The Rest is Silence

I have no right to talk.

Days have elapsed since the Unite-the Right rally, aimed at bringing together members of the Alt-Right, KKK, and other white supremacist, ethno-nationalists, tore a hole through the Charlottesville community. In that time, social media posts from UVa students, friends, colleagues, Charlottesville residents, late night television hosts, news networks, and prominent congressional Republicans (if not presidents) have denounced the hatred and commended the countering bravery on that day.

I have not.

I wasn’t at the counter-protest against the white nationalists either. Throughout Saturday’s events, and even Friday’s unplanned white nationalist Torch March through UVa grounds, I remained indoors, heeding the calls for safety issued by University officials and by my employers in the office of Housing and Residence Life.

HRL training began on July 29 in Charlottesville, and I have been living on grounds since then.

I was not in Charlottesville, however, on July 8th when the Ku Klux Klan held a protected rally to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from what is now called Emancipation Park. Many brave students and citizens attended a counter protest where this photo of Officer Darius Nash of CPD was taken.

 

jill-mumie-charlottesville-officer-viral-kkk
CPD Officer Darius Nash. Photo: Jill Mumie

 

Nash is seen with a bowed head in protective formation backgrounded by a robed KKK wizard, a man in Nazi salute, and a man holding a Confederate flag. The picture is meant to capture the tension between professional responsibility and personal moral impetus. The yellow police tape acting both to separate the white nationalists from the protestors as well as serving to magnify Nash’s assumed desire to cross his professional line and react emotionally.

I first came across this picture several days after the rally, as Charlottesville residents debated the significance of Nash’s actions. Blue Lives Matter supporters commended Nash for his professionalism, a few profiles featuring black profile pictures critiqued him for his compliance, and I swore that I wouldn’t ever be caught dead using professionalism as an excuse to avoid morally imperative confrontation.

After all, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, appears to make clear an individual’s moral responsibility in condemning injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere. He writes the letter in response to moderate church leaders in Birmingham who professed support for his cause but reprimanded him for moving too quickly on his progressive agenda.

King
Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL. AP Photo

 

These were the thingfirst-gradegrade teacher, my great aunt, and my college professors taught me. These were things my parents taught me.

These were the same people who texted me, called me, and prayed for me on Saturday, August 12, encouraging me to be safe, to do what was right. Instead, I stayed safe and did what was wrong—what I believed to be wrong. I stayed in training.

As updates rolled in on twitter and news media outlets, I encouraged my staffers to go about their training routine, which was, ironically, a day of practice scenarios in case they needed to be first responders to residents. After that, we went back to my air conditioned apartment and talked about how we would create an inclusive living space for our inbound residents.

That was while bands of white nationalists scoured Charlottesville after being dispersed by law enforcement.

I knew all twelve of my Resident Advisors were looking at me for guidance. In fact, I could feel the eyes of staffers in other parts of the program looking at me, waiting to see what I would do or say. If I, as a black person, could remain diligent to my professional responsibilities in lieu of hate speech, crimes, and threats then so could they.

I couldn’t help but think of Officer Nash.

The true significance of the picture became suddenly apparent to me.

Earlier this summer, I had read some of Harvey Young’s Embodying Black Experience, a book that explores moments of subversive stillness. Events such as boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to literally cross a line and volunteer for Vietnam, serve to highlight Young’s claim that the black people have used stillness as well as active protesting to subvert societal expectations of them.

A modern example might be Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to sing the national anthem on Monday Night Football in 2016.

Kaepernick.jpg
Colin Kaepernick #7 and teammate Eric Reid #35 Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

But Officer Nash’s stillness, and my own by extension, complicates Young’s argument. Indeed, our stillness seems to speak to an obedience arising out of our inability to spurn the respective forces telling us to obey authority figures and their calls for deference when protest is required.

Instead of leaving me dejected, this realization forced me to reckon with a more challenging reality. The problem is not that Nash remained calm in the face of adversity; it is that Jill Mumie, the photographer knew that she could capture a controversial picture by waiting for the right moment to unfold around Nash. Thus, regardless of action that he takes, Officer Nash becomes the object of analysis, dissection, and exploitation. His assumed moral dilemma is put on display to be interpreted and reinterpreted by the viewer.

Regardless of action, black people are seen as the litmus test for arguments surrounding racism. They are used as pawns, and their experiences as tokens, in what should be a larger conversation about capitalistic exploitation, neocolonialism, and historical erasure.

