Defining Black performance has always been fraught with concerns of racist type; some may wish to define what Black performance is by reflecting upon what it is not. Black performance is not static, contained, or geographically specific. There is no specific locale that designates the origin of black sensibilities because skin colors have always been global and relative. The very notion of Black is conceived within specific political/social economies of power defined by historical circumstances. Race is both a defining paradigm for blackness and a resistant frame for describing the unbound nature of the field. And clearly black performance is not ending but rather transforming in response to technology and the political of each transnational setting in which it re-invents itself.
Black performance contains history and racism but it is not about either of those things. Black performance injects itself into pertinent political discussions like those surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager shot in 2012 while walking and wearing a hoodie within a predominantly white Florida neighborhood. The Martin tragedy demonstrates how markings associated with black performance can be deadly. The subsequent adoption of the “hoodie” as an act of protest demonstrates the ongoing viability of examining theories of the Black performative in conjunction with discussions of histories and racisms.
Few will argue that black sensibilities do not permeate contemporary life, arising in fragmentary moments of personal relationship or in sustained performance practices. For example, hip hop, conceived as a flexible platform incontrovertibly black at its root, has become an engine for expressive discovery and marketplace situatedness embraced globally. Gospel music has become a defining mechanism for the circulations of Christian ministries of several denominations. Black strategies of “talking back” to ever-widening hegemonic mainstreams of sexualities, religion, class consciousnesses, and even race are engaged regularly in terms of fashion, language, physical stance, and the expansive mutabilities of “being black.” Questions about the impossibilities of purity within always-shifting black identities were recounted nearly daily during the early presidency of Barack Obama. In all of these maneuvers, black sensibilities – stylized ways of being in relation to each other and to environments – become wellsprings of creative tactics employed consciously and subconsciously as resources of strength, resistance, and unexpected pleasure.
To describe these sensibilities more carefully, consider hip hop in “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, 2018. The song combines several dance rhythms compiled from a pan-African diasporic archive. A foreboding deep bass ostinato underscores Gambino’s ironic lyrical rendering of how “America” disavows Black people. The whole creation offers contradictory sonic clues that encourage social dancing, cynical resistance to the enlarging terms of capitalism and the police state, and political awareness of how Black lives are easily rendered as “barcode” labor in a global economy. For another example, gospel music, which tends to rely on jazz-inflected sequences of harmonic organization, suture social music formations with religious music imperatives in Black sensibilities of assemblage. Minister of Music Richard Smallwood’s piano interpretation of “The Lord’s Prayer” (1992) as example, renders the 1935 composition in a swirling, surrealistic manner, shifting from grand Romantic-era figuration, to emphatic cartoonish decorations, through blues-music formations, to humorous citations of popular musician riffs. Smallwood’s performance demonstrates a black sensibility as a shifting awareness of multiple points of African diasporic view simultaneously available to the current moment of aesthetic activity.
Diaspora arrives as a central concept to understanding black sensibilities. Diaspora is continual; it is the unfolding of experience into a visual, aural, kinesthetic culture of performance. Like skin, it is porous and permeable, flexile and self-repairing, finely-spun and fragile. And like skin on a body, diaspora palpably protects us. It covers the body in its possibilities, and reminds people of impossible connectivities. In this reminding – this bringing into consciousness of the intangible experience of a mythic past – memory becomes something that can be seen on the body; skins seem similar and bring people together or sometimes indicate that peoeple belong apart. The connective skin of diaspora offers people protection from the coldness of individual isolation.
Maybe this is a way to think of the damage that the individualistic push of Eurocentric cultures does to communal, Earth-based cultures of an African diaspora. Surely black people can live each alone in the world. But black people thrive when together and engaged in call-and-response; in vibrant communication through a relationship to diaspora. In this way, diaspora becomes a very real process, one that can be experienced in the interplay of ideas that performance cultures bring forth.
