Thank you to the UVA Black Graduate and Professional Student Organization, the Darden School of Business DSA Diversity Committee, and the Office of the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity & Equity for hosting; it is a pleasure to be here.
It has been a year of protests,
Washington, DC. Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston
for Women, for Climate Change awareness, against police brutality—Marching is everywhere, including here in Charlottesville.
I first took an interest in marching at UVA shortly after the announcement of a “Muslim ban” reached the school in January of 2017. It jeopardized students, many of whom were my friends, and I felt compelled to participate in the marches in protest. But with my interest in performance studies, I couldn’t help but notice the performative elements of the protest: Speakers with bullhorns gesturing to an enthusiastic crowd, march facilitators reading catchy, familiar slogans, and a multicolored collage of posters and faces. And as we processed from the steps of the Rotunda down the lawn, I wondered if this was how it felt to march in the 1960s civil rights campaigns—a peaceful, multicultural mobilization in the name of full citizenship.
In her chapter on marching, performance studies scholar, Soyica Colbert places the March on Washington in a historical continuum of marches that have all symbolically functioned both individually and collectively. The symbolic elements of the marches were performed (attire, chants, posters) in order to make an appeal to the American public that African-Americans were citizens deserving of rights.
In the Charlottesville rally, one woman held a poster with a picture of a presumably Muslim woman wearing an American flag-patterned hijab, also an appeal to citizenship. Colbert calls this similarity over time that is reconstituted in its own historical context a “web of affiliation.” She writes, “Webs of affiliation connect performances in the present to those enacted in the past that may otherwise go unnoticed and secure them as historical.” Looking backwards while moving forward connects political movements by drawing upon symbols and slogans to mobilize people.
Discussing the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin notes in Strategies for Freedom that “America has historically been unfavorably disposed to public displays of protest.” But by signifying to the 1963 March, protestors today can symbolically mark their protest as within the boundaries of acceptable protest. But a purely symbolic framework occludes the pragmatic effects of how the march actually changes the public space in which the march is happening.
The most interesting moment to me in the Charlottesville protest was when the hundreds of marchers crossed the street. It took several minutes for all of the marchers to make it to the other side of the street in the crosswalk, and in that time, cars piled up waiting to continue driving along McCormick Road. Drivers were forced to acknowledge the presence of those marchers. The moment was clear evidence that people in the march occupy dual statuses—as both signifiers and physical entities that influence the space around them.
In order to analyze marching, I needed a framework that could understand the body as both a symbol and a physical presence. Susan Foster, a dance theorist at UCLA, does just this in her piece, “Choreographies of Protest” when she labels “the body as a vast reservoir of signs and symbols, by envisioning the body as capable of both persuasion and obstinate recalcitrance.”
It seemed like the dance scholars were on to something:
Political and dance theorist Randy S. Martin asserts in his book Critical Moves that bodies, as opposed to theories, are the agents of politics—that is, as he writes, “Politics goes nowhere without movement.” The work that dance studies is able to do stems from its “presumption of bodies already in motion…[to] bridge the various splits between mind and body, subject and object, and process and structure that have been so difficult for understandings of social life to negotiate.” In dance studies, the body is interpreted both symbolically and materially.
World-renowned dancer, Bill T. Jones, takes it a step further with a principle that empirically notes a difference in bodies that Martin fails to recognize in the text: “we all have two arms [and] two legs, it’s true that there’s a thing called space; however, when certain bodies move through space depending on who the audience is there is a distinctly different way of thinking about it. Nothing is neutral…I call that the politics of the body; the politics of space.” Jones observes both that there is a difference in people and a difference in types of place.
To understand the tensions in performance between individuals and space, I turn to Judith Butler’s Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. In an age seemingly defined by protests and collective assemblies, Butler seeks to ascertain what the right to assemble means in a discourse of democracy and freedom.
She raises a notion which she terms “precarity,” to characterize those bodies that are subjected to imperilled livelihood and decimated infrastructure. In mobilizing en masse, Butler argues, these bodies demand attention be paid to their corporeal precarity. It is a demand to see these bodies that require the needs for which they are mobilizing. In concert, these bodies call “into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning actions of the political.”
Notes, however, was published in 2015, before the discourse surrounding free speech was co-opted to protect Neo-Nazi and white supremacist assemblies. I wonder how Butler would address our contemporary moment in Charlottesville, where white supremacists marching down the lawn and around the rotunda also were chanting, “you will not replace us,” which is an indicator of white anxiety of a perceived changing racial norm. We should ask: does precarity apply to people who are historically, demographically, and symbolically privileged, yet still maintain a claim to marginality? And in debating their claim to precarity, we must remember that bodies are physical manifestations as well, and understanding physical changes of people and spaces is also important.
In fact, on September 11, one month after the white supremacist lawn march, the University working group led by law school Dean Goluboff presented some findings. The purpose of the recommendations was “to pinpoint how the University’s response could have been more effective and identify changes to policies and practices that will better safeguard the University community from harm while upholding the University’s commitment to constitutionally protected free speech.” The working group distilled their recommendations into three areas to improve upon.
I was interested primarily in the second and third recommendations, which drew upon a presumed understanding of how the public space of the lawn has been regulated in the past. The proposal asserts that “a decades-long history of non-violent protests on Grounds that led them [the administration and police] to approach the march with the assumption that it was constitutionally protected and should be accommodated with minimal police intrusion.” If we operate under the assumption, as the officials did, that this was a nonviolent protest, then it would be useful to understand how past nonviolent protests on the lawn have been handled. Paying particular attention to how bodies are being regulated, the archives revealed some interesting history.
