Below is an excerpt from the inaugural issue of our quarterly publication, Propter Nos.
You can download the complete first issue as a PDF booklet here: Propter Nos- Vol 1., Issue 1 (Fall 2016)
Memories of Blood.
To Brother(hood) Dance and all Black Movers.
How do we who are doing work in black studies tend to, care for, comfort, and defend the dead, the dying, and those living lives consigned, in aftermath of legal chattel slavery, to death that is always imminent and immanent
Just imagine what might be possible if, instead of rushing to the new, we tended toward blackness—in all of its sensuous and imperceptible unfolding—that phantom site whose traces everywhere mark the construction of the material world and provide a different horizon from which to take our bearings.
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
During my two years in Chicago, I have attended important and thought-provoking choreographic offerings by black companies and artists such as Dance Theater of Harlem, Darrell Jones, J’Sun Howard, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Nora Chipaumire, Baraka de Soleil, Kyle Abraham, Okwui Okpokwasili, Rennie Harris, and Urban Bush Women. The July 2016 performance and workshop by New York based duo Brother(hood) Dance at Dochester Art + Housing Collaborative certainly added to the richness already implanted by the innovators mentioned above. My attendance at this event provoked the following questions for me: What does it mean to care about black dance in the contemporary moment? Which modes of sensing the world do black choreographers make available to us through witnessing their work? How does black dance as a critical posture intend to move us, touch us, (dis)orient us, throw our assumptions into crisis, attend to the dead, reveal to us our complicities, and help us to seriously consider whether this is the kind of world worth saving? The performance of an excerpt from Black Jones by Brother(hood) Dance provided a number of ways to think about blackness. The thoughts I offer here zero in on those aspects of the piece that provoke questions about blackness and nothingness through the visual, the sonic, and the kinesthetic.1
When I arrive at the Dochester Art + Housing Collaborative studio I am pleasantly surprised that the two Brother(hood) Dance visionaries Ricarrdo Valentine and Orlando Zane Hunter, Jr. are holding a workshop before showing a segment of Black Jones. I sit unobtrusively on the floor and observe, since I am not dressed appropriately to participate. The workshop comprises mostly of across-the-floor exercises. Participants wave and wade fluidly across the wooden floor, embodying various characteristics associated with Yorùbá Orishas Oshun and Ogun. Valentine and Hunter integrate these Orishas seamlessly into the workshop and they rigorously provide context to the participants comprising of a range of age groups. The workshop is conceptualized for anyone who is curious about the type of knowledge that this kin-aesthetic experience generates. Participants are expected to take direction without necessarily towing the line. The formal elements and the pedagogical tools they deploy produce a mode of practice that is not rooted in creating a venomous and destructive environment typical of a number of dance classes. Hunter and Valentine both labor tirelessly to refrain from foregrounding hierarchies of beauty as well as perverse sensibilities of taste, which a priori banish all variations of “the black body” from occupying any dance space. The pedagogical technique they employ is not venomous because it does not exclusively attend to the svelte, able-bodied, long-limbed, “proper” dancing body whose gender comportment fits their biological sex. Their attitude toward the line of the body is ambivalent, with no emphasis on a fixed straight line that is desirable in Eurocentric classical forms. Improvisations, drifts, curvations, inversions, undulations, and cessations inform the mode of operation in the workshop. It is phenomenal to witness such a movement that takes care of its participants, especially black participants. This is keeping with a longstanding practice that art historian Huey Copeland calls “tending-toward-blackness”—a “leaning into” and “caring for,” that “animates a range of artistic, social, political, and theoretical practices aimed at establishing an ethical posture toward black subjects and those related forms of being that have been positioned at the margins of thought and perception yet are necessarily co-constitutive of them.”2 This movement does not make unfair and impossible demands on the dancer to fit into desired standards of taste in contemporary and classical dance. The instructors assume an ethical posture that does not impose colonialism’s racialized and gendered markers that privilege uprightness. Taking care of participants is important, since the dance studio for most of my own training has been a site of unspeakable violence: a space that expedites the destruction of black self-esteem and self-worth. This violence is unspeakable because most of the time it does not manifest itself in legible ways that lend themselves to linguistic description. This type of violence is often felt— as a nauseating lump in one’s throat, as a sudden rush of blood to the head, and an abrupt contraction of the muscles. The dance studio is a space where hundreds of years of phobias and fantasies about black anatomy entangle and flourish. It is a scene of jealousy where black flesh is molded, straightened out, pronged, tucked, devoured, and belched out (with “good intentions”). For these reasons, I usually do not approach dance spaces as “safe spaces.”
