Finding her Wings

by Jonaya Kemper '07

"I hope this hasn't affected your time here." 

It's been nearly 14 years, but I can still hear his voice. 

"It has," I responded truthfully. 

It did. I have not set foot on the Williams College campus since I graduated in 2007. Not for a homecoming or reunion. Not for a wedding or special occasion. After commencement, I took off my cap and gown and said to my family, "Drive." 

Williams for me began as a place of wonder and exploration but ended with a trauma so deep that I was unable to create art for a decade. I found bonds and friendship that continue to this day. Even so, when I think of all the stories I could tell about Williams there is only one. 

For nearly a year I worked day and night in Spencer art studio. I barely ate. I pushed myself to the limit. Fabric art in the form of two dresses and a set of jewelry made from sharp blades and crystals that resembled blood. The work was a leap. It was all of my trauma and demons sewed, pinned, written and made to become something beautiful. Work about resilience. I was proud and ready for my honors presentation. I sat, exhausted, in front of a panel of professors proud of my work. 

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Dress1Kemper
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What happened still haunts me. 

The head of the art department fell asleep during my honors presentation. I remember watching him literally sleep through my explanation of my work. The next time he spoke, he said my work was an insult to anyone who had ever lost anyone from HIV/AIDS. That I trivialized the experience. I sat stunned. 

The art in question? 

Father and daughter
Jonaya and her father

10,000 AIDS ribbons hand tied to the black dress I had worn to my father's funeral. A mourning dress turned to depict happiness. To joy in life. My father lived with HIV, and he died a month before I started Williams. He was so proud of me. As my eyes welled up during my presentation, I can still see my advisor gently leaning over and saying, "Jonaya's father..."  He did not apologize. 

The rest of the day is mostly blanked out. I went to the dean's office, and no one took me seriously. The complaint went nowhere. 

I received a B+ in Honors Art. Something about “not working hard enough.” I still have the email. A classmate received honors for a singular 5x5 RPG map that year, but my art was considered somehow offensive and not enough. As a Black queer femme it was a lesson that my work would not appeal to the academy. I was offensive and not enough.  

For years I did not create art. I only heard the insult to my father, my work, my life. The core of who I was. Nothing changed until I took a chance on my art again a decade later. 

Since graduating with high honors from NYU (I do dearly love purple) the work I began at Williams has been internationally recognized. It was a work born in the Odd Quad with friends and blended with the freedom of finding my heart in the QSU, MSU and BSU. It meshed with the work I did in the theater. The foundation that was insulted and dismissed was given wings. I am no longer ashamed of my art or myself. The theories that were dismissed garnered me success much later. I can see Williams in my work, even if Williams did not want it. 

A reunion looms in my future. 

I hear from friends who work and love Williamstown that I can go back, and it is different. Sometimes I resolve to do it. To come back to the place I loved so deeply and stubbornly. Sometimes I even consider it. But I can still hear his voice. Unapologetic. Cold. 

"I hope this hasn't affected your time here." 

It did. It still does.

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