How We Get Over: A Conversation with Sarah Jené and Jasmine Williams

5,165 total words    

21 minutes of reading

Manòn: Thank you for creating space and time for this. I’m really excited to talk with you both about the work that you’re doing and excited for the audience and the listeners to hear about the work that you are doing and creating. I think it’s so necessary in the world right now. And so, just really, really thankful for your time and this interview. So let’s begin with who you both are. So you are both founders and partnering curators for “How We Get Over,” an interactive exhibition that holds space for Black Southerners to honor and reckon with our grief, and “We Grow On,” an outdoor installation that will prepare audiences for the larger exhibition, “How We Get Over.” But why don’t we start by just getting to know more about you individually? And so, since I do know a lot about Sarah Jene since she’s a loved one of mine, Jasmine, why don’t we start with you? Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and your work?

Jasmine: Yes. So my name is Jasmine, and I feel like as a creative, I have a lot of titles, but the one that’s really sticking for me is a creative producer and a storyteller. I’m originally from Columbus, Mississippi. Right now, I am living here in Jackson, Mississippi. And one of the things that really, really make me happy and make me feel good and my existence is creating experiences for southern folks, specifically Black southern folks, to express themselves, to connect. And I also shine a light on what is southern Black culture and how it’s so integrated or the foundation of American culture that we know as American culture or recognize as American culture. So yeah, that’s a little bit about me and the work that I do on a larger scale.

Manòn: Beautiful. Beautiful. Yeah, I definitely wanna dig into that southern Black culture and articulating that. Yeah, that’s just amazing the work that you’re doing in creating those experiences, and I think we have a lot to learn about what that is. Sarah, how about you? How would you define your work and what you’re doing in the world?

Sarah: So, my name is Sarah Jené—I go by Sarah Jené as my artist name. And I would like to say that I am a culture curator. I love to curate things for our culture. My main art form is digital and paper collage art. So I do visual installations as well as creating spaces usually centered for Black women. I definitely believe that one of my many purposes is to create spaces for Black women to feel seen and heard, especially when it comes to healing and grief work and just pure joy. I really believe that joy is a form of resistance. So I love to show that in my art as well.

Manòn: Beautiful. Yeah, joy is a form of resistance, absolutely. And just listening to you both, there are so many overlapping similarities and parallels within the work that you are creating. So I’m also interested in knowing what is the story that brought you two together as creative producers, curators, beautiful Black women who are interested in creating spaces for healing, for joy, for growth. How did you both connect with this vision?

Jasmine: So Sarah and I, we think so much of our work always overlaps being in the same creative community, there’s just certain themes that constantly come up, whether it be about the South, whether it be about Black women, centering joy, all of those things are just things that are very important to both of us. And the wild thing is we always talk about alignment and knowing that we are on the right path. And it’s kind of wild that we were both ideating this same thing but in our own silos. So we were both interested in doing this work. I wanted to do a grief series on film where I build this community altar with people that I’m interviewing and them bringing in something that honors the person in place or opportunity or whatever, that they’re grieving and just giving them a space to talk through their grief. And so that’s a campaign or an idea that I was thinking about doing. And Sarah had this other project that dealt with grief, a grief garden. And so initially, I can’t remember who said what or who was first,  being like, I’ve been thinking about grief. But that conversation happened, and we were both like, okay, so how can we expand on this and make it what we both want it to be? Sarah, do you wanna add?

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I remember being at Jasmine’s house, and I don’t know, the conversation of grief was coming up, and we were talking about it, and I believe I told her a story about in 2018 after I had lost my sister; God really gave me this idea to do a grief journey and as it relates to nature and color theory and all these things. And then Jasmine was like, oh my gosh—She started to tell me about the grief project that she just mentioned and told me about her grandmother and just shared things with me about her personal grief journey. And for me personally, it felt like I finally talked to someone who could put words to what I was thinking. And that felt just—it just felt it was a moment, it was just such a moment. And we both were like, “okay, so when are we doing this!” Which was funny because I feel like we connect on a lot of things, and we’re always like, we should do this, we should do that. But when it came to this, it was just cemented. It was for both of us. We were both okay, so let’s get out the pens, the papers, the laptops, all the things we need to talk about it.

Manòn: It definitely sounds like a divine moment and a moment in these critical times that we’re living in right now, where the vision that has been birthed inside of you both, is so needed. It is so very needed. And what you are doing, I just think, is really incredible. And so, could you tell our listeners a little bit about exactly what you are creating, “How We Get Over, and We Grow On”?

