in the waking: Tommy DeFrantz (American Realness) & David Thomson (COIL)

“Double consciousness is knowing the particularity of the white world in the face of its enforced claim to universality… Double consciousness, in other words, is knowing a lie while living its contradiction.” – Biko

Thomas F. DeFrantz, White Privilege – a lecture performance, at American Realness Photo by Ian Douglas

Instead of involving themselves in an all‐out attempt to stamp out racism from their white society, liberals waste lots of time trying to prove to as many blacks as they can find that they are liberal. This arises out of the false belief that we are faced with a black problem. There is nothing the matter with blacks. The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realise this the better for us blacks. Their presence amongst us is irksome and of nuisance value. It removes the focus of attention from essentials and shifts it to ill‐defined philosophical concepts that are both irrelevant to the black man and merely a red herring across the track. White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society‐‐‐ white racism. –Steve Biko (as Frank Talk), Black Souls in White Skins, I Write What I Like, S. Africa, 1970.

it amazes me that we still have to do this. we have to gather together to work through the terms of white privilege, white domination, white supremacy, and our responsibilities to each other as artists and people.  that we seem to move so little into understanding. our lives as the anti-racist, proto-feminist, queer-affirming beings we aspire to be; that we need these resets; these provocations and disruptions; these moments to swim in reflection. –Thomas F. DeFrantz/Slippage, White Privilege, a lecture performance, NYC, Jan 2018

And I came to realize that, the work she was doing, the way she was thinking, she wanted to privilege the form, and the content of the form, over the individual performing it. She wanted the dancer to actually disappear behind the work itself. So only the work would be seen, only the movement. –David Thomson, he his own mythical beast, NYC Feb 2018

Quran Karriem (Sonicscape designer) and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Photo by Ian Douglas

Tommy DeFrantz returned to American Realness with another manifesto-lecture-performance. Similar to his revolutionary 2016 I Am Black, Tommy began his White Privilege performance with rules of engagement, acknowledging that while the text was polemical, it was not meant as a screed. The artist, scholar and Duke University Professor explained this would not be a tedious diatribe, as part of long-running and on-going discourse we would be asked to participate as well. This was yet another stop for conversation and reflection “along the way.”  But, despite this easing of the format’s inherent tension, the reality of the date – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – imbued my experience of the event with insistent urgency. We have been along this way for our entire lived lives, we have been “striving towards” for so long, I sometimes wonder to what, to where, to when, to and with whom? To reconciliation, reparation, equality, equity, freedom, fearlessness? To a release from the wake or an entrance into more waking? The cycle runs its circles, and maybe the long arc of history does bend toward justice, but too often it feels like we’re spinning. However, on that good day in January, there was a call to action in the good work of this performance. Amidst the blunt and the sly, the slipping and the skipping across borders of academia, experimental tech and performance, lecture and dialogue, challenge and acceptance, he carried the King premise that democracy cannot be achieved through exploitation, and that there is nothing more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. When he repeated several times throughout the hour long event: it amazes me that we still have to do this. we have to gather together to work through the terms of white privilege, white domination, white supremacy, and our responsibilities to each other as artists and people, Biko’s resentment for the S.African white liberal and King’s point that it is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn were foreshortened from decades in the past and dropped into a kindred present. So, while the rhetoric was pointed with poignancy instead of rousingly aspirational, Tommy – a revered artist scholar, and not reverend – can still preach.

