“When you sit back and really think about the magnitude of what this means, of having a monument that instills a living memory and validates our history in this way, it’s incredible,” says Dr. Rhea L. Combs, of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, where she is the Curator of Film & Photography and Head of the Earl W.
Rhea recalls driving to work in Portland, Oregon (where she and her then-husband and toddler daughter were living) when she got the call offering her the position in the hotly-anticipated museum. “I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.” She pulled over and simply said, “Thank you and yes.” It would mean uprooting her family, but with an empowering clarity of vision she knew that “THIS is what I’m supposed to be doing.” She was “over the moon” about the prospect, but “there was definitely a lag between the thrill of the moment” and an actual start date. There were security and background checks to contend with for this federal position. But once through the process, she “hit the ground running, coming to this with a maturity I wouldn’t have had five or six years prior,” she says. Her career path has been filled with these moments of divine timing, each opportunity aligned with her preparedness.
In a city known for its brutal summertime humidity, we've gathered on a sweltering Sunday afternoon to chop it up in her tidy apartment. Appointed with mid-century furniture, eclectic art, and treasured family photos, it faces west with painterly views as the sun makes its gradual descent. Dressed casually with the simple, yet artfully modern jewelry that are hallmarks of her style, Rhea settles into a Jacobsen-inspired chair. With "the kiddo," daughter Selah away for the weekend, she has time for an unhurried interview over a refreshing rosé. She's hung her hat in several black metropolises, from Detroit to D.C., and traversed the hallowed halls of academia in both HBCU’s and the Ivy League in pursuit of a terminal degree to honor her grandmother and great-grandmother. These smart, bold women of her maternal line reached only eighth and third grades respectively. Because of the limitations of their era as women of color, they had no such opportunity for academic advancement. “Even if they were curious, even if they had desires for it, life didn’t allow them that privilege,” Rhea says.
As one who relishes the stories of everyday people in her curatorial inquiry, she shares a few from her family. Precise in her language, she ponders the proper
Fannie Bell would enter, as did many women of the era, the factory workforce to replace men who'd gone to combat during the first World War. Eventually, she became an entrepreneur, owning her home on the east side of Detroit, and taking in boarders. She outlived her husband and raised their only child with his siblings' support. Some of those siblings were so "light, bright they could pass for white," Rhea says. And with an omissive approach, some did. One sister secured a job at the Detroit department store Hudson's long before black women were allowed to step into such positions. They didn't ask; she didn't tell. Another lived with her dark-skinned husband in a neighborhood in which he would most decidedly be unwelcome, allowing their neighbors to assume he was simply her driver. "They worked it," Rhea says of her subtly subversive great aunts.
Another Southern branch of the tree is Alabama, where George Suttles and his two brothers were in the care of their grandmother. Presumably fearing for their safety as they came of age below the Mason-Dixon, she sent the boys with "an address and a little brown bag of food" for their journey to live with their mother in Detroit and the promise of Northern life. George worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal work program for unmarried men until smitten by the leggy, vivacious Mary "Frances" Martin. They married and raised their brood of five (including Rhea's mother, Rita) in a Southwest Detroit working-class enclave in proximity to the factories. Rhea remembers her late grandfather's “acerbic wit; he could just decimate you, though he didn’t use a lot of words. And he had a sage insight that comes with street sense. They don’t make ‘
George was the sole provider for the family of seven. “He ended up owning several homes on the block,” Rhea says. She shares a memory of
Frances and George's eldest child, Rita was the first in the family to attend college. “It was around 1959 or 1960, a huge moment of pride in the community," Rhea says. "She got a scholarship to Michigan Tech; it was in the paper.” The first girl from her high school to attend, Rita Suttles was an athletic young woman interested in the sciences. When unexpected motherhood and marriage to a fellow student, Charles Combs postponed her scholarly pursuits, "my mom was, by any means necessary, determined to continue her life while married,” Rhea says. “She did what she had to do as a wife and homemaker, and went to night school.” Both she and her engineer husband would attain master's degrees. Holding a Master of Science in Microbiology from Wayne State University, she ingrained the importance of education in her two daughters.
Considerably younger than her sister, Rhea knows what it is to be the baby of the family, yet also to be raised as an only child. With two siblings born to her father after her parents parted, she also knows the experience of the middle child. All of which, she believes, plays into her ability to connect with many different personalities.
