A Resilient Presence

By: Margaret Parker ’21

Margaret Parker ’21 writes about Project: Token and Resilience at Davidson

When Maurice Norman ‘20 agreed to interview with me, he suggested that we meet at his new art installation, Project: Token. I found him sitting up against a lightpost, laptop balanced on his knees, soaking in the shade cast by the project he has devoted much of this year to. At this point in the process, our plan–to write an editorial complement to the Davidsonian’s process story on Project: Token–felt circuitous at best. As someone who neither organized nor participated in the exhibit, it is not my place to tell anyone how they should or do feel about it. Instead, Norman and I both felt that, through a third-person interview, we would establish more authorial distance from the project itself, without the news journalist’s responsibility to complete impartiality. This isn’t a news story; it’s his story, one about how and why his project came into existence, and what it means to shepherd those narratives to the realm of public perception. In some ways, that’s what Project: Token is getting at: the epistemological responsibility to inform our own perspectives with the lived experiences of others, in the knowledge that they will not always be physically present to correct our own misgivings.

Visually, Project: Token is a shift of focus: away from Davidson as white-by-default, and away from the idea that “claiming its students of color when convenient” (Norman) is an acceptable form of inclusivity. In the form of three massive shadow boxes containing the photos and testimonies of seventeen students of color on campus, Project: Token shows us what we don’t see when we visualize community at Davidson. Rising bluntly out of the lawn, the fixed wooden pallets are visible from any vantage point on Patterson Court. “It’s a literal wall,” Norman says, qualifying the austere description with a chuckle. While it doesn’t obstruct foot traffic, Project: Token is an obstacle to selective ignorance: it prevents anyone from seeing the center of social life at Davidson without acknowledging the presence of students of color.

As Project: Token champions that presence, its creator grapples with questions of representative ethics. When asked about the best way to uphold diverse voices without turning them into tokens, Norman’s response was both earnest and self-interrogative. He described a discussion with fellow Bonner scholar Anmar Jerjees ‘18 about the practice of qualitative interviewing, in which questions aren’t designed to control the conversation, but to give the person being interviewed an opportunity to speak about whatever they choose. “Agency,” Norman consistently reaffirmed, “was an important part of the project.” Not only do we need to see bodies of color, but those bodies must be presented on their own terms, not to advance the goals of a majority-white institution.

At Davidson, issues of time and permanence are particularly prescient. Drawing on his research in the Africana Studies department, Norman cites the lack of graves commemorating the enslaved people who lived and died on campus. The problem isn’t that the College’s history is white; the problem is that non-white contributions are excluded from the school’s institutional memory. White presence at Davidson is structural, taking the form of historical markers, dedicated buildings, and the demographic makeup of the campus community. Contrastingly, non-white presence is corporeal, upheld by the bodies of color who study, work, and live here, and often left ignored when they leave this liminal space. Project: Token hopes to bridge this divide, by transforming the lived experiences of students of color into a physical structure, by editing the racial geography of the campus, even if only temporarily.

While Project: Token can’t be separated from its historical moment, in which the murder and exploitation of bodies of color remind us just how okay it is to be white, Norman doesn’t want it to be defined by racial strife either. Narratives of color are not a response to the most recent outbursts of white violence; to treat them as the product of one sociopolitical context ignores both the extensive history of racist oppression and the very real and nuanced identities of those who have worked to overcome it. Black lives don’t exist to answer white questions. Throughout our discussion, Norman reiterated the responsibility that he feels to the participants of Project: Token to represent them in as real of terms as possible. He spoke enthusiastically about his choice of materials, about his plans to keep the shadow boxes from fogging up in the humidity, and about how the printed canvases represented “the most durable, high-quality face of color that [he] could give to these participants.”

By the end of our discussion, we had covered significant ground: making the long trek up the hill to the Watson courtyard. After extensive discussion of institutional memory and the historical moment, questions of personal history arose. In four years, all of the participants in Project: Token will have graduated, along with its creator. “I’m only here for so long,” Norman remarked, something in between nostalgia and gleeful anticipation in his eyes. As the college inches toward racial diversity, we can hope that Wildcats of color in future years will expand upon existing communities and create ones of their own, but they will do so on a campus that gives little formal recognition to past contributors of color. That is why Project: Token, Norman emphasized, doesn’t just end with the physical structure. His ambition for the exhibit is a more permanent combination of corporeal and institutional presence, in order to create a “living body” of diverse narratives on campus.

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**Author’s Note: This piece exists because of shared labor on the part of everyone involved with Project: Token. My byline at the top of the article serves primarily to attribute word choice and organization. Maurice Norman dedicated multiple hours of his time to interviews and editorial meetings, and the ideas put forth here are, in large part, the result of his academic investigation and analysis. Additionally, the artistic resonance of Project: Token stems from the resiliency of its participants, who donated their time and energy to make all of this possible.

Margaret Parker ‘21 is an undeclared student from Gainesville, Florida. Contact her at maparker@davidson.edu Maurice Norman ‘20 is an Africana Studies and English double-major from Waxhaw, North Carolina. Contact him at manorman@davidson.edu

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