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Stigmas and stereotypes of Blackness are challenged in ‘Black in Denver: Redefining Who We Are’

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The portrait and interview series, "Black in Denver," explores themes of identity, individuality and community among 100 of Denver's Black residents.

DENVER — When local artist Narkita set out to photograph the individuality of Denver’s Black community in 2018, she was looking to dispel a myth she heard about the city.

“There’s a national narrative that there are no Black people in Denver,” the 34-year-old told Rocky Mountain PBS.

She sought to showcase the community’s presence and power in a city that is less than 10% Black or African American. And through capturing 100 of Denver’s Black residents over the span of two years, Narkita hoped to deconstruct harmful biases and stereotypes placed on people of color, while simultaneously uplifting Black voices and encouraging introspection.

The result of her exploration, “Black in Denver,” presents portrait photography alongside interviews. Questions like, “Who are you?” “What does it mean to be you?” and “How have your experiences in Denver shaped you?” were posed to each interviewee — the same questions that Narkita asked herself after she moved to Denver seven years ago.

Colorado Voices

Colorado Voices: Black in Denver: Redefining Who We Are

“I don't think when I started this project that I expected for this to happen so I was honestly just trying to get some answers and get through some things,” Narkita explained. “It has been like a journey of becoming.”

As Narkita met new faces to photograph and interview, she looked inward. “There's always something you learned about yourself when you meet someone,” she said. “There's always a lesson to be learned.”

Narkita, the artist of "Black in Denver"

An ode to a community of people, as Narkita calls it, “Black in Denver” was showcased at the Museum of Contemporary Art, History Colorado and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in the last two years. To reach even more Coloradans — as the project exists mainly online now — Rocky Mountain PBS spoke with nine individuals from Narkita’s original work, bringing their stories to life. 

“The work takes a look at identity. It investigates identity and what it means to be you and what makes you you and how you make up a collective,” she said. “It's all about how we're interconnected to one another. It takes a look at a community using the self, so I put myself within the community to understand what I'm seeing and what I'm experiencing.”

Varying in color to mirror the diversity of Blackness, the collection of portraits and interviews all have one thing in common: no Black experience is the same.

“I think the word Black, when it comes to race, is a social construct,” Narkita said. “Whatever I do within this Black body is my Blackness; how I show up is my Blackness.”

“I think we’re not a monolith, obviously," said Tya Anthony, an interdisciplinary artist. "I think that there are so many different layers to every Black experience that it just continues to grow and evolve."

For Anthony, to be Black in Denver meant to be herself in the most authentic way possible. “To be liberated in a way that you share community with one another,” she said, “you reach the masses through that authenticity.”

“I only know how to be Black like me, and I never worried what that meant for somebody else,” Curt Peterson, the owner of Smith + Canon Ice Cream Company, said. “You only discover what it means for somebody else when you really focus on just being you.”

When police killed George Floyd in May 2020 and people were seeking out Black businesses to support, Peterson said many people didn’t know, and were surprised to discover, that his company was Black-owned. 

“I've had more run-ins with Black people who come into the business who are surprised it’s owned by a Black person,” he said. “I guess I always thought that entrepreneurism is one of the ways a Black person in this country could circumvent some of the built in was kind of surprising to me to have so many Black people say, ‘Oh my gosh, congratulations! This is owned by a Black person.’”

Just as Blackness means something different for everyone, it also varies based on where you live and where you’re from.

“I feel like Denver is undefined in a variety of different ways. Because it’s undefined, you as a creator can create the reality you want to exist in in this city,” Michael Acuña said. “As long as you don't get overcome with the microaggressions or stigmas that people put on you, you can actually define the reality of what Denver is for itself.”

An activist, poet and writer, Acuña — who identifies as Afro-Latino and also goes by the aliases of Ill Seven, Acuña Black and Sly Miles — utilizes his work to tell the story of his own self discovery while also highlighting the struggles of people of color.

“I feel like in Denver, because there are so few representations of Blackness, we're more of an idea,” he said. “And because we’re more of an idea to Eurocentric America, we have a tendency to experience microaggressions on a more regular base.”

For some folks of color, experiencing stereotyping and stigmas forced them to develop certain coping and survival skills in addition to reflecting on how they’re perceived by others.

Esther Lee Leach, editor of Cherry Creek Fashion magazine, felt like she stood out when first moving to the Cherry Creek neighborhood. Originally from St. Lucia, Leach was accustomed to seeing Black people everywhere she went. “I had no choice but to grow a thicker skin because I felt really down when first moving here that I was being judged for only my race,” she said. After living in cities like New York and San Francisco, where there is more racial diversity, Leach said she had to confront her Black skin for the first time when she came to Denver. 

“Growing up in the Caribbean, you don’t even think about it, you just are. We have so many Black people around us, so many mixtures, colors, and shapes. So I just woke up thinking, I’m Esther!” she explained. “There is no reason to think about your race and I like that I grew up that way. There was no sort of burden because of my race and I came to America and Denver, and suddenly that’s what people see first.”

Understanding the plurality in Blackness is necessary, according to Brenton Weyi, a creative polymath. In America, he said, the roles of Black people are confined to freedom fighters, athletes or rappers, but Black people can exist in any kind of place–and find common ground among one another despite their differences in experience. 

For some folks, introspection and reflecting on the past is necessary to address issues in the present.

“I resent that African people brought to this country are deprived of who we are,” Gwen Crawford said. “We are powerful people, we’re strong, intelligent people but we were deprived of our history. We’ve been deprived of everything that’s made us us.”

Beverly Grant, a local yogi and owner of Mo’ Betta Green, attributed the trauma Black people currently face to the atrocities of the past. “Our history began as… we were tools, properties, and symbols of wealth. We weren’t people. We were commodities…so that's horrible to have that type of mindset pushed on you,” she told Rocky Mountain PBS.

“As we began to find ways to move away from that,” she said,” the effects of that are still far reaching. Because the strife that our grandmothers went through is in our DNA, but the wisdom that they also have for us is in our DNA.”

“Every time we reject something that is inequitable,” Grant said, “we're breaking the cycle."

And to address that trauma, Ali Duncan, a self-proclaimed "energy healer" and owner of Urban Sanctuary on Welton Street, said there are different levels of healing. “So we have our generation healing, for me personally, and then we have the collective whole as the Black community and we take on different emotions and frequencies from our ancestors. It’s in our bodies,” she said.

At her yoga studio in Five Points, BIPOC-only classes offer space for people of color to come together as a community, unwind and settle into their bodies–without judgment.

“We are people who are survivors. We know how to struggle and how to overcome, make do out of nothing,” said Paul Hamilton, an African Art collector and retired educator. “Our biggest challenge today is how to thrive in the midst of that…There's a lot of challenges for us as a people. But we're overcoming and we have achieved far greater than our numbers.”

While “Black in Denver” served as a way for Narkita to learn more about herself, her community, and refute what she heard about Denver, the project also serves as a tool to foster empathy—to learn something new, or unlearn something harmful.

“I think we’re always becoming,” Narkita said. “I think it's an ever-evolving journey to self and I think that this project has helped put me on the path to where I'm supposed to be going.”

Victoria Carodine is a digital content producer for Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at

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