Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker to Visit Campus and Screen Documentary, Ashes to Ashes, as Part of Black History Month

Feb 21, 2024
Dr. Shirley Whitaker. The photo is black and white and depicts a black woman smiling against a plain background. She wears a patterned scarf, dangly earrings, and is smiling at the camera.

Dr. Shirley Whitaker.

Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker now lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, though she is originally from Georgia. In a recent interview, she recalled several core moments from her adolescence, including visiting her grandfather’s turpentine store, her own discovery of art, and seeing an escalator for the first time.

Dr. Whitaker began her higher education studies at Clark Atlanta University before moving onto Yale where she earned a master’s degree in public health. She went on to earn her medical degree from Emory University School of Medicine in 1979. She’s a nephrologist, specializing in kidney care, though she is also a writer and artist, with some of her etchings and watercolor paintings being catalogued in the Library of Congress. She recently spoke with NewsWise in advance of  visiting Westfield State University as part of Black History Month.

“I remember my cousin used to sketch all the time, and then I wanted to as well,” she said. “He told me he was in the road… we didn’t have a paved street. It was a dirt road, and he cleaned it up. He said, ‘You can do whatever you want. This is yours. You can draw as much as you want on here.’ I was so excited to draw on that road.”

After several cars drove over her creation, however, Dr. Whitaker described being “devastated” the next day. The temporary set back didn’t dull her love for art.


In the first grade, she was introduced to clay. “I made a turtle. I loved the feel of it, so I started learning how to make fancy letters. I could sit all day trying to make the letter ‘G’ and duplicate what I saw in a book. So, that’s how I started with this kind of stuff, because I didn’t grow up with paint at home. It was only at school.”

Dr. Whitaker eventually met and was guided by Leonard Baskin, a famous American sculptor, draughtsman, and graphic artist. Baskin taught her the art of etching, which she still practices to this day.

Dr. Whitaker is also known for her activism and reclamation of Black heritage through work such as producing a funeral service in 2017 for the members of the Black community whose bodies have not able to be properly recovered and buried as a result of racial violence. Yet, out of this experience of tremendous pain has come impactful and expressive art. While preparing for the  funeral service, Dr. Whitaker caught wind of a film being screened about a fellow artist, Winfred Rembert. While there, Dr. Whitaker met Rembert himself, and the two struck up a fast friendship.

Her documentary, Ashes to Ashes, released in 2020, is a commentary on Winfred Rembert and his incredible life. The award-winning documentary recounts Rembert’s life, from his art, activism, and childhood to his friendship with Dr. Whitaker herself. In 1967, Rembert was the victim of an attempted lynching, and the film aspires to reveal and memorialize African Americans who were affected by similar crimes.

“In the South, when you bury someone, the last thing the minister says is, ‘Ashes to ashes… dust to dust’,” she said. “Over 4,000 African Americans have been lynched. That history is real. I want to remember those people who died from lynching, because burial is a part of closure. They never got that.”

Similarly to Dr. Whitaker, Rembert, who was known for his extraordinary art, transmuted his pain into breathtaking, colorful accounts of what it was for him to grow up, as many others have shared or identical experiences.

“Winfrey was unbelievable,” she said about Rembert. “I was getting ready to do the funeral service and working with a filmmaker to set it all up, and he said he wanted to come. We were interviewing people at the time, and I asked him to let me interview him. He said, ‘Baby, can you cook? If you can, my wife and I can come up there for you to cook, and you can interview us.’ That’s what we did. We went to New Haven, where he lived at the time.”

From there, the two became fast friends, with Dr. Whitaker saying that she felt they “spoke the same language”, without borders or constraint. Ashes to Ashes reflects this bond, along with paying homage to the countless lives lost to Jim Crow laws and the pervasive reality of oppression which threads so many black experiences.

“Trauma can be passed down to your children,” Dr. Whitaker said about trauma. “If the next day, someone had the power to come and take your child away, what do you pass on to them? What do you do to help your child? The community needs to be aware of what happened.”

Directed by Taylor Freesolo Rees and Renan Ozturk, Ashes to Ashes was written by Allison David and stars Winfred Rembert, his wife, Patsy Rembert, and Dr. Whitaker. It will be shown on February 27, at 6 p.m. in the Owl’s Nest, as part of Black History Month. Associate Professor of Ethnic and Gender Studies, Dr. Kamal Ali, will introduce Dr. Whitaker.

“African American history is American history,” Dr. Whitaker said. “We need to acknowledge, respect, and learn from it. We need to use it to strengthen all of us in America.”