MFA Late Nites — a night curated by The Collier Connection, LiteWork Events, and Boston Young Black Professionals, celebrating black arts, music, and fashion.
A few days later, students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester were subjected to racist comments in the same museum.
I agree, in principle, with those who feel we should boycott “white spaces” where we feel unwelcome. Black people (and other often marginalized communities) should build our own spaces to celebrate our cultures, strengthen our connections, and just be ourselves. However, the reality is that we live in a place where black people do not have a lot of ownership of physical spaces.
Moreover, we deserve to engage with, contribute to, and be valued in every part of the city. In order for that to happen, white people have a lot of work to do. Blacks cannot bear the emotional burden that is often put on our shoulders to “help” others respect us. That said, if black people do not continue to show that we plan on being present and that we demand that our presence be met with respect, we give in to the ignorance that many of us experience throughout Boston.
After getting dozens of calls asking how I felt about the MFA situation and after speaking to the leadership at the museum, I have concluded that, for now, I will continue to be a partner with the MFA. I am tired of accepting that I am welcome only in a limited number of spaces. However, my commitment to convene in these spaces doesn’t mean I am encouraging people to be there without feeling safe. We need to see that creating an inclusive culture is a top priority.
Whether it is the MFA, Fenway Park, the Seaport, or many of the other traditionally white-occupied spaces, I’ve decided that I belong, too, and I’m showing up. I’m putting the expectation on leadership that they prepare those spaces to receive me and those whom I bring along. When that does not happen, I and others should continue to leverage our influence and spending power to demand change, ensuring that when black people — young and old — want to explore their city, they are able to do it freely.
Sheena Collier is founder and CEO of The Collier Connection.