Diaspora also serves as a process of unification. It brings together collective experiences around particular issues, forces, or social movements. Like all alliances, it is strategic. Most fascinating in current diaspora studies is the shifting points of origin for groups of folk designated as black. Does the journey begin in Africa, or the Americas, or the Caribbean? Does it end where black people land? Even as scholars might define an African diaspora as expressed through the skin that may be marked Black – through its gestures – the texture and color of these skins keep shifting through new alliances, new ways of codifying collective experiences. Performance becomes a dialogue between researchers and artists who make sense of diasporic journeys.
To further frame black aesthetic sensibilities, through an African American lens, researchers turn attention to two theorists and the creative work of a contemporary artist who circulates in European theatrical settings. In North America, a concept of Black Performance Theory emerged in the 21st century, as a mode of inquiry that reflects upon and extends intellectual labors to establish black expressive culture as an area of serious academic inquiry. This theoretical lens intends to reveal the capacities of black performance itself to enable critical discussions of performance histories, theories, and practices without deference to perceived differences in cultural capital from an elusive Europeanist norm. Two important truths come forward here: black sensibilities emerge whether there are black bodies present or not; and while black performance may certainly become manifest without black people, it might best be recognized it as a circumstance enabled by black sensibilities, black expressive practices, and black people.
Zora Neale Hurston and Cultural Expression
Cultural anthropologist and artist Zora Neale Hurston published a short article in the groundbreaking 1934 anthology Negro. “Characteristics of Negro Expression” referenced sites, modes, and practices of performance. The implications of Hurston’s short essay still stand: black performance derives from its own style and sensibilities that undergird its production. And, black performance answers pressing aesthetic concerns of the communities that engage it.
Hurston’s concept of Negro Expression implies that Black performance styles and sensibilities are not merely verbal or aural, but also include visual symbolic codes that communicate and comment in-group as well as to observing communities. Negro Expression is a nuanced way of describing the gestalt of how African aesthetic structures might reach their audience. Expression implies a impetus of performance that initiates an act, and a response of some sort from the viewers or witnesses who are a part of the communication circle. Most importantly, a performance act that plays with music, gestures, vocal sounding, vibrant costuming, character types, social commentary, or spatial manipulation is best described as “expression.” The performance practices that Hurston viewed and documented connected ideas across multiple performance genres within single events and performance actions.
Perhaps the most important quality that Hurston included in her taxonomy was the “will to adorn.” In this concept, Africanist aesthetics purposefully push forward on a gesture or action to enhance its effectiveness. She noted the use of metaphor and simile; the use of the double descriptive; and the use of verbal nouns in this category of Negro expression. These extensions of English toward its embellished fullness opened an unprecedented space of expressiveness in word. In this imperative to embellish, artists and researchers can imagine a root of black performance that spreads towards a sensorium of affect.
Hurston’s essay also highlights dancing, and a crucial angularity of line and asymmetry of approach to expression. These concepts recurs in the later literature exploring Africanist performance theory. Any student of black performance will find her way to this important work, in order to think through how African American folklore – and performances that are highlighted or quotidian – center black lives in their acts of creative transformation. Hurston’s subjects of dialect, folklore, culture heroes, originality and imitation, and her brief mention of “The Jook” (an explicitly Black space of music and dance celebration) each confirm Negro expression as its own source and subject of possibility. The aesthetic expression is foundational to understanding the community that practices it. Hurston helps us recognize that black sensibilities – the enlivened, vibrating components of a palpable black familiar – demonstrate the micro-economies of gesture that cohere in performance.
