"Lifting the Veil" on Issues of Race and Class

Honors College Professor Denise Harrison shares knowledge, perspectives in emotional exhibit

When Denise Harrison, Associate Lecturer in the Department of English, teaching in the Department of Pan-African Studies and the Honors College at Kent State, got her idea to create an exhibit about the “cradle-to-prison” pipeline for young people of color, she was already very familiar with quilting. Harrison has always sewn, and she is a former costume designer for the University of Akron School of Dance Program, where she worked for fourteen years. Three years ago, Harrison started making social activist quilts. She and some of her colleagues had written a paper on quilting and women’s art, and they “wanted to make a statement about the first-wave feminists.” With the help of community members who created their own squares to contribute to the project, Harrison and her colleagues were able to create two quilts, which were displayed at the Seneca Falls Fourth Biannual Dialogues.


Following this piece, Harrison began looking into other issues, such as those of race and LGBTQ rights, and incorporating these themes into her work. She made a quilt for a special topics course that was offered in the Pan-African Studies Department, “Black Lives Matter.” Harrison’s lecture for this course, along with her quilt, focused on transgender individuals, as the Black Lives Matter movement is trans-affirming. Harrison cited that, in 2017, twenty-one trans women of color, most of them African American, were murdered, and “it was just appalling that no one knew their names.” Harrison’s quilt was displayed at ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse, New York, a small art gallery focused on social activism. Women from all over the region had pieces in a show at the gallery, focusing on what work still needs to be accomplished one hundred years after American women achieved suffrage. Harrison says this was the real kickoff for her: a piece she had created received some attention, and she knew she was on the right track. 


Prior to her exhibit, titled “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline: Lifting the Veil of Race and Class,” Harrison had created a larger Black Lives Matter-themed quilt that was displayed in the Kent State Student Center. According to Harrison, that quilt addressed “the fact that black lives have never mattered,” and it included images, such as that of a man’s hands in chains, referencing slavery as well as more recent events such as the murders of young African American individuals, including seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed in 2012, and Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police in 2014. As Harrison was hand-stitching the quilt, she started talking to the images of these boys about how, if African American parents want to keep their children alive, they need to start talking to them at very young ages about how to survive the police, “and we shouldn’t have to tell our children that.” 


Harrison then had the idea to create a baby’s mobile featuring the American Civil Liberties’ Union’s description of one’s rights as a citizen. Pictures of Tamir Rice are also featured, to remind children of what can happen in two seconds when you’re an African American child playing with a toy created for children. Harrison credits a discussion about the mobile with Dr. Amoaba Gooden, chairperson of the Department of Pan-African Studies, as the catalyst for her idea to create a baby’s room that centers around these themes, complete with multiple mobiles, a changing table, bassinet, and crib. While she and Dr. Gooden were talking “as parents,” some of the questions that came up were “What do we tell our kids?” and “How do we get our kids ready for this world?” 


The concept of the “cradle-to-prison” complex was originally coined by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund, and it refers to the variety of social, political, economic, and educational factors that increase the likelihood that children of color will be involved in the criminal justice system from a young age. Each of the elements of Harrison’s exhibit incorporates images of people of color, including men, women, and trans individuals, who have been killed. The exhibit also includes books that detail the harassment and unfair treatment that African Americans encounter on a daily basis in America, such as having the police called on them for normal activities that are part of everyday life. Harrison says that one of her intentions for creating the exhibit was to motivate viewers to think about black people as human beings.


When asked how Kent State and the Honors College assisted her in executing and promoting the exhibit, Harrison says “they were really interested in making sure that it was seen.” Frank Congin, Director of Academics for the Honors College, arranged for poet Sonia Sanchez, a visiting speaker of the 50th Commemoration of the May 4 events, to view the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” exhibit during her September 2019 visit to campus. Harrison says the Honors College’s assistance gave her “a greater, wider audience” for the exhibit. She says she has been searching for more opportunities to display the exhibit again, and that there is a strong possibility that it will be on display with the NAACP in Akron in February or with another organization. 


In addition to being exhibited at Kent State from September 7 to October 1 in Oscar Ritchie Hall, “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline: Lifting the Veil of Race and Class” was presented at the Great Lakes Black Authors Expo and Writers Conference, which took place on October 4 and 5 in Akron at the John S. Knight Center. At this conference, Harrison received a Griot Award for the exhibit, an honor granted to someone sharing stories about African American people and history in a medium other than writing. A diptych of Professor Harrison’s quilts will be on display as part of the Ohio Quilts exhibit in the Fashion Museum on the Kent campus until April 12, 2020. For those interested in hosting another site for the exhibit, Professor Harrison welcomes recommendations and may be contacted at dharris8@kent.edu

POSTED: Wednesday, November 20, 2019 - 2:36pm
UPDATED: Friday, November 22, 2019 - 10:18am
Honors College Intern Nina Palattella