Helen C. Maybell Anglin, the self-described "soul queen of Southern cuisine," is posed on the steps of her fieldstone house on the South Side of Chicago, swathed in black mink. It is 1974, and the house, which she commissioned in 1965 from architect Milton M. Schwartz, is as bold and glamorous as its owner, with a recessed portico, double entrance doors and a skylighted, shag-carpeted living room that's big enough to dwarf her white baby grand piano.
Maybell Anglin died in 2009, and the house remained under family ownership until last year. Bertina Power, an author and real estate broker, was asked to give her professional opinion to someone who wanted to rehab and sell it.
"I was like, 'I'm going to buy it,'" she said. "I have been going in and out of million-dollar houses for years and nothing moved me like this house did. I didn't know why."
Power is, like Maybell Anglin, a Black woman and entrepreneur just under 6 feet tall, and she has come to believe her ownership was fate. While Power did not know her new home's history until after she stepped inside, it seems unlikely that such a house could fly under the radar now.
After decades of neglect, Black interiors — spaces designed for and by Black homeowners — are receiving new attention. They are being documented and analyzed in publications, exhibitions and research initiatives. Not all are as striking or as modern as the Maybell Anglin house, but collectively they tell a story of Black people seeking identity and comfort at home.
"The question of Black aesthetics is ambiguous," said Danicia Monét Malone, who recently introduced her "My Black Home" project as part of her doctoral research in critical geography studies at Temple University. Malone asks residents in Indianapolis, her former home, to answer the question, "If someone were to walk into your home, what element of it would make them say, 'This is a Black home'?"
"It's exhilarating to see how people interpret home," she said, now that she and her research assistant, Faith Lindsey, are looking at the 50 submissions. "People are showing us really intimate things: how their dresser is staged, their kitchen, a wall of memories. They really capture the mundane things that might go unnoticed by someone else, like the way my countertop is configured. That's meaningful."
Catherine E. McKinley, an author and curator, has been touring the country trying to capture similar personal and aesthetic moments for "A Letter from Home: The Art and Science of Black Homemaking," to be published by Bloomsbury USA next year.
"I have a love-hate relationship with interiors books," she said, "so I wanted this book to be as much storytelling and about detail and what is not easily spied, and not the sanitized fixation on the object."
Illustrated by Valérie Aboulker, "A Letter from Home" will include the residences of Xenobia Bailey, Terry Adkins, Sun Ra and other artists both living and dead. It will also include the work of Chip Thomas, a physician who installs murals on roadside and abandoned structures on Navajo land in Tuba City, Arizona.
Fragments closer to home, too, can tell a story of Black homemaking: "A screw, a bedpost, the way that bricks were laid," McKinley said, "these are genuine things."
Malone's and McKinley's documentation stands in visual contrast to Sheila Pree Bright's "The Suburbia Portfolio" from 2006, which is part of the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bright, an Atlanta-based photographer, produces work that is stark and uncluttered, airy in the way of typical interior design magazine photography yet slightly off-kilter.
"As a visual storyteller, I felt a lot of the imagery when it comes to our culture is always urban culture," Bright said. "When I moved to Atlanta, I saw a tremendous amount of African Americans who lived in suburbia." She wanted to reflect the invisibility of African Americans there.
The photos immediately started winning awards, but Bright found that many white viewers could not get over their own internal stereotypes.
"I was told by a publisher I didn't have enough signifiers in there to show the work was Black," she said. A consultant told her, "This looks like my house. There is a bookcase, they read, I don't see any TVs." On that bookcase, prominently displayed, was Debra J. Dickerson's manifesto from 2004, "The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners."
Michelle Joan Wilkinson, a curator at the museum, has developed its design and architecture collection since 2016, acquiring urban planning artifacts and photography like Bright's. "We wanted to make the focus more explicit," she said, "telling not just stories about segregation, but stories about the role design plays in African American history, and the role played in architecture by people of African descent."
The museum has acquired architects' archives as well as furniture design, with a particular focus on seating from contemporary practitioners such as Germane Barnes, Stephen Burks and the museum's design architect, David Adjaye. A bed from 1840 by Henry Boyd, a Cincinnati carpenter and entrepreneur who patented his own screw-fastening system, is on view, as is "Mr. Muse's Den," a padded red vinyl bar that had been installed in a South Side home in the 1970s and used as a speakeasy.