There were two major protests that demonstrate how the lawn has been regulated in the past. The first, in May of 1970, occurred in solidarity with student protests at Kent St. following the shooting of four students by police. The second happened in late March of 1986 as a part of the divestment movement in solidarity with anti-Apartheid South Africa. Both examples are poignant reminders that the public space of the lawn is a contested space, and it is important to pay attention to the way this contested spaces has been shaped over time.
In the week following the May 4th shooting at Kent State University, University of Virginia Students gathered to rally at Carr’s Hill in front of the President’s home. The roughly fifteen hundred students presented President Shannon with a telegram to sign that would be sent to Washington. He refused. Hundreds of students then moved to occupy Maury Hall, the NROTC building. They were dispersed following the threat of police action.
The week unfolded as students led several rallies, protests, and a strike against classes. Students also picketed the entrances of buildings, gathering widespread student and faculty support. As the week wore on, it was clear that the protests would not be dying down anytime soon.
That Friday, students held a “Honk for Peace” rally, the second of the week, but this time, police were ordered to disperse and apprehend them under the state “Riot Act.” When students withdrew back to the rotunda up University Avenue, police pursued. Wielding nightsticks, they chased students down the lawn toward Cabell Hall.
One picture taken shows that police must have reversed course as protestors fled up the sides of the lawn. Police entered lawn rooms to apprehend students they believed were protesting.
The mix of local and state police continued up Rugby Road, arresting students in Fraternity houses. At the end of the events, sixty-eight people had been arrested. The “C’ville 68” were charged the next morning.
Fast-forward to Friday March 21, 1986: the Cavalier Daily reported that a group of students called Protesting Oppression Working for Equality of Race (POWER) declared their intention to erect mock shanty town structures in solidarity with anti-Apartheid advocates in South Africa. Although it was not the first protest in the divestment campaign at the university, the POWER shanty towns became a lightning rod for controversy. The Cavalier Daily reported consistently on the protests over the next two weeks.
POWER drew support from the UVa community, but also a decent share of criticism as well. Third-year law student and POWER co-coordinator, David Given helped orchestrate support from law faculty who lent their support as part of Law Faculty Against Apartheid. The hope was that faculty involvement would legitimize the protests which were seen as a leftist minority movement. A letter to the editor from R. Stewart Eads, Jr., a first-year college student, expressed his resentment of the “repulsive eyesore” that polluted the otherwise beautiful lawn.
Had a group of “student Nazis or communists” built structures on the lawn, another opinion argued, the administration would have already taken the structures down. Accusing the administration of favoritism, the opinion then argued that protest should be conducted in “suitable” locations and manners that did not disrupt the natural beauty of the lawn. Whether or not the POWER students were simply expressing their first amendment rights, their protest certainly caused a disruption, which brought attention to the divestment debate.
As the divestment campaign wore on through May and into the next school term, the POWER protests remained in the Cav Daily headlines. An ad hoc committee on the use of the lawn was created by the president to provide recommendations for how the lawn should be governed. On September 24, 1986, the committee submitted a report that was approved by the Board of Visitors in an October 3rd meeting.
The proposal cites the fragility and the beauty of lawn as primary concerns in creating new regulations which would preserve the space for future generations. The new regulations mandated that “no structure or extended presence shall be permitted on the Lawn except for those needed in connection with official University functions.”
The following Monday, the Cavalier Daily reflected on a student protest that enlivened the Board of Visitors meeting when students stormed the meeting to call for total divestment. The board had so far only supported selected divestment, but the students were energized by protesting “the greatest moral issue of our time.” The large turnout from the students and their bravery in storming in the meeting led Students Against Apartheid Coalition co-coordinator, John Gibson, to declare that the board was “aware now that this is an issue that’s not going to die away.” The board banned shanty towns with the new regulations later that meeting.
The two historical cases demonstrate two ways that the lawn has been regulated over time. While regulation through force captures attention historically, the subtle policy-based regulation also served as a means to repress the voice of protest.
The BOV’s regulation of the Lawn is still in effect, and the incident serves to remind us of other aspects of policy that continue to regulate how bodies are allowed to move around grounds.
The current primary policy enforcement that has been used to regulate university spaces of protest, including the Lawn is “PRM-017: Use of University Facilities and Limits on Direct Solicitation and Advertising.”
The policy clearly forbids the possibility of another occupation of Maury Hall, but more subtly, it leaves a subjective regulation of any protest that can “disrupt normal operations or obstruct access to offices or buildings.” The judgement of what qualifies as disruption is a gray area in the policy that leaves an unclear standard for what constitutes illegal protest.
Now that the lawn is up for reregulation, we should all ask ourselves how new policy will alter the ways in which political mobilization is already regulated. The debate between protected free speech and disruption is not new, but the events of August 11 certainly force us to reconsider our perspective on the argument. If we are to make regulations to the space, we should be mindful how space regulation has been used in the past to suppress political mobilization.
You can stay up to date on the progress of the working group, as well as town hall dates here:
In light of the history and a performance studies framework, we can, and should, ask:
How do these recommendations referee who can move in the space? The question at stake is what do we learn from how public space is constructed?
How will protests, and specifically marches, tactically signify to the past while remaining efficacious in the future?
What role does police protection, and the costs associated with it do to allow or disallow protest on the lawn?
What else can a performance studies framework tell us about how protest is allowed or disallowed around grounds?
