By Nina Baker
Victoria Jones’ love for Memphis, Tennessee is contagious.
If you listen carefully, you will hear her voice speed up as she talks about the city. If you look closely, you’ll notice her shoulders heave in excitement when she talks about the people there.
And so, when Victoria Jones accepted the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice 2021 Award of $ 50,000 for her work as Executive Director and Founder of YOUR, she chose to talk about Memphis instead of herself.
TONE, located in the predominantly Black Orange Mound neighborhood, is dedicated to empowering black artists, elevating black joy, and economic independence for black artists and innovators. Jones’ work with TONE is rooted in his passion for Memphis – a passion that stems from his own history of working to uplift black joy.
While Jones was attending Independence High School, a predominantly white school in Thompson’s Station, Tenn., She noticed that a white student who would come to football games with three large Confederate flags paraded on his truck had started displaying a knot flowing from its rear mirror.
“I went over there and told all the black students I knew to call their parents and tell them what was going on, âshe said. At the end of the week, the school ordered all students to remove their Confederate flags from their cars and prohibited students from wearing Confederate icons on their clothing.
For Jones, it was a beautiful moment when she realized she didn’t have to take what she saw as injustice without resistance. She took that mindset with her when she enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, an institution with a decades-old history black student activism against Confederate heritage and the university’s Jim Crow.
Jones created the Black Student Union while advocating for a name change for the Forrest Hall building of the MTSU, named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first great wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Although the name change was refused, other students have continued to request the name change since Jones graduated.
“Obviously the name is still there because this city is ancient and southern and tied to southern silver, âshe said. Jones added that she often struggles to recognize MTSU as her alma mater due to the connections in the Klan and what she sees as inaction in dismantling a racist legacy.
In 2016, university president Sidney McPhee sided with the petitioners, but the Tennessee Historical Commission denied the university’s name change request. The University announced in October 2021 that it would present a second petition to the commission.
Jones was determined to work in activism after graduating from MTSU. She said that for most of her life she has felt the need to contribute to solutions to the problems that plague the United States. This belief began when she was five years old and visited the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, Mary., With her grandmother.
The museum features over 100 black American figures and wax scenes, depicting scenes from centuries of black American history. The museum also created national controversy for depicting a full scale model of a slave ship and the lynching of Hayes and Mary Turner in a museum frequently visited by schoolchildren.
“It gave me nightmares, âshe said. âYou come in and you are at the bottom of this slave ship with all these Africans in cages. This is fucking horrible.
She said this experience was her first understanding of the black experience in US history and filled her with deep rage and triggered a sense of urgency towards activism.
“It’s too devastating for me to get out of bed and not feel like there’s a solution, because it’s all too shit, âJones said. âIf I don’t feel like I’m actively contributing to a solution, I’m overwhelmed with shit. “
Orange Mound, Memphis
Orange Mound is the first neighborhood built by black Americans, for black Americans. More commonly, however, Orange Mound is described as a underline neighborhood – a characterization Jones strongly rejects.
“I hate, hate, hate that this neighborhood is described as marked in red. It’s something that happened to this neighborhood, but it’s not this neighborhood, âshe said.
For Jones, Orange Mound’s persistence and community is one of the neighborhood’s most beautiful but poorly recognized traits.
“There is such an intense level of persistence that exists out there, âshe said. Despite a lack of investment in education and infrastructure, she said a level of community and care among residents exists in Orange Mound in a way other neighborhoods are struggling to create, even with investments in community building.
She adds that working in a city that is still being built is an opportunity to play an active role in shaping the kind of place she wants to see.
“A lot of cities have already built their infrastructure, so you kind of have to exist within it. But Memphis has this really unique opportunity where you can actively participate in creating the opportunity, âshe said.
Property, art and black joy
In 2021, TONE partnered with Unapologetic, a local label, to invest in Tower of the orange mound, a 7-acre mixed-use development in the heart of the Orange Mound that will be developed to support black innovators and business owners.
“There is a desperate need to own our future. Our physical future depends on our ownership of our property, âJones said.
She pointed out that TONE is not nearly the only black arts initiative or community organization to have been launched in Memphis history, but that without access to land and property, these organizations are struggling to stay. after the departure of the founders.
“You have to start over and start over. Every generation has to start over, âshe said.
Jones loves her job, but she’s also exhausted by the urge to do it. Black artists and activists should not always be tasked with recreating these organizations, she said, but deserve the opportunity to step into already established organizations and undertake meaningful work from there.
For Jones, art is the cornerstone of the imagination of this new future. TONE’s work with black art and black joy is part of that future.
“If we can see art as a path to storytelling, we can honestly change our type of stories, but also give people the ability to imagine their story, and who they are and who they want to be, âa- she declared. âArt is the easiest way to define who you are. “
From July 10 to September 18, TONE hosted “On the Road: Chocolate Cities,” an art exhibition curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah featuring paintings, photographs and mixed artwork by 18 artists from across the United States. . The title of the exhibition is inspired by “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac and “Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life” by Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson, and the exhibition itself explores notions of Blackness seen through the convergence of time and space.
“The purpose of our work is not to fight racism, it is not to dismantle, it is not to protest, âJones said. “It’s building spaces for blacks to find meaning and joy.”
Filmed by Nubia Yasin, the above video can be found on TONE’s YouTube page.
The 2021 Grinnell Prize week lasted from October 28 to November 2. Musician Talibah Safiya, authors Sheree RenÃ©e Thomas and Jamey hatley, artist Nubia Yasin, and director of the Historic Clayburn Temple Anasa Troutman all hosted virtual and in-person events at Grinnell College.
TONE’s work can be followed on their Facebook page or by their bulletin.