E. Patrick Johnson and Troubling Blackness, Troubling Race
Theoretical models of how black performances circulate arrived in the 21st century. In a remarkable 2006 essay that provides an overview of black performance studies, queer theorist E. Patrick Johnson cogently explains the fraught terrain of blackness as a manifestation of the epistemological moment of race, one that “manifests itself in and through performance in that performance facilitates self- and cultural reflexivity-a knowing made manifest by a ‘doing.’” In the essay, Johnson argues many modalities in which blackness “offers a way to rethink performance theory by forcing it to ground itself in praxis, especially within the context of a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, homophobic society.” Wondering that the two categories are already in opposition – black and performance – Johnson wryly notes that in this context, “black performance has the potential of simultaneously forestalling and enabling social change.” Forestalling, within a larger context of white performance; and enabling, as a seemingly endless capacity for all people to emerge into presence through performance.
Johnson’s writing reminds us that performance might be an ever-present feature of human exchange; it may be resistant, affirmative, or several states in-between and simultaneously; it may underscore oppositional aesthetics or collude with creative practices far removed from the lives of black people. Here, the terms of performance are expansively imagined to allow for subversive and normative simultaneity; cross-rhythms of rupture and coherence amid shifting landscapes of intervention and virtuosity. In this way, narratives of domination and oppression that often circumscribe depictions of black performance arrive alongside considerations of presence and activity as their own means and ends.
Johnson also notes that while black performance “has been a sustaining and galvanizing force of black culture and a contributor to world culture at large, it has not always been recognized as a site of theorization in the academy.” How does performance theorize? How is it that Black sensibilities endure, even when there might be no or few Black people involved in the making of a creative work?
Black Dance After Race
What happens when race ceases to be a primary marker of identity used to categorize experience transformed into artmaking? What might “postblack” dance convey? What are the sources and sympathies of a “fugitive” black, and what debt does “black dance” convey? This rest of this chapter explores the inevitably radical capacities of Black Dance in a speculative future when race matters differently than it does now.
Researchers note the rise of race as a category of identity aligned with deployments of power determined to subjugate many to the benefit of a few. White social theorists, presumably threatened by the emergence of recognizable groups of people whose social destinies were not necessarily bound up with obedience to a ruling white elite, developed principles of eugenics and biological determinism that could separate levels of humanity along axes of race. Eugenics emerged as a pseudo-scientific attempt to reify people in groups by virtue of “genetic identities” and skin color; its determinations falsely aligned with assumptions around intellectual, social, and physical abilities.
Race became a means and method for social stratification, and a means for nineteenth-century justification for the horrors of slavery in the Americas as well as a host of subjugations worldwide. If race could exist as a way to understand human variance, then some races could be determined to be “better” than others within a Darwinian-tilted assessment of capacity. White British colonials and others had held longstanding assumptions about a superiority of white civilization over so-called primitives in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and the indigenous Americas. Race emerged as a recognized scientific classification method – scientific racism – at the end of the nineteenth century, just as people of color began to find social and political agency to resist structures of subjugation that continually placed them at social disadvantage. Racist interactions peaked in rampant representational force during this period, epitomized by genocide of colored aboriginals in Australia, laws of Apartheid in South Africa, and continuations of Jim Crow laws and lynchings in the United States.
Once settled into the social and civic structures of many communities worldwide, race flourished as an analytic mode that allowed for unblinking acts of violence, denigration, and political and social oppression. Race became a logic of structural inequality; a way of seeing and reacting to the world. Global social uprisings in the 1960s intended to grant civil rights and self-determination to subjugated groups around the world, including millions of black people under white European rule all over the continent of Africa and also in the United States. Political independence in many African nations – nations which had, ironically, been mapped and created by White European colonials fulfilling a racially-motivated desire to claim the lands and resources of the continent inhabited by black people – arrived alongside hard-won civil rights legislation in the United States and some aboriginal rights legislation in Canada.
The dismantling of racialized legal allowances precipitated the dismantling of “race” as a category of language, an action begun by literary theorists in the post-civl-rights eras of the 1980s. These literary theorists suggested that “race,” like other aspects of languages of oppression, held overly-accented representational force in a world that supported civil rights for all citizens regardless of race. Race, these theorists argued, functioned as a historical referent to social structures of domination now ameliorated by open possibilities of political access for all. Of course, this utopian sort of rhetoric could only partially be true. Classification by race had, perhaps, become legally intolerable, but racist interactions that pitted people of color against each other, and a historically-more-oppression-minded-white-elite, persisted.