Memories of Blood
Alvin Ailey, inspired by Martha Graham, drew on his blood memories to create dances such as his magnum opus Revelations. Creating from blood memories, from a black standpoint, means piecing together fragments of personal experiences that make up the fact of blackness. It is similar to what thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi means when he says “dance in your blood.” The “hood” in parentheses in Brother(hood) Dance has to do with centralizing narratives and personal experiences from the “hood” through active experimentation with form and narrative strategies, rather than clinging to biography and presenting oneself as an ethnographic curiosity. A poignant strategy employed by Brother(hood) Dance is avoiding narrative closure. I believe the main reason the piece is able to “stay in the hold despite fantasies of flight”3 is precisely because they only present an excerpt of a larger piece, with no beginning and no ending. Its unwholeness provided a dizzy narrative arc that isn’t projected at a final resolution of conflict. Even if equilibrium and conflict resolution are part of their choreographic vision, I argue that the excerpt as a (sub)genre destabilizes that end-goal. It is in the excerpt (and not the whole) that I find revolutionary potential, at least as it relates to form.
Blood memory work is a challenge for black artists, since making dance about what it means to be black is often received as either passé or an obsession with race. Black artists who attend to these questions in their work are often shunned in order to clear the ground for story ballets, So You Think You Can Dance, Abby Lee Miller of Dance Moms and other such great American buffoons. Those black dancers creating work about blackness also suffer reviews and “critical” analyses that either mute their technical innovations completely to focus on issues of identity or (in an “anti-essentialist” effort) relegate their innovations to experimental dance traditions in a way that distances the artists from their blackness. Brother(hood) Dance creates dances about police brutality, black spirituality, and black masculinity in this harsh cultural climate. In Black Jones, they present vignettes of the ballroom culture in New York as well as draw from a devastatingly large archive of police brutality towards black people. These moments also challenge us to expand our definition of violence and consider violence that seems small and trivial. Police brutality is not the beginning and end of anti-black violence. Violence is sometimes disguised with politeness and good intentions, and it does not always feel bad. We aim to gain clarity by taking into account violence as also metaphysical, and really sit with that idea.4 A nuanced assessment of violence also means attending to the intramural, interrogating those who are black but “appropriate” and valorize anti-black methods of policing other black people, especially those with dissenting voices that do not strive to make white people feel safe. The intramural strangulation of those black throats that dare to emit an insurgent sound—one that is not a plea for assimilation and rainbow coalitions— is pernicious, violent, and sadly commonplace. This agenda operates to make black artists tow the line, and it is done under the guise of a range of selling points such as “hope,” “reconciliation,” “joy,” and other pious narratives of “overcoming.”
“I AM A MAN”
What does it mean to see dark skinned black men on stage and how does this register in our field of vision? What are our expectations and yearnings when we see dark skinned performers, since our practices of viewing are a site where desire and genocide become intimate bedfellows? David Marriott in On Black Men directs our attention to the interrelation between looking and devouring, what he calls “eating through the eyes.” He describes these cravings to consume blackness through the eyes as “appetites that disfigure us . . . look[ing] in the name of appreciating and destroying, loving and hating.”5 Operating in an industry that is hostile to dark skin, it is commendable that Brother(hood) Dance then departs from what South African poet Lesego Rampokoleng calls “sweaty flesh,” which Andries Oliphant summarizes as “obsequies, self-demeaning kitsch, drum beating, ethnic prancing and the vulgar display of half-naked bodies to titillate. . . reducing the black world to sweaty flesh.”6 Brother(hood) Dance drifts away from presenting us with convivial flesh gyrating happily to appeal to the highest bidder, with mouths wide open while shuffering and shmiling. Of course, this does not mean that they are not or will not be read through the disfiguring gaze which only notices skin and imposes thin-layered meanings upon it.
