By Sarad Davenport | Photos by Eze Amos
Dr. Andrea Douglas describes herself as an art historian specializing in works of the African Diaspora. Anchored in a deep modesty she said, “I took the thing that I loved most in my life and made it my life.”
The child of Jamaican immigrants, Andrea and her sister came of age in a home that was steeped in the arts and highly political. Andrea’s father was a staunch member of the People’s National Party (PNP), which is the democratic socialist party of Jamaica. At her childhood home in Queens, New York, it was not uncommon for Michael Manely who would become Jamaica’s fourth Prime Minister to stop by. Andrea interjected, “My father was proudly Jamaican. The only people who entered our home were Jamaican.”
Andrea’s father grew up in Trenchtown, the renowned neighborhood located in the St. Andrew parish in Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica. While we may know Trenchtown as the birthplace of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and the father of Hip-Hop DJ Kool Herc, it was also a place of excruciating poverty that many did not overcome.
“When you live with someone who comes out of this type of poverty and they say ‘I will not be poor again,’ they mean it,” said Dr. Douglas. “My mom had a fourth-grade education and my dad had seventh-grade education.” Andrea says all of this to give context to a household structure that valued industriousness, work ethic, and all things that prevented the possibility of ever returning to a life of poverty.
Andrea’s older sister Carol had a deep and profound impact on her life also. “My sister was a book reader. She was a Young Communist at Queens College. I was being exposed to these things as she was being exposed to them,” she remembered.
Carol introduced Andrea to ‘Things Fall Apart’ the book of Nigerian novelist, poet, and social critic, Chinua Achebe. It is a book about the unraveling of social norms and structures during European colonization and the struggle to maintain traditions and identity among other things. It is a story that resonates with many who seek to maintain Diasporic roots while at the same time finding meaningful existence in the broader struggle for survival.
In a sense, through this type of exposure, Carol was helping Andrea contextualize her experience as proudly Jamaican and Black in a world that would hardly ever embrace either.
Andrea says she was given a strong sense of the power of being black, the power of seeing black people doing things in a constant way. “It is a very grounding thing,” she said. It was absolutely necessary because outside of her home in Queens, Andrea had to learn how to survive in a very white world.
I was bussed to white schools.
I went to Mount Holyoke with a very small number of Black students.
The Arts were white. Non-profits were white.
I spent a lot of my life being aware of my difference.
It was as if this strange orientation was leading somewhere and was a necessary rite of passage for the experiences to come. Being able to maintain one’s sense of Blackness while navigating non-black spaces and maintaining integrity and dignity is both art and science. Andrea, early on, had developed a certain mastery.
Journeying Into the World of Art
“I was going to the Parsons School of Design at the age of 11,” Andrea exclaimed. The Parson’s Academy is one of the most world-renowned programs for young people who have proven, early on, that they could handle Parsons’ world-class environment and ‘fulfill their creative potential.’ This just wasn’t something that every pre-teen in New York City was doing. It just wasn’t.
Regardless of the fact that Andrea had some powerful experiences as a young person, her father had dreams of her becoming a doctor or having a career in finance. Art just didn’t seem that practical. It didn’t seem like a permanent escape route from poverty.
“My very first job was a claims adjuster,” said Andrea. But this work didn’t resonate with her at a soul level because she never wanted to do anything that made money for others. It was a principled position that Andrea has worked hard to maintain throughout her professional life. “I wanted to do something meaningful and think about things deeply,” she exclaimed.
Andrea went on to earn an MBA in Arts Management and had a strong desire to ensure that Black voice and thought were represented honestly and truthfully in the art world.
While deciding if art was going to be her permanent vocation, Andrea worked for the United Way of New York City, which is one of the oldest and largest philanthropic and social organizations in the world. “I worked on the Management Assistance program and my specialization was strategic planning,” said Andrea. Her role there included serving as technical assistance to mainly Black-led community-based organizations in their efforts to scale and become sustainable.
In spite of the deep impact Andrea was having in the communities of New York City, it didn’t satiate her deep soul-aching desire to impact the world of art. Of the work, she admitted, “It felt sometimes inconsequential.”
With an earnest desire to do something that was personally consequential, Andrea broke the news to her parents that she was going to pursue a Ph.D. in art history. Considering the high practical expectations from her Jamaican upbringing, surprisingly her parents, namely, her father, supported this endeavor and blessed it. “I took the thing that I loved most in my life and made it my life.”
Things Come Together
To date, Andrea is the only Black person with a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Virginia. While writing her doctoral dissertation, Andrea spent a good portion of her time living and working in New Orleans. Her dissertation was on The Relationship of Black Intellectuals and the Arts Movements of the 1920s and 40s. “The time I spent in New Orleans shaped what we do here at the Heritage Center today,” she said.