And finally, how can we perhaps use performance studies to shape future protests, allowing bodies to occupy the Lawn and other public space in symbolic and materially meaningful ways?
I read Between the World and Me because I couldn’t avoid it.
The book was topping best seller lists, and several of my friends, family, and teachers recommended that I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s epistolary novel.
Toni Morrison called it, “Mandatory reading.” It was simply everywhere, and it was on everyone’s mind. This was certainly the case because the book is an incredible piece of writing, but possibly also because when the book came out in 2015, police brutality was everywhere as well. It was inescapable.
I remember police brutality on the television in my first-year dorm. I remember it in Ferguson. I remember police brutality on my Facebook newsfeed and again over the phone, when friends called to check on me after Martese Johnson was assaulted by Alcohol and Beverage Control officers in March. I also remember it when I was trailed by police cruiser for seven blocks as I walked to a fraternity party with a white girl.
And this is the subject upon which Coates writes the novel, in the form of a letter to his son. It is simultaneously a warning and a plea to his son and to America. It is a warning to his son: to “always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” The warning serves as a plea as this warning falls on deaf ears; to those who believe in the fallacy of race. Coates identifies the fear of a neighborhood kid growing up which lay in his knowledge that “this was a war for the possession of his body and that would be the war of his whole life.” The perpetual prospect of death looms in the text as Coates writes as a father to his son all the while balancing the desire to help him escape disembodiment while knowing there is little he can do about it. He characterizes his desire to “escape” by unshackling himself to achieve freedom. But what could freedom be for a black man in Coates’s America? He asks, “How do I live free in this black body?”
Garnet Cadogan describes his own feelings around freedom in his chapter as a part of the contemporary collection, The Fire This Time. “Black and Blue” follows Cadogan as he walks, simply walks, in the streets in his Jamaican hometown and then his graduate school days in New York. He walks through the streets to clear his mind, to travel, to explore, and as a natural way of life. For him, walking is the ultimate expression of freedom. More acutely, it is the ability to walk unimpeded, unafraid that his black body will be perceived as a threat and stopped dead in his tracks.
Other seemingly mundane actions quickly came into my purview as actionable expression of freedom. In Jump for Joy, Gena Caponi-Tabery traces the historical intersection of jazz, athletics, and dance to the 1930s: a time, according to Caponi-Tabery, when people just refused to stay on the ground. African-Americans especially were making leaps and bounds in basketball, track, and jazz. From Jesse Owens to Duke Ellington, the “jump” pervaded the African-American community, which also found itself on a socioeconomic jump as well. Perhaps most evidently, the jump rocketed the swing dance scene into the spotlight as pioneers like Fankie Manning and Norma Miller changed Lindy Hop forever. Caponi-Tabery discusses how Lindy became a political avenue for black people who simply refused to stay in their places.
The intersection of dance characterized as protest is not uncommon. In sixteenth century Portuguese colonial Brazilian capoeira was a martial arts style masked as a dance meant to train insurgents. Footage of indigenous people of the Standing Rock performing ceremonial dances went viral as an undeniable act of protest against the construction of the Keystone pipeline. More popular in the American context, hip-hop dance and culture has been attributed with all sorts of elements of protest against the government.
I was fascinated by the possibility that dance could be an avenue for freeing the body. Was it possible that dance could liberate one’s own body as well as the body of others through protest? Coates continues, reminiscing on his days at Howard:
I almost never danced, as much as I wanted to. I was crippled by some childhood fear of my own body. But I would watch how black people moved, how in these clubs they danced as though their bodies could do anything, and their bodies seemed as free as Malcolm’s voice. On the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be raped; beaten, jailed. But in the clubs, under the influence of two-for-one rum and Cokes, under the spell of low lights, in thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot.
If motion was the expression of freedom, it seemed there was something about the body moving with concerted effort that made dancing the natural epitome of freedom. Dancing was a declaration, a demand, to enjoy one’s black body despite the reality that it could be snatched away at any moment. But was it protest? Did congregating in clubs under the thrall of music, lights, and booze constitute any political merit?
These questions led me to a piece called “Choreographies of Protest,” which constituted a slight reversal in my usual readings. Instead of a historian writing on dance, Susan Leigh Foster was a dance scholar writing on political history. Specifically, her chapter is on the nonviolent tactics employed by members of the Congress on Racial Equality and other nonviolent campaigns. Given her expertise in dance studies, Foster focuses on the bodies and their relationship to other bodies and the space they occupy. Rather than using dance as a comparative exercise for the nonviolent protests, Foster asks a set of questions that a dancer might ask when observing:
What are these bodies doing?
What and how do their motions signify?
What choreography, whether spontaneous or pre-determined, do they enact?
What kind of significance and impact does the collection of bodies make in the midst of its social identity?
How does it construct ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality?
How have these bodies been trained, and how has that training mastered, cultivated, or facilitated their impulses?
What do they share that allows them to move with one another?
What kind of relationship do they establish with those who are watching their actions?
What kind of connections can be traced to their daily routines and the special moment of their protest?
The questions present a framework for analyzing the bodies in the movement. She asserts that these bodies, as others, are complex sites that are more than simply representative or purely literal. The body, according to Foster, is a site of both recalcitrance and symbol. It obstructs and signifies. At the same time it serves a practical purpose it also references to alternative times, spaces, and modes of significance.