The innovative partnering sequences in Black Jones allow us to confront what it means for black men to touch one another and be seen touching, [It was Joseph Beam who first pronounced that “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.”] Some of the moments of touch signal a love that’s not permitted in modernity’s gender policing logic. This kind of touch persists, however, in Black Jones. It is a delicate touch, sometimes with firm grasps and lifts that take care not to drop the other Brother. Is the touch an indication of love as revolutionary in and of itself? How do we avoid being seduced and lulled to slumber by the gentleness and warmth of the caress? How do we hold back from over-valorizing the space of touch as a safe space? The world writ large, and the dance world in particular, is not a safe space for black people. Hunter and Valentine improvise and fashion something akin to a “safe space” precisely because the dance world is not safe for us. Protecting the “safe spaces” we continue to build is also difficult as these spaces are sometimes infiltrated by those we are saving ourselves from. We build and ensure that our touch is not a destructive one that facilitates more damage to the dead.
There is a moment in the piece where Hunter holds a cardboard sign with the writing “I AM A MAN”. There is a diagonal strikethrough with red ink on that writing which suggests that one who holds the sign is either not a man, refuses to be a man, or has never been allowed to be a man. The sign reminds us of the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee, where workers—surveilled by armed police—carried and wore signs that read “I AM A MAN”.7 The statement “I AM A MAN” opens up an array of interpretations. First, it can be read as a speech act that affirms, rather than merely describe, one as truly a man. Second, it can be interpreted as an (un)intentional call for recognition and incorporation into the destructive yet seemingly attractive and rewarding category of “Man.”8 Whatever conclusion one arrives at, the citational element of the sign clearly indicates a continuous pattern here. The fact that the speech act is still relevant for Hunter and Valentine in 2016 to affirm black existence confirms an historical stillness, not only stillness in the form of the police halting black movement with bullets, but a more sustained stillness and foreclosure which has ensured the squashing of black progress in any direction for hundreds of years. It reveals the vices of “American democracy” that stand still and balance en pointe on black people’s throats.
On Feeling Good
The post-performance discussion at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative involves going around a circle and sharing what we all felt and thought. It is also a way to pose questions about Black Jones. The audience-participants each pose sophisticated questions about touch, visuality, personhood, citizenship, and freedom. One of the points that linger is about being touched and or moved emotionally by the dance. It is indisputable that participating in and watching dance can be an extremely entertaining and healing process. Feeling good is great—and necessary in these ever-cataclysmic times—but we must also recognize that just “feeling good” is not and cannot be the totality of our set of revolutionary principles. It is incumbent upon us to reconsider how we have been cathedralizing good feelings and conflating them with freedom. It is too hasty and irresponsible to shout “we feel good, therefore we have arrived at our destiny, freedom is hither!” I find it irresponsible to conceptualize and accept our freedom as a future utopia we cannot yet touch or a kind of “waiting for the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I find this to be a cruel, uncritical, and premature celebration of the figment that is paradise. What are we left to do with a world that cannot and will not usher in our freedom, because its existence is contingent on the premise that we remain the antithesis of the Human? Martinician poet Aimé Césaire in Notebook of A Return to My Native Land advises us: “The only thing in the world worth starting: the end of the world, for heaven’s sake.”9 In this sense, we end the world of our “death-bound subjectivity”10 by any means necessary.
