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Photographer’s exhibit, Black and Brown youth reflect on how they feel unwelcome in many spaces

Englewood-based photographer Tonika Johnson’s latest exploration about race and place examines exclusion in the city. Washington High School students also have written an anthology on how they feel like they don’t belong.

Students arrive at Gage Park High School, 5630 S. Rockwell St. in Gage Park, for the first day of school for the Chicago Public Schools 2021 - 2022 school year, Monday morning, Aug. 30, 2021.
Students arrive at Gage Park High School, 5630 S. Rockwell St. in Gage Park, for the first day of school for the Chicago Public Schools 2021 - 2022 school year, Monday morning, Aug. 30, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

You don’t belong here.

For many Black and Brown youth in Chicago, that is the message they receive about showing up in certain spaces or neighborhoods.

It can be an askance public glance or someone dialing police. It can be clutching a purse or a hovering salesperson. It can be ridiculous dress codes or 4 p.m. mall curfews.

Englewood-based photographer Tonika Johnson’s latest artist exploration about race and place examines exclusion in the city. “Belonging: Place, Power, (Im)Possibilities” is a virtual exhibit in partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago Social Justice Initiative.

The project captures images and stories of eight Black and one Latinx youth reflecting on a moment in which they realized society’s perception of them — a grim rite of passage for scores of Chicago youth. When David was 14, his white next door neighbor accused him of breaking into her home and called the police. When Lauren and her younger sister were in H-Mart, a Korean supermarket in the West Loop, a security officer questioned them because they looked out of place. When Jason was 12, white mothers on a Hyde Park playground wouldn’t let their children play with him and his brother.

Tonika Johnson, 38, sits on the porch of her Englewood home and discusses her Folded Map art project, Wednesday afternoon, May 16, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Tonika Johnson
Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times

Johnson’s exhibit is now on display at the newly renovated Chicago Justice Gallery, 1344 S. Halsted St. Gallery visits are by appointment only, via email at sjiuic@gmail.com.

The online exhibit displays compelling photos and audio. Johnson’s art has always challenged how we see ourselves in the city. Her Folded Map Project, which she introduced in 2018, visually connects the city’s address twins. She plays on Chicago’s grid system by photographing places such as 6330 N. Paulina St. and 6329 S. Paulina St. The North Side address is a home with front porch furniture and an American flag; the South Side address is a boarded-up two-flat.

In “Belonging,” Johnson points to how unwelcome interactions affect how youth think about justice and — and how they interact with authority. “While Belonging’s portraits of young peoples’ experiences paint a grim picture of hierarchy, surveillance, entitlement and narrow mindedness, it is not a tale of defeat,” Johnson says in her artist statement. “Through their own creative agency, young people of color push back against the politics of racism, exclusion and containment by creating their own ‘free spaces.’ In these spaces they are able to freely express themselves without judgment or sanctions.”

Young people often complain that they don’t have enough spaces to congregate in the city. Adults complain about youth in parks, malls, downtown — wherever. Johnson uses visual art to tap into these sentiments.

And Chicago teenagers are, too, exploring this theme in another project.

In January 2020, I had the opportunity to speak about writing with students at George Washington High School on the Southeast Side. I’m a volunteer with the 826CHI, a nonprofit creative writing program dedicated to amplifying voices of the youth. In a partnership with Washington High School, the students wrote essays in a now-published anthology called “Chaos Comes Naturally: Stories Of Belonging From The Youth of Chicago.”

As I sat in the classroom to help the teenagers think through some of their pieces that winter day, I heard over and over again how they felt like they didn’t belong in Chicago or have enough outlets catered to them. Their articulation in the published anthology is clear and crisp. Veronica writes, “A Chicago where everyone belongs is a stereotype-free city...Teens need to be able to roam free as teens. They shouldn’t have to worry about going downtown and being arrested.” Jessica writes, “A Chicago where anyone belongs would look like a crowd of people in the streets day or night and not being scared of getting attacked by someone.” They love their city. They don’t want to be rejected.

In a forward to the anthology, I wrote that the essay collection is a memo to the city. Listen to young people. Don’t judge how they look and resist projecting negativity on them.

And tell them this: You are welcome here.

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