The body is all important in this analysis, and for other scholars who have taken it up, beginning analysis with the body permits an alternative framework. Feminist thinker Audre Lorde reminds us that “all knowledge is mediated through the body and that feeling is a profound source of information about our lives.” The world of the body, corporeality, is a framework of approaching analysis that encourages scholars to remember that matters of the body are critical to understanding the reality of the world and cannot be excluded in thought. The mind, the faculty of reason, does not exist without the visceral actions and reactions of the body. Political and dance theorist, Randy S. Martin locates the significance of the body in politics as the vessel through which politics must happen. The body is required to translate political action into praxis. Martin characterizes the enactment of “the political” through the body as political mobilization: the translation of the political onto the body in action. Even though it is “the body” that mediates out corporeal experience, and by extension, our ability to mobilize politically, Martin fails to recognize the reality that no two bodies are identical.
World-renowned dancer, Bill T. Jones, takes it a step further with a principle that: “we all have two arms [and] two legs, it’s true that there’s a thing called space; however, when certain bodies move through space depending on who the audience is there is a distinctly different way of thinking about it. Nothing is neutral…I call that the politics of the body; the politics of space.” If bodies occupy space differently, then they must mobilize in space with different political associations. Given the data, the “sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions” as Coates calls it, one has no shortage of examples to validate his position. If someone is tall or short, Hispanic or white, cisgender or transgender, their identities mark their bodies and thus, their corporeality.
As I finished Between the World and Me, I wondered what it would mean for me to dance, to protest, to move as a black person trying to find freedom in my corporeality. How had people done it in the past? People who refused to stay in their place. People in the Civil Rights Movement, as Foster notes, tactically employed political mobilization, but they weren’t the only ones. Throughout the long history of the Black Freedom Struggle, black people have employed strategies to mobilize their bodies for politics. Over time, tactics changed, but the aim has remained constant: finding a sense of freedom while living in our black bodies. It was black political mobilization.
Volumes have been written on each aspect of the phrase “black political mobilization.” In Embodying Black Experience, Harvey Young identifies “black” as a collective experience that is similar and shared. It is mediated through the body and constituted through a habitual performance. Though one might insist on “degrees of blackness” in comparison to others, Young argues, it is the moments of intersection that are most important. He continues on to discuss how the black person and “the black body” are intertwined but not identical, the latter being an abstraction of the former. The black person exists, as any number of people, as an intersectional site of multiple identities. But “the black body” is an abstraction created out of what Young calls “phenomenal blackness,” which is a conception of blackness that depends upon stereotype, performance, and spectacle. Young writes, “Spectacular events demonstrate the ways in which conceptions of blackness are projected across individual bodies. They reveal that embodied experiences develop, in part, from racial (mis)recognition and spotlight how an idea of the black body materially affects actual bodies.” In my analysis, I accept Young’s premise that black is somewhere between the literal and the abstraction while acknowledging that each informs the outcome of the other. I also want to draw attention to the obscurity that phenomenal blackness renders to bodies with multiple marginal intersectional identities in historical memory. In so doing, I hope to recognize my own subjectivity as I project my body onto the experiences of those I discuss in the paper.
Similarly, “mobilization” is a vague term as well. One must ask if only physical movement in an x,y,z plane qualifies as mobilization. We know of dance that movements are meant to signify to other times and places. What makes dance accessible is its ability to connect references that move beyond the specific stage, in a sense transporting and time-travelling simultaneously. Dance scholar Thomas DeFrantz writes of hip-hop dance, commonly referred to as “breaking,” that it exports transnationally. The “habitus” of hip-hop mobilizes beyond the historic boundaries of New York to Hawaii and Japan, creating similar but distinct cultures based on the American event. Movements beyond dance also signify according to Soyica Colbert in Black Movements. Colbert presents a performative analysis of political marching, wherein we find that contemporary protest marches refer back, either explicitly or implicitly, to previous marches. Repeated slogans, gestures, and tactics create a movement that mobilizes physically while also mobilizing temporally. In this essay, I reference black political mobilization as the movement that is simultaneously in-between the symbolic and the literal. The presence of bodies, as signifying agents, moving through space necessitates that we have an eye toward both characterizations of mobilization.
Finally, what makes something political? In an age of contentious politics, it is tempting to label every act, gesture, or comment a political one. Both Martin and Jones’s conceptions of politics, which have been discussed, allude to a corporeal perspective on politics that is the body enacting some form thing that is done. Chantal Mouffe, however, demarcates between politics as praxis and the “political” as an ontological identification. For Mouffe, “politics” is the set of practices and institutions that govern, but the “political” is a dimension of relational difference that exists within populations. Black political thinker, Barnor Hesse troubles that distinction by raising the question of blackness in politics and the political. While black people have long occupied a position within politics as praxis, Hesse argues, in the Western political liberal tradition they have none. The concept of “black” in the liberal tradition is not antagonistic, it is unaccounted for. Achille Mbembe raises a similar question in his discourse on “unreason.” If the Enlightenment spawned the liberal tradition of reason-based philosophy, everything it does not account for, and everyone it does not account for, falls into the realm of unreason. Corporeality, with its emphasis on the presence of the bodily experience, is one such example. Rather than argue for the veracity of any claim as to whether or not my case studies are “political,” I choose instead to locate these moments in a long line of politics. The Black Freedom Struggle was not any linear planned arc. It continues to be a myriad of campaigns, groups, tactics, ideologies, and events, but the important thing is that they were mobilizing in politics.
