BLOG: THE MUSE

FACING FEARS, TAKING RISKS

People have great ideas alllllll the time, but MOST are never executed. Someone’s like, “Oh, that would make an incredible plot for a novel” and they never write it. Or they start writing it and never finish or share it. (That’s totally me and my dream to write books. I have files of unfinished manuscripts just waiting for me to come back and finish what I set out to do.)

There are people who dream of performing on Broadway, and then there are the people who write Broadway musicals or build theater companies. These different types of people aren’t better than each other in any way, just different. We need these varieties of skills and inclinations to create complete projects with all the necessary facets and functional parts in the form of people with diverse skills and passions.

There are people who work in museums and there are people who launch museums, and somehow we find ourselves in the latter category. I mean, I’m a musician and an artist. I have a music degree as a string bass player, not a history degree, a business degree, or a museum-y degree of any kind. Who am I to be directing a museum? Writing a museum newsletter? How dare I!

I hope our museum grows into a giant force for good, attracting talent and a future director with a freakin’ doctorate in history and African American studies who we can pay a salary worthy of all they have to offer. In the mean time, me and my artsy fartsy background will have to do during this initial period of growth. I’m learning so much. I’m not a historian or a history teacher, but I am and always will be a student open to learning new things with a desire to address my own ignorance and lack of wisdom.

Utah Black History Museum launched on February 27, 2021 parked outside the Leonardo in Salt Lake City. We set up everything outside for the first time and then a BLIZZARD blew in. The nerve!!!! But it was awesome. There was a ribbon cutting of a big ol’ ribbon on the side of the bus. Press attended. Speeches and interviews happened. It was really awesome. 

And before the event even started, just after we finished our very first setup (and we’ve come so far since then), I remember Lex crying and when I gave her a hug she said, “That was hard. That was really hard.”

It was and it still is. But the work is so important, the work to create social change and make a difference. To build relationships between differing groups of people. The world is a rough place to live with people fighting all the time and such a famine and starvation for peace and love. 

And what is one of the greatest detriments to the healthy flourishing of peace and love?

Fear.

I used to blog a lot in my early 20s, back when blogs were the thang to do. I was really bold, always extremely transparent with all my thoughts and opinions.

Over time though, I started retreating. When people don’t agree with you, when haters comment, when you feel judged, when the costs seem to outweigh the benefits of putting yourself out there, the easiest thing to do is withdraw. 

And sometimes that’s the right choice if you need the space. Sometimes we need space to heal, rediscover ourselves, face our demons. Sometimes we genuinely have to retreat to protect ourselves and our loved ones, to stay safe. 

What does this have to do with the museum?

It’s scary starting a museum. Especially when you’re broaching subjects that stir up people’s feelings — for better or for worse. Black history is not pretty. It’s really, really uncomfortable. People come see our exhibit and cry or feel overwhelmed or can’t even finish reading some of what we put out or all of the above. Others come and are so excited about what they see, embracing the need to share this history and provide enlightenment. Having light switches flipped on in your head as you learn, see, and understand perspectives and knowledge you couldn’t grasp before in your ignorance — that’s pretty invigorating, even when the truths challenge everything you thought you knew. 

I knew when I got involved with this project that it was much bigger than me. The bus is such a convenient object to use metaphorically. Setting this museum in motion was something like putting the bus on the top of a hill, letting go of the air brakes, and not being able to stop the acceleration. The more we talk about the museum, the more we share the museum, the more the word spreads, then the more requests we get, and the demand keeps increasing. I wish we could be on the road every day, reaching everyone in the state with unparalleled efficiency.

In the present reality thought, our organization is really very small, and we are not able to meet the demand… yetI think our bus could be going out 5 times a week to schools and businesses. We need to fundraise, write grants, and get corporate sponsors so we can get ourselves into a brick and mortar space in addition to running the traveling exhibit and get the museum a staff. Our volunteers are incredible and so devoted, but because our nonprofit is an organization offering a service (our program of delivering and presenting our mobile exhibit), I think we will need to build up our board and a museum-knowledgeable, trained staff to catch up with the demand. 

In the meantime, some of you might know that two of our four original board members moved out of state, Lex and Tarienne. They were the other two, in addition to myself, who knew how to set up our exhibit because we built and designed the exhibit together. We would divvy up the events, making sure that one of us were available to lead an event, give directions to volunteers, and orchestrate setup and breakdown of our pretty complicated display. 

