Representation matters

Feb 7, 2018 at 10:43 am
Olivia A. Cole (Photo By Deena Thiel)
Olivia A. Cole (Photo By Deena Thiel)

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman and the first civilian to make it to space. This was 1963. It would be 20 years until another woman went into space. She was also Russian. By this time, the United States had female astronauts in training, but had yet to send one into the cosmos. When it happened, it was physicist Sally Ride. The first African-American woman would not launch into space until 1992.

Young adult sci-fi author and Louisville resident Olivia A. Cole has been thinking for awhile about where women fit in space travel. She wants to be sure that young women, particularly young women of color, understand that there is a place for women in the future and in space. For that reason, and also to promote her most recent novel, “A Conspiracy of Stars,” Cole is hosting a female-only art show called “Kindred: Making Space in Space” The show at St. Francis High School’s event space March 16 is open to Louisville women ages 10 to 21, and is inspired by Cole’s science fiction hero Octavia Butler whose bestselling novel, Kindred, was the inspiration behind the name of the show and to whom Cole refers as the “mother of science fiction.”

Butler’s work as an African-American woman was important for many reasons. The need for representation of color in the science fiction and fantasy worlds, where tropes of “orcs and elves” are often racist cover-ups for the notion of black people as beastly marauding monsters and our white counterparts as light, attractive and ethereal creatures. Butler imagined worlds that broke racial boundaries and stereotypes as well as those of gender and sexuality.

She is the perfect reference point for young women to imagine the possibilities of their own lives.

It is important to note here that Cole is white. As a white woman, she has written about her role as an ally and the need to stand out of the spotlight to lift the voices of those who are often overlooked or silenced. This is exactly what she is doing with the “Kindred” show and why she chose to center it around the ideals of her idol.

Growing up in Louisville, Cole found that writing was one of the ways she made sense of the world and her life moving around the city with her father.

“When I was in high school, the first thing I ever published was in the Literary LEO. I got paid — I think a hundred bucks. I was like: ‘Oh shit, I can make money off my work.’ That kind of instilled in me that you shouldn’t work for free. Artists shouldn’t work for free. Art is valuable.”

Faced with a shifting political demographic, America is being confronted with the fact that black women and other women of color are a political force that cannot be ignored. It is important that these votes are valued and not taken for granted by politicians.  (In Kentucky, there are at least seven women of color running for state or local office.)

A co-chair of the March in Washington. D.C., Carmen Perez, who is Latinx, told Newsweek, “If you don’t see your community at the table, make sure to pull up a chair. And if you’re white, scootch your chair over a little. Make room for us.”

It is essential that our white sisters in the fight, hear this message and follow through.

This is central to Cole’s philosophy, and, as the mother of a young biracial daughter, is also central to the future she would like for her own child.

“Black women are always kind of the last ones to be allowed in. It’s like proximity to whiteness, I guess. There’s an order that comes in who’s allowed to be in starring roles,” Cole said of the way representation of women of color is seen in the media.

“My protagonist is a black girl and STEM is just another field where black women are the last to be allowed to make headway. I’m thinking about girls being allowed to do things in science fiction and not just girls, but black girls specifically. Representation matters.”

Yes, it does.

Representation matters in art. We should all be seen.

It matters in media. We should all be heard.

It matters in politics. We should all be empowered.

Cole hopes the show attracts diverse faces and diverse mediums. The show is not limited to visual expression but any medium, be that literary, photography, dance or music.

“In the world of Trump, that kind of tries to throw everything artistic or scholastic under the bus and down the river, art is still important,” Cole said. “Who knows what our country will look like when he is finally out of office?”

The attacks on expression are real, and the threat to our children, particularly female and children of color is exceptionally harmful. Shows such as this are important to illustrate the value of expression in young people but also to show other white allies ways in which they can move their chairs a bit to let new voices be heard and new ideas be born.

The call for submissions is open until Feb.15 and can made through Cole’s website at: Artists chosen will receive a $50 stipend. •