When she was about 7-years-old, Rhea accompanied her dad to hockey practice at the Police Athletic League (PAL) where he was coaching. "I put on some skates and was able to just zip, zip, zip." They offered her a spot on the team. "It seemed fun. You got to get all this padding and be "Billy Badass," even though that wasn’t really my nature. I liked the skating and having all the accoutrements, but slamming a little boy against the ice? That wasn’t my cup of tea. It was a proud moment, though. I was the first girl ever on the Detroit PAL hockey team." Her mom, a former field hockey player, tied a blue velvet ribbon to the back of Rhea's helmet to identify her on the ice. It became her signature. Spectators looked for the little girl with the ribbon. "I was only on the team for one season," she says." I do still watch it occasionally. When you know a little bit about the sport, the speed, and the defense, you can enjoy it. But I enjoy tennis more." The dings in the garage door of her childhood home attest to that passion.
Rhea reminisces about her back-in-the-day, middle-class Detroit life and the fun of climbing into the car trunk with her cousins for the short jaunt into the pay-per-person, drive-in movie theater and scrambling out once beyond the entry gates. She recalls homeownership for the many. "In these cities with factory jobs, the American Dream seemed attainable. You could buy a home. Everybody in our neighborhood had a house; it was just what you did. I grew up in a still-bustling, thriving Detroit.” It wasn’t until she went away to college that many of her peers had been raised in rental apartments. “Growing up in a predominantly African-American city with a black mayor, you have a different lens about your place and space in the world and what’s available to you. You feel a certain sense of empowerment. It’s what I imagine my daughter will feel like having been born during the Obama presidency." It is that sense of possibility long denied her forebears that propelled Rhea's desire to receive her doctorate.
But before all that there was high school. Three of them. Oak Park, when she lived for a while with her Dad, stepmother, and younger siblings. Her mother’s professional growth at DuPont then took them to the “very socially stratified” Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois. Finally, her mother’s remarriage brought them back to Detroit, where she finished at Southfield High. The move to Chicago was a culture shock. "Schaumburg High was 95% white and four times larger than my other school." She remembers her organic chemistry course: "There were 200 kids in the classroom! The Socratic method, not what I was used to. It was painful and so isolating,” she says. “Ironically, I fit in by being in the smaller AP [Advanced Placement] classes.” There was racial tension, yet “There was no language around race,” she says. Except for the study of Huckleberry Finn in English class. “The students were all using the N-word, and I’m the only chip in the dip.” She shared her discomfort with her teacher afterward, to which he replied, “We’re just reading the words. This is an advanced class; we are all competent enough to understand the context.” Though she felt dismissed, she also felt she “personed up, if you will,” to “exercise my voice, but the next day, it seemed the students felt empowered and they were N-wording it up the wazoo!”
The struggle was real, and music was her escape. “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life” was more than an 80’s song title. “I really got into house music. I love deep house, deep, deep disco,” she says. “I would drive (in her no-frills Chevy Sprint) to Chicago and go to the Warehouse and the Muzic Box. High school was one thing, in this all-white environment, but come Thursday night; I’m hitting the club. It literally became a safe space for me. It was really meditative. I got completely in the zone, dancing with the same group of teenagers every weekend. You lose track of time.” She laughs, remembering once leaving the club at sunrise, “It was wild, I had a 30-40 minute drive home from downtown Chicago, and the SUN was coming up. Even her mom, who typically gave her considerable latitude to make choices, threw up her hands. "My mother was through!” Rhea says. Rebellious flouting of curfew aside, she always did her schoolwork and was a good student, albeit one devoid of school spirit.
Upon their return to Michigan in her senior year, her grandmother, Frances said: “You’re faster than double-geared lightning! None of this you get away with would be going on up in my house.” Of her mom's original laissez-faire approach, she says, “maybe that was her parenting style, let the leash go long, and it’ll come back. But my grandmother was a Virgo, and she just kept it very one-hundred. She said to me, 'If your mother tells you to be home by midnight; be home by midnight. Nothing else is open after midnight except legs.' I took heed to her words. My grandmother was my bestie. She and my great-grandmother, Fannie Bell, who we called 'Nana,' were my best friends."
