The soil in Mississippi is Black Belt soil in more ways than one. Fertile, fecund, dark, and nutritious, the soil is home to corn, soybeans, and cotton. Its thick-trunked forests root deep fingers into the Delta.
This rich land is also Black land—independent of what any deeds say. More than one-third of the state's population is Black, and in 1910, they owned 2.2 million acres of its loamy earth—the highest percentage (14 percent) of Black-owned land of any state. But, by 1968, 800,000 of those acres had been lost.
Grief is in the soil.
Despite the land's fertility and the long, celebrated history of Black organizing that comes from Jackson, people outside the state seem to think of it as being empty, a country void.
On the airplane ride over, the flight attendant remarked that those passengers continuing on the second leg of the flight better remain in their seats, as none of us wanted to be stuck in Medgar Edgars Airport. None of us wanted to be stuck in Jackson.
A fertile Black and an empty one—a seeming paradox. But historically, Latin possessed two words for black: neger or radiant black, the color of good earth and expensively died fabrics; and ater, or dull, listless black associated with the anemic shade of the underworld. Initially, neger had a positive connotation, but over time, it pejorated as even language falls prey to antiblackness. However it is this first, deep, rich black that appears in the co-curated exhibition from Mississippi artists Sarah Jené (35) and Jasmine Williams (30).
Born out of shared loss over the deaths of their matriarchs—a mom and grandma—in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the artists created "We Grow On" as a contemplative space of rest that could would hold Black people in our grief.
The exhibition is part of the Mississippi Museum of Art's artists-in-residence program and consists of "Moss Couch" (2023), a deconstructed couch covered with three different species of moss, and "Stained Glass" (2023), a restful vista of several panes of fused glass cut in the shape of arched windows. The latter is created by Adrienne Dominick, another Mississippian.
"Grief is just so large," said Jasmine about the impetus for "We Grow On." "And as Black folks, we don't have a lot of language around how to feel. We wanted to make a space so Black folks could feel seen and heard."
She continued: "Sarah and I were both feeling so heavy and because we were looking for our own outlet and own way of expression, we naturally think about our community. Like, how are we all dealing with so much loss?"
If it ain't one grief, it's another, raising up over and over like wack-a-mole more than any sort of phoenix from the ashes. Recently, grief's been having its way with me, making it so all I want to do is lay down, a dead thing that doesn't think and doesn't feel. All my thoughts arrayed in ill-conceived mutiny, betraying one another and me.
My grief has been an everywhere inside-out kinda grief: ego-death, gloom in the disappearance of spiritual certainty, despair over good and over evil, mental sabotage despite the relationship I prayed for yet struggle to be present in, mounting anxiety and grief for all the ways antiblackness continues to kill, and the fear that I've been complicit in my own death.
"We Grow On" opened June 3, and in the ater of grief, shining Black girls hugged barefoot on the emerald grass. Though we were in a garden, every color seemed to emerge brighter and richer from our Blackness and colossal joy at being womxn and alive and together: fuschia suits in silk, peridot skirts, turquoise blazers, gold doorknockers and barrettes, planetary afros alongside blonde locs, curls and coiffed. Such abundance.
The artists produced their own luminescence, and they knew it. Each person took selfies and group pictures in front of the thing that had been made with their grief.
Created from tearing apart an old couch and layering patches of moss over the wireframe, this soft organic place of quiet repose arose through a process of destruction and reform, paving the way for new growth.
"I found myself needing a place of respite, needing a place of beauty," Sarah said of her decision to create "Moss Couch," complete with rose and baby's breath pillows.
In feeling the structure's soft sturdiness and witnessing everyone's collective joy, it occurred to me that perhaps I could rest in this place for a while. Perhaps laying down on this couch didn't have to mean death.
The title of the exhibition, "We Grow On," connotes the persistence of Black people through struggle. But the central image is not the cliché rose that grew from concrete, and it's not Mississippi's relentless kudzu—better known as the "vine that ate the South." Instead, it's humble moss. Something soft that grows underneath, near the bottom, in shady damp places that can be easily overlooked.
Moss is both a symbol of growth and a metaphor for grief. The artists choose it because of its ability to absorb toxins and prepare the soil for new plants to take root.
"I've reflected on how nature helped me heal throughout the losses I've had in my life," Sarah commented. "Then, over time, I realized that grief is not something that I'll ever get over. It's something that I grow through."
Moss pointed out an insight to the artist, just as the mossiest side of the tree pointed our ancestors towards escape long ago. Moss has always been a wayfinder for the fugitive. Whether we are looking for respite from structural Grief or personal grief, the tender plant reminds: there is softness in dark places. Moss is just as persistent as grief. Without roots, without sun, without even soil, these plants grow. All they need is water and each other.
