By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Shonna McDaniels spent a lot of time lying down this year. The local artist slipped from a ladder while working on a community mural project and broke her foot.
As a person who is constantly on the go and doing something, usually for other people, being unable to move pained her as much as the injury itself. The initial injury turned into others and she also developed life-threatening blood clots from being prone for an extended period.
McDaniels doesn’t know how to sit still; yet, when she was forced to, it still wasn’t idle time. The artist’s hands – and mind – were constantly working. Bedridden for five months, she discovered new ways to create and while recuperating, organized art shows and youth art activities.
McDaniels’ unapologetic work in showing the beauty of Black people and their contributions and her continued commitment to seeing Black artists have a seat at the table led to her selection by The OBSERVER as its 2022 Person of the Year.
Before her injury, McDaniels could be found running the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum in her beloved South Sacramento. She founded the museum in 1996 and has expanded it from a one-room space to a must-see cultural destination.
“We want to have information on great African kings and queens and individuals that they don’t speak of when they talk about art history, that they are too afraid to speak of when they talk about our history,” McDaniels says of the space.
Visitors often encountered her going seemingly 100 mph, urging them to discover all the museum has to offer and pointing them to other activities throughout the building. She’s still going full speed, only these days it’s in a wheelchair or a motorized scooter that was donated by a community supporter.
The museum is located inside the Florin Square complex. McDaniels’ roots in the space date back 30 years to when she worked for Barbara Nord, the first Black woman to own a payee service in Sacramento. The building was known as the Business Incubator at the time. It’s now home to a number of Black-owned small businesses and the African Market Place, which takes place every first and third Saturday. McDaniels also organizes Second Saturday activities as a way to include Blacks in activities that expose people to art and culture as they do in other parts of the city.
“We need that for South Sacramento,” she says.
African Market Place leader Ra West hosted an art exhibit featuring McDaniels during Second Saturday earlier this month. West says the spotlight was long overdue, as McDaniels usually is uplifting other people’s work.
Black Like Me
Where others see a blank canvas, McDaniels sees possibilities. When she sees voids, she seeks to fill them. When others push back against her desire to see people of color depicted in public spaces, she just paints them with bolder strokes.
She focuses much of her artistic energy into painting Black women in all their melanated glory. Former mentor Akinsanya Kambon says that’s a skill in itself.
“You can’t just make Black skin by using one color,” says Kambon, who first taught McDaniels at the tender age of 4.
“Black skin has all the colors in it and I see Shonna is doing that,” he says. “You have to use reds and blues and greens, and purples, and yellows; all those colors come from the sun and the sun reflects off the melanin in the skin.
“The first thing in being an artist is you’ve got to learn how to see. The average person doesn’t know how to see those things, but when you study it, you learn how to see it and you also learn how to paint it. But it’s not easy. So when somebody does what Shonna’s doing, you can see that they put in a lot of work studying those skin tones or skin colors.”
McDaniels’ work has been featured in the recurring “The Black Woman Is God” exhibit at the SOMA Arts Culture Center in San Francisco. Co-curator Karen Seneferu says as an artist, McDaniels embodies what “The Black Woman Is God” is all about.
“Shonna McDaniels is an unsung heroine,” says the fellow artist. “Like the exhibit, Shonna’s art celebrates Black women as essential to building a more just society. Shonna McDaniels creates spaces that are sustainable to the community’s future.
“When she produces art, she expands the intersectionality of race, age and gender, dismantling stereotypes of Black women.”
McDaniels has taught art classes and conducted numerous workshops and exhibits. She also has been involved in such collaborations as the Visual Arts Development Project, Zica Creative Arts and Literary Guild, Kuumba Collective, and the Sacramento African American Nonprofit Coalition. She also advocates for Black inclusion in public art projects such as Wide Open Walls.
“Shonna is pure light and love in action,” says Sandy Holman, founder of the Davis nonprofit The Culture C.O.-O.P.
Holman met McDaniels at the African Market Place and says her life is better for it.
“She is fearless, committed and talented beyond measure, but I love her most for what she does for our community and her zeal to give back,” Holman says.