My hope is that by focusing on black mobilization in politics, I can encourage people to change how they think about the “political.” The fact persists that politics is not confined to classical political philosophy from Plato to Kant. I hope that this thesis presents an opportunity to engage with non-Western liberal political thought. The importance of beginning to understand the politics of the body is, as Achille Mbembe writes, referencing Foucault’s biopolitics to understand who has the power over “who lives, and who dies.”Nevertheless, the fact persists that all bodies, though differently marked, are engaged in a drawn-out process of learning how to coexist. In order to learn how to do that, we must understand the forces at play on our bodies. I hope this thesis is a drop in the bucket of that work.
Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey! I’ma keep running
Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves
“Freedom” by Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar
from the album Lemonade
Did you click on the link? Were you able to listen to the song? If you don’t have Tidal, the music streaming platform with exclusive rights to the Carter family streaming services, then the odds are that you’re out of luck.
The irony of being denied access to “Freedom,” which is a song that has been adopted as somewhat of an anthem for contemporary black protest is striking. And though I’ll probably catch hell from the BeyHive for taking a butcher’s knife to a sacred text, I think we do ourselves a disservice by uncritically accepting “Freedom” as a song about freedom. Forgive me…
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is among the latest of a line of albums that have been held in concert with our contemporary moment in the movement for black lives. Other features of Lemonade include singles like “Formation” which was hailed as an unapologetic nod to black power and the black freedom struggle.
Last semester, I spent some time unpacking “black” and how it was read on bodies in dance, but for the next stage of my research, I have been contemplating more heavily what is meant by “freedom” and “struggle.” Specifically, I am interested how freedom, or the struggle for freedom, manifests itself in the body and how the performative elements of freedom inform our political thought.
Beyoncé’s chorus of “Freedom” opens with the narrator crying out for freedom, perhaps even an anthropomorphized freedom that can “cut her loose,” to help her move. Freedom becomes the embodiment of motion, the ability to move, contrasted against the inability to move. Abstracted, the ability to move can be used to mean “moving up” socioeconomically in addition to its convention usage of movement as running, walking, dancing, etc.
But scholar Harvey Young provides yet another lens through which we can understand the relationship between movement and freedom in his work, Embodying Black Experience. Rather, young brings the idea of stillness into the conversation. While stillness might imply a passivity or objectivity, Young argues that in certain contexts, stillness has served to establish agency. One example that Young discusses is the case of Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), who employed stillness, rather than movement, to protest the Vietnam War and refuse his draft order.
The historic example is profound perhaps for the very reason that Muhammad Ali was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, known for his light feet and loud quips. Yet, when ordered to move for the draft call, Ali refused.
Here, I want to demarcate a difference between stillness and immobility. Ali exerted his ability to remain still despite the pressure to cave in to coerced movement. He was not held immobile, for he maintained stillness. How do we understand freedom absent of movement? Perhaps freedom is more akin to agency, and the ability to exert agency, in the face of contravening forces that seek to restrict, limit, and extinguish.
In her response to the political moment, Judith Butler writes in Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly that the performance of freedom is often argued from a perspective that neglects to unpack key terms such as freedom, people, assembly, and protest. In an age seemingly defined by protests and collective assemblies, Butler seeks to ascertain what the right to assemble means in a discourse of democracy and freedom.
What indeed, I asked myself, was this good for?
It was the first of many protests against the Trump administration last spring.
We all congregated on the steps of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, while people from the crowd passed the bull horn to speak their mind about issues, needs, and what the future would hold for Charlottesville in the coming four years.
And we did it again in March to protest the administration’s legislation barring the entry of nationals from six predominantly Muslim countries. In fact, this last spring was a blur of rallies, protests, and marches. But what for?
The events barely seemed to register for anyone other than those in attendance. No matter the size of the crowd and no matter how loudly we chanted, nobody seemed to care. At least no one who didn’t already support our mission.
It seemed to me that marching was stale. After all, why was marching still the primary form of protest? The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was effective because it was new, and no one knew what would happen when so many people congregated in Washington. It was so radical that the city was evacuated and extra law enforcement brought in. Before that A. Phillip Randolph’s threat of a march on Washington in 1941 mobilized the Roosevelt administration to action. In her latest book, Black Movements, performance studies scholar Soyica Colbert offers her perspective of marches that signify, that is, they invoke the memory and make reference to the legacy of marching. So when hundreds of thousands of people descended on Washington in January to advocate for women’s rights legislation, many drew parallels to the 1963 march for jobs and freedom. But something was different. The space was different.
Returning to Butler, the march is seen as a demonstration of the right to appear—a demand to be seen collectively. En masse, corporeality cannot be denied as easily. But in 1963, tens of thousands of marchers, thousands of whom were African-American, claimed their right to appear in the nation’s capital. This was done at a time when they could not appear in restaurants, vote, or hold office. The hope was that as a collective, their voices could not be denied, calling for policy to yield jobs and freedom.
I want to draw attention to two important elements of the discourse that Butler offers the right to appear. The first draws on Chantal Mouffe’s characterization of the public space as the space of politics. The second element is the concept of corporeal precarity, that Butler argues, defines and impels bodies to mobilize. Bodies march in the public space to demand to be seen, either to refute their precarity, or to demonstrate it. Precarity on display demands an audience, and it demands an explanation. What is it that makes a group of people vulnerable—makes them prone to antagonism, alienation, and extermination? Butler nods in the direction of the police as the propagators of this violence, but I would argue that the public space itself can be the site of precarity if understood from a dance studies perspective.