Jasmine and Sarah knew from the outset that collective gathering had to be a component of "We Grow On". "We needed that [space] for ourselves. And in having that for ourselves, and—because of the work that we naturally gravitate to—we made it for our community too."
The exhibition's opening was celebrated with Testimony Service, an event co-founded by Sarah Jene and Ebony Chappel that invited community members to share stories of trial, loss, and catharsis. In front of a sage-smudged altar arranged with candles, flowers, photos, and libations for those that went before us, we laughed and cried together.
Folks from as far away as Alabama drove in for the event. Ashés and Amens punctuated spoken word performances by local poet Amanda Furdge. People invoked the names of queer family lost to suicide, sang spirituals, and testified.
Whether my grief needed a psalm and/or theirs needed to twerk, Jasmine wanted attendees to know that our grief was valid. Grief just as valid and wild as our joy. In another apparent paradox, both can be present at the same time. Neither one needs to cancel out or quiet down for the sake of the other.
I don't think that the environment that Jasmine and Sarah created exists because of grief alone, but grief together with love and the resources and support of community. We Grow On is the fruit of a creative and fertile Blackness, a neger Blackness that feeds Misssissippi, land and people.
Adrienne Dominick (37), the multidisciplinary artist who created "Stained Glass," spoke of the same creative Black energy swarming in Jackson. "It's such a good time for collaboration. I didn't always have it. So it's so cool to be a part of this time right now. I saw someone say that they were blessed to be a part to witness this Black art renaissance that's happening in Jackson. And I'm like, 'Damn, that's a perfect way to put it. That's exactly what it feels like.'"
Adrienne has been creating in surrounding Jackson for over 14 years and has seen the evolution of the city's Black arts scene into a dynamic, inclusive, and supportive community. Adrienne even has another installation piece about grief on display at the museum as a part of the 2023 Mississippi Invitational.
Her own involvement with "We Grow On" began organically. The three friends were coworking in a coffee shop one day when Sarah and Jasmine began discussing their vision for the installation and how great it would be if it contained stained glass. Overhearing, Adrienne mentioned that she could create the stained glass since she worked in a glass studio for six years as a design manager—a fact neither Sarah nor Jasmine knew, despite their friendship with the artist.
The scene Adrienne depicts is that of Black hands holding the whole creation. Whether it's a world's end, as seen through a sunset—or one's beginning, as seen through a sunrise—the same Black posture permits its dawning and falling with ease. This release allows for another kind of holding on: Choosing to grieve for what you love in the face of apathy and willful cruelty is a stained glass. Rather than operating like rose-colored glasses, Adrienne's piece makes visible the shining Black in a world blinded by light.
The stillness of "Stained Glass" resonates with a favorite line from Toni Morrison's The Source of Self Regard after she talks about naming and violence as responses to chaos: "There is, however, a third response to chaos, which I have not heard about, which is stillness. Such stillness can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art." Creativity is an alternative to control.
Adrienne described the therapeutic and transformative properties of creation, too. "I didn't realize it at the time, but just being still (italics my own) and working on this thing, it was really helping my mental space…[Painting] just feels good," she said. "[A]s an artist, you realize at some point, it's not about you. Other people are finding healing in your art, you know?"
Though rarely depicted on stained glass, our ancestors developed an intimate relationship with the chaos many simply fear. In that stillness—and out of necessity—they developed a greater capacity, perhaps from the dynamic capaciousness of chaos itself, to envision alternatives. To look at nature as Sarah did and see a personal recipe or ritual that could support her right where she was.
Chaos not only matters, but it is matter. As such, all its materials must be worked with to create a viable design, so when faced with how to respond to grief, some folks try to bury it, while others build a couch out of moss. Creativity does not attempt to eradicate chaos but patiently waits until rhythms and vistas become visible—until Black hands emerge from the chaos holding the cosmos.
This is what I think Jasmine means when she said, "Getting over has been a generational thing." Jasmine isn't saying that we have gotten over our Grief as a people (individual or collective), or that she sees being tough as a generational blessing. I think she means less getting over it and more getting over on those whose only means of dealing with the world is control. She means getting over on the people in power and the policies in place that mean us no good.
There is a certain level of creativity to scamming a world designed to take everything from you. It requires ingenuity, hustle, and genius to take advantage of what others don't see and make a fool out of the whole damn system.
"We can grow in any environment, even when it feels harsh and hard to do. We do have the power to do that," Jasmine said while noting the importance of taking breaks.
This reflection, a gathering of all the light possible even where there is little—is what certain species of cave moss like Schistostega pennata do. They create their own luminescence. In dark places that seem to be without sunlight, look closely because they glow.
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Photographer Justin Hardiman, a collaborator with Jasmine Williams and Sarah Jené's 'How We Get Over: We Grow On' project at the Mississippi Museum of Art, shares stunning portraits and excerpts from his audio-visual project, 'The Color of Grief.'
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