While writing her dissertation, she also served as an adjunct professor and taught art history at Tulane University. She taught courses on Kant and Black Intellectual Theory and Art of the Caribbean to name a few. For those wondering, Kant was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. What Andrea had become masterful at doing was drawing parallels and synthesizing African diasporic thought into the often exclusionary canon of the art and intellectualism of the world.
In New Orleans, Andrea met a lot of artists and boldly stated that “New Orleans felt like the center of African traditions in America.” By Andrea’s terms, it was the African Diasporic capital of America. “Cultural production was everywhere. The artistic expression was visually arresting,” she said. But she was also reminded that it was still the American south and this beauty often stood in conflict with the vestiges of structural racism. There was a sense of freedom, but then there was not. Even though she was there in the early 2000’s—pre-Katrina, the disparity of Black life was already stark.
While New Orleans gave Andrea the indication that she was on the right path, there was a cosmic magnetism that little old Charlottesville had on her soul. “New Orleans was not the place I wanted to be,” she said in a revealing way. She was married and her husband owned a business in Charlottesville and what is more, she was offered a position to be the curator of what was then called the University Art Museum, now known as the Fralin Museum. At the museum, her primary responsibility was to diversify the collection.
Andrea was the first to bring the work of Carrie Mae Weems to Charlottesville—Weems whose photographs, films, and videos focused on issues facing African Americans including racism, sexism, politics, and personal identity. Andrea was also instrumental in bringing William Christenberry’s ‘Klan Room Tableau’ to Bailey that explored the deep dark parts of southern culture that had catastrophic effects on Black people. The University Art Museum set the stage for the Heritage Center.
The Heritage Center Experience
Andrea, brought the weight of all of these experiences with her when she inevitably came to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. One of the things that helped Andrea to transform what is now called the Fralin Museum and construct the Heritage Center is the fact that Andrea’s entire life and orientation prepared her. “The fact that I know how to run an institution is the difference.”
Andrea has had a vision of bringing theater to the African American Heritage Center since its inception. Almost serendipitously, Leslie Scott-Jones met Andrea for lunch and they came up with the initial plans to begin the Charlottesville Player’s Guild to explore the works of August Wilson. Jones said, “She wanted to do a 5-year project on August Wilson, and I finally found someone who thinks at the 50,000-foot view.”
On working at Heritage, Scott-Jones reveals, “This is the only job in my entire life where I can bring my full self. It is a space where Black people can have their say.”
Leslie remembers the day DMX died and how Andrea approached it. “The day DMX died she played his music through the auditorium speaker system.” Scott-Jones notes Andrea’s ability to prevent her formal training and education from interfering with the complexity of Black artistic expression and says, “There has never been another job where I have been able to do that without headphones. Literally hiding who I was.” In a nutshell, wherever Andrea is, there seems to be a sense of freedom for Black people to be their authentic selves.
Scott-Jones emphasized that Andrea’s legacy is the preservation of Black History in Charlottesville. “It will become a projection and understanding of why the history of Black Charlottesville is important both locally and nationally.”
As the Heritage Center continues to expand and deepen the work, Dr. Douglas continues to bring on people who understand the ethos of where she is going. Recently, she hired Sherry Bryant as the Chief Curator of Education and Digital Humanities. Bryant was most recently a teacher at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville and feels honored to be a part of ‘bringing these stories into the mainstream of the community.’ Bryant is excited to be working with the staff at Heritage Center to include Jordy Yager, Digital Humanities Fellow, and summarizes her array of sentiments with, “This is important work.”
Leah Puryear serves as the board chair for the Heritage Center and is in her second two-year term. Leah, who is the director of the Upward Bound program at UVA and is on the Charlottesville City School Board, remembers Andrea from her time at Bailey. Very early on, I saw Andrea as a fierce leader for the African-American community particularly in the arts field.”
Leah, who is originally from the Hampton Roads area, spoke briefly about how difficult it is for people who are not from Charlottesville to be accepted by those who are natives. “I am not a native Charlottesvillan. I’ve had a very difficult time. Charlottesville is a very hard nut to crack,” said Puryear. But she nonetheless feels a certain kinship with Douglas because they both have persevered to do what is necessary in spite of some of the associated challenges.
Puryear says of Andrea, “I don’t think people know how hard she works. She’s in the office 7 days a week. She is a wife—and a mother. She is up all night, writing proposals. She’s always there. She eats, sleeps, and breathes the Heritage Center.” Andrea has designed and curated a space to maintain a permanent historical record of Black life and achievement in Charlottesville and must be given her flowers now. Puryear goes on, “I want us to grow the center so that she can take a real vacation.”
Inevitably, as Black people all over the world, we are deeply aware of the fact that, as Chinua Achebe’s first novel suggests, things [often] fall apart. However, what seems to be an inevitability is juxtaposed against an undergirding hope that things will and do eventually—come together.
For more information about the African-American Heritage Center visit https://jeffschoolheritagecenter.org/