Jasmine: So the name of it is “How We Get Over.” And I remember specifically wanting it to be “How We Get Over” to make a connection between the ways that we are using our Southern grieving practices to continue to get over and also calling back to what those traditions have been historically. So to just create a scene where we’re talking about contemporary and traditions of the past and how we are constantly fighting through this prolonged grief in the Black experience because I think it’s—our experience is—so riddled with grief. And so “How We Get Over” is an interactive exhibition that holds space for Black Southerners to honor and reckoning with our grief through the use of film sound, sculpture, and other forms of creative media from contemporary Black Southern artists. And the goal is to highlight our traditional and modern Southern grieving rituals.

And so we wanna welcome people into—one—a journey through grief and a space to think about and honor our grief and also to affirm our grief because we are experiencing it so rapidly that we wanna just hold space for people to think clearly about the things and the people and the places that they’re mourning. And also showing that there is a specific practice tied to being Southern and even how we honor the people that we lost in having and having awake or cooking after a funeral or the second line in New Orleans. So there are just very specific rituals in ways that we honor loss in the South. So we wanted to call and show and bring attention to that and give space to—and provide a space for artists and people grieving—to just have this communal time to think through grief. And I know a lot of our inspiration calls back to the church because I think the church is very foundational and for a lot of Black Southerners in a ways, whether how we believe that we have continued connection beyond the grave.

And so there are so many themes of the church and spirituality that we want to bring to this exhibition. Whether even having a moment where people can pour libation and have a meditative moment in a candle room, there’s a component where we have a guest book; we’re planning to have a guest book, because I think in our even celebration rituals and grieving rituals, it’s so traditional for us to have a book there for people to sign to see who came by. So we want to continue to create this space of community and just show and memorialize our collective losses while showcasing art and honoring the traditions that we come from and that continue to push us forward and through grief.

Manòn: And before we talk about “Grow On,” I think it’s so important to highlight that the work that you’re doing is specifically addressing and attending to and healing Black grief. And so, although there are a lot of conversations around grief and loss in our culture, and I’m thankful to see these conversations becoming more of a norm, I still think that the term Black grief and the Black cultural experience when it comes to loss and grief and the distinctions within our experience, that’s a concept that still has not permeated most of our cultural lexicon. And so some people may be wondering, well, what is Black grief? What does that mean? So would either of you just be willing to talk about the unique experience of Black grief and how that ties into the work that you are doing? I think that that’s just so important for us to name here.

Jasmine: Yes, I can speak a little bit about that. So what’s very specific about Black grief is it’s perpetual, and I think that makes it different from any other experiences—that we experience grief more frequent than other races or groups in America. And that’s due to health disparities, that’s due to intergenerational trauma—just so much because of our experience and even how we got here in America is just riddled with grief. And so I think we are always having to tackle and wrestle with grief. And also, because of even our familial structures, the way we think about family and loss can be more expansive than other groups in America, too; and so we have extended family. So when you think about the loss of a grandmother in the Black community, it’s almost like the loss of a mother, because we have such strong ties and, I guess, larger ideas of what community is to combat the structural and systemic racism and all of these things.

Community is very essential to how we survive and how we move in America. So thinking about the frequency that we experience grief because of all of the disparities and even our idea about community, it makes us experience grief in a different way. And it is, it’s tough, and it’s hard, and so much about grief is on TV. We have to reckon with grief whether we are dealing with racial killings, so much we have to grieve at once within this experience because there are so many elements of society that beat us down at once. And so, it’s just grief on all sides. And I think that’s the difference in Black grief.

Manòn: Yeah, thank you for that beautiful articulation. And as you were talking, what I was thinking is when you were saying so much of our grief is publicized, right? It’s on TV and sometimes I feel that it has become such a norm, it’s such a norm in our culture that we, even as Black people, are desensitized to our own trauma ‘cause it’s just like, “oh, that’s just what we go through. That’s just the load that we carry.” And so what I love about the work and how powerful this is, is that you are literally creating this sacred space that is away from that—is away from all of that. And it’s space that is particularly designed for us, is curated for us, it’s for us, it’s by us, where we just get to be with our grief—and not have it publicized, monetized, where we are literally becoming retraumatized over and over and desensitized. But that we literally get these sacred spaces where we just get to come, and we get to attend to our own hurt and to our own pain that often we can’t speak about in public spheres or that maybe we haven’t even dealt with within ourselves because of how normal it is for us just to encounter, like you said, perpetual grief all the time, every day from being a Black person living in America. So this work that you’re doing is just, just powerful on so many different levels.