I wonder what Butler would say about the August 11th protests by the white nationalists in Charlottesville. Do these protestors who chant “You will not replace us” deserve to be labelled with a precarious identity? They seem to think so even if identity politics would suggest otherwise. Written in 2015, Notes betrays a strong liberal bias that provides only examples of minorities mobilizing against violent oppression. The August 11th protests present an interesting, unconventional case for understanding how precarity is generated, maintained, and reconstructed.
While the August 12th events in downtown Charlottesville captured the national spotlight, white nationalists gathered the evening prior to demonstrate their strength by marching down the central lawn. They carried tiki torches and make-shift weapons in case counter-protestors showed up in large numbers. Instead, a small cadre of counter protestors circled the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the foot of the Rotunda. Slowly, the white nationalists surrounded them as police stood along the perimeter. At the first sign of physical violence, the police declared the rally an unlawful assembly to disperse the nationalists. Video footage demonstrates the difficulties the police had containing the violence and the danger to counter-protestors, many of whom were students. The administration was left to figure out what to do next.
One month later, a working group published recommendations for the university to take in response to the August 11th events. The first recommendation that the proposal makes is to designate the lawn as a university facility, subject to the rules and regulations of University of Virginia facilities. As a facility, the lawn would be subjected to the same strict procedural designations that forbid weapons, open flames, and explosives. The hope is that these steps would bar effective intimidation and terrorism from groups like the white nationalist groups.
But the university already has policy in place that might have been invoked to shut down the protests: these statutes, which are enforced by administration, university police, and when necessary, Charlottesville police are used to regulate public demonstrations on grounds whether by students or not.
The primary clause that regulates an official’s ability to shut down a protest is PRM-017 subsection 3 that specifies: “Peaceful protests and demonstrations on outdoor University property are permitted unless they disrupt normal operations or obstruct access to offices or buildings…” Thus, if a protest is determined to disrupt the normal operation of university then it can be shut down. Why wasn’t this the case on August 11th? While school wasn’t in session, there were school-sponsored events that were cancelled because of the threat of physical injury.
How we choose to legislate, or not, the public domain has direct consequences for how movement is regulated. But it is incumbent upon us to recognize that precarity is not merely the claim to precarity; it is the fact that one’s right to appear is limited. If one’s presence, even if deemed a threat, is deemed as protected, then it lacks a fundamental aspect of precarity. Instead, we should question how historical and spatial regulations on public places serve to construct non-neutral spaces that are actually susceptible to marginalizing those who actually live precariously at the margins. Furthermore, as these contemporary protests signify back historically, we cannot lose sight of how these sites are changing, and in so doing, changing the nature of the protests themselves. We cannot afford to think that the protests of yesterday will galvanize the politics of today.
These are the rules of being an academic professional:
These are just a few of the rules and regulations that I shall publish in my next book: How to be a Professor without a Ph.D. But actually, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to present myself as a professional worthy of, well, worthy of a profession.
See, it’s been a heck of a semester.
On Halloween, I was in costume alright. Decked out in a blazer and (matching!) dress socks, I delivered spiel after schtick after elevator pitch of my thesis research at a conference. While friends were partying it up in Charlottesville’s club scene, I was at the Black Doctoral Network’s Undergraduate Research Competition in Atlanta, Georgia.
Despite expending most of my mental concentration on not passing gas in crowded areas, I had a wonderful time talking with scholars my own age and older who were so passionate about the work they were pursuing. I learned about the politics of higher education at HBCUs, the science behind cancer cells in mice, and a whole lot more.
And I had a similar experience a few weeks later at the University of Virginia’s Diversifying Scholarship research conference, where I again presented some thesis research on the Harlem Cultural Council Dancemobile during the Black Arts Movement. The talk was well received, and I was proud of my work, but again, I spent so much time thinking about my conduct that I was plagued with internal questions.
I think the underlying questions have been a product of my own insecurity as a novice in the field of academic research, namely, “Who the hell is this guy?” Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been doubting whether or not I’m qualified to talk about any of the things I’ve found in my research.
And instead of determining whether or not I am qualified, my response has been to fake it ‘till I make it. So, in the pursuit of pretending like I can do this, here’s a short list of
tactics I’ve developed…
Perform because there is a script; there is a choreography to how to act if I want to pursue the life of an academic. The fact that there is a “life of an academic” is proof alone of that point.
The performance of the professional might initially establish the possibility of a “real” me and a “performed” me that is symbolic, temporary, and iterative. But also re: fake.
At least that’s one way to look at it.
Another way is to think about performance as a process of exchange that establishes a spectacle to be created and observed.
It seems that performance is one of those terms that isn’t strictly defined because the work it is asked to do transcends disciplinary boundaries. A machine performs within parameters, but a dance performance connotes a definition of performance that is more artistic. Pharmaceuticals are sold to enhance one’s “performance” in sports or *cough* bed.
It is at this riotous moment that professionalization shows its desperate business, nothing less than to convert the social individual.–Fred Moten, The Undercommons
In my thesis, I’ve been arguing that performance transcends the stage, field, or bed, and that performative acts in mobilization, namely in politics, render some kind of significance. Check back in March when I figure out what that significance is…
Until then, I’m stuck dwelling on performance in the professional sphere, wondering, because I don’t know what “professional” is and I barely have a definition for what “performance” is, either.
In this process of trying to figure out what all of this means, I talked with my friend, Ravynn, who is crushing the grad-school game at William and Mary. Check out her blog here.
Ravynn is amazing. Not only is she super smart, but she also entertains all my nonsensical questions, so we talked about what it felt like to be making one’s way in academia. She gave me a business card.