Rhea rounded out her senior year "amazingly well" at Southfield High, “a lovely, racially mixed school; I was able to flow with it." Having gone so deep into the house scene, she returned to Detroit up on house music that hadn't arrived there yet. She was ahead of the curve and that brought with it "a currency, if you will," for this house head coming from Chicago. "It always felt so weird to have gone to three high schools in four years, but it offered me the flexibility to grow and thrive in different environments. I did it, and I was fine at every juncture. Young people are resilient."
Admittedly, she felt a bit of jealousy when her mom remarried, but she grew to love her entrepreneur stepfather, Olin Sterrett. “We became very, very close. He was very patient and loving, a sage person—he was much older than my mother—and a straight, no chaser type of speaker. He owned several gas stations in Detroit including the only gas station at Detroit Metro Airport. He was quite a successful businessman."
He also influenced her decision to attend Howard University. Although he had not attended one, “he knew many people who had and he had this wonderful respect and understanding of the power of historically black colleges,” He helped convince his wife, who was resistant, that it would create a unique support system and vast network. “He smoothed the waters for me to attend,” Rhea remembers.
“I was happy as a lark, I lived with such gusto and excitement,” she says of her Howard days. “I was in the School of C [Communications] and lived on campus at Wheatley Hall my freshman year. I had a lovely four years there." A freshman course in Media Literacy, taught by Ron Simmons left “an indelible impression on me. 'I’m going to unteach you all you’ve been taught,' he said, then set about doing that, teaching the students in class to think critically and analytically about the news and how it is presented, particularly around blackness." Showing the film, Ethnic Notions by Marlon Riggs, Simmons introduced Rhea to the filmmaker on whom she’d eventually write her Ph.D. dissertation.
Nearing her Howard
After applying to a few schools, she decided on Cornell, which offered her a full ride for an MA in African American Studies. “I liked the history of the school. At the time, the Africana Department was unique. It was autonomous, with its own building and budget. It reported directly to the president and was its own entity. It was very
Her mind set on an eventual doctorate; she felt no sense of urgency to go straight from her master’s into a doctoral program since being a professor wasn’t necessarily the goal. "I thought if I do teach, I want to bring theory and practice to the classroom." It's the kind of teaching that has resonated with her.
Her grandmother and great-grandmother ever-present in her thinking, she’d always question, Well what would they connect to? ”My teaching philosophy is, how can I provide the everyday person a chance to feel empowered? And I thought that museums would be the way to do that more so than the Ivory Tower. So when I did teach, I taught in a very Pedagogy of the Oppressed way; as Paulo Freire articulated, we all bring something to the table.” She thought of museums as "this logical marriage between theory and practice. They were a natural step for me in terms of engaging in these intellectual pursuits and scholarly questions that would affect more than an elite crowd of people. We all have valid experiences;
Rhea has her mother to thank for her early arts exposure. “The arts and culture were a part of the way I experienced life as a young girl in Detroit. We’d volunteer. It was a clever way of seeing stuff," she laughs. "I guess we served as docents, but my mother didn’t call it that. The fact that we were presenting a curator's vision was not part of the lexicon. The language was this is an art show, this is a black art show, we’re volunteering on Saturday. It was we’re ushering at this play; we need to wear black skirts and white blouses." But it was a film character that introduced her to the concept of a curatorial career. "He was working with and helping to advance
After graduate school, Rhea chose to come back to D.C.,
When an opportunity came to return to Chicago to work at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in the education department, she took it, even though "it’s science and not my area of expertise by any stretch of the imagination," she says. But she questioned how she could make the programming relevant. "I was able to create programs that brought the sciences to young kids of color." She expanded an existing summer program that introduced children to marine biology to one which "provided scholarships to kids from the Chicago Public School system and allowed people of different socio-economic backgrounds to participate in marine biology exploration in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys." She remembers one "really shy" child: "It was his first time on an airplane. He was scared to be away from his friends and family – and the West side of Chicago. But he soaked up every bit of the experience. He loved it, and he came back, full focus, into science. Again, by bridging practical application with theory, you’re able to make the experiences come to life for people."
