It was at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles that Tyree Boyd-Pates first saw the beauty and resilience of Blackness represented.
His grandmother, Annie Boyd Hargrove, took him there starting at age 4 to pass on her love of the arts, especially history and culture.
Two decades later, Boyd-Pates is passing on the tradition — but to a much larger audience.
His museum exhibitions, first at CAAM and now at the Autry Museum of the American West, have been featured by The New York Times, NPR and Vogue.
His efforts to fight racism by telling untold Black stories just graced the pages of Time magazine. Tens of thousands follow his writings on social media, and can read them in the Huffington Post.
“What was on those gallery walls made an indelible mark on me,” said Boyd-Pates, 31. “Now I have an opportunity to do the exact same thing for a child today.”
And what an opportunity the last few months alone have presented to Boyd-Pates. COVID-19 has hit people of color especially hard. The Black Lives Matter movement has new momentum. And the first Black woman was just nominated for the U.S. vice presidency.
All are, or in the case of Kamala Harris could be, subjects of Boyd-Pates’ current work as associate curator of western history at The Autry, located in historic Griffith Park.
You can’t go there because of the coronavirus, but you can enjoy Boyd-Pates’ work online. He was perfectly positioned to meet the challenge of digital-only exhibition when the museum closed, having spent the years since his graduation from CSUB in 2012 growing audiences via the world wide web.
“Being a child of the digital age, I’ve always had digital fluency,” he said. “And that technological fluency has been able to serve me well.”
FROM LOS ANGELES TO BAKERSFIELD
Boyd-Pates was three days old when his grandmother stepped in to raise him alongside her then-11-year-old son in Koreatown Section 8 housing. Hargrove was finishing up her studies at Cal State L.A. at the time; she’d go on to also raise Boyd-Pates’ younger sister and become a teacher.
Hargrove surrounded the children with books by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, enrolled them in theater classes and bought them family passes to museums — one of the few forms of entertainment she could afford.
From a very early age, Boyd-Pates loved to read and hear stories, Hargrove said. She recalled taking him, his sister and uncle to her hometown of Savannah and showing them family gravesites, the tree from which she hung a tire swing, and the library she wasn’t allowed to enter because she was Black.
“It was a very moving experience for him,” she said. “He just never forgot it.”
Charismatic and sociable, Boyd-Pates was voted most popular and most likely to succeed at the prestigious Academy of Music & Performing Arts at Hamilton High School, he said. But he earned just a 1.87 GPA, which he attributes to a focus on getting attention to mask insecurities caused by middle school taunting.
“What I’d soon learn is that my charisma on the blacktop didn’t necessarily translate to my transcript,” he said, laughing.
Grades-wise, he was not a prime candidate for a four-year university. But his promise as a student got him there thanks to a program at his grandmother’s church, West Angeles Church of God in Christ, that taught inner-city youth how to get into college.
A representative from CSUB came to talk about its summer bridge program, which brings high school graduates to campus before the start of the academic year to prepare them for the expectations of university coursework.
Boyd-Pates took advantage, and became a Roadrunner. The death of his birth mother freshman year secured his commitment to education. He described one of his last phone conversations with her, while standing on the steps of the Walter Stiern Library overlooking campus.
“I said, ‘Is there anything I can do?” Boyd-Pates recalled. “She said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
What he did was earn a bachelor’s degree in communications, along the way working in the university outreach office, giving campus tours and sharing with high schoolers “the gospel of the unique opportunity CSUB affords.”
Hargrove couldn’t say enough good things about what CSUB did for her grandson, citing opportunities to develop leadership skills, mentor students and get his education paid for because she couldn’t have afforded it.
“He became much more mature and aware of himself, and he was very grateful for what he had because he had been exposed to people with much less,” she said. “… And he was grateful for the opportunity to graduate from college, which is not a given all the time, you know?”
CSUB’s McNair Scholars Program opened Boyd-Pates’ eyes to graduate education, and he went on to Temple University in Philadelphia. He earned a master’s degree in African-American studies, hoping for a deeper understanding of Black experiences, traditions and cultures, and to get a doctorate.
But family struggles surfaced and so after graduation from Temple in 2014, Boyd-Pates moved back to Los Angeles. The Black Lives Matter movement was becoming a national conversation, sparked by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., that federal authorities ruled self-defense.
