I want to start by returning to something that we talked about in our first interview a couple of years ago, actually. We started that interview by talking about Farah Jasmine Griffin's idea of “not being willing to forget or wholly forgive America's historical transgressions,” but that in your practice, you're devoted to “helping this nation achieve itself.” How — if at all — has your thinking on that changed over time? Has that remained the core of your practice?
Definitely. I wouldn’t say my practice is devoted to helping America achieve this idealistic version of itself that has never existed, rather it is rooted in what I know to exist, through my experiences as a Black, queer-identifying woman living in the U.S. The way that I am working through and with my experiences in my art practice and the content or messages that I produce are always shifting.
Two years ago, I was reading Harlem Nocturne, which is where I got that quote by Farah Jasmine Griffin, and my sentiments around not being able to forget or wholly forgive the transgressions of America have only deepened. Meaning that my practice is fueled by the clear need for all Americans — Black, white, privileged, or oppressed — to deal with American history as a whole, rather than it solely being the business of the oppressed.
To jump back to another previous conversation, we held an artist talk with you a few months ago where you talked about your work in terms of “exposure, release, and protest.” Can you talk about what each of those three things mean for you?
Exposure is expressed in my work through the presence of Black queer-identifiying folks and the use of historical content. For me, this exposure is shining a light on the fact that the education system does a disservice when we're teaching American history — coupled with the stereotypes and narratives that are constantly presented in media and gatekeeping institutions. Through working with Black folks — specifically Black Queer identifying folks — I am showing our visibility throughout history. Like Black American history, Black Queer American history has been silenced. Both are present: interacting and overlapping in the same spaces with each other.
I started working with this concept of exposure two years ago, when I was working closely with the 1965 Cambridge debate speech by James Baldwin. It's on the question of: Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro? And honestly, I've never let go of that interview, because he really breaks down how it's a matter of your perception of reality — or which reality you live in.
So when I create, I'm really working to expose my reality, in the hope that people will see — and choose to see — my individual reality, and some of the collective reality of other Black folks. I mean, in 2020, it seems like people would have seen, but that is still not the case.
Has your relationship to that debate changed over time? Because the question of debate is something that comes up in the video piece in the show. At the end of the piece, you talk about, “my life made death to debate.” Which, for me, as a viewer, points towards this sort of exhaustion with the fact that that is something that is reasonable to even be having a debate over.
That particular debate for me is the exposure. Because you can't tell whether it's 2021 or 1965. You can't tell. I mean, obviously, you know — social norms, the way people are dressed, whatever — but based on the content, you cannot tell the difference. So I hold tight to that debate, because it is both past and present.
Initially titled Strange Fruit, this current work started in 2017, when I was asked by a colleague, woman, and fellow artist, Evita Colon, to create a dance piece for her project called Speak to My Soul. And she wanted a piece to “Strange Fruit,” the Nina Simone version, which is a song that I've always loved. [Pause.] Well, love isn’t the right word, not loved. But I've always felt connected to.
So I created a piece of choreography for that, and then from there, in 2018, I collaborated with Jasmine Lynea, Desiree’ Lovett, and Nyasha George to create part of what you see in this exhibition. We created the actual film version, which was really an endeavor to pay homage to victims of lynchings. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and the closest reported lynching to Philadelphia was that of Zachariah Walker in Coatesville, Pennsylvania on August 13, 1911. So the four of us went to Coatesville and we filmed the video there. We were unable to finish in one day, because, even though we were at a state park, someone came and threatened to call the police on us if we did not leave. It was an entirely unnecessary situation that resulted in us leaving, and finishing the film at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Both filming locations were on the land of the Lenape Nation.
Since the completion of that version, I started working on what I've been calling the remix, titled Now or Then: Strange Fruit. Artistically the remix includes a sound score that I created as well as layering in terms of video and print editing. Really, I just was disgusted with the first presidential debate. I was not surprised. I was not shocked. But I was truly disgusted. And the main thing that really resonated, that really stood out to me, is that there’s never been a presidential debate in my lifetime — let alone in the history of this country — where they haven't had a specific section for what to do with folks of African descent that live in this country. And it's really incredible. It's really incredible, when you think about it, that we have normalized there being a moment for our government to take aside and just address Black Americans — as if we are not all Americans.