It’s tricky because every time we take the exhibit somewhere we are setting up in a new space and have to figure out how to best use that space. One of our greatest helpers is our regular and reliable driver, Beaux. He has an excellent sense of spatial awareness and a sensitivity for energy flow. I really enjoy setting up the exhibit with Beaux because I can just step back and let his visionary mind come up with a balanced, feng shui layout plan that we can then execute with our volunteers. We really get a kick out of nailing setup in new spaces. 

The exhibit looks different every time. We collect more artifacts as time progresses, rotating some artifacts and mixing things up. I mean, the main reason it looks different every time is just the mind-bending challenge of organizing it all. All the stuff is not yet organized enough to have a place mapped out for each one of the hundreds of puzzle pieces involved from wagons to tents to display cases (all in odd, non-matching sizes) to banners to tables to books to dolls to the stacks of mixed-up posters to clips to wall/door stands… It’s a lot of stuff.

BUT we are getting better at it every time, getting into our groove and figuring out the time-saving hacks and a smoother order of operations. Practice might not make perfect, but it makes better. 

I’m straying from what I set out to discuss though. I wanted to say that even starting this newsletter was and is scary for me. The haters are real. Racism is real. I think most of you signed up for this newsletter because you support our mission and our organization and are as excited as we are to share Black history with our fellow Utah community members, in a state where there are people who have never met a Black person. We have important relationships to build and connections to make. 

But while we have our fans, then there are people like that one guy who commented, “When is the white history bus scheduled?” to which I’d like to reply that from my perspective, over 3,000 white history busses carry Utah students to and from white history museums (also known as schools) every single day. 

I was reading the other day in the Black Chamber’s new book, Black Utah: Stories from a Thriving Community (available on Amazon), the interview with Rev. Dr. France Davis, Pastor Emeritus at the historic Calvary Baptist Church who has been a force for change since he came to Utah. When he moved here in 1972, there were only around 10,000 African Americans living in the state of Utah around that time. Utah historically, has not been welcoming, inclusive, or unprejudiced of Black people since the white pioneers settled here and established, amongst cities and churches and so forth, SCHOOLS. 

Think of how many African Americans have migrated here since the 1970s. It’s actually not that many in the past 50 years since Pastor Davis moved here. Current Utah demographics show 1.19% of Utah’s 2022 estimated population of 3,363,182 people being African American, which is approximately 63,900 people. In the past 50 years, the Black population has increased by 6x.

Okay, statistics aside, what we can gather is that Utah’s Black population was and is very small for historic reasons that you can learn more about in our exhibit! Understanding Utah’s Black history of such a small African American population is SO important because of the historical factors that suppressed the growth and inclusion of the Black population in the first place!

Returning to Utah schools. I referred to them as white history museums because the school system was founded by Utah’s white community members. America’s school curriculums reflect the history and values of the majority populations. That’s understandable, sure. 

Now, there is a movement to make school curriculums more well-rounded in their teachings to address some of the difficult topics and recognize Black historical figures who were amazing examples of Black excellence. There are many, many modern Utah teachers who value Black history and cultural diversity, incorporating them into their curriculums with real intent. These are the teachers who invite us to their schools, knowing that we have something special to offer in the way of educational history that is often overlooked. 

And there are those who don’t invite us, who don’t allow us, who are quite scare of us. 

Fear. 

I truly feel that our museum changes lives every time we show it. As challenging and demanding as the project is as a whole, as much as we sometimes fear the bus will be vandalized or set on fire (so far we’ve “only” had a broken window and a passing driver flip us off), it’s absolutely worth taking it out on the streets. Every time we present the exhibit and see students, children, and adults from all walks of life learning and expanding their minds and hearts as they absorb what we have to offer, we are assured that it’s worth the effort, time, and sacrifice we put into not only keeping our museum alive, but growing. 

The haters are out there, but this is a fight worth fighting and a risk worth taking. We must keep moving forward — the bus is accelarating, picking up speed, and it will keep rushing on whether we’re ready for it or not… whether you like it or not. 

Cause Black people were here, are here, and will be here whether you like it or not. 

Keep your wheels rolling, 

🚌

Lizzy 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, UBHM!