This type of exploitation does nothing to combat the actual causes of these diseases; instead, it resorts to victim blaming, as if analyzing a black person will answer the deficiencies of white power structures.

This level of analysis renders the object unable of taking real agency. Our movements are analyzed, our stillnesses are analyzed, the reality of which left me paralyzed.

Simply put, the events in Charlottesville this past weekend left me dumb.

Silent in the face of injustice.

Complicit in violence by not taking action against it.

Wondering how I will justify my inaction to my future children.

Unable to process the events because I was safe when others were not.

But now, I’m processing them the best way I know how.

Permission and Protection

My hands were sweating profusely. After edging and shoving my way past the other onlookers to the inner ring, I realized that I was wholly unprepared for what to do next. Eyes were darting around the circle. Who would dance in the middle next? Flickers of advances toward the center spot —a half-step, a chest-heavy lurch, a push in the back from a friend—indicated who might get to claim the coveted opportunity that several veterans of the circle had owned off and on for the last two songs. “What business did I have dancing in front of these people?” I thought, “What if they kick me out for ‘killing the vibe?’” I wracked my brain for something, anything creative that would carry me through the fear of dancing in the middle. I had something, but it was risky. What the hell, this was my now or never moment.

Here goes nothing…

314Well, it went terribly. My plan only carried me through the first few seconds, then the music changed, so my steps were off the bass beat. The intro to the new songs began with some sampled vocals that made my hard two-count stomping seem absolutely ridiculous. Not to mention that I had been so focused on my feet that my hands were frozen at my sides. What kind of dancing incorporates a lot of hands? Voguing, yes voguing! Which might have worked if I knew how to vogue. Instead, I flailed a little bit, hopped around one foot, then my sunglasses flew off my face, so I tucked tail and shuffled out of the circle as the bass kicked in for the new song. It was embarrassing, and my cousin got the whole thing on video.

As one of the seasoned vets came in and rallied back the energy from the crowd, I skulked back into the mass of people swaying on the margins of the circle. I had blown my chance to shine, proving once and for all that as much as I read about dance, I still couldn’t do it to save my life. Talk about embarrassing.

I have never wanted to disappear so badly, but I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a gentleman in a crème-colored suit, replete with dark shades and long dreadlocks, who was staring at me from the periphery. When I turned to face him, I noticed that he was an older man who clearly had no intention of dancing himself. Nevertheless, he occupied a clearly distinguished position among the veterans, who clearly respected him.

Luke Dancing 1Then I noticed that he was signaling at me with his right hand. First pointing to the sky with a boney finger, then two thumps over his heart, followed by a final point at me. He repeated this cadence twice before I realized that he was giving me props for dancing in the circle. I signaled back by beating a fist over my heart with a bowed head. He smiled, and the crème suit man turned back to the circle to watch the next dancer who had already dove in.

Despite my awful performance in the circle, I had been supported by a veteran. It was then that I realized the power of “the circle.” Dance scholar, Thomas DeFrantz, writes about the circle as the place that “permits and protects” in Africanist social dance. It is a place of improvisation, self-actualization, and community participation. The circle comes about as an Africanist trope in African-American social dances like the ring-shout, hip-hop ciphers, and vougeing. Its potential to create black, queer, and nonconformist space is fundamental to its ability to help individuals negotiate a society that is anti-black, anti-queer, and rigidly normative. In my own dancing stint, the important thing was not if I danced spectacularly; only that I had danced in a way that was uniquely mine.

Still, it couldn’t hurt to practice.

Interview with a Panther

I admit, I was nervous. I always get nervous before I conduct an interview. In an interview, it’s harder to mask my lack of knowledge of a topic and lack of experience in the field. The interviewee almost always skeptically asks, “How old are you again?”

As an element of my stint into thesis research, I’ve coordinated a number of interviews with subjects ranging from dancers in their M.F.A programs to museum directors.  I understand why most of the interviewees are hesitant at first—I have less than a year’s experience doing independent research, fewer than a few months’ interest in their life’s work, and not even an undergraduate degree. I would be skeptical, too.

black-panthers
(John Peterson 09 July 2015)

But I was particularly nervous for my interview with the Black Panther Party member. Sitting in front of me was a true revolutionary—not only did he talk the talk, he had walked the walk. In popular memory, the BPP has been disparaged as a hate group, founded on reactionary, racist politics after disavowing nonviolence as a civil rights tactic. That idea is wrong for a whole host of reasons, but I realized that history and memory is shaped by historians and journalists alike. Depending on the skew of the writer, history and public understanding can be dramatically altered.