Sarah: I’m just very grateful to be able to do this type of work and create space. I’m grateful that we’re able to do this project because, like you said, it’s an everyday thing. And what you were saying about being desensitized really resonates with me because it’s like we have to, in a sense for our own survival. If we can’t break away from the perpetual grief, how can we move forward? So introducing “How We Get Over” and the “Grow On Garden” is going to be impactful because it’s showing the practices that we have used and introducing—reintroducing—those ideas to some of us who may have forgotten. So it’s creating the space as well as it’s almost like a love letter to ourselves and allowing the griever to have space, not just the people we’re grieving.

Manòn: Wow. Yeah, “allowing the griever to have space, not just the people we’re grieving.” And I like that you said it’s a reintroduction to these practices that are just so embedded within who we are, within our culture, within our Black traditions. Because to survive, like you said, we had to have rituals and practices, and so I just love that you are drawing on the resources that we’ve already had as a people that have helped us to get over. And can you talk about “We Grow On”?

Sarah: So, “We Grow On” is really an exploration of how nature aids us in our grief. So yes, we’re talking about those practices. We’re also reaching into the Indigenous practices that we don’t always speak on or connect with in this life; but I say that, but we also do connect—it’s how you’re doing something, and you realize: “oh, my ancestors did this,” but you don’t realize it in the moment. So using nature as a source of processing your grief and “We Grow On” is going to be a meditative space. It’s really the preparation before the “How We Get Over” exhibit. It’s going to be a place for respite, is going to be a place to just reflect on grief. Our partner Scalawag Magazine is gonna provide language and writing prompts for us so that the viewer, the people who come to this exhibit get to really think on their processing of grief and just ask themself questions that need to be asked, sit in the garden and just experience it and give them a chance to write out their grief. There’s gonna be a booklet in partnership with that exhibit so that people can have a takeaway. It’s just gonna be a really beautiful process.

Jasmine: And I say one thing that we’re being very conscious of—there’s going to be a guidebook to accompany it, because we are aware that we are dealing with this perpetual grief, because we’re dealing with this, Black folks are also less likely to have the resources to engage and talk therapy or these very traditional ways of going through grief. So we want to provide a space that’s still rooted in community practices but also provide any resources that can extend and encourage Black people to engage in group therapy. So even thinking through programming where people can sit in a space and talk about grief together and get outside of these silos, we really want to hone in on community and show this is a very communal process even when it feels like you’re alone. So that’s just one of our big goals: How do we provide very tangible resources, so people have things to lean on?

Sarah: Oh, I’m so excited about this. And just the difference in both of the exhibits, what they’ll both provide.  I’m just excited to see how that plays out as well as what it gives the community programming, the relation of softness and everything that people get to explore with the garden and just the reckoning, all the things: the safety, just being able to provide grieving and safety a space for that; so many layers to this project.

Manòn: Yes. So many layers. And I just was thinking about the way that COVID reshaped our experience of dealing with loss. We had massive losses on every scale. So, loss of people and loved ones and loss of a way of life, economic loss, loss of even touch, right? Because we were quarantined, climate change and loss—so much global loss and the way that we had to deal with grief. I think even during that time, very early on, I had some loved ones to pass away from COVID. And I remember feeling so robbed of the full experience of grieving communally. And that’s when it connected with me how much we are not meant to deal with our loss alone. I mean even though we all grieve in different ways, but in some aspect that communal experience around loss, I feel like it is so important to metabolize our grief and to help us move through the process of loss.

And even in a lot of cultures, ancient cultures, there was more of a communal way where people really wrapped around one another when they lost a loved one. Sometimes people would be taken care of for a year; they would be supported by the community with meals and sustenance. And so it was really jarring during COVID, because I remember getting the news that I had lost two loved ones and I so wanted to go and be with my family, but I could not. And I was quarantined, I was in my house, and I was like, this isn’t—it just felt like the experience of grief was so condensed because we just couldn’t be with one another because it was literally the earliest days of COVID when it was like: No, everybody was locked up in their house. And so a lot of us, we faced tremendous losses, but in some ways, we were also deprived of the communal experience of being able to gather and be with people and receive communal support.