"There may have been a lack of visibility for Black interiors in the broader media, or maybe white mainstream media," Wilkinson said, "but that care for interior space has always been there." The museum acquired the photography archives from Johnson Publishing's Ebony and Jet magazines, "and in literature there is a really rich representation of Black interior worlds, and you are also seeing that in contemporary art," she said.
For a 2018 essay in Pin-Up magazine, Tiana Webb Evans wrote about "folks on chairs" — paintings by Kerry James Marshall, Jordan Casteel and Kehinde Wiley of Black people taking a seat. That same year, Wiley famously painted President Barack Obama in an imagined historical chair. Webb Evans found that "the results of an extensive internet search for visual evidence of the interior lives of African American icons is lackluster at best." Paintings fill in the gap.
One artist known for representing spectacular, often spangled interiors is Mickalene Thomas. The cover of Elle Decor's March 2022 issue on the homes of art collectors displayed a 2012 collage by Thomas, with a spring green floral sofa, acid footstools and abundant plants evoking a lush, inviting mood visible across decades of representations of Black interiors.
In "AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home" (published by Clarkson Potter last year), the authors, Bryan Mason and Jeanine Hays, report: "When asked what their homes mean to them, 'safety' was the first response of every homeowner in this book … home is a respite from the psychological pressures of the outside world." Stacey and Andre Blake's home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is featured in the book, resembles Thomas' cover (although their sofa is clementine; their walls, cerulean).
"Globally, I'm seeing a lot more images of people lounging," Wilkinson said. To have the freedom to buy a home anywhere, the means to decorate it to your taste and the time to relax in it are hard-earned privileges for Black homeowners.
Sometimes those dreamy interiors also pack a political punch: For the March 2021 cover of Elle Decor, Asad Syrkett, the magazine's first Black editor-in-chief, asked Rachelle Baker, a Detroit artist, to reinterpret the famous Yellow Room of 20th-century decorating maven Nancy Lancaster.
"The best interiors do tell a story about the person who lives in it, what their aesthetic sense is, how they live in the world," Syrkett said.
Lancaster, as he found reading her biography, grew up in antebellum Virginia, with a father who was a cotton broker and house servants whom she spoke of as "extended family." Two side tables in the original room include carvings of so-called blackamoor figures on their hands and knees holding up the tabletops.
"How do you begin to rationalize this depiction of forced subservience?" Syrkett asked.
Baker's cover illustration of a Black woman sitting and commanding the Yellow Room, also now in the museum's collection, starts a conversation about the typical audience for interior design media and the hidden labor of domestic work.
Kristina Wilson, a design historian, explored race and gender in depictions of midcentury interiors in her book "Mid-Century Modernism and the American Body: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Power in Design," published by Princeton University Press in 2021. "For white audiences," she wrote, "modern design was a tool of control and exclusion, a prop to maintain white racial exclusivity," via redlining, restrictive racial covenants and an obsession with cleanliness.
Wilson included numerous period advertisements that show white women, alone, tending their suburban houses. By contrast, for "the Black audiences of the Johnson Publishing Company's Ebony, modern design was a source of empowerment and social agency," she wrote. In Ebony, famous chairs by Nordic superstars Jens Risom and Eero Saarinen are shown convivially, with Black CBS graphic designer Georg Olden kicking back in them with a friend in New York.
Ebony and its founders, John and Eunice Johnson, also sponsored what may be the most famous modern Black interior of the 20th century: the eye-popping Ebony Test Kitchen, designed by Arthur Elrod and William Raiser for the company offices in Chicago that's now in the collection of the Museum of Food and Drink.
When the Johnsons asked Elrod and Raiser to design their own N. Lake Shore Drive apartment, "we informed the designers that we would like the apartment to complement our two complexions in tones of brown and beige," Eunice Johnson told Interior Design magazine in 1972.
Traces of that look remain today in houses like Bertina Power's. She will not, as the other buyer was considering, be taking down walls and opening up the kitchen. The spirit of the house's original owner, who hosted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahalia Jackson and Muhammad Ali, speaks to her through that big living room, the multiple sliding glass doors that open out to the stone deck and the traces of the full bar in the basement. This is a place for celebration.
"This house," she said, "is not designed for us to spend time in the kitchen."