(Black Power 50 Digital Exhibit at the Schomburg)

One example of an egregious misrepresentation through an interview can be found here, regarding the rapper Young Thug, who was interviewed by Devin Friedman for GQ magazine. In the interview, Friedman never actually establishes a real connection with Young Thug, relying instead on observation rather than questions to shape his writing. The piece comes across more like an 18th century anthropologist’s take on native cultures than a professional journalist trying to represent a person. This racialized representation is not new, and it is fundamental to understanding the established power dynamic that comes from the positionality of two bodies: the interviewer and the interviewee.

(For a reasonable interview of Young Thug, go literally anywhere else, but here is good).

Interviewing, too, is a performance; it communicates through body language, tactical questioning, and an established rapport. These elements work in conjunction to perform an act that grants access to information that might be otherwise inaccessible. The information is thus valuable, but the value can be ascribed differently to the interview and interviewer respectively. Valuable information then requires an exchange, and this is what opens the potential for exploitation. The unspoken price for information might be the hope for accurate representation, which confines the liberties of the interviewer, but the enforceability of such a deed is entirely up to the conscious of the interviewer. Exploiters tend not to be generous.

The power that arrives for an interviewer is access to a source of publication where their word, and not the interviewee’s, becomes truth. Truth is the dubious operator because it is subjected to the viewpoint of the presenter. Exploitative interviewers lead to reinforced stereotypes, flat narratives, and a substantiation of their own claims which allows the perpetuation of the cycle of exploitation.

Bill Whitfield
(PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM P. STRAETER, AP)

So as someone pursuing interviews, I have been forced to recognize that my failures are not confined to the page. The responsibility to present the interviewee’s ideas as they would want them presented is a burden than demands attention. I also have the added responsibility of needing to understand the context of interviews, so that I don’t insert my own conjectures into the picture.

So when it came to accurately representing the Black Panthers New York chapter, I asked, “What do people need to know about the Panthers?”

It’s about community. Knowing that someone has your back and you have theirs 110%

In political activism as in interviewing: Ujima.

The Means of Production

I haven’t written anything in a while. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying. I could have written about Paloma McGregor’s Building a Better Fish Trap performance at New York Live Arts, or either of the Alvin Ailey Company shows I watched at Koch Theater where they performed incredible new works, including a piece called Untitled America (2017) from choreographer Kyle Abraham. Each of these pieces presented profound messages that excited the audience, and of course, the performances were exciting displays of athletic ability. Yet I found myself unable to write a single thought about them.

In each performance, I found myself taking thorough notes on the dancers, the setting, and the aesthetic, but none of the performances actually made me feel anything. In analyzing the performance I failed to simply enjoy it.

I first took an interest in learning dance studies so that I could understand my embodied experience as a black man. That experience had shaped my approach to all of the material I watched, but now that I found myself at a loss I wondered: Have I become disembodied?

Just the notion frightened me. What would “disembodiment entail? Is it a cyclical relationship? Could I ever become “re-embodied?” Or even more practically, could I reestablish a visceral connection to my work, so that I could complete my thesis?

untitledamerica
(Credit: Paul Kolnik)

As tends to be the case, dance was two-steps ahead of me: Bill T. Jones of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company created a piece that experiments with the idea of disembodiment.  Ghostcatching (1999), by Bill T. Jones was created in a motion capture animation studio.

In the dance, Jones (or the abstraction of him), moves and lunges about on screen, his movements traced by various colorful lines that leave a visual trail. There is no corporeal body, there is no unintentional sound, there is no sweat. It is a dancing automaton. It’s hard to tell if something is lost or if something is gained in the creation of this piece.

Danielle Goldman writes on Ghostcatching; she finds a relationship between the dancing automaton and Marx’s analysis of the engines of history—technology. Namely technology that can outlive human capacities, thereby allowing those who own the means of production to exploit those who don’t. The abstraction of Jones does not sweat as he does, but perhaps this is what draws us to a more human presentation of the dance. This too, might prove problematic.