“Woke” is a fairly contemporary term, but McDaniels says she always has been that way. She participated in her first Kwanzaa at age 5 and attended an African-centered Saturday school where she learned Swahili and was immersed in culture.
She credits her mother, Ollie McDaniels, who helps run the museum, for laying the foundation early.
“We had African masks, African paintings and images of Black people all throughout the house,” McDaniels says. “She was a part of the Black Panther movement. We would go down to Oakland and participate in the marches and other activities, so she kept our minds stimulated.”
McDaniels’ father, William McDaniels, spent time behind bars and was changed by the experience. He passed on that knowledge to his children.
“When he got into prison, he started to cultivate his Black mind and he started sharing that information with us as young people,” she says. “He started writing letters to me as a young child and sharing information about historical Black leaders. I’m getting letters with all these powerful history lessons in them.”
Her mother also joined the Nation of Islam and exposed her children to its ideology and self-sufficiency message. Both have influenced her art and community-focused activism.
“I definitely was inspired by the fact that the Nation had an entire block in Oak Park of businesses,” McDaniels says. “ It was like a Black Wall Street. I had never seen anything like it before.”
Today’s kids need similar exposure, she says.
“My mom involved us in everything that she could possibly imagine that would cultivate our Black minds and a lot of the parents are not doing that. That’s one of the biggest mistakes that’s happening today for our youth. Of course, we know they’re not getting that information in school.”
While educators were being damned nationally for teaching the realities of American history, McDaniels was educating local youth about their place in it through a docent program at the museum that gives them money for their pockets as well. While school districts across the country added classical Black titles to their lists of banned books, McDaniels was introducing youth to Black authors on the walls of her museum and supporting the local business, Escape Velocity’s Boys in The Hood Book Club, a literacy program.
For McDaniels, who hosts a Black memorabilia fest and the annual Festival of Black Women’s Hair, Body, Mental/Financial Health, Beauty and Art, it nearly broke her heart to hear a local teen say she “didn’t know anything about being Black until the George Floyd incident.” Also troubling, she says, are upper middle-class parents and celebrities with far-reaching platforms, who shy away from their Blackness and denounce the importance of young people knowing about their culture and their past.
“What our community does not understand is that our children are out here acting foolish and running amok and it is because they don’t have a knowledge of self,” she says. “If they had a knowledge of self and they loved self, then that would allow them to love others in their space. If they knew that they come from greatness, they wouldn’t be out here calling each other the n-word and the b-word; they would be on a whole other level of consciousness.”
‘This Work Is A Part Of My Soul’
During the pandemic, McDaniels and the Sojourner Truth Museum have minded the gaps for the community, hosting senior activities, providing weekly meals and hosting youth pop-up events and art lessons, complete with supplies. Some of the events were covered by city COVID-19 money, but McDaniels continued the activities even after the funds stopped this year.
“This work is a part of my soul,” McDaniels says. “It’s my life’s work and I want parents to get it, I want our children to get it; I want them to succeed, I want them to love each other. It doesn’t matter if the funding is not there. Like Malcolm said, ‘By any means necessary.’ So, if I have to come out of my own pocket, which, in the past, and still, sometimes today, I still do. I’ve always had that mind-set. I’ll go without to make sure that my community has.”
Kambon, a former Black Panther Party artist, is proud of McDaniels.
“I’ve seen her develop as one of the most accomplished artists in Sacramento, in terms of African Americans,” he says.
Kambon is also happy she has stayed true to her activist roots.
“We as artists have a responsibility to speak to our people’s struggle in this country because that’s why our ancestors gave us this talent. They gave it to us so we can carry the fight. We have to intensify the struggle,” Kambon says.
Supporters often caution McDaniels that she’s “doing too much,” but those words don’t seem to be in her vocabulary. She’s already focused on 2023 and getting an early start on securing funding for her annual Banana Festival that is a major fundraiser for the museum.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘You’re going to kill yourself trying to save your people,’ ‘You’re going to make yourself sick,’ or ‘You have made yourself sick,’” she says. “It’s just embedded in me to continue to do this work, and hopefully, before I transition, some type of major change will be made.”
THE OBSERVER proudly salutes Shonna McDaniels as its 2022 Person of the Year.