POSTBLACK emerged as a term of rhetorical import for those who imagine a world beyond race, one that might be experienced by young people born in the second generation after civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Millennial Americans, for example, might think that race matters less than class, or gender, or possibly sexuality or location as a determinant of social mobility. Postblack, coined perhaps by visual art curator Thelma Golden and brought into mainstream usage of sorts by journalist Ytasha Womack, suggested a world that doesn’t exist, but one that might not bind its black citizens into pre-assessment or pre-determination along lines of racial visibility. Researchers must note that Postblack foregrounds black as a marker of identity even as it suggests something beyond race; the term stabilizes ‘black’ as a historical and experiential category that might be embraced, scrutinized, eluded, or avoided.
Postblack suggests something simultaneously elusive and stable; as a chronological marker, it tells us to imagine a post-civil rights ascendency of black social mobility without fear. Postmodern choreographer Bill T. Jones claims this space of his creative maturity, although he was born during the civil-rights era; his choreographies arrive well after legislation has made black a legal capacity in the context of American artistry. Jones’ work is not beholden to speak for the race; postblack surely suggests this kind of meandering or mumbling possibility that the social acknowledgment of a black subject enabled. Black citizens without rights could not speak; after civil rights legislation allowed for a voice of black people to emerge, that voice could take shape (almost) as it desired in the expansive neo-liberal market of the 1980s. Artists born in the 1970s and 1980s became the first postblack citizens, reaching maturity in the 1990s and 2000s to suggest innumerable approaches to expressions of black positionalities. While some of these positions seemed tied to an articulation of black thought, other artists moved toward engagement with creative strategy not at all bound by connection to the statelessness of a pre-civil-rights blackness.
Postblack moves in unanticipated directions, but tends to return ‘home,’ to the place of blackness as experience. Because postblack emerges as a choronological antecedent to civil rights black and black power, its grounding assumptions arise from the proposition of an imaginary whole of black acts that manage to convey meaning in the space of black identity. Postblack may intend to reflect youthfulness and energetic re-casting, but it also engages a subtle naivete, that a category “outside an outside” can exist. Black remains consistently configured as an outside to mainstream; and yet postblack outsiderness cannot render its practitioners somehow “inside” a creative mainstream of artistic practice. After all, postblack stakes claim to an identity marker that actually implicates racialized experience. The mainstream needs things to be simple and unified; black, like race, complicates matters.
To work in a postblack sensibility as a choreographer means to care differently about the wages of black lives as a category of expressive resource than earlier generations of artists and audiences might have done. This could be realized as a playful willingness to place references to black experience alongside, say, postmodern physical assemblage without making reference to dance as a strategy of survival for black people. Different generations of artists approach the methods of postmodern assemblage differently. Where Bill T. Jones (b. 1952) often makes work that might be tethered to thinking of RACE in capital letters as an issue that his choreography might confront, postblack choreographer nora chipaumire (b. 1965) creates experimental works that incorporate blackness, and an African diasporic sensibility as a texture in the warp and the woof of the choreography at issue. Work by Jones underscores race as a dividing line between black people and whites, whereas work by chipaumire incorporates black sensibilities into the crafting of provocative experiments in performance that exceed the limits of a theatrical frame.
chipaumire’s recent series #PUNK 100%POP *N!GGA (2018) demonstrates black sensibility as the crafting of encounter through a live-performance album conjured from by the artist’s memories of family and kinship from their youth. chipaumire conceives this performance as a concert that gathers its appeal only through the participation of its audiences in its unknowable and distorted sonic landscapes. As in many underground hip hop performances or nightclub events that emerge from fuzzy and blurry sound environments, chipaumire’s work explores the terms of affiliation that black sensibilities assume. Here, the audience is cast as the co-makers of the event through the responsibility of recognizing political and personal connectivity to stories offered up by the collaborating artists. Pleasure might be uncovered by an audience in this event to the degree that an audience might be willing to consider the many referents by chipaumire, dozens of which might be unfamiliar. The black sensibility of the work assumes participation, political organization, and pleasure as equivalent possibilities to the realization of the performance as spiritual and aesthetic deliverance.