So that is really what shifted the work. The question of humanity dissipates when the body is politicized rather than humanized. And I think that has just been on full display in 2020. From the pandemic, you are able to see the way that white supremacy is ingrained in multiple systems, but people are able to — if you choose to — see the difference between reform and abolition. That's what's been coming up for me: what is the language that's being used when we're dealing with these issues? Because there's just a lot of... [Pause.] Consuming, of Black life and Black death and Black culture. But there's not actual support for sustainability of and for Black folks. Instead there are debates.
You know what I'm saying? It's not about actual change. It's about, “What can we do for Black people while still sustaining capitalism?” When it comes down to it, these debates are just about what we need to do to keep capitalism intact, and still somehow service the Black people in this country whose needs are not met by capitalist structures.
This is reminding me of one of the refrains that comes up a lot in the piece, “It was an event,” in terms of how this spectacle of Black death you’re talking about became an event in 2020. Which is to say: how are you thinking about “eventhood,” for lack of a better word, there?
Historically speaking, lynchings were a literal event where people would gather. So lynchings are the event, and Black death today is still an event. It's still something that can catch you off guard when you're scrolling through your timeline. It's something that can be the only thing that's on your timeline. It's something that people can pull up and watch and view. It's like repetitive trauma, to keep. We don't talk about what the effect of just watching and absorbing Black death at this rate is. It is normal. It's not something that is met with the sacredness that it deserves. It is an event we are forced to attend, an event that some are desensitized to. So I’m thinking of the eventhood as something available for public consumption and participation.
In that artist talk you also talked about “active rest,” which now you have me thinking of in terms of rest from this endless cycle of constantly being able to be exposed to death and trauma at any given point.
I mean, active rest, for me, is radical. And that is something that 2020 really brought out. Rest is something that I have been exploring in another work, Mending in Space, that questions what rest for Black femmes — specifically in its first iteration in public space — looks like, and what it requires when we’re not used to seeing Black folks outside of modes of production, or Black bodies resting in public spaces.
I also talk a lot about epigenetic trauma being present in my work. Through research I have found that it is usually thought of in terms of the effects it has on the reproductive health of Black women, but I'm thinking of that very biological concept more as a carrying of weight. So, internally, carrying the weight and the experiences of your ancestors, and then, externally, interacting with epigenetic trauma through dealing with the DNA of this country. And still not even knowing the whole scope of it — the whole weight of it — because, again, the history that we are taught.
So, yes, we were there to pay homage to Zachariah Walker. But we were also paying homage to the multitude of folks that exist, and have existed, in the space that was created. So the layering in the prints and in the editing of the video is really like a time warp. There's moments where you can see the dancers and moments where you can kind of not see the dancers, and for me, those are the spirits that take up space, that we also carry with us — the stories.
So this brings me back to your earlier question of release: what does it mean to be able to release? To be able to let go of? To feel that mourning, to move your body and release the experiences that you're holding in a space where you feel safe? I feel like there's a lot of weight that we don't acknowledge that we carry — but we do carry — and it's a weight from our ancestors’ experiences, and we are experiencing the same thing. So it's like this internal and this external interaction with epigenetic trauma, and creating is my way of navigating through it and sharing it. The exposure is the sharing, and the creating is the release. And then the protest is the existence of the work. It’s, Yes, I am going to create this and share my voice.
We’re talking about a lot of things that are directly reflected in the writing that accompanies the piece, so can you talk a little bit about the relationship between dance and writing in your practice?
I always work with dance and poetry. Those are my first loves, and I feel like the combination of both just allows for me to have some control over what is being viewed. The movement is the emotion — it is the expression that doesn’t need words, and there can be a lot of interpretation from the viewer. When I add text, I'm making sure that you're clear on what you're seeing. I love audience interpretation, but I want it to be clear that I'm talking about reality. This is not a moment to be entertained.
