“But Olivette, my darling, we’ve been there. We’ve done that already. It doesn’t work,” said an exasperated Bonnie Greer during one of our online, caring but also heated conversations.
The playwright, novelist and broadcaster was referring to the long history of activism to which she and many others have contributed for decades in the US and in Britain. The impasse in our conversation was about the ways in which minority ethnic communities work with big institutions, such as museums, to tackle racism. I was suggesting that we open some spaces to these communities to curate events; that we encourage black activists to trouble and question those institutions from within in ways that lead to dialogue. Greer was arguing that this had been done in the past and was not a sign of meaningful change. In fact, she pointed out that these initiatives had been used by institutions as token gestures. Although we both agreed on the need for brutally honest discussions about the place of contentious objects in museum collections, the strategic disagreement brought to light the need to explain why teaching black history and black activism was important.