The consumption of bodies in labor can quite easily take a racialized connotation depending on who is enjoying Jones’s dancing. But if this is the case, what do we do about disembodiment?

ghostcatching
(credit: Barbara Castro)

Perhaps, my solution lies not in solving disembodiment but in seeking to understand my desire to feel embodied. When I pay for a dance ticket expecting that the performance will provide a visceral rush, my commodification of the bodies on stage establishes a relationship of exploitation. The denial of a visceral reaction is not faulty then, it can be rebellious.

When I talked with Paloma about her goals in creating Fish Trap, she stated quite simply that it was to create a space for others to explore their relationship with the space in the studio but also their own respective environments. The space was there for me to find what I could.

If I didn’t find anything, it means I need to keep looking.

Research Interlude 1

My exploration into living within a black body in motion began with a feeling–a feeling that never quit.

It was this feeling that spurred me to take dance lessons, read books, and ultimately, pursue an undergraduate thesis that explored the questions with which I grappled. The research continues, and I was fortunate enough to obtain a position as a

IMG_2987Schomburg-Mellon fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The Schomburg is home to hundreds of thousands of items related to Black people and cultures all over the world. A link to digital collections can be found here. I especially recommend the Livestream Events and Video Archive. Tuesday (6/6) I watched an electrifying discussion of a new book by Ibram X. Kendi called, Stamped from the 

Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Ain’t nothin’ new, folks. Anyone interested in American history or the history of political and social thought will have to think seriously about these ideas.

In addition to attending Schomburg events, research fellows are responsible for producing their own original work with the help of the Schomburg facilities and archive. In conversation with a current exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the rise of Black Power, I have been dovetailing my dance research with the extensive collection the Schomburg possesses of Black Arts and politics. It’s still taking shape, but here are some of the topics I have been wrestling with below:

“Politics is the art of thinking about power within the body politic: who wants what from whom, and how much can they get via what methods? But the “body politic” exists not merely as an abstract term; it is comprised of actual bodies. It is comprised of individual people, and ultimately, these tensions come to rest on them. The political tensions that govern our decisions ultimately fall upon individual bodies. How do we understand this body? More importantly, how do we understand the tensions at play that control the individual’s body? Though it has been historically divorced from the political discourse, dance is quintessentially the study of the body and the forces that govern it.

In this realm of the corporeal, all bodies, and the politics around them, are not the same. Black bodies, for example, have drastically different experiences than white bodies in America. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted one way in which black bodies are at the center of political discourse. But the problems BLM discusses are not new, in fact, the black body has an extensive political history in America, which has changed by region, gender, class, sexuality, occupation, and many other defining characteristics. So what can the history of black bodies in motion tell us about the politics in their contemporary moments? What can it tell us about our contemporary IMG_2986.JPGmoment? Perhaps now more than ever, it is vital that Black dance is studied: its exploration of the black body, politics, movements, and movement are ultimately how we can come to understand the intricate politics that govern the spaces in which our bodies live.”

I don’t know where these questions will take me, but at the moment it looks like I won’t be able to fit everything I want to talk about into one undergraduate thesis. With any luck, I’ll be doing it for awhile.

Thanks for coming with me on the journey.

Cheers,

Luke

Not so Fast: Movement Behind the Veil

I’m getting old.

I hate to say it, but I really am starting to feel my age on me. I used to be a young man, so full of life, so nimble.

It’s just time to face the facts—I’m simply not what I used to be in my prime.

Now, I’m sure most people would disagree with me, saying:

You’re still young!

Those extra pounds compliment your physique!

Age is just a number!

22 is still young, right?

WRONG!

My fingers pop when I make a fist from so many sprains, my right knee won’t bend all the way because of a possibly torn MCL, I’ve had at least one concussion, that I know about, my left shoulder dislocates, and I have a plate and five screws in my left ankle, which aches when the seasons change. I’m near-sighted with astigmatism, and I will most likely need a retainer to maintain the straight teeth that I received after seven years with braces.

And I’m balding.

Face it. I’m old.

It was the ankle injury that hurt the most. Of course, there was the pain in the moment, but the more visceral pain was the loss of a prospective opportunity to compete for a spot on a college basketball team. The loss of a trajectory, not even a reality, hurt more than the broken bone.

The feeling, which had expanded into a fear, resurfaced when I started researching dance. I will never jump as high as an Ailey dancer. I will never be flexible enough to Flex or B-Boy; and therefore, there is no reason to try.

In a way, my reduced ability acted as a second, different Veil that Du Bois discusses in The Souls of Black Folks. In America, Du Bois argues, the Veil is the metaphor for the lived reality of “Negros.” They can see the access and privileges afforded to white America, knowing full well there is no tangible separation, but realize that they are denied access themselves—denied the ability to move into that space.

