A few days ago, when I was first heard the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, I did not know that the artist Cheryl Derricotte has been exploring Pleasant's life, biography, and legacy in her recent art projects.
I wanted to go commune with Mary Ellen Pleasant, take her offerings. When I learned there would be a day-long excursion to important sites from her life and death in Napa, I had to sign up for the tour.* This was, no doubt, an invitation from spirit!
During the tour—which was also an ancestral remembrance—we visited Pleasant's grave, made offerings of flowers and songs and poetry, poured libations and tears, told stories. I learned what an OG Pleasant was. The first Black female self-made millionaire in the 19th century. Conductor of the Underground Railroad, helper of women in travail. Practitioner of vodou who had studied with Marie Leveau. Author of three memoirs (now lost)... and so much more.
Why was I learning about her after almost ten years of living in San Francisco? Ask history: who it makes room for, who is left out.
Cheryl Derricotte's book arts print project celebrating Pleasant is a part of the show Collecting Arising: The Insistence of Black Bay Area Artists, co-curated by Ashara Ekundayo and Lucia Olubunmi R. Momoh, and up at the Museum of Sonoma County until Nov 27. Folks in the Bay Area, do visit if you get a chance - the whole show is exceptional.
(*The tour was hosted by Derricote, Ekundayo, and Momoh, in conjunction with the Collective Arising show.)
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