Happy Birthday, Utah Black History Museum Family!

It seems fitting that after one year on the road, now that we’re standing on our own [501(c)3!!! nonprofit] organizational feet (or wheels?), we finally create a newsletter!

If you haven’t yet heard, there has been a Black History Museum rolling around the state.

As most of you signed up for this newsletter while visiting one of our exhibits, you’re at least that far in the loop to know that we, in fact, exist. Sometimes that’s hard to prove because the bus appears like magic when scheduled and we have no brick-and-mortar point on the map . . . YET. But we are real. This is not a figment of your imagination.

I do want to introduce myself, today’s narrator. This is Liz Lambson. I currently volunteer/serve as the executive director of this little organization — a little organization in very big bus-sized britches.

We’ve decided to call this correspondence The Muse. In a way, these newsletters will serve as the History of the Utah Black History Museum. Through these messages we’ll be reaching out to you with

• our latest happenings

• information about upcoming events

• calls for volunteers

• historical tidbits

• socially relevant food for thought, etc.

After one operating year, this weekend as we celebrated our birthday was a time to reflect on all that’s happened in the past year. I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing this story from my point of view from the point when I got involved. The concept of this museum and a lot of groundwork happened two years before I stepped into the chaos. But I want to catch everyone up on how the museum came to be and some of the events that led us to this point.

HOW THE BUS CAME TO BE

This is a long story, so get comfortable.

Open scene with Lex Scott, Black Lives Matter Utah Chapter leader emeritus, who was a big fan of the Black Lives Matter mural a team of artists painted at Salt Lake City Hall. I had the honor to be one of those artists on that gargantuan project. Lex subsequently asked if any of us might be interested in painting the exterior of a gigantic school bus she had the idea to turn into a mobile Black history museum that, if I’m remembering correctly, had been sitting in a lot for TWO years up to that point.

I was like, this is a great idea, yes, I’d love to do it. So in September 2020 artist Gretel Tam and I each picked two sides of the bus and drafted designs that Lex and Tarienne Mitchell, our historian (who prepared SO much of that groundwork I mentioned earlier) approved.

PAINTING THE BUS

October 10, 2020: A group of us met on a Saturday to prime the bus gray, then paint it with a base layer of black. Volunteers had taped and sanded the bus (Kevin Mulligan and Co.!!!) leading up to what felt like a ribbon-cutting or a ground-breaking ceremony: the very first paint application. It’s kinda scary to take a paint sprayer to a vehicle, if you’ve never done it before. Not really an everyday activity.

October 11, 2020: Artwork started going down. The waiter holding the plate of chicken ended up being painted over because we decided to highlight and focus on depictions of Black excellence on the exterior. Not that you can’t excellently prepare and serve fried chicken. Fried chicken IS AN ART. But there’s a lot of slavery and servitude and racism to process when you even glance at Black history, so we gave that Coon Chicken Inn (come see our exhibit to learn more about that SLC landmark restaurant!) waiter a little break from dishing up fried chicken for everyone and highlighted specific historical figures.

October 31, 2020: Gretel had an awesome team with her and they cranked out the driver’s side and front of the bus on a single Saturday! It’s this gorgeous red-rock landscape with the profiles of Jane Manning James and Wallace Henry Thurman in front of a deep blue night sky lit with (one of my favorite details) little spray-paint-puff-ball yellow stars in the sky. And the pink wild flowers have the same yellow spray-paint-puff-balls.

Meanwhile, I was like Ms. Super Slowpoke, and while I had a few people roller and dabble some paint on with me on a couple occasions, I mostly visited the bus alone a few times a week through the month of October, pulling my van up next to it, rolling down the windows, and playing music while I painted. Listening to music while painting is one of my all time favorite pastimes, taking me back to my high school AP art days sketching to the Smashing Pumpkins. The Band Camino was the soundtrack for this project.

I slowly illustrated the exterior one character at a time starting with the Buffalo Soldier on the left, chronologically working my way over to the passenger door with Jane Manning James, Wallace Henry Thurman, Ruby Bridges, my great uncle Alexander DeCoux the Tuskegee Airman, Joe McQueen, and Ballet West principal dancer Kat Addison on the right.