Recruited by the Chicago Historical Society, she worked
Also while living in Chicago, she worked at the South Shore Cultural Center, "a full-on experience where I pulled together the visual arts program, the after-school program, and the adult public program curriculum. She is particularly proud of developing a community-based program specifically for South Side residents with instruction by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), including a community choir. South Side children learned to play music from CSO members via the Suzuki method. The draw for CSO participation, she contends, is ultimately generational "audience building," but speaking to her belief in reciprocity, the CSO also benefitted from "learning about African American choral experiences, Marian Anderson to Blind Tom. Their staff learned choral music they’d never sung before."
She spent nearly five years in Chi-Town before traveling alone to Paris. "I loved it. I loved the sights, the style, the Senegalese people I met. I was titillated by going to Jazz clubs at midnight, reminding me of my high school days of hanging out late, late, late. I met expats. Again, my synapses were firing. I felt like this girl from Detroit who was sneaking into the drive-in is now taking pictures on the Champs-Elysées!"
Heading next to London, she found herself enthralled by the art and culture, visiting the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), the British Museum, and the Tate. A serendipitous meeting brought her the opportunity to curate a film retrospective of young artists from across the U.S. She was, at the time "engaged (via her master's studies) with the work of Issac Julien, John Akomfrah and all these black British artists whose work I admired." Presented in tandem with an exhibition of then-emerging filmmaker Steve McQueen's (12 Years a Slave) work, "I pulled together a program that took me to London. I gave talks and curated a film retrospective of these young artists (all under 30) from all over the states, but
Rhea was also five years out from grad school, making a salary and at a crossroads. "My personal goal (the doctorate) wasn’t
For most of her time at Emory, she worked at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, "which was a great chance for me to learn more about museum practice as well as work at a mid-size museum dedicated to African American people and women artists in particular. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience and I stayed there for several years." She helped with the first solo show of artist Iona Rozeal Brown, a show
After a chance meeting at a New York film festival, Terry Scott, then of the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) invited her to curate a festival for NBPC. She was finishing up her classroom work and had passed her oral exams, so she said "Yeah, why not?" She rented her Atlanta condo, moved all her things to New York City, and started working at NBPC. It was another wonderful experience—my passion for African American Studies, my passion for film, my passion for artists all got to come together." That NBPC is under the auspices of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whose programming was the only television she was allowed to watch as a child brought it full-circle. That the film festival was held at the esteemed NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem brought her into professional contact with an organization she respects.
"I tend to spend about five years in places," she mentions. While living in New York, she married, but her husband's work took them to Portland. "I'd left NBPC so that I could finish my dissertation and I got several fellowships, which allowed me to do that." As it turns out, one allowed her to teach in Portland. "There are no accidents in life. High school in Schaumburg prepped me for Ithaca and Ithaca prepped me for Portland with all its whiteness." As well as the dearth of blackness after having lived in Atlanta, Chicago, DC, Detroit, and Harlem.
"While in Portland, I was also working in equity and diversity work, so that gave me this whole other bag of tricks--another skill set. In the workplace environment, I understand about EEOC, about human resources and issues around diversity and higher education. Adding this equal opportunity work to her CV made her a desirable candidate for noted ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. Ad agencies, she says "are bastions of white boy privilege," and she learned to navigate those waters, but "there was always something new and fun to do. And I do admire Dan Wieden as a leader and his wonderful, creative brain. He took a risk on me, saw my transferable skills. 'You understand the importance of a diverse workplace; you understand filmmaking; you know about visual culture; you know various artists of color. We’d love to have you here as a photo curator working in our art production department,' he said." A Chairman Mao-inspired piece gifted her by artist Jim Riswold, former creative director and colleague at W+K hangs on her living room wall.
"In the wilderness and whiteness of Portland, I still had a tremendous opportunity to learn, met lovely people, made some terrifically meaningful friendships, and I had my child. I was able to talk about race and culture in a way that felt very formative; very relevant and it was a small enough town that you have a voice that could be heard. You could make a difference. (She sits on several boards there.) All of it becomes a part of the journey. Despite what it might feel like at the time, nothing is out of order; the universe is conspiring in your favor. In retrospect and totality, it makes perfect sense."