I mean, girl, I got your info. Email, facebook, wordpress, text, you name it. We’ve been friends for a minute now. Really?
But it was pretty sleek. I won’t lie.
We talked about my concern: that if I perform the expectation of a “professional academic” then I will find myself waist deep in the stereotypical performance of an academic that is aloof, isolated, sarcastic, and rigid. And if I don’t, then will I be able to do all the great aspects of the job that I love? Such as reading, teaching, writing, discussing to name a few.
I think our conversation revealed a double-jeopardy to me that was concerning. My access to resources to pursue the things I enjoy can be determined by my performance of the role. Performance again, must be considered in the context of what the action is attempting to achieve, simply because it predicates the action itself.
When I was at the Schomburg Summer Humanities Institute this summer, Sohail Dauletzai, professor at UC Irvine, encouraged the group to eschew conventional departments of the academy because what they are is precisely what they aim to do: discipline. Yes, that implies the sharpening of skills and techniques, but discipline is also to correct and reform in the desired mold. The academy takes that which is different and makes it the same through a ritual of performance that proscribes one’s thoughts and movements. In this way, the academy is really acting to generate stale thought rather than expand the boundaries of what is possible.
These doubts about performance in the academy were on my mind when I visited the men in San Francisco Jail a few weeks ago.
(I will try my best to resist the writer’s urge to embellish my experience here because I don’t think it would be as ethical as simply stating the already stark facts of the jail.)
I joined Professor Amie Dowling’s class at University of San Francisco as a part of the Performing Arts and Community Exchange class. The class participates in a San Francisco jail initiative called Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP). As a function of opting into the program, the men in the jail create performance work with the University of San Francisco students in the PACE class. Everyone was gracious enough to allow me to join temporarily.
Everyone in the program committed to creating performance work passionately, but also ethically as well, with the understanding that there existed an imbalance of privileges between “outside students,” USF undergraduates and “inside students,” men in the jail who participated in the program.
Vocabulary, then, was an important element of the performance that contextualized the artistic exhibitions we were creating. And the performance wasn’t for any “fake” reason; it was to create an environment that provided an overall atmosphere of support and respect for everyone involved. And when the inside students walked into the performance area, they immediately welcomed me.
“What do you want that audience to see in our performance?”
If I could post a picture of what the process was like, I would, but I can’t because we weren’t allowed to take our phones into the jail.
But that was when I really began to feel the tensions of performance. What could I say? What could I wear? Am I allowed to move here or there? Am I being too loud? Will I get in trouble for this? More importantly, will I get someone else in trouble for this?
It was in the reconciling of these privileges that I saw the lines of “performance” diverge and converge. There were moments when I felt the pressure of the constant gaze from security cameras that restricted my movement, but I also recognized that the restrictions on my movement were different than the restrictions on the inside students’ movements.
Pointing to one of the dozens of security cameras in the room, Amie asked, “What do you want that audience to see in our performance?”
The consequences were different, the histories were different, and the ability of the camera to recognize certain movements was different. Contact between men was regulated differently than contact between women, interactions between inside students and outside students was regulated differently than either of the groups separately.
In the event of a lockdown, we had our strict actions and the inside students had theirs.
So, when we were creating the performance that will be showcased in early December, there were certainly moments when I got the sense that everyone was a contributor of equal status. Perhaps this is what Randy Martin points to as the utopian political possibilities in dance, but I can’t agree with that utopian feeling because in the jail space, the performances that marked our separate statuses in the eyes of the law undergirded our creative performances. Of course we were all of inherent equal value status as people, but in the eyes of the legal system, this was not the case.
While we could create together, we all had different reactions and experiences to the work. And at the end of the day, we left the jail, and the men didn’t.
Performance did the work of both eliding roles as well as creating them. Performance was the thing that created differences and it also broke them down, so it complicated my understanding of what it even meant to perform.
So I don’t even know what it means “to perform.” I’m about to submit eight applications to graduate programs where I list one of my concentrations as “performance studies,” and I probably couldn’t define it in a paper.
Yeah. I don’t think I’ve figured this whole professional academia performance out yet.
But if I had it all figured out, I wouldn’t need to go to grad school.
The rift Stuart Hall
Poetry Literature is Visceral
Re-focus: the readjustment which follows disorientation and confusion—an attempt to reestablish the parameters either to a former or new state of order.
Mend: a wound, a rift, a relationship between two severed pieces of a whole.
Rewind: restore to a former state.
It has been some time since I’ve written a research post, but I think I am realizing why. I keep getting
The first idea I had to write was a reaction to Abraham in Motion’s Dearest Home, a piece choreographed by Kyle Abraham. That was in June.
After that, I was invigorated by some lectures on hip-hop that I received, including one from UVa’s new hip-hop professor, A.D. Carson.
Then there was the guest lecture by Dr. Cornel West,
the seemingly endless applications to graduate programs,
and then, of course, my latest readings for my thesis: In the Break by Fred Moten, Scenes of Subjection by Saidiya Hartman, and Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.
I just haven’t been able to catch a
But I’ve recently come full circle, back to the dance, or more precisely, what I saw in the dance that stuck with me for months:
Abraham’s Dearest Home is an exploration in loving, longing, and loss. The intercultural duets and “episodes,” if you will, draw the viewer to witness the vulnerability of love and loss. Whether it is the lighting that projects a spectre of a loved one recently deceased or the rupture from the embrace of a companion, the audience undergoes repeated experiences of separation.
At least I think that was going on—I don’t really know.