If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. (Steve Biko, Black Souls in White Skins). I’d been reading the copy of Biko’s I Write What I Like I’d gotten to Perry Yung as a going away present to Cape Town that morning, and was twitchy with the parallels to past struggles against the repetition of the constant crisis upon us. This particular point reminded me of Tommy’s previous visit to AR and the post-modern aesthetic landscape within which David Thomson was building he his own mythical beast for Coil (at the newly branded Performance Space New York last week). David’s work had begun during a Ralph Lemon curated performance for the Parallels Platform at Danspace Project, an important reminder of how persistent privilege has been to require a return to the 30 year old questions of the first Parallels series. But, Biko’s statement also framed my consideration of the larger structures that Tommy has been building away from the societies of downtown NYC. In his writing, his editing, his publishing, his performing and in his co-founding of the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance – with this year’s upcoming (3rd bi-annual) conference Dance Black Joy: Global Affirmations and Defiance at Duke where he is professor of much for many intersectional departments – Thomas F. DeFrantz has managed to invigorate and fortify a black performance consciousness.

But, he has also done the mission work of coming to us, entering the hostile territory of diversity initiatives to simultaneously deconstruct the confines of ‘race’ and amplify his challenge to racism. He is un-equi-vocal-ly elevating the conversation as he speaks to the world of contemporary performance within the frame of contemporary performance. Finding us where we are and reminding us the work is still not done, as when he draws upon Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to examine the still willingly unexamined life.

That text offered us modes of thinking that shifted where we were in relationship to each other.  I want to set up a 3 part exercise for us today. one, what does it mean to experience white privilege?  two, how has white privilege been narrated or defined/explained? three, what do we do now?

it amazes me that we still have to do this. we have to gather together to work through the terms of white privilege, white domination, white supremacy, and our responsibilities to each other as artists and people.  that we seem to move so little into understanding. our lives as the anti-racist, proto-feminist, queer-affirming beings we aspire to be; that we need these resets; these provocations and disruptions; these moments to swim in reflection.

we find a poignancy of meeting on MLK day; the most american of holidays so much so that some ignore it, claiming their right to refuse participation.  that’s fine, I guess;

and my own queerness has often kept me from participating in some black social structures that seem happy to exclude me; I know something about refusing participation.  but denying access is something else altogether, and that’s one of the terms of white privilege we want to consider today… 

Is everyone always automatically expected to share the concerns of people of color? Do we all really have to pay attention to race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity? What constitutes “white privilege?” If I’m not interested in being part of some solution, am I really part of the problem? What if I’m a maker/audience/presenter who happens to be interested in love, or formal structure, or myth, or universal qualities of empathy? What am I to do now?

we’re bound up here by the magic “as if” of the theater – we will work as if we could understand these things.

so first, what does white privilege mean?

  1. White privilege is never having to say you’re sorry

          about anything.  Ever. Never.  Pushing me out of the way, cutting in the line, demanding attention, expecting service.  Wanting, demanding, expecting.  Never having to say you’re sorry, never needing to express regret or amend wrongs, never compelled to acknowledge complicity that has made your desire possible.  White privilege allows for your desire to be possible.  white privilege undergirds a narcissism that constructs the world white white whiteness at its center, never acknowledging missteps, bad ideas, racist misogynist policies. Never having to say you’re sorry.  Wait, that’s love.  White privilege is love. The love of self, above all others; the love of me before you or us. The love of things as they’ve always been, in an innocence blanched free of guilt or shame.  Love.  For the simplicity of it all.  As if…

David Thomson, “he his own mythical beast,” Photo by Maria Baranova

Double consciousness is knowing the particularity of the white world in the face of its enforced claim to universality… Double consciousness, in other words, is knowing a lie while living its contradiction. And I came to realize that, the work she was doing, the way she was thinking, she wanted to privilege the form, and the content of the form, over the individual performing it. She wanted the dancer to actually disappear behind the work itself. So only the work would be seen, only the movement. it amazes me that we still have to do this. we have to gather together to work through the terms of white privilege, white domination, white supremacy, and our responsibilities to each other as artists and people. (Biko, Thomson, DeFrantz)

