[Editor's note: Before and during Light City, we’ll be bringing you stories of artists and performers involved in the festival.]
Since she moved to Baltimore eight years ago, Malaika Animata Clements has always found beauty in Sandtown-Winchester. She draws inspiration from the history of the West Baltimore community—which fostered the talents of Cab Calloway and Billie Holliday and where jazz venues once lined Pennsylvania Avenue—and the spirit of the people, who survived despite the injustices brought about by poverty and institutional racism.
Everyone in Baltimore, perhaps even the nation, likely recognizes the name Sandtown-Winchester now—it was the home of Freddie Gray, and where he was taken into custody before his death days later. Clements, a Morgan State University grad, realized that others—be they Sandtown residents, or Baltimoreans in general—didn’t always see what she saw, or take time to honor the neighborhood’s culture and legacy.
So she is using a project she has created through the Neighborhood Lights program at Light City to do just that. “Being able to celebrate yourself is a very important part of realizing your strength, realizing your magic,” Clements said. “All of us in the world can get caught up in this self-loathing, but that especially happens in places that are being attacked by white supremacy and the effects of institutional racism. It’s important to understand and to recognize your strengths and resilience.”
Neighborhood Lights extends the annual art and innovation festival into eight neighborhoods through works produced by artists in residence. Spread Light Sandtown aims to bring generations of residents together on April 7 at Pauline Fauntleroy Park and Lillian Jones Recreation Center. There will be roller-skating, dancing, art workshops, performances by Al Rogers Jr., Martina Lynch, and Jubilee Arts, and rides on horse-drawn arabber carts.
Plus, Clements plans to create a sensory garden, where attendees can experience light art, and also listen to long-time community members tell their stories. In preparation for this part of the project, she visited Sandtown residents to collect their memories and hopes for the future.
One March morning, she spoke with Dominic Nell, a photographer and urban farmer who is a sixth-generation West Baltimorean. He recalled hearing his family talk of the flourishing businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue as he watched the drug trade take over his streets. After Freddie Gray’s death, he realized he had to help bridge the gap in a community where most black men aren’t employed and his friends die before reaching 30. “I focused on the green spaces, and on food access, teaching youth how to grow microgreens to promote skills that aren’t being provided to them” through his program City Weeds.
“For this community to have this event in Sandtown,” he told Clements, “it’s a beacon of hope, of light. It shows us that even though we may not be at the destination we’re looking for, we’re getting closer and closer to that point.”