It’s something I’m learning to deal with, not knowing
feeling, like I should know
based on the two or three books I’ve read about dance or black culture or
The audience is invited to observe HOME with or without an accompanying score. The dancers have never heard the music, so I chose to watch the piece without the aural partner as well. And one moment stuck with me, particularly:
Lights dimmed warm coffee skin over
tight deltoids. Muted expectation tugs at the hem
of grey Calvin Kleins until they lie limp
on the ground. The body is beautiful
in communion with the shadows hanging
like drapes waiting to be revealed to the sun.
And he danced, a powerful manifesto interrupted by intermittent retching in his moment of vulnerability. What was it about the solitude of the shadows that revealed the rift in his movement?
Black cultural scholar, Stuart Hall, writes in his chapter on cultural identity and diaspora that the rupture of the diaspora, including the middle passage, is a defining characteristic that arrives in black culture. That is rupture is inscribed within black bodies, recognized in their performance.
Fred Moten explores in depth the concept of “the cut” in images, referring to the aurality of blackness in the photograph that captures Emmett Till’s funeral. The cut, the break, interrupts—it disturbs—it disorients—it defies—
it is the scream embodied that unsettles, for it is not sound—but it is heard clearly.
This was the cut that I saw in HOME, the break of the diaspora, the doubling of memory and performance, the performance that refuses to perform.
In one of the hip-hop lectures, we talked about a legacy of fugitivity that appears in the cut. It is the resistance that is masked—the appearance of one thing while the performance of the other, inaccessible on the surface to those unequipped to understand.
Requiring a password.
and giving a false one—
invalid surname: x
Hip-hop embodies the break by employing endless samples that signify, flow that is multimetered, with opportunities for improvisation. I think I’m starting to understand jazz. In this way, hip-hop allows fugitivity a landscape to build. Artists communicate across space and time in coded language that is constantly evolving, yet specific to geographic context.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Kyle Abraham began his training as a hip-hop dancer.
Read from a diasporic lens, “Dearest Home” takes on a different meaning. As Hall explains, diaspora creates a mythical homeland, one that is known but unknown, distant but intimate. Reading diaspora changes the semiotics of the dance, the music, and the literature of black traditions. The pause, the break becomes the moment rather than the margins.
There are days
when I see life
as 8 ½ by eleven
with 1 inch margins—
the space that stays
This is a guest blog post I wrote for the Dance Exchange Summer Institute 2017
After leaving New York City and the Schomburg-Mellon Institute last week, I arrived in Takoma Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., to collaborate on a dance piece with the group, Dance Exchange. The piece, “‘[Growing our own] Gardens,’ unearths hidden histories and personal stories of the spaces sought out and created in the LGBTQ+ community – queer worlds – and how to come together across age and difference to build towards resilience and positive change.” Dance Exchange attempts to make meaningful dances that include community members of all kinds and many “communities.”
My first encounter with the group came in spring 2017 when they completed a residency at the University of Virginia. I had been struck by a piece they performed in Dallas, called “Bricks and Bones,” which was a dance that meant to reflect on the racial landscape of Dallas. But on my way to the studio for day one, I found myself asking, “Can Dance Exchange Dance Queerness?”
What does queerness look like?
How does queerness move?
What is it?
The core facilitators of Dance Exchange have been wrestling with these questions for several years already, so by the time I entered the work in summer of 2017, there had already been several renditions and workshops “about queerness.” Material was created using Dance Exchange’s “tools” for excavating movement from abstract ideas. The tools are really just a set of games and drills that help dancers build movement into phrases, pieces, and collaborations.
Something about “excavating” movements about queerness seemed a bit strange to me. Occasionally, the tools are identified as frameworks that allow dancers to fill the open space. But in our conversations, queerness became that which defies boundaries—that which can’t be reduced to the scope of a framework. The ideas of frames, boundaries, and structures seem eerily reminiscent of sexual and racial norms that directly contrasts with queerness as it is defined in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” by Cathy J. Cohen.
During this week of dance making, however, I had an interesting talk with a man I met during an Uber ride. My friend was a dark-skinned, Guyanian-American, Muslim consultant who had a knack for literature. We talked about Baldwin, black-consciousness, and Sufi poets, to name only a few topics, but the most interesting thing he said was that the two best weapons the colonizing British employed were religion and language. Once the colonized people began speaking English primarily, they could not express themselves through non-colonized methods. The English language, stemming from a patriarchal, capitalistic, and ostensibly white culture, is infused into the very framework of English-speaking people.
“May God bless the man who says less and does more.”–Umar ibn al-Khattab
But I wonder if dance might be a mechanism for thwarting this dynamic. Dance, in general, is an art form that does not require a particular language understand. It is expressed corporeally, and through the body, others are invited to watch, participate, and to feel. By extension, I wonder, is dance inherently queer? Does dance defy category and norms? I’m not entirely convinced that it does.
Dance, after all, tends to be incorporated (key word) into mechanisms of, cultivation, display, and evaluation. The process by which dance is enacted as art is the intervening process. The commercial market of dance is perhaps what alienates it from queerness. The audience ceases to be a pure observer and interpreter of the dance semiotics and instead is turned into a mark to be anticipated, positioned, and included in the commercialization process.
A distinction that deserves to be made is that this says nothing about individuals who identify as sexually queer and the community/culture that arises in those spaces. The distinction between danced “queerness” and the dance of individuals identifying as sexually queer is something that deserves further exploration.
If you are interested in learning more about Dance Exchange, you can explore their site here.