And so the fact that you are just emphasizing the communal aspect that we can grieve in community and, just like you said Sarah, that you’re providing a safe space to be able to do so and that you are thinking about this holistically: Okay, as we are providing this experience and this space, how can we give people support even after they leave here? How can we connect them with support groups or other spaces where they can encounter healing? This is just really, incredibly medicinal and powerful. So can you tell us about the timeline for this? Are you still in the building stages, and do you have a date or where this will be launched and will this be stationary or will this be a traveling exhibit that people can experience? I’m interested in knowing about that because it’s definitely something that I would love to experience and have my loved ones experience. I’d love to see it all around the country for our people.

Sarah: That is our goal. That’s what we’re in talks of doing is traveling the exhibit. I’ve already been dreaming up ways it could work here in Indianapolis. I know the goal is to travel it through the South, but definitely, eventually, to have it in Indy would be an amazing experience. I think it’s really needed for this community. But definitely. Do you wanna talk about our timeline?

Jasmine: Yes. And before I go into that, I do just wanna talk about what you were saying earlier about COVID and the losses in COVID because this entire project was birthed and these feeling, there is so much loss right now, but it’s one thing. COVID loss felt so much different. I think we were so desensitized to losing and grief, but then COVID magnified all of that. And so I know Sarah losing her mother, and then me losing my grandmother and then not really being able to be with them was a lot. It was a lot. So yes, this was birthed in that same vein, but to go back to the timeline—We Grow On—the grief garden: We are right now in conversation with a local partner doing an artist’s residency to actualize this. And so, right now, our goal date is June to really launch it, and the full exhibition being available and launched in August of next year, 2023. So spring, summer, and fall of next year.

Manòn: That’s excellent. Spring, summer, and fall. Yes. And can you talk about—because we are all artists and I want to explore more about the role of art, even in supporting grief, since you will have film, sound, sculpture, and other forms of creative media from contemporary Black Southern artists—can you talk about just the role of art in helping to support grief traditionally even and its meaning in this experience? How do you want to use art as a bridge that helps people to connect?

Sarah: So, art has just been such a vehicle in our human experience, and I think connecting that subject matter—grief with art—is, I think, one of the easiest way to have the conversation in a sense because people don’t talk about grief, people mostly don’t, or it’s just something we shy away from. Especially as Black folks telling our own personal stories is difficult, getting stories out of our elders is a difficulty. So just being able to use art in its many forms as a way of expression to open up our minds to see what grief really looks like; and I think it’s gonna be just a beautiful experience to give that experience to people because it’s like—oh, I know many times over it’ll be like, “I didn’t think of it this way, or I didn’t see it this way.” Or even our practices in how we get over—not thinking of those as art, but that’s art, too. So it’s just showing that our literal way of life is art and then that, in turn, that art is an expression of grief.

Jasmine: Yes, and I love the way you explained it. I think of it as a space where artists are responding or are showcasing their grief through art. And so we get a very contemporary art-making experience from these contemporary artists that still is calling to Black Southern grieving traditions and memorializing these spaces of community and grief, thinking about a photography series of old churches across the South—how the church is such a very grounding point for grief, for celebration and getting over. So I think it’s a conversation; we want the art to be a conversation between contemporary and traditional. So yeah, I’m really interested in seeing how artists are feeling in their own grief. And then we are still getting a very contemporary idea that says that we’re still doing the same things that have already worked for us; just highlighting how those traditions are still things that we’re using and they’re still allowing us to get over. So yeah, art is very important in this experience, and Sarah is saying that’s one of my biggest goals as a curator in an art institution. But one of my goals is to always show and bridge the gap between community and to say, “you’re already doing this work, and it’s no different.” So that’s the goal.

Manòn: That’s pretty dope. And it, it sounds like, from what I’m hearing, this is such an immersive experience, and so it’s something that people can experience and take in but also participate. So I think that that’s really amazing as well. ‘Cause sometimes we go in certain museums, and it’s like we’re kind of taking it in…we’re taking in…we’re taking it in, but this is so invitational to say, “we’re inviting you to participate, we’re inviting you to take up space, whatever that looks like.” So whether that’s writing the letter or pouring libations…

Sarah: It’s almost like a call-response. The museum in itself is almost like a call-response: We’re calling you to this experience and we’re going to actually be able to respond in this experience. A lot of times when you go to a museum, like you said, you’re taking it all in and then later on you’re like, “okay, what did I just see?” But in this moment at that exhibit, you’re going to be able to experience it and its wholeness and also take away something. So I think that’s what I’m excited to see the most, how people respond while they’re there. And also, we are educating ourselves on what needs to be in place for big emotions as well as people who just need space throughout this journey. Because it’s not going to be, I don’t think it’s gonna be easy—not gonna be easy for everyone. So we definitely wanna have people in place to help with navigating those emotions and having spaces for people to just be to themselves if they need that. Just different things in place.