Black millennials were leading unrest in the St. Louis suburb, and Boyd-Pates’ status as a Black millennial scholar gave him a lot to say. He said it on social media and in essays published by Huffington Post Black Voices.
In his pieces, Boyd-Pates explains why black millennials hop from church to church; criticizes media coverage of the Charleston AME Church massacre; and shares lessons learned from the story of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman and NAACP chapter president who passed herself off as Black.
“There were particular narratives that were not being told about my experience, particularly about my intersections of being Black and being a young person,” he said. “And they shouldn’t only be told through a problematic lens of like looting and rioting. There’s far more nuance and a lot more that’s historically rooted.”
His writings led to teaching positions at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena and then California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson. At the same time he was volunteering at the California African American Museum, creating and leading a council of millennials that recommended ways to improve attendance.
When the museum went looking for a new curator with teaching experience and a fresh perspective on Black history, Boyd-Pates got the job. He later became director of the history department.
In three years, Boyd-Pates and his team made eight history exhibitions. His first, “No Justice, No Peace,” commemorated the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots. He connected them to the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the lesser-known Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 “to give a more comprehensive look at what it meant to be Black and brown if you were in Los Angeles, California.”
Explaining the process of creating a museum exhibit, he said he dug into Dominguez Hills archives for artifacts and spoke to demonstrators, family members of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, and the Los Angeles Police Department community. Designers then created an exhibition that not only looked good but was relevant to a broad range of audiences.
Future exhibitions focused on gospel music, Black women in cinema and the history of slavery in California.
Boyd-Pates’ biggest contribution to CAAM was helping make exhibits relevant to more than its traditional audience of older people, said Leslie Edmonds, a docent at the museum. She cited the 2019-2020 exhibit “Cross Colours: Black Fashion in the 20th Century” that even caught the attention of Vogue.
It showcased a clothing brand introduced in the late 1980s, early 1990s known for bright colors and graphic designs that, as the museum put it, “reflected not just trends in fashion, but also a cultural embrace of Afrocentrism in response to unjust Reagan-era policies, rising poverty, policy brutality, and substandard educational opportunities.”
“He was able to take a historical vision and transform it to a variety of media,” Edmonds said. “There was music, there were visuals, there were videos. It covered everything.
“There even was an interactive element where people wrote down how their clothing represents who they are.”
Boyd-Pates followed up, she said, by moderating panels of speakers who could dive even deeper into exhibit themes. To attract millennials in particular, Boyd-Pates helped introduce “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” featuring opportunities for people to dress up, dance and eat while exploring the displays.
“There were so many people standing in line they covered the length of the museum, they were out the door,” Edmonds said. “The sheriffs came out not to break things up but to help with crowd control. And they said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’”
FACE MASKS AND PROTEST SIGNS
In January, Boyd-Pates moved a dozen miles north to The Autry. The museum wanted to broaden perceptions of the American West from a community perspective, and Boyd-Pates knew he could bring Black American history past and present to the effort.
“This positions the Autry for the future,” Rick West, the museum’s president and chief executive, told the Los Angeles Times in announcing the appointment of Boyd-Pates and Joe D. Horse Capture as curators. “The museum has a mission to address the cultural history of the entire West. It represents a lot of possibility and a great deal of complexity.”
One result of the focus on community is The Autry’s Collecting Community History Initiative, which gathers objects, images and experiences from local residents. A COVID-19 one is collecting face masks and photos of families’ pandemic-inspired routines. One on Black Lives Matter protests is taking digital submissions of photos, hand-made posters and other memorabilia from demonstrations.
One of Boyd-Pates’ favorite COVID-19 items is a journal entry from 6-year-old Franklin Wong describing the frustration of being cooped up at home as the virus spreads. His passage “I did not go anywhere” accompanied by a sad face in green and red crayon made the lede of a May 25 New York Times story featuring The Autry’s digital exhibition.
“There was an innocence toward his journal that I think history will provide context to, what it means to be a 6-year-old child of Asian descent in America where, due to the pandemic, there’s such a deep anti-Asian sentiment from the highest office in the land,” Boyd-Pates said. “It shows some nuances that I don’t think anyone could have captured without opportunities like this.”
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