A note about Kat — she actually helped me paint both the Black Lives Matter mural and the bus. I play string bass in the Ballet West Orchestra (my main gig) and we met at work and became closer especially after the murder of George Floyd. His death changed the course of my life. I mean, it rocked the whole world, especially for the African American community. And with Utah’s Black population being less than 2%, it’s hard to fly under the radar here. Since 2020 people have been more interested in the perspectives and offerings of people of color than ever before. A lot of unique opportunities have come up as a result. It is intense sometimes to accept invitations to represent an entire demographic, especially during times of unrest and mourning, but the challenges are often worth accepting.

Moving forward (a phrase that is also our tag line!). Volunteers including Stephanie Feller and Lexi Gabrielle helped write names on the back of the bus of unarmed Black people killed by the police in the United States sourced from a list by Renee Ater. Those scores of names on the back of the bus are only from the past decade. On the top section of the back of the bus are names of Utah’s own police brutality victims.

November 7, 2020: I finally signed off on my side of the bus. It started raining — a good cue to wrap it up. We had planned to finish painting the bus before it got too cold with winter coming and move on to the next steps.

NEXT STEPS

Once the bus was painted, I was so eager to keep the momentum going! I was like, what’s next? Should I paint the interior? What’s the plan? What can we get done with so many Black Lives Matter Chapter volunteers eager to help?

Early on I had said that I wouldn’t paint the bus if it were just going to sit in a lot. I was willing to jump over whatever hurdles were in the way to launch the museum and get the bus on the road. The team agreed to the goal of launching in February 2021 for Black History month. In November we started exhibit display construction and gathering more artifacts. Meanwhile, Tarienne was working tirelessly on the informational displays — the bread and butter that shares specifically Utah’s Black history.But a big hurdle was funding. We couldn’t fundraise until we established ourselves as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which, once you start working on the process, can take months to gain approval from the IRS. I started working on that with Barry the lawyer. You have to do stuff like establish an official board and articles of incorporation and fill out lots of documents and get lots of signatures, turn it all in to the IRS and then just . . . wait.

In the meantime, we had to be scrappy and put together what we could with the resources we had. So many volunteers helped make it happen — thank you thank you thank you to all of the volunteers for your great help and the hours you put in as we put the original exhibit together. We brought together really unique artifacts, the informational posters with the Utah history Tarienne researched and prepared, clear plastic display cases with homemade fabric-wrapped wooden bases, wooden stands that we use to hold up our moveable walls, tables, our logo (by Joel Feldt featuring a font by Black designer Tré Seals of Vocal Type Co.), branding prepared by Kev Nemelka that Lex had printed on beautiful banners and tablecloths. Nick and Tabitha Davis were and are continually so helpful with the exhibit build. There were so many others who contributed so much important work to make it happen. Hannah Barrett, Marlo Pratt, Larene Orgill, mechanic Blair Lampe. And of course, Mario Mathis, our museum CEO/President, who has had our backs and supported the project the whole way through. This has been a huge group effort. My sincerest apologies for those volunteers we haven’t mentioned by name!

Group projects can be really, really hard. Divvying up tasks, coordinating efforts, and especially creating a unified vision are really challenging endeavors, especially when the possibilities are endless and you’re starting with such a brilliant seed of an idea (Lex!) but you have to grow it one step at a time. So many of us had moments feeling frustrated, defeated, challenged, and near the brink of just plain giving up. Thank you most of all to everyone who kept believing and encouraging us to rise to the challenge and keep going, keep working towards fulfilling our mission. This is our official mission statement:

The Utah Black History Museum is committed to promote the understanding, appreciation, and advancement of the Black experience in Utah through programming, exhibits, and activities that teach local and national Black history and celebrate the culture of the African Diaspora in the United States.

Let’s end there for today. As some of you may know, I have five young boys between the ages of 2 and 11, including 4-year-old twins. Whenever I work on the museum or anything museum related I typically have a babysitter OR my kids are fending for themselves and destroying the house. Right now it’s the latter. I can hear their footsteps smashing crunchy snacks into the rug fibers.

OMG. My oldest just shouted and ran upstairs to tell me that the 2-year-old just DUMPED A JUG OF CHOCOLATE MILK ON THE FLOOR.

Most of my correspondences will probably end with something to that effect.

Keep your wheels rolling!

🚌

Lizzy