Before I begin I want to be honest and tell you that I have been sitting on this interview along with others for months. I could give you some compelling reason as to why I stepped away from these cherished conversations, but the truth is I simply felt moved to hit pause and reset. It’s as if I just needed to reflect upon what this past year of conversations has meant to me. As I’ve shared before, this blog is an experiment in connection and building community. It’s about uncovering the commonalities that influence why we live where we live and what drives us to say farewell to the conventional to make this one life count. And with this unplanned break in stories I gained a greater perspective as to just how important authentic human connection is, especially in our community. Understanding trumps divisiveness. It ignites positive change.
It has been months since I sat down with Endia Beal and I can say with sincerity that I cannot think of a “Townie” that better embodies the value of conversation and connection. Without further ado, please get to know Endia Beal – artist, educator, and activist.
Some people have asked how I choose my story subjects and I tell them that selections are based on referrals from previous interviewees. The hope and intention is to weave through our community organically. This has allowed me to meet others that I might not otherwise meet in my day to day. This is also how I was first introduced to Endia Beal and her work. She might be the most popular recommendation to date so to say I’m thrilled to finally meet her is an understatement.
She has an easy way about her. Her confidence seems effortless and her smile, infectious. Sitting on the porch at Krankies on that spring day we laughed easily and often. We began our conversation returning to that pivotal moment that started her on the path to becoming a professional artist and educator.
“I guess she just saw something.”
Endia tells me that art helped her process painful emotions after her teenage boyfriend was shot and killed. She remembers the way people marginalized his death; they talked about him like he was some thug. “But he wasn’t. He was a lover of art; he loved music and was a poet. He was a high school student. He was 17. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
When she later entered NC State as a freshman she knew she wanted to pursue a degree in graphic design. “I love music – all music. I love country music because they tell wonderful stories, and rock and hip hop and gospel. I thought I could design cd covers. At the time Little Brother was up-and-coming and I thought ‘oooh yes I can work with them’.”
She tells me of a fateful moment when she walked into the director’s office of the graphic design program at NC State. She laughs openly as she recalls the “rough portfolio” she presented to the woman during their meeting. “It was just this collection of random sketches and designs in a folder. It wasn’t polished or organized. I remember her saying ‘Oh my gosh. This is interesting”. We laugh. “I think she’d never seen anything quite like that, and I do not mean that in a good way.”
That Director advised her to take a summer art class to at least get some related experience before declaring a design major. “I hadn’t really even taken an art class before.” The Director was the one to recommend a photography class. “I don’t know why. I guess she just saw something,” Endia says after I ask.
In that intro to photography class Endia fell in love with the craft. “There is something about being able to instantly capture a moment; it wasn’t like painting or sketching. It was quick and there was the whole lighting aspect. I just loved the whole process of it.” But NC State didn’t have a photography program at the time. “So I went back to NC State that fall and told the director that I was going to transfer.”
“So you basically told her, ‘thanks so much for the inspiration. I’ll be taking my money elsewhere’,” I tease.
“Pretty much,” she says.
Finding comfort in the discomfort.
She transferred to UNC Chapel Hill and studied under acclaimed photographer, Jeff Whetstone. Whetstone, who now oversees the photography program at Princeton, introduced her to antique large format photography and encouraged her to photograph those things she was passionate about.
She spent her downtime off-campus with her grandmother in nearby Durham reaping perks like “washing my clothes and eating home cooked meals”. It was during this time that she noticed the neighborhood where her mother was raised and her grandmother lived was marked in a way that she found unsettling. “It had this rich history but because certain people were doing deviant things the entire area was stigmatized.”
She followed her professor’s direction and used her art to tell the bigger story of Durham’s southside. She spent three years on this passion project and would venture throughout the community armed with loads of gear and a relentless pursuit to elevate what was lost.
“And keep in mind I wasn’t walking around with some small handheld digital camera. This was a large format camera and it was a process to set it up.” Each photo required assistance from a stranger and she had to pull a vintage black hood over her head to shoot. Her skeptical yet willing subjects had to stand perfectly still for 30 seconds. It caused a scene and brought up all kinds of discomfort.
Endia learned quickly how to handle the discomfort of rejection. “I would wake up and ask myself ‘how many ‘no’s’ am I going to get today’. You have to be comfortable with no – and trust me, I got a lot of no’s – some hell no’s and some ‘get out of my face, girl, ‘no’s.’”
This taught her lessons in persistence and resilience which she now passes on to her students at Winston-Salem State University.
“Some of the people I photographed in southside Durham had never had their portrait taken before,” she shares. She later gave each participant a 8×10 portrait of themselves as a gift. “In a community where people have taken a lot from them, they never expect to be given something in return.”
