How a Germantown woman transformed her home into the Colored Girls Museum

Partners Michael Clemmons, left, Vashti Dubois, center, and Ian Friday, right, at the Colored Girls Museum, Friday, March 10, 2017, in Philadelphia.

Walking up the path to the front door of the Colored Girls Museum in Germantown is like a first-time visit to the home of a new girlfriend. A blue tricycle sits tumbled on its side in the front yard. Wind chimes jingle in the frigid, late-winter breeze.

And when Vashti Dubois answers the front door of her 127-year-old, three-story Victorian twin, she appears more BFF than museum director.

Perhaps that's why I have the urge to carefully wipe my feet as smoke from a warm tobacco-scented candle creeps into my nose on the inhale ... and exhale.

Now I’m in the living room, which explodes with porcelain sculptures, faceless dolls, quilts, stained glass, sleeping masks, and a curious watercolor painting featuring three African American teenage girls painted to look like Disney princesses.

"I’m an ordinary girl. This is an ordinary neighborhood. Nothing special, right?” Dubois asks in the knowing way scholars do when they are making a point.

Two years ago, Dubois partnered with her longtime homies Michael Clemmons (Temple University’s associate director of workforce development) and Brooklyn writer Ian Friday to turn her home into a space with art that cuts to the core of African American women’s experience.

“You see us walking down the street. Everyday colored girls. You walk past us, but here we are in all of our extraordinary splendor doing the things that we do to make this world a great place to live," Dubois, 56, says. "We aren’t all Michelles and Beyoncés. But look at how we are holding everything together.”

The museum, a project birthed from her own challenges after her husband unexpectedly died three years ago, presented its first exhibit, “Open for Business,” as part of Fringe Festival 2015. The following spring, Dubois committed to making her home available for guided tours every Sunday.

In September, the museum debuted “A Good Night’s Sleep," a show that drew about 1,000 visitors. The last few years have been tough on the souls of black women, Dubois says, and the stress -- from racism and police brutality and microaggressions like the continual appropriation of black beauty -- is cutting into our sleepy time. And you know what happens when women don’t get their sleep.

In November, the museum closed for winter, and Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. So on March 5, Dubois reopened for the 2017 season featuring her latest installation: "Act II: A Good Night’s Sleep -- Urgent Care."

“The museum didn’t feel that people were getting the message, so she’s dressed up as an urgent-care facility now,” Dubois said. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

That means the living room is the reception area, a spare bedroom is triage, for instance -- and each room, or salon, displays a clipboard hung outside the door, just like in a hospital. A vessel of water in each room represents spiritual healing.

“We believe the colored girl has to imagine what her health care could look like and feel like if she was designing the space for herself,” Dubois said.

Throughout the space is the artwork -- individual pieces as well as installation art: In the living room, a painting of a woman with an Afro made of actual records by Monna Morton of Philadelphia, and a series of drawings by internationally known artist Barbara Bullock, also local.

On the third floor (triage) are works by Philadelphia fiber artists Joy Ude and Petra Floyd. The artists included handwoven lounge chairs for guests to rest, and a bathroom has candles and wine next to the tub. (I can dig that.)

The only permanent exhibit, in a second-floor bedroom, is an ode to colored girls' history in America as washerwomen. This space, curated by Morton and Denys Davis, pays homage to domestic work, with a clothesline populated with cotton delicates, and black-and-white period photographs. There's a small iron and ironing board like one might have seen at the turn of the 20th century, a sewing machine from the same era, and Sunday church cloches.

The room of Dubois' son is the soon-to-be Colored Boys salon, but it’s not ready yet because, well, her son (whose first name is Dubois) is an 18-year-old man.

Dubois' bedroom is also part of the tour. In this space, with its cozy cream quilt and spotless dresser tops, are stained-glass pieces by Celestine Wilson Hughes, quilts by Toni Kersey, and a collection of dolls by Lorrie Patrice-Payne. Dubois appropriately calls this space the healing suite.

If she hadn't taken the time to heal here, the museum would not exist.

A graduate of Wesleyan University, the Brooklyn native enjoyed a solid career as a theater artist. In 1987, she cofounded one of the nation’s first diverse start-ups, the Mumbo Jumbo Theater Company, in New York.

In Philadelphia she worked as an executive director for the non-profits Congreso de Latinos Unidos and Tree House Books, where she helped troubled young women express beauty through art.

Then on March 30, 2014, her husband of 16 years, Al Stewart, was killed in an automobile accident.

She was devastated.

“This room is where I understood the importance of ritual,” Dubois says. “When I couldn’t do anything, I could do the steps. I got up. Tended to my son. Sent him off to school. Then I would come up here and go back to bed. And get up just before he came home so he didn’t know that I was in bed all day. And every day, I did a little more until I could do more.”

Doing more turned into a museum. Dubois was always inspired by the real stories in Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” She wanted to create her own living memoir to everyday black women who go unnoticed. Why not use her house? She had nothing to lose.

The fact was, many of her girlfriends thought the idea of turning her home into a museum was unrealistic, even ridiculous. It was Clemmons and Friday who supported the idea -- after all, the first museums were in people's homes. (Friday handles the audio presentation for the exhibits, and Clemmons, an artist, does most of the curating.)

“I didn’t want to wait for someone to pat me on my back and decide I was worthy,” Dubois said. “I had everything I needed here.”

So in early 2015, she collected about 100 pieces from her friends in the art world. She then approached the Old City nonprofit the Painted Bride to be her fiscal sponsor.

These days, in order to get her home ready for the Sunday gatherings, she still engages in ritual. She washes all the surfaces with vinegar and water, and burns sage, frankincense, and myrrh to purify the energy.

“This is a space where black women see themselves reflected back at themselves,” Dubois said. “And it’s also intended for people to see the world through the lens of a colored girl.”

On Sunday, 15 people gathered for the tour -- one Asian woman, the rest white men and women. Looks like her plan is working.

The Colored Girls Museum. 4613 Newhall St. Open 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays through November; weekday tours available by appointment only. Admission $10. www.thecoloredgirlsmuseum.com, 215-844-2396

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