I prayed for you before you were born (i) by Monica J. Brown; selfie of the artist Credit: Courtesy Monica J. Brown

Memory is an abstraction. It holds our entire history, but how much of that is our ‘real’ story? And what stories do we tell ourselves about this story?                                                                                      —Monica J. Brown, Artist’s Statement

If you visited the Reader office between 1992 and 2008, when it was located on Illinois Street above the busy Star of Siam restaurant, you’re likely to have met Monica J. Brown. During those years, Brown had the job of handling the crowds who made their way up to the Reader’s second-floor reception counter, mostly to turn in ads for the paper’s famously fat classified section.  

That was her day job, the one she kept because it left her free at other times to work on her art. Born and raised in Kewanee, Illinois, Brown had come to Chicago after collecting a BFA as a painting major at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. She later earned a master’s in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College Chicago, adding writing and performance to her tool kit. She was looking for the best way to tell the stories that inspired her solo show of visual work, on display now at ARC Gallery.

“Roots, Branches: Ancestor(s) Stones,” as the show is titled, is a tribute to Brown’s forebears, part of her ongoing mission to honor and connect with the women who came before. So far, she’s been able to trace eight generations of their history, working backwards from successive pairs of daughters and mothers to a still-mysterious woman she calls YOMHN.

It’s an epic mission: YOMHN gave birth to Zilpha in 1830 in North Carolina. After that, four generations were born in Tennessee: Zilpha’s daughter Parthena, in 1861; Parthena’s daughter Ora, in 1891; Ora’s daughter Grace, in 1910; and Grace’s daughter Flora, in 1925. Shortly after Flora’s birth, Grace—with mother, grandmother, and children in tow—left Tennessee for Kewanee, where Flora’s daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1947, and where Elizabeth, having married Donald J. Brown, gave birth to Monica J. Brown in 1969.

This story’s been calling Brown since childhood. She told part of it in a one-woman play, Branch and Bough, written while she was in graduate school. The play is a brief encounter with three generations: Ora, Grace, and Flora, each in turn sharing a confidence across an iconic kitchen table. Brown says the writing and performing of it made her realize that “My ancestors are with me; all I had to do was recognize it.” And that the stories of those earlier generations, even when they tell of troubles—betrayals, divorces, the death of children—are a treasure trove of resilience, a source of support.

“There’s power in story,” Brown says: “I think stories can heal.”

The 15 pieces of Brown’s work on the walls at ARC include three collages that juxtapose vintage photos and intense fields of color. In two of them (both titled I prayed for you before you were born), a woman in an apron, Brown’s great-great-grandmother, stands behind a small child, a granddaughter of three or so. Both faces are blurred—as inexact as memory, Brown said when I asked her about that. But in the first of the two, a circle of vibrant chartreuse puts a spotlight on a point of connection: the woman’s open hands resting, as if to bless, on the head of the child.  

Brown’s next project, already in progress thanks to a DCASE grant, will focus on YOMHN. The name is an acronym (you owe me her name), originally prompted by Brown’s frustration at the lack of records about this predecessor, who may or may not have been a free woman. But now, she says, her search is about something more than that, about understanding “who she was.”

“Not as a victim. We had more than victimization as African Americans. I’m not saying there isn’t something that’s owed. There should be reparations. But I’m saying there’s also something else that’s the reason we are still here, that we still exist, despite all that shit. Circumstances bring to light the character of the person who responds to them.”

These ancestors, including her mother, who died in December, were “strong, determined women,” Brown says. They worked hard, fed anyone who came to their door, and taught their daughters to “give without worrying about receiving.”

A longtime yoga teacher and Thai bodywork practitioner, Brown has nieces and nephews, but no children of her own. That was a choice, she says. “I’m the one who’s supposed to look back and remember, to honor the legacy of the ancestors, to share, and pass down.”

“It doesn’t have to be directly through my womb.”  v