Postblack, then, refers to a time and circumstance in which black might not be primarily bound up with survivalist modes of social interaction and intervention. Modes of postblack comfort may exist for some; for those who enjoy upper-middle class resources of gated living communities and private higher-education. But black presence and especially its revelations of youthful masculinity remain at issue for many. Postblack choreographers might seek to create worlds of dance that avoid immediate responses of racial profiling circumscribing their work, even as they willingly engage black experience as a source and texture of the dance at hand.
To some, postblack might seem utopic in its ability to render race without considering an inevitable problem with black being. But many artists experience race as a stopping point for making work or enjoying careers in majority-white contexts. How does black being respond to the terms of neoliberal capital that create global routes of affiliation tied up with social disavowal?
The work of blackness is inseparable from the violence of blackness.
Black retains a fugitive status; one predicted by years of actual fugitivity of black bodies in the United States and beyond; a status confirmed by a fact of disavowal. The disavowal of black presence in the context of the United States, predicted by the US Constitution, which never actually mentioned the many black people who lived in the Americas by then – as citizens or under enslavement – arrived alongside an assumption of labor as the primary capacity of black bodies within the United States. In a historical rendering of the US, then, black could mean labor potential without any necessary consideration of humanity inside its racialized container.
Performance theorists Stefano Harney and Fred Moten rightly claim that the fugitivity of black “escapes even the fugitive,” a formation that imagines black radical expression always already in circulation, whether or not black people understand its inevitability. The image of the fugitive propels us; it confirms an always elusive black being out of reach, out of sight, and compelled by the need to escape, evade, and remain only as a trace. In this line of reasoning, black can’t be stabilized as a category of performance because black arrives outside of reach and beyond category. Black performance as intertextual force – drawing here on the work of Brenda Dixon Gottschild – means black performance outside of category or the security of standard; it is performance that refers, dissidently, to its own existence as well as its far-flung constituent parts.
As a fugitive and intertextual practice, black performance emerges at times without warning and seemingly without precedence. And yet, I chase black performance down in an attempt to be in its presence whenever possible. As it grunts, twists, and pounds itself into being, it also dissipates, and its power startles and disappears simultaneously. Power expended within powerlessness has the numbing effect of enhancing possibility while remaining obscure and ineffectual.
Choreographer and contemporary performance artist Trajal Harrell often explores a failure of performance to stabilize presence, and especially black modes of being. He works consistently in a space of reference to black life that is not tethered to speaking about or to blackness; rather, his work renders ambiguous personal musings on his visible identity as a black man. Born in Georgia, and a graduate of the American Studies curriculum of Yale College, Harrell creates performance experiences that explicitly reference European performance history and cultural studies models that have enjoyed an unrelenting participation of black people in their ranks as theorists, artists, aesthetes, researchers, and of course, audiences. Harrell clearly considers himself to be among the (post?)black artists engaged in Europeanist performance, and several of his multi-part, multi-year projects imagine a white audience willing to contend with black presence within structures of memory typically devoid of racialized consideration.
In some ways, Harrell’s work M(i)mosa/Twenty Looks, or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church reveals itself as an answer to a call to keep asking, but stop answering, questions of racialized identity presence within contemporary performance. The work is a four-artist collaboration conceived as part of a larger project to inject black aesthetic presence into the historical moorings of Judson-church-era dance experimentation. Judson has long been historicized as a white movement toward an a-political mode of performance that allowed ‘do your own thing’ practices that made little reference to cultural identity. Harrell’s project wonders what might happen if audiences re-visit a sense of that historical moment in art practice to include fugitive black performance practices both contemporaneous to Judson as well as those of a generation later.