After college she spent time as a professor at Davidson County Community College in Lexington, North Carolina as she prepared to apply for the Master of Fine Arts program at Yale School of Arts. She immediately felt the heaviness of a city once vibrant with the furniture industry and was taken aback by lingering confederate pride. “It just wasn’t something I had experienced before.”
On a drive around Lexington she came by a house with the biggest confederate flag she had ever seen. Immediately, she felt inspired to photograph it. Just as she stepped out to take the photo, the flag’s owner came out asking what she was doing on his property. She heard herself awkwardly responding, “Oh, I was just admiring your flag!” She laughs and shakes her head in disbelief as she recounts her response.
She was panicked and prepared for an onslaught of racial slurs. But that didn’t happen. An honest conversation took place which resulted in him allowing her take his photo with his ginormous flag. His name was Bud and for the record, that photo later landed her a spot in Yale’s coveted photography program.
Although she still agrees to disagree on that flag’s significance, she admits that she was quick to stereotype the man. “I learned a valuable lesson that day. We all do the same thing with communities that are different from us, no matter if it is Lexington or the southside of Durham. We thin-slice them.” She tells me to imagine an onion. “On the surface we only see one layer but beneath that layer there are many more.” When we do this we overlook the fact that within those communities there are human beings with lives and jobs and families and goals and ambitions and struggles. “For me photography is a way to tell their stories and give a voice to marginalized groups.”
Taking the power back.
At Yale she experienced what she calls double consciousness. The phrase, coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, describes the sensation of feeling as if your identity is divided into several parts making it difficult to have one unified identity. She especially found this to be true while working in the IT department at Yale. As the only African-American woman in both her photography program and within the IT department, she heard second-hand accounts of male colleagues saying things like “I wonder what her hair feels like?”
“It made me feel like an outsider, like this exotic creature.”
She continues, “As a woman of color there was this certain level of discomfort knowing that they were having this conversation about me but without me.” She decided then and there to take the power back.
“Because let’s face it,” she shares, “you don’t know what you don’t know. And I felt like these men just didn’t know. So I decided that was going to give them an experience they obviously wanted.”
She set up two cameras in the middle of the office and one by one the men were invited to touch her hair and were then interviewed about the experience. You can view the project here.
By doing this in a public setting, this was her way to show them that it was OK to have this conversation openly without repercussions. It created a dialogue that led to deeper conversations and she notes that their continued friendships would not be what they are without this experiment. Because as she says, “When you make something together you get closer.”
Her white female colleagues were next. “You know women, we’re just naturally more straightforward and these women would just come up and ask about my hair. So again I said, let me give this experience to you. I can hook you up!” By styling their hair she sought to question conformity. “For instance, what would it mean if Ellen came in with flat twists and a rod set; or if Charlotte came in with cornrows. How would you perceive them?” These photographs were compiled to create went viral and were shared over 400,000 times sparking national conversation.
Her latest exhibit, “Am I what you’re looking for?” was inspired by her female students and again gained national attention, most notably in The New York Times. She found that talented students were going on a lot of interviews but wouldn’t get the job. These discouraged students were asking if their names or maybe it was their hair that was holding them back. These women were often given the same advice from family and society to mute yourself as much as possible to conform.
“I asked some of these students to let me photograph them at their parents house – a place that felt familiar and comfortable. I told them to wear whatever they would love to wear to an interview. I brought in a backdrop that featured that same hallway that I once walked down working at Yale.”
She continues, “I ask them to roleplay. Imagine you were there for an interview and you looked around and you didn’t see anyone who looked like you. How would you feel?” Each woman had a different reaction. She captured their emotion on film and compiled to create the exhibit.
For her, this project was about highlighting what it is like to go into a professional world that wasn’t designed for you. Then what do you do? Her work does not necessarily answer questions, but it does pose questions and inspire conversations.
And that conversation is ultimately what she seeks. A native of Winston-Salem, she shares that she has seen tremendous progress over the past two decades since she graduated high school. She values that as a community we are open to having conversations about race and culture. “We don’t pretend that issues do not exist. We know they are here and we’re willing to talk about it. We still have a ways to go but we’re willing to be innovative to move forward.” She also speaks to the power of social media and how your work can now touch thousands of lives no matter where you reside. Her work has received features in many online editorials including NBC, BET, The Huffington Post, Slate and National Geographic, as well as appearances in Essence and Marie Claire Magazine.
“And honestly, I really love that my neighbors actually speak to me here”, she says with a smile. “As an artist, it’s imperative to be in a place where we feel safe to take risks creatively in order to make the work we are meant to make.”
For her, like many of Winston-Salem’s talented artists, that place is right here.