That was why I was shocked when I came across Antoine Hunter, a black dancer, who dances while deaf.

Many of the comments on his videos reveal the insidious of performing in spaces that are marked differently. The performers, be they black, differently abled or otherwise, are held to the standard of the dominant framework. Comments such as “he overcame his disability to dance,” or “his dancing is so good it’s indistinguishable from normal dance” reveal the narrow understanding that pervades observers and dancers alike.

It is the same narrow mindset that maintains ballet as dance but non-white dance as an “ethnic” or “cultural” expression.

In reality, it is difficult to talk about differently abled dancers because they trouble our already tenuous understanding of what dance is. Hunter challenges what is and what could be, and even if marginalized, he troubles what is in the frame.

We should, instead, see differently abled bodies: old, deaf, paraplegic, blind, and so as to redefine our own understanding of dance in order to better understand bodies, motion, and ourselves.

 

 

Big Brother is from Another Mother

I turned around and squinted—partially from my poor vision but mostly because the unlit darkness on frat row made the car’s headlights much brighter by contrast.

Just a nuisance, I assured my date and we continued walking to the party.

I didn’t want to get distracted. We were freshmen at U.Va., rather, we were “first-years,” which meant that getting invited to a fraternity’s date function was a big deal. It meant that I might even have a chance to pledge this fraternity in the spring. I hoped that she knew that—I really wanted her to like me.

…And this car was really starting to piss me off.

Just a nuisance, and we joked about how the headlights made our shadows almost the same height.

It was pretty obvious I didn’t know what I was doing, with her or the fraternity. With her…I had tried to date one of her roommates earlier that week…yikes. With the fraternity…I was clearly out of place at their first party I attended…I didn’t know any of the rap lyrics and I wasn’t about to dance, anyways. With her…she hung out with me because she was interested in my roommate. With the brothers… no, no one in my family is Greek. With her…small talk. With  them…small talk.

JEEZUS what is your deal, pal?! This car had succeeded in pissing me off, creeping behind us with its headlights on bright.

I paused in the middle of the sidewalk.

Can I help you?

The lights went down and the car began to drive away—the police car began to drive away.

That was weird…could it have been because I’m…and she’s…nahhh…

That kind of stuff only happens in TV dramas and spoken word tirades that NowThis shares on Facebook, besides, what had actually happened?

I wasn’t sure that the officer had been tailing me because I was “walking with a white girl while black,” but I was suddenly aware of something, of that much I was certain. I am most aware that I am black when put against a sharp, light background.

Black Monologues Mecca Nu

The police officer’s headlights didn’t make me aware of him—it made me aware of me.

The gaze, especially the gaze of law enforcement, holds a visceral power over the body. The body is one unit, one cell, of the larger body politic, subjected to the gaze of “order” en masse. Foucault examines this phenomenon in Discipline and Punish, an analysis of the state of observation.

The reality is that political control, even via observation, has corporeal effects. Controlled paths of movement, movement of deference, movements of restraint.

When talking about movement and the body, the absence of a movement is perhaps more telling than the presence.

I sat down for a conversation with a professor who has been exploring many of these questions among the most observed demographic in America—incarcerated bodies.

Amie Dowling has been collaborating with inmates at San Quintin Penitentiary through the Resolve to Stop the Violence program. She brings in her University of San Francisco students to co-create with inmates, and they have collectively established the Artistic Ensemble at San Quintin Prison. The ensemble has produced several award-winning works that feature the incarcerated body.

Through the choreographic process, the dancers’ bodies communicate, as do all bodies in their own ways.

But these bodies are a more complicated site to examine for the simple reason that they already are. They are in a system where their bodies are constantly surveilled, their movements are thoroughly regulated, and their freedom to move is contingent. The system, the gaze, leaves a mark on the body, sometimes through effect and trauma, but also because the monitoring doesn’t end after their sentences do.

As scholars, including Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, remind us, bodies are not placed under surveillance equally. Indeed, the uneven incarceration of black bodies begins with the hyper-vigilance accorded to them. Just as the power of the panopticon comes from the individual’s internalization of the observation, so too does the dynamic of being black.

I didn’t know it then, but I learned: become too visible, and it stays that way.

By the way…my spoken-word tirade starts at 24:30 of U.Va.’s The Black Monologues.