Individual performances and embodied experiences allow us come up with our own individual definitions of freedom. What feels nice and what releases endorphins might drive an individual to make claims about being free. However, these valid and fleeting feelings do not unniggerize the individual performer who is positioned and operates as part of a collection of nothingness. This nothingness entails being (mis)seen, perceived, and treated like a void whose flesh can be severed at a whim by those who are not black because—through racist perception—black flesh is devoid of personhood.11 Black individuals with class privilege cannot escape how this mode of perception affects them, because it is an attack on blackness as a collective category of non-Being. The stage where black performers enact and intensely feel their freedom and pleasure is also a danger zone. This is why Saidiya Hartman calls upon us to seriously confront the question of black performance as always happening within the context of coercion.12 I am not prepared to refer to the state we’re in as freedom. We cannot truly claim to be free when we are still fixed as a collection of nothingness, despite some of our individual convictions that we (are) matter. It is crucial that as black art-makers we attend to our suffering not as “inferior social subjects,” as Hortense Spillers advises in her essay “Interstices,” but from what she calls the “paradox of non-being” where under “the sign of [a] particular historical order black female and male are absolutely equal.”13 Selamawit Terrefe, a careful and unflinching reader of Spillers puts this succinctly: “While the foci of violence against Blacks of all presumed genders may appear to have differential modes or loci (according to where they are positioned along a lateral hegemonic axis of white, heteronormative patriarchy), unrestrained violence positions all Blacks, regardless of their various gendered subjectivities, along a vertical axis driven and perpetuated by antiblackness.”14 Anti-blackness stitches all black life to death, those who are presumed to be female and those who are presumed to be male (and I urgently propose a radical departure from reducing black gender to this bifurcation). This is why black artists, even those who understand themselves as “queer” need to pause and think twice before appropriating a common grammar of “queerness” to explain both their suffering and freedom. We can’t purport to be free when we still signify nothingness in the flesh. Freedom is not enduring a “fatal way of being alive”15 while waiting for your flesh to be whimsically executed. Our mourning cannot be reduced to catharsis. Our mourning cannot halt at “getting over it.” Our movement cannot be restricted to a choreographic score of “moving on.” What we leave behind when we “move on” matters because it never leaves us. Our mo(u)rning is not possible here!
Aporetic endings, To Brother(hood) Dance
Thank you for a choreopoetics of aporia—a series of vignettes that avoided narrative closure even if we might have felt it was best for us.16 Black Jones offers catharsis not as an end goal, but as a map and not the destination. The workshop established a practice of “tending-toward-blackness” while the Black Jones performance excerpt presented the transient nature of our feelings of freedom. This approach reveals to us love as a pleasurable danger zone. Thank you for not being seduced and thus seducing us in with a messianic moralization and sanitation of the black struggle. The black struggle cannot be reduced to nice feelings and moral outcomes. Dissenting black voices and actions cannot be reduced to fatalism and self-pity. Moments in Black Jones truly came close to Terrefe’s description of black performance as a catachrestic term for runaway slaves.17
- This mode of inquiry is made possible by my engagement with the work of black thinkers such as (but not limited to) Christina Sharpe, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Selamawit Terrefe, Jared Sexton, Hortense Spillers, David Marriott, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Patrice Douglass, Frank Wilderson III, Saidiya Hartman, Cecilio Cooper, Nicholas Brady, Andile Mngxitama, Mayfield Brooks, John Murillo III, Abdul R. JanMohamed, Huey Copeland II, Andile Mngxitama, Jaye Austin Williams, Tyrone Palmer, Joy James, Frantz Fanon, and Orlando Patterson.
- Huey Copeland. “Tending-toward-Blackness.” October156 (2016): 141-44.
- Frank B. Wilderson. Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010.
- For a full discussion on metaphysical violence see: Patrice Douglass and Frank B. Wilderson. “The Violence of Presence: Metaphysics in a Blackened World.” The Black Scholar 43:4 (2013): 117.
- David Marriott. On Black Men. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000: 27
- Andries Oliphant. “A big Step, Abject bile and revolt in the work of Lesego Rampokoleng.” In Positions: Contemporary Artists in South Africa, edited by Peter Anders and Matthew Krouse. Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2010.
- Of course, this statement must be read alongside Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” (1851). For more information on the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis see the following URL: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_memphis_sanitation_workers_strike_1968/
- For a thorough critique of the category of Man, see: Sylvia Wynter. “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project.” In Not Only The Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane A. Gordon. Boulder: Paradigm, 2006: 107-69. Also see Wynter’s “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Toward the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3:3 (2003): 257-337.
- Aimé Césaire. Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995.
- Abdul R. JanMohamed. The Death-bound-subject : Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2005.
- Hortense J. Spillers. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Also see Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986.
- Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson. “The Position of the Unthought” Qui Parle13:2 (2003): 183-201.
- Hortense J. Spillers. “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Selamawit Terrefe. “Phantasmagoria; or, The World is a Haunted Plantation.” In The Feminist Wire. Posted October 10, 2012. The article is accessible at the following URL: http://www.thefeministwire.com/2012/10/phantasmagoria/
- Marriott (2000).
- To conceptualize a “choreopoetics of aporia,” I borrow from Wilderson’s work in “Social Death and Narrative Aporia in 12 Years a Slave.” Black Camera 7:1(2015): 134-149.
- Terrefe (2012).