Barbara Earl Thomas Traverses the Geography of Innocence

by Beverly Aarons

Each human being is a vast planet filled with uncharted territory. The darkness, the unseen, and the mystery of each of us can intrigue and terrify or even invoke violence, especially if we are living in bodies racialized as Black and even if we are just children. And it’s through this topography that Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas guides us in “The Geography of Innocence,” (Seattle Art Museum — November 14, 2020–June 13, 2021). The Geography of Innocence is a room-scale exhibit that explores “the colors we’ve assigned to sin … and our preconceived notions of innocence and guilt, assigned in shades of light and dark.” The exhibit will feature cut paper portraits of Black children, capturing their tenderness and vulnerability. 

“So when people step into the room, they’ll just be in the Barbara environment,” Thomas said during our telephone interview. “… You are going to be relocated in the geography of my idea.” 

Thomas said her exhibit will encompass the entire space, which is approximately 30 x 40 feet, and will contain about 10–15 pieces that she hopes are emotionally powerful enough to capture attendees’ full attention so that Thomas can help them draw a new map of “the geography of innocence.” 

“To read a map is to figure out what that thing is and how to get there,” Thomas said. “So when I talk about the geography of a face, I think about how you read that face so that you can arrive at the interaction with that face and bring a little empathy when you go. … that’s something that has to be learned.”

As an amateur birdwatcher, Thomas has had to relearn how to listen to bird songs that have their own geography. When she first began her hobby, all the birds sounded alike, but with time and practice eventually she was able to identify the birds just by the sound of their tweets. And she says that much like how she had to learn to really listen as a birdwatcher, each of us must learn to “resee” each other. 

“To practice reseeing means that we’re going to have to look at the same thing we’ve looked at for a long time and try to see it anew,” Thomas said. “And so I said, ‘why not start with children?’”

Initially, Thomas began using reference photos of children from the news but then she reconsidered that strategy. She has many friends with children so she decided to reach out to them, and she used those models for her work. But she didn’t want to just capture them exactly as they were — she wanted to answer in her work the question, “What do I wish for them?” Thomas didn’t want to talk about what she didn’t want — racism, violence, tragic deaths — but she wanted the work to embody the hope for the children’s futures.

“Instead of putting in this young boy’s hand the sign that said, ‘don’t shoot,’ ‘don’t kill me,’ or whatever you don’t want, I put in that I want grace, because that’s what I want,” Thomas said. “And I want consideration. On one of the images I have here, the little boy has books all around them, book titles and all kinds of stuff. And I said, ‘I want them to read.’ And I want them to see all of the great things that are supporting them.”

It deeply concerns Thomas, who is 72 years old, that today’s Black youth are overly burdened with the responsibility of fixing the world’s problems instead of just existing as children.

“What I hope for our kids is that they don’t always have to be thinking about how they have to defend Blackness. What if they just went outside and thought about a bumblebee? How do I picture them? I picture them in places that are natural environments,” Thomas said. “The natural world belongs to us just as much as it does to anyone else. So I want them to be able to have that too, and not worry that it’s not something that they get to have because they have to worry about social justice every minute. So I want us to take care of this so they can have a regular amount of concern about social justice and not have their whole life taken up by it. I just think, ‘My God, I don’t want these kids, by the time they’re my age, to have spent their whole life talking about this.’”

Thomas wants to change the expectations placed on Black children: the expectation that they somehow understand the adult world in ways they cannot at seven years old or even 13 years old; the expectation that they are responsible for correcting the skewed perception the world has of them; but also the expectation that they won’t amount to much in life, and if they do amount to something it must be something great — they must be the absolute best of the best — Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and Martin Luther King Jr. levels of greatness. It’s these expectations that Thomas sees as an unfair burden placed on innocent children just because they are Black and just because their darkness is imbued with a negative mythology that’s pervasive in this society. In The Geography of Innocence, she offers people the opportunity to see the beauty and vulnerability in the images of the children and to consider a different story. 

“I always say to people, ‘I’m not telling the grand story. I’m telling this small, little story.’ That’s just the kind of thing that makes up most of our lives,” Thomas said. “We’re all going to have this grand story about COVID and what it did and what it didn’t do, but it’s going to be the everyday little things that get us from here to whatever that next moment is. … It’s going to be those details that kind of tie us together. And the little moments are where we figure out how to survive. … And I think what I’ve tried to do is really hold uncertainty with open hands and to understand that that’s the way life has always really been: truly uncertain.”

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently working on a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration. You can follow her on Instagram @beverlyaarons and Facebook

Featured image: Collage of images of “Grace” (cut paper and hand-printed color, 26 x 40 inches, 2020) [left], Barbara Earl Thomas [center], and “Wonder Boy” (cut paper and hand-printed color, 26 x 40 inches, 2020). All photos in collage were taken by Ingrid Pape-Sheldon.

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