Delivered at the inaugural Grand re Union online gathering
June 20, 2020
Most of you have had a long commitment to activism, some of you have inspired my own, so I am not sure that I will be offering anything “informative” or revelatory, but perhaps this is a way to anchor us and to connect in this time of uncertainty – or more frankly, in a time of upheaval and chaos.
The past few weeks have been difficult and the complexity of my feelings cannot be overstated. Much of it I know is a deep ancestral sorrow that has been shaped by a long and relentless cruelty, by a bigotry that is both dehumanizing and crippling.
In this moment, we find ourselves in what Dr. King called the “Fierce Urgency of Now.” He said that “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
This sense of urgency catapulted me into the center of protests that brought my body, my black body, into a space with others who demand justice and structural change in this country. For me it was not a choice, it was an act of survival. And it was an act of honoring my ancestors who struggled and died to ensure that I had a place at this virtual table.
But we are in a world of struggles – from police violence, to homophobia, to misogyny, to xenophobia, to racism, classism, fascism, genocide, poverty, climate change, extinction of the animals, and now all shrouded in a deadly pandemic. There is so much to do, so much to conquer that it is overwhelming and sometimes debilitating.
So what do we do? What can we offer as artists that can make a substantive contribution to political and social change?
All of us know that art making is not just about creating a product, a dance, or an event. It is a process through which we discover and understand ourselves and the world around us. But it is also a process where we transform concepts into embodied experiences that our audiences can feel and empathize with. This moment of exchange and shared experience with others, with an (intentional) assembled community, has the potential to shift personal and collective perspectives and create change, lasting change.
This is at the very root of activism, bringing people together to take action toward political and social change. Art has the capacity to humanize an issue, activism translates an issue into a concrete action that changes policy and social behaviors. Together they are a powerful force.
The idea of being an activist was always intimidating to me. I couldn’t get past the enormous responsibilities of organizing campaigns, meeting with political leadership, drafting manifestos and losing my privacy.
But once I understood that social change requires a sustained commitment (I believe a lifetime) and that the scale of my actions can be variable, many opportunities were revealed.
Here are a few examples:
I collaborate with others. For the past ten years I have collaborated regularly with a civil rights law firm that works to influence legislation on issues and litigates cases that I feel are important. Where the law firm provides legal strategies aimed at ending discrimination and inequity, the art practice and body provide a poetic lens through which the issues can be viewed and understood empathically. The power of this combined force outweighs anything that a PowerPoint presentation can do in effectiveness. It offers an alternative mode of listening – to reach back into Lisa Nelson’s talk today on her Tuning Score.
I try to create a more thoughtful and extended engagement around performance. In February I presented my work based on W.E.B. DuBois’ book The Souls of Black Folk in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Dubois’ hometown. His book speaks so eloquently about the dilemma of the two identities that we, as African Americans, negotiate in this country and the tragic consequences it implies, particularly on black bodies which continues to be demonstrated. In collaboration with Jacob’s Pillow, The DuBois Center, the local NAACP and Multicultural Bridge, an audience engagement was created that included distributing 200 copies of DuBois’ book in the community prior to our performance. These books were read, re-read and passed on to others. As it turned out, the majority of our audience had read the book, had discussed it extensively in small groups, which in turn created a deeper discussion about race in the community circles afterward.
I don’t have to move a mountain. Activism can be small, but still resonant and impactful. Our bodies can be a site of our activism. I am mentoring several young beautiful women who are coping with coming of age in this crazy time. We dance together, discuss the challenges of the day and draw comfort and perspective from both personal experience and history. We walk in nature and remember that we are animals! We learn how to reclaim our breath stolen from the stress we are under; we examine how our bodies engage, respond to and record our histories; we wonder what movement patterns have been passed down to us over the generations? We concentrate on healing our bodies from holding the weight from 400 years of oppression.
There are many ways to be an activist. The best start is to find your righteous self and include it in everything you do. Join others as there is plenty of evidence that there is power in numbers.
For my bit of activism for the day, I would like to add one assignment for all of us.
Ask yourself how you are as an individual, and as an artist, and how are we as a community of arts institutions participating in, support or benefit from white supremacy, oppressive capitalist structures, and from the convenience of our own ignorance (or blind-spots) that keeps us in a state of complacency. How does this register in the way you move, the way you move in the world and in your communities.
Think about it, write about it, talk to others and make the changes and realign as you need to.
I’ll end with a quote by DuBois. It is from the last chapter of the Souls of Black Folk called The Sorrow Songs.
He writes, “Through all the sorrow of the sorrow songs, there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things. Thin minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes an assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whatever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.”