The “Paris is Burning” series revolves around the proposition “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” Varied iterations of scale, from XS to XL, refer to moments in European history, from the literary presence of Antigone in one iteration to the practice of made-to-measure fashions in another. Each version arrives full of theatrical effect and changes in costume; flashing lights, blacklight effects, and fantasy outfits that suggest impossible characters fill out a kaleidoscopic arrangement of grand gestures propped against small, imperceptible shifts in motion and energy. The series continually suggests both excessive, impatient imagination in its varied iterations and a steady process of exploration in its deployment across several years. It also confirms a furtive, impossible to capture, ‘fugitive’ nature of its own being, as a work that continues to arrive after ten years of development without ever restricting itself to a ‘set,’ or preferred iteration.
(M)imosa engages a premise that each of its four performers is the ‘real’ Mimosa, and each deserves a spotlight that the others presumably do not. Staged as a series of non-related cabaret turns, the work makes its largest musical references to drag performance choices popular in late-twentieth-century gay nightclubs. Its exploration of fin-de-(twentieth)siecle irony and excess, built upon a sort of queer failure, highlights an impossibility of avant-garde performance to capture anything like a “real” or “authentic” gesture. Like Abraham in Pavement, Harrell and his collaborators engage a range of musical sources, including Prince, Amadou and Miriam, Donae’o, Kate Bush, Irene Cara, Diana Ross. These varied sources speak to an arch queer sensibility that mines ‘bad’ and ‘failed’ sentimentality, as in the Ross and Cara selections; sentimentality that elusively expresses an overwrought earnestness. These are spectacularly tacky musical materials, originally sung in treacly contexts of over-ripe black femininity – a Hollywood femininity easily mocked and appropriated, here, by male performers with ersatz sincerity. These failed performances of lip-synced sincerity underscore the debt owed to the absent black women of the movies as well as the stage space. References to an inauthentic, historical black feminine presence in popular media, usurped here by male performers, speak to the fluid asymmetries executed by race in performance.
(M)imosa engages recognizably black dance movement, in sequences of house dancing and voguing. The work also engages tropes of minstrel-era drag performance, in, at least, a lip-synch rendering of the Prince song “Darling Nikki.” These fantastical flights into black performance stabilize Africanist aesthetics as the source and method of the larger work. For example, Marlene Freitas’s drag-king minstrel inversion of Prince’s ferocious rock anthem suggests a historical black rage, tempered by its pre-recorded sound, and interpreted here by a topless white female body in obviously fake facial hair and make-up. Freitas’ intensity matches the commitment to portrayal that blackface minstrel performers engaged when they offered surrogated versions of patently-false black gesture on American stages in the 19th century. The direct address of the sequence – performed directly at the seated audience – confirms a barely submerged sense of debt and demand. In this sequence, (M)imosa assumes a collective willingness to take on the debt of black rock and masculine outrage barely contained by Prince’s recorded voice, even if only for a moment. The excess of emotional energy, directed at a spurned lover, echoes, perhaps, a rising sense of frustration at the unconventional, fragmented construction of the show. If this is black work, bound up with choreographer Harrell’s interest in black history and its divergence from mainstream white histories of American dance, its blackness is surely fleeting and fugitive.
