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World-renowned author visits campus

November 15, 2007

UW-River Falls students had the opportunity to hear from a speaker, artist and author whose work has been shown in galleries across the world and whose words have inspired countless people to recognize racism and its realities.

The author, damali ayo, gave a lecture, entitled “I Can Fix It!: Racism.” The lecture took place Wednesday night in North Hall auditorium, attracting an audience that nearly filled the venue.

Kirsten Farrar, a junior majoring in social work, said she was impressed with the number of attending students but wished the auditorium could have held even more.

“I think this was a very good turnout,” Farrar said. “But I wish we could have fit the whole campus in the auditorium…I think it would have been well received.”

Drawing from her own personal experiences, ayo showed the audience how to improve our handling of race with 10 solutions for how to create healthier interactions among races. The lecture dealt with race in a very real and often harsh way, just as “Now Art,” a term coined in 2006, describes her approach to her work that “involves viewers as participants in the art-making process while generating dialogue,” as part of her belief that “artists’ true place is at the forefront of social movements,” according to her official Web site.

In 2003, ayo created the web-art-performance rent-a-negro.com, which explores the interactions between blacks and whites in society through satire. Those needing to “rent a negro” for a specific event can go to rent-a-negro.com and put in an electronic request; they can even find a link to detailed pricing, including everything from touching her hair for $25 to purchasing a certificate of association for $100. Everything on the Web site “is real,” ayo said.

“Everyone keeps expecting me to behave like a professional black person but I wasn’t being compensated,” ayo said. “So I came up with this Web site…art created out of reality.”

Her book relating to the Web site, How To Rent A Negro, was “acclaimed as ‘one of the most trenchant and amusing commentaries on contemporary race relations,’” according to her Web site, even earning a 2005 Honorable Mention in the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Meyers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights.

It’s the fact that both of these works come from real personal experiences with racism that audiences sometimes find difficult to grasp, but don’t make them any less poignant.

“It’s all real,” ayo said. “Reality is so good I don’t have to manipulate it…I just write it down.”

Known for her ability to engage audiences, ayo used personal experiences as the basis of her lectures, using a combination of satire and harsh truth to relate to her audience. Sometimes this approach is misunderstood, ayo said.

“A lot of people think I’m angrier than I am, it’s just that I needed to get all those stories…all that pain, out,” ayo said. “People need to know that I’m trying to understand, too…and it’s just sometimes that the playfulness of it doesn’t always come through.”

Most of the time, it’s well received and there is even a certain feeling that people articulate when they “finally get it,” she said.

“It’s when white people say, ‘I laughed so hard and then I wanted to cry,’” ayo said. “We have to know it’s a mess…to keep that sense of levity as well as a sense of sinking, otherwise we’d have to jump off a cliff, you know?”

To help students explore some of the content of her book, a discussion group was developed using funds from the Diversity Action committee to purchase books and recruit members. Students were then solicited from specific groups on campus who then recruited faculty to get the most participation possible, Associate Student Services coordinator Karyn Kling said.

“We booked her coming to campus awhile ago, but then four to six months ago we decided to create this discussion group,” Kling said. “We hope to continue the book club in the future, for all students.”

Assistant professor Mike Miller and Multicultural Student Advisor Tyra Nelson co-led the first discussion, on Monday. There was some thought to how the group was organized, Miller said.

“We started as a large group, split into groups by race, switched leaders and then reconvened,” Miller said. “There was some intentionality to that.”

The organization of the groups was designed to facilitate what the leaders hoped would be “a lot more authenticity” from students, Nelson said.

“White people have a tough time talking to black people about race, but I’ll be honest, I’m ready to have some real discussions,” Nelson said. “It still might be uncomfortable, but it turned out that people acknowledge and appreciate that [directness].”

Overall, much of the audience remained in awe of ayo’s coming to campus. Her history of appearances has a lot to do with this, Leadership Development and Programming board chair Mike Pearson said.

“Damali is the kind of speaker who speaks at Princeton, Harvard, Yale,” Pearson said. “It’s a huge privilege to have her here on campus.”

As someone familiar with ayo’s work, associate professor Cyndi Kernahan was impressed upon hearing about her UWRF visit.

“It’s so big…her coming here,” Kernahan said. “I was amazed when I found out.”

There may be fame surrounding her, but it’s the way that her work relates to many students, especially those that are multicultural, that is so remarkable. This is especially important to a campus that puts diversity as a top priority, Diversity and Women’s Initiatives co-director Nikki Shonoiki said.

“Her work deals with diversity in a ‘look at what they do, look at what we do, now stop’ sort of approach,” Shonoiki said. “We look at diversity, but don’t really see it…people need to hear what [ayo] has to say.”