Manòn: The full spiritual support and emotional support—yeah, that’s really important. Thank you for mentioning that. Now I have to ask since you mention since this is about Southern Black rituals, is there gonna be food involved? Because y’all was saying that and I just was like: Is there gonna be greens? Is there gonna be, vegan fried tomatoes for the vegans?

Jasmine: Yes, because one of the ideas we talked about is having the opening ceremony to almost feel like a repast, but cause that is very deeply Southern. And so having it feel like a repast, a celebration, and acknowledgment of our loss because that’s what it is. But a time to eat all of this food that uniquely ties us together and with how we get over film is what is my contribution in this exhibition. Food is one of the very main things that I’m going to be talking about how we create these different foodways regionally. What does a repast spread look like for someone in New Orleans? What does it look like for someone in Mississippi and in Houston? So yes, food is very special.

And then also because food is, it serves as a tool for memory and honor. Because when I think about ways that I honor my grandmother, it’s through the things she cooked and through her favorite recipes or I know there’s a story where she talks about one of her favorite meals that her mother made for her was chicken and dumplings for her birthday. And so I think food is very central, especially when we’re talking about the loss of people in the South because we remember: We create these foodways regionally and within our families. So yeah, food most definitely would be involved.

Manòn: Wow, that’s incredible. That’s incredible! Well, thank you, ladies so much. Definitely also wanna know how can we keep up with the development? Will there be a website or social media where individuals can stay connected to this experience. I feel like this is a movement. I feel like it’s more than just an exhibition, but it feels like a powerful movement that you all are helping to facilitate. And so, how can we also stay connected with you and this experience in addition to if there’s anything else that you want us to know?

Jasmine: I think our initial vision was just to have a space and once we started talking to more people, we’re becoming more and more aware of how important this is. So a website coming soon. And I would just say if you want to stay in touch with us, we’ll provide our social media handles and our own personal websites. And I would say to your audience that this is something that we are creating, co-creating in community and with other partners and we need money. So anyone who’s invested and wants to see this grow and even wants to talk through ideas—yeah, we’re most definitely looking for more financial partnerships. Yeah, that’s what I would want people to know.

Sarah: Yeah, I was going to say the same. We are actualizing it now, so we have a really great opportunity to continue to get everything we need to make it grow. And I think that will help us feel the most secure. I think that will help us be the most secure in our next steps. And it’s coming soon; everything is coming soon. We can’t wait to be able to share. And when that comes, then that experience will just continue.

Manòn: Absolutely. Well, thank you both for being willing to be vessels to this work and for answering the call. This is so—this is just so huge. It’s so necessary, and it’s so timely, and it’s so powerful. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your brilliance and your willingness to just create this healing experience and these healing experiences for our people and for the communities that will benefit from this all across the country, all over the world. Thank you so much, and just really, really looking forward to this launch and to what it’s gonna be for years and years to come. So blessings on your work and blessings on you both.

Sarah: Thank you so much. Sending that energy right back to you, and we’re very grateful to do this work and thank you for continuing these conversations and spreading the information and doing this for community, because that’s what it’s all about.

  • Jasmine Williams

    Columbus, Mississippi native Jasmine Williams is a writer, creative producer and curator who enjoys creating art to connect the Southern Black experience. Jasmine is the creator of “Sipp Talk Media,” a digital platform that uses storytelling to shift the narrative of Mississippi by centering Black experiences and culture. Exploring themes of language, food, history, art, and lifestyle, Jasmine is committed to the visibility of Black Southern stories and our creative legacy.
  • Sarah Jené

    Sarah Jené is an inspired multidisciplinary artist who uses fashion and visual art to highlight and embrace her community. She encapsulates the art of Blackness and the beauty of interpersonal relationships to reimagine and celebrate the Black experience. Sarah Jené does this through curated events and her art brand, Thee Black Card, digital and paper collage art.
  • Manòn Voice

    Manòn Voice is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana, a multi-hyphenate--poet and writer, spoken word artist and filmmaker, actor, hip-hop emcee, educator, and community builder. The spirit of her work finds its niche at the intersection of arts and activism. She has performed on diverse stages across the country in the power of the word and has taught and facilitated writing and poetry workshops widely.

Related Responses

Scroll to Top