Harrell is the only visibly black performer in the work. The mostly-white company of artists for (M)imosa act as a consuming energy that overwhelms imperatives of empathy and community alignment that might have accompanied articulations of black dance in other contexts. While post-black creative work might search for ways to center black alongside other forms of identity politic, (M)imosa offers an alternative narrative of black presence. Here, choreographer Harrell performs blackness in the piece as a sort of disappearance, as a fugitive presence never quite in focus and never able to control the proceedings or lead things forward. For example, the three white performers in the work change clothes often, but Harrell does not. While the other performers move from one flamboyant getup to another, Harrell remains in simple khaki pants and an almost drab sweater, his ‘everydayness’ acting as visual tonic and disguise among the freakish extravagance of the other costumes. This sartorial refusal to engage in the always changing, unstable world of white excess suggests a disappearance, or perhaps a hiding in plain sight, that echoes the camouflaged transit of fugitive black. Unable to be seen or perceived, in its everyday absence, black here becomes a sort of antidote to campy visual excess. In some ways, the disappearance of the performer telegraphs difference, or an unwillingness to be aligned with the queer group; a need to be outside of the outside (avant-garde) that the performance already represents.
In all, (M)imosa arrives as a vibrant example of outsider art, created to establish alternative boundaries of structure, affect, skill, and racial complicity within a frame of contemporary performance. This contemporary, live art work begins from a politicized but ambivalent question about black presence in postmodern dance history, but proceeds to all-but-ignore that query in a series of aggressive stage acts that alternately amuse, confound, and provoke audience members. (M)imosa betrays no pretension to become something other than it is; unlike much of the work of Judson that self-consciously intended to revise terms of relationship among dancers and audiences, Harrell’s work materializes as a sort of already failed gender/identity bending cabaret that cannot contain or shape itself into more than the sequencing of its varied parts. (M)imosa doesn’t propose or conclude anything in particular about black presence within a downtown dance world, but it does raise the question of a historical exclusion that led to a circumstance in which black arrived downtown in fugitive, furtive fits and starts.
The fugitive black stays in motion, unable to stop, because stopping suggests an ability to resist the ever-changing tides of capital, empire, and subjugation. The fugitive black public cannot be seen; its visibility confirms a presence that is always already denied by white-controlled capital. Fugitive black vibrates, in the shadows without marking. It hopes to emerge at key moments, to dilute the seemingly inescapable whiteness of performance without identity. Fugitive black arrives without obvious power, but with a mobility that supports unexpected shifts in tone and capacity. That shifting can help us move in concert toward something unexpected in terms of performance, black, and dance after race.
Credit is a means of privatization and debt a means of socialisation.
But debt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way. But debt runs in every direction, scatters, escapes, seeks refuge.
In The Undercommons, Moten and Harney write of the place of bad debt as the place of a ‘fugitive public,’ or a public always in motion against its impossibly dystopian self-recognition of its own inability to act. Fugitivity is conceived as a place of no recourse and no alternative but to stay in motion; this incessant motility adheres not only to those who might be viewed as black ‘anti-subjects,’ but also to those repelled from the acquisition of capital. Because “citizens” in the neo-capitalist context are all already supposed to be in debt, they are daily compelled to move and produce movements.
The act of imagining a future of black dance after race involves assuming debt – the debt of historical subjugation transformed into a future asymmetry that cannot be smoothed or forgiven. In discussing race as central to dance, contemporary researchers take on the debt of the forefathers; the debt that allowed for a middle passage that could bring vibrant dissonance among dancers and audiences. Culture misplaced became a root of black dance; dividing dance from its social practice and placing it on a stage for scrutiny by some who didn’t dance at all created a debt of physical misunderstanding and social misuse. The credit offered by an allowance for black people to express themselves on stages must be answered by a debt of acknowledging subjugation that continues to accrue in cost through time. The problem of the minstrel mask persists; can black performers ever be allowed presence that is not doubly-encountered as simultaneous bathos and pathos? Perhaps this dance is strongly conceived and executed, but is it also somehow simultaneously pathetic and underdeveloped?