"There are some really great things that I miss about Portland. The ease and quality of life; the active lifestyle; nature and the beauty of the landscape; it’s truly, truly stunning. My daughter, Selah, at her core, is an Oregonian; she loves her bare feet and blueberries. In large part, I think she is the reason I was there. I had an at-home birth, a terrific midwife. There was a sincere relationship with the midwife from the moment we found out we were expecting until I went into labor. Every week we had an appointment that lasted over an hour. As for the birth, the midwife and her team of assistants came to the house and they did all the prep work. They stayed by my side the entire labor. My total cost for all of that–with 40 weeks of doctor visits, a tub brought to the house, three women helping me was just over three thousand dollars. Their attitude is it should not break the bank to have a baby."
"It was also wonderful to walk from the tub, and to have these two white women carry me; I felt like I was paying homage to all the women of color who’ve come before me who had to do this for them," she smiles. "For them to take me to my shower, sit there and wait for me, towel me off, put on my pajamas, carry me to my bed, and hand me my black baby? Sweet! Besides that, it made complete sense to get out of the tub with a kid and get in your own bed. Childbirth is natural, not a medical condition."
Despite her poise and emerging prominence, she is, at heart, shy--an extroverted introvert. "It's all about the work," she says. Even with "all the excitement, fervor, hoopla,
"Being in D.C.
She co-curated the exhibition Through the African American Lens, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History as a bit of a preamble to the new NMAAHC prior to its opening. And she "had the beautiful benefit of co-curating an exhibition on the artist Hale Woodruff with a colleague." Her inaugural exhibition at NMAAHC provides an opportunity to look at the selections of some of the 20,000 photographic images in the museum's collection. It allows her "to create a show that looks at everyday beauty, bringing to the fore vernacular culture, known and lesser known photographers and photographs that you would not necessarily expect to see on the walls of a museum. Pictures people take to adorn their homes and offices. "In expressing our validity in the narrative of American history, vernacular culture was a way in which we subversively said to one another, yes, we’re here, and we matter." It is apropos that photos of ordinary life be ennobled. Hailing them as such, she "presents them as crown jewels," of the collection. "Folks from a variety of walks of life who may or may not have a household name, we stand on their shoulders as well as the more celebrated figures. The unnamed are just as relevant and important as celebrities. I believe that a museum should be this kind of place of cultural exchange; a place where we can explore a variety of experiences and not just something that comes from a very elite, thin wedge of the fruit."
Fannie Bell and Frances would be proud.
1. Family photos. Mounted, framed images of beloved relatives grace her home and visually document personal family histories.
2. Prince. "I love Prince!" she exclaims. As a child whose life, from chores to homework was set to music, one of the first albums purchased with her allowance money was by the Purple One. "I was a latchkey kid, so every day after school, I’d make myself a snack and listen to Prince." She's glad she caught his final performance in D.C. last June with his all-woman band 3RDEYEGIRL at the Warner Theatre.
3. Tongues Untied.
4. Daughters of the Dust. Julie Dash's seminal film is the subject of her master's thesis. “I explored African religion as a way to better understand where Dash was coming from. The film is breathtaking, I am so glad it is being redistributed."
5. The Sound I Saw. Roy DeCarava's exquisite, long-awaited photography volume is subtitled Improvisation on a Jazz Theme. "His work just blows me away; his use of light; his artistry is undeniable. I love his work."
6. Harold & Maude. In a favorite scene from the 1971 existentialist
7. Albums she never tires of hearing. Stevie Wonder's "Always," from Songs in the Key of Life is one of her favorites. The genius of Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. And the anthologized ballads of the Isley Brothers are for her, a desert island disc.
8. Italy, particularly Tuscany. She's attended the Venice Biennale; visited the "exquisite" Uffizi Gallery in Firenze, but she's most at peace and enthralled with the beauty of Tuscany.
9. Laughing. "I love being in an environment where laughter is abundant. I don’t like going to comedy clubs, though, I think that is a painful experience. But laughter among people and moments is just magical. I love it. I love to laugh." Richard Pryor, though? Next level. She gets her laugh on with the boxed set, And It's Deep, Too: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings 1968-1992.
10. Live music. She attends live performances whenever she travels and definitely makes the rounds at home in the DMV. She recently checked out YahZarah at the Birchmere and Anderson Paak at the Fillmore. She still raves over Kendrick Lamar's appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra last year at the Kennedy Center. "It was just epic, epic! The orchestra, him, the timing, everything. He was fantastic, he was in his zone!"