Black History Month Doors
Ms. Melodie Adams is a first grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, where she has worked for 14 years. She drew a portrait of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and displayed it on the door to her classroom in celebration of Black History Month in February 2022. I saw the artwork at the beginning of the month and was awestruck by the drawing. I was so inspired by the texture and dimensionality of the hair that I photographed the work and returned for a second look at it the following week. I remember thinking: the person who made this is very inspired and really knows what they’re doing. I noticed that other doors in the school were decorated, too, and then I photographed each one.
I learn in the King School community, too, as a graduate student in the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University. Each week I attend class at the school because the MFA Program co-directors founded a contemporary art museum embedded within the school called the Dr. MLK Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA).
One day after class, I was introduced to Ms. Adams. I was very excited to find out that she was the artist behind the drawing of Ruby Bridges and I felt like a fangirl meeting my idol for the first time. A few weeks later we talked about her drawing practice, the Black History Month Doors, and what parts of her personal and professional life led to the project.
As I listened to Ms. Adams, I kept thinking: I want everyone to hear what she says. Like how her curiosity led her to travel outside the United States to explore her genealogical roots in Nigeria. Or that she chose Ruby Bridges because she wants her students to know that even as young people they have the power to change their worlds. And that despite no one in her early life encouraging her to go beyond what felt possible, she found so many ways to do just that.
Around this time, I learned about poet, activist, and educator June Jordan’s 1970 speech to school librarians, in which she encouraged them to bring young children into libraries by asking them to write their own books about what they want everybody to know or what they think is important but that nobody seems to care about. I used Jordan’s advice as the framework for sharing Ms. Adams’ stories and work with a broader audience in I Want Everyone to Know: The Black History Month Doors at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, a book I published in May 2022 with KSMoCA. It includes an extended interview with Ms. Adams and photo documentation of the artwork on all of the classroom doors created for Black History Month by over 300 artists who are students, teachers, staff, parents, and supporters of the school—a collection of what this community of learners and educators want everyone to know.
This project was shared during a keynote interview as part of Assembly, the MFA Program’s annual co-authored art and social practice conference. I interviewed Ms. Adams about what she wants everyone to know which is available to watch on YouTube. After the interview, we celebrated the launch of the book with refreshments in the school library.
Ms. Melodie Adams and students, teachers, staff, parents at Dr. MLK Jr. School
Ms. Melodie Adams, Harrell Fletcher, Lisa Jarrett, Mr. Alex “Monty” Montfort, Ms. Nancy Rios, Ms. Teresa Seidel, Ms. Alexis Johnson, Ms. Leah Moog, Mr. Edison Bee, John Cox, Mo Geiger, Becca Kauffman, Diana Marcela Cuartas, Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson, Jr., Gilian Rappaport, Jordan Rosenblum, and Paul Soulellis at Multiple Formats: Contemporary Art Book Symposium for introducing me to June Jordan’s speech.