To speculate black dance after race, it becomes important to imagine that there will be dance, and that there will be black. Either of these assumptions also assume debt; that dance will exist in a recognizable way in theatrical circumstances to allow an expertise of dancer who has trained and sacrificed physical diversity for the purpose of specialized performance. Here, researchers might consider the expertise of rhythm tap artist Michelle Dorrance, or the ballerina Misty Copeland. Neither of these women can work in the other’s form; and each have spent as much of her life within a dance studio, practicing, as outside “in the world.” A social debt to these artists as audience involves a willingness to witness their artistry within a framework that circumscribes its capacity; tap dance and ballet each manage best in a circumstance with a responsive wooden floor. When these artists move outside the venues that best allow their expression, audiences might experience their new surroundings in relation to the old, as an alternative to the favored, specialized sites of performance for their forms. In this, thinking turns back to debt and the specialization that allows tap dance or ballet to exist in spaces that are outside the home, and outside the everyday. Their expertise speaks to a willingness to take on a somewhat benign debt of physical practice.
The debt of ‘black’ in this formation, though, arrives with violent force that continues to accrue. Black becomes even more potent as its fugitivity and fungibility overlap; black appears and disappears almost without warning, but almost always with vigorous effect. It might help to consider some obvious examples: the blackness of President Obama is continuously at issue; the murders of Trayvon Martin and George Floyed revolved around their visible blackness and an assumption of social dis-ease affiliated with that blackness. Similar experiences permeate Afrodiasporic life in Europe, as black people are often socially harrassed, politically disavowed, and physically harmed. In many European sites, institutionalized violence against black bodies is exceedingly common, and police and security forces have close ties to right-wing (even outright fascist) racist organizations. Black continues to bring a tangle of violence along with its articulations and visibilities.
And yet, black performance, buoyed up by black sensibilities, reveals the edge of collective creativity that might be a sustainable relationship to capital, marketplace, and individual agency. Audiences tend to recognize something special in the arrival of black dance. Something like the ability to speak back to structures of domination and control through the crafting of gestures that are emphatically hard to hold on to, or to predict. The ability to act, amid the ruins of late capital and distended social hierarchies, with gestures of care for those who have been disavowed. The ability to dance toward tomorrow, with movements of the past, tilting toward an unexpected extension of what societies have already done toward worlds that people strive to imagine.
1 See Cunard 1934; Lomax 1936; Southern 1971; Emery 1972; Levine 1978; Baker 1984; Mercer 1994; White & White 1999.
2 Johnson 2006.
3 Johnson 2006, 446.
4 Johnson 2006, 447.
5 Elam 2001, 4.
6 Harney & Moten 2013, 50.
7 Harney & Moten 2013, 50.
8 (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M) vuodelta 2011 on Cecilia Bengolean, Francois Chaignaud’n, Marlene Monteiro Freitasin ja Trajal Harrellin yhteisohjaus, mutta perustuu Harrellin vuonna 2001 aloittamaan suurempaan projektiin.
9 Harney & Moten 2013, 61.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. 1984. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Cunard, Nancy, ed. 1934. Negro: An Anthology. London: Wishart.
Elam, Harry. 2001. “The Device of Race: An Introduction.” In Harry Justin Elam & David Krasner, eds., African-American Performance And Theater History: A Critical Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 3–16.
Emery, Lynne Fauley. 1972. Black Dance from 1619 to Today. Palo Alto: National Press Books.
Harney, Stefano & Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.
Johnson, E. Patrick. 2006. “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures.” In D. Soyini Madison & Judith Hamera, eds., The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies. London: Sage, 446–463.
Levine, Lawrence W. 1978. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Choreographer and professor Thomas F. DeFrantz is anexpert in African American dance and performance. He directs the SLIPPAGE Lab (slippage.duke.edu), which combines performance and technology to amplify the voices of queer and racialised communities in society. Prior to his current role at Northwestern University, he has been a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University, consulted for museums on the history of African American ballroom dance, published several books on Black dance and performance theory, and mentored a generation of young artists and scholars. design.northwestern.edu/people/profiles/defrantz-thomas.html