Biko’s double consciousness, this knowing the lie of white supremacy by living its contradiction, and this living in the constant wake of this contradiction, this lie, this use of universal (aka white legibility), this use of neutral…it cuts through the “along the way.”  We vigil, we rouse and we sift through the aftermath. We wait in wake and we awaken and we swim through, drown in or surf across the endless ripples. [Note: Choreographer and Hunter college compatriot, Nia Love, pointed me to Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being last year while we worked together for the Estrogenius Festival and it is also on Tommy’s Movement Research MELT Reading Group, so take yourselves to her for a deeper soak.] When David Thomson initiated his process for he his own mythical beast (his first evening length work) for he began with the question “Can a black body be neutral in a post-modern aesthetic in America?” I could see them from this monstrous ark called progress, those mythical sea serpents (bakanowa perhaps?), splashing in the waves behind us and eclipsing all of the anodyne moons before. In David’s crafting of this stunning performance and in his luminous, glow, beneath his enormous wingspan, the mythological neutral – ark of the covenant of the detached goddess PoMo – cracked with a haughty tail slap, took on water and began to sink.

David Thomson, Photo by Maria Baranova

David had started with neutrality and then he created Venus, named after the enslaved S. African Sarah Baartman (the Hottentot Venus) who was treated like a piece of exotica and exploited through display in London and Paris during the early part of the 19th century. His Venus operates in the wake of her tragedy, but summons and reclaims the exotic with flirtatious power and decided ambiguity. In fact, Ambiguity could be Neutrality’s original incarnation, before migration and transmission left her/them drearily branded and bland-ed upon our shores. David’s Venus is the medium – through hir we can glimpse the vast mystery – the possibility of incongruity. In he his own mythical beast, Venus dabbles in black face, recedes and dominates, dissolves and explodes, disappears and commands – often all within the same unfolding moment. This Venus captures so much of human experience, of the contradiction of living, but more specifically the contradiction of living amongst dominant narratives that perpetuate the lies born out of racial supremacist thinking. And, like a companion piece to Tommy’s lecture performances, it pulls our focus on white supremacy into an intimate proximity, tackles icons and institutions much closer to home. They both require us to acknowledge the insidious nature of our accepted belief systems. Charleston, Charlottesville, 45’s SoTU, everything on ADL’s online hate index are all part of the spectrum and worthy of righteous indignation, action or non-profit donation, but if thinking global, but acting local are a mantra of the moment, then dismantling the lie of the neutral body in dance is urgently here, urgently now, and totally possible.

Katrina Reid, Paul Hamilton and Jodi Bender – Photo by Maria Baranova

Especially, in the hands of artists like David and his collaborators. As a performer he’s been irresistibly compelling (obviously a problem for a certain unnamed choreographer he quotes), as a choreographer he gathered a team of worthy accomplices. None are expected to rival his inexhaustible zeal, within the glossolalia and the dripping rivers of sweat, David’s Venus, brings us to a state of ecstasy, a vibratory rapture. Through the pleasure of rotating shoulders, shaking hips, contradiction and convergence, and a humbling (decimating?) commitment to unrelenting movement practice, he can’t be matched. But, fellow cast members serve as necessary ballasts, with Paul Hamilton often, literally, countering and counter balancing him as Jodi Bender and Katrina Reid orbit and and anchor various moments. Peter Born’s direction, visual design and sound score along with Roderick Murray’s lighting design, costumes from Naoko Nagata and Athena Kokoronis (Domestic Performance Agency) and Clarinda Mac Low’s dramaturgy all contribute to the leviathan level depths we are drawn into. Depths I can’t yet fathom. Depths that sing a siren call to return, to shine lights into the crevices of this dense and delightful work. To work through his ideas around labor and Siri’s not-neutral voice…

…but I already know we will be back again… gathering together to work through the terms…  perhaps more and more… the terms of many languages… the terms of “creating a black voice” not only for Siri or Alexa or but the terms of the privilege of love… the privilege of loving… the privilege of living… so much… out of time… for the moment until.. it amazes me that we still have to do this. we have to gather together to work through the terms of white privilege, white domination, white supremacy, and our responsibilities to each other as artists and people.

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