They are defiant. They are resilient. They are spirits of the disappeared and displaced, once forgotten by many in Miami, now reclaimed by ambitious events and exhibit in “A Call to the Ancestors”. It spotlights the fate of historically Black cemetery Lincoln Memorial Park. Founded nearly a century ago in Brownsville, for decades Lincoln bore scars of immense neglect. It’s now cleaned and groomed, reclaiming and honoring those spirits from its storied past.
As Leonard Pitts, Jr. writes, Lincoln is where “lynching victims and millionaires alike” rest together in cramped company, in segregated witness to the vicious, murderous Jim Crow era. Honoring this memory matters more than ever, as we now witness calls to diminish Black history, to erase past terror and triumph.
C. Isaiah Smalls II underscores the urgent lesson of Lincoln. He writes, “Black history—and places like Lincoln—cannot be exterminated—for they hold the key to a better future.” He calls us to act in response to these attacks on American history. Without question, they imperil our democracy.
Looking beyond Lincoln Memorial Park, “A Call to the Ancestors”
explores how we remember and honor our ancestors for a better future. We’re invited to share rituals shaping our past, present and future moments in Miami. These mirror Miami’s crossroads identity, perched at the edge of rising, at-risk waters. It’s where cultures spanning the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa and other regions collide and embrace.
This sometimes bittersweet embrace can produce welcome moments of risk-defying joy and healing for Miami’s multiple communities, suffering twin assaults on civil rights and natural resources. In these Little Haiti galleries, defiance and resilience, beauty and respect meet in art and words.
Morel Doucet creates porcelain ceramic skulls for “Bones to Belonging: Skulls as Markers of Resilience and Identity.” He explains that the skulls are painted with patterns from various cultures including Mexican, Haitian, and Australian Aboriginal. Such skulls recall exuberantly decorated sugar skulls exchanged during Mexico’s Day of the Dead gatherings as well as European memento mori traditions. These skulls honor and celebrate those departed for the afterlife, reminding the living that earthbound life is finite.
Sugar, and its back-breaking production by enslaved laborers on deadly lucrative Caribbean sugar plantations, commands metaphorical power in Edouard Duval-Carrié’s painting “Beast of Burden.” After surviving Middle Passage horrors, millions of enslaved Blacks died prematurely on these plantations. Silver glitter sparkles like sugar throughout this nocturnal scene, stripped of tropical colors. A naked Black man gingerly crawls forward despite certain death ahead. Behind him is a cave, reminiscent of secretive places where enslaved Blacks and Indigenous peoples gathered for rites bridging passage from their terrestrial world to places beyond. On his back is a mandala bearing a constellation of circular forms. It opens to a non-Western spiritual space transcending the cruelty of colonialism.
Muralist Lionel Milton paints “strange fruit” dangling from branches of a broadly brushed tree, its trunk emblazoned with the face of a Black person who seems to possess a “third eye,” signifying spiritual enlightenment in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Here, this “third eye” may suggest that the lynching victims are rising beyond their bodily desecration on earth. Dominating the tree’s canopy are five oversize heads or masks, outlined in rapid strokes to evoke Black larger-than-life spirit guides.
“What do we salvage from the past? Of the lives of the dead?”
asks novelist Ana Menéndez in “Vidrio: The Face in the Glass.” What can be salvaged, she answers, is recognizing how ancestors continue to shape the present. For Ana, the face in the glass belongs to her and her late maternal grandmother Manuela, to whom she bears a near-perfect likeness. A piercing childhood memory still haunting the novelist is her grandmother’s cry of “Vidrio!” This was a worried admonition to avoid stepping on shattered, fractured glass. Manuela was born to Lebanese immigrants in Cuba in 1926 and later immigrated to the United States. She was her family’s gifted seamstress and storyteller. In conversations, she stitched together tales of daily life burnished by precisely observed details. Hampered by insular, fracturing anxieties of exile, her grandmother, Ana believes, lives a second life through her own published storytelling. Ana became the novelist her grandmother was meant to be.
Inviting reflections on dignity restored to once severely neglected Lincoln Park Memorial Cemetery, “A Call to the Ancestors” is curated by Carl Juste, directed by Rebecca Friedman and Juste. It casts a wide net throughout diverse communities and creatives, revealing multiple ways to bid farewell and still hold close ancestors during their passage through the universe. In these galleries, sugar skulls and shattered glass, secretive caves and strange fruit are just some of the conduits for keeping ancestral connections active and alive.
This essay was commissioned by Carl Juste and Rebecca Friedman for “A Call to the Ancestors,” on view at IPC ArtSpace and Little Haiti Cultural Complex from September 15 through November 5, 2023.