Say more? I think that a lot of people — whether they’d admit it or not — see dance primarily as an entertainment medium. How do you push back against that?
I mean, it's really challenging, because people either see you as an entertainer or as high art that is unaccessible. It's these two polarized spaces, and I don't exist in either, really. Dance is one of those art forms where your body is your practice. And for me, I choose to use dance as a way to express my embodied experiences. But there is some resistance.
In what way?
From those who only think of dance in a singular way, or who think dance can only exist in singular spaces.
I think a lot of people also don't think about the collaboration that can happen with dance. So, for example, I am in the Dance MFA program at Duke University, and it is focused on embodied interdisciplinary practice. It’s focused on how you're using dance in the world, how you want to use dance individually — in a way that could be conventional or might not be conventional, depending on whose definition of conventional you're using. Because dance is also movement.
This is a whole different conversation, but it's challenging. It's definitely challenging. There is a hierarchy within dance between dance forms that are institutionalized — i.e. ballet — versus dance forms that are not — i.e. hip-hop or West African dance forms. Your dance technique classes are all westernized dance forms, and then you have the other bracket of, “Oh, well, these other forms can be entertainment forms.” But when you think about dance as a practice and outside of these westernized forms — dance is literally ancient technology. People have been dancing for forever. So it's really just about the scope that you're using to view dance.
We’ve been talking around this the whole time, but to close, I want to return to this relatively rhetorical question you ask throughout the piece: “Is this now or then?” Can you expand on that a bit? How are you thinking about that divide between now and then?
I’m thinking about now and then in the context of change, and time, and progress. And what we call progress… [Pause.] And what we actually have. I'm thinking about now and then to really look at the overlap between time periods as it relates to the treatment of Black life. [Long pause.] And Black death. And the timelessness of violence against Black bodies. And how that overlap contributes to the futures that we keep finding ourselves in, that are still way too closely related to the past.
That is what I really am sitting with.
I wanted to start by talking about this idea that you mentioned in your pre-interview questionnaire: Farah Jasmine Griffin's idea of being “not willing to forget or wholly forgive America’s historical transgressions,” but being devoted to “helping this nation 'achieve' itself.” Can you say more about how the idea of America “achieving itself” plays into your practice, whether as a dancer, poet, or choreographer?
This idea plays into all of my work. As a person, I'm observant of where I live and conscious of the fact that I am constantly navigating through white spaces. Because I've experienced prejudice and discrimination from a young age. This idea isn’t something that is new to me. I think that helping this nation achieve itself refers to letting Americans accepting our history and understanding that this is country is founded on and still run by racist systems.
This is an issue that I think of when creating — the fact that we don't accept our history. That people like to think of it as something that was so long ago, and nobody wants to talk about it. So when I make work, I'm making work to talk about things that people don't want to talk about. Maybe if we put it in a different light, if we put it in art, through dance, through poetry — in places where people don't expect to have the world in their face — then maybe that’ll open up someone's sense of thinking. America achieving itself means America achieving the American Dream. That can't happen the way that America’s set up right now, because the American Dream has to be for everyone. And it's not.
You work as a dancer, choreographer, and a poet. Do you feel like those are all mediums that allow you to work towards that same project? Or do you feel like each of those is doing something slightly different?
I feel like choreographing and writing definitely do that. Because I'm creating. I'm choosing the topics, I’m choosing the content, I'm consciously writing the work, consciously making the pieces, consciously picking the sound scores, I always think of the Nina Simone quote, that “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” That’s what I’m doing — I'm constantly expressing my reality and my experiences through choreographed movement and poetry — the medium doesn’t prohibit the work.
Dance-wise: I dance for other people as well as myself. I currently dance for Putty Dance Project and FlyGround. Dancing for Putty Dance Project and FlyGround is great, I'm learning a lot from other black women — Lauren Putty White and Lela Aisha Jones — who are making work that is social political, that's on some of the same issues that I'm trying to make work about. It’s really inspiring.
I also freelance for other independent choreographers, small showcases, and things like that. But not all of those works are about race, social change, or politics.
And what has it been like collaborating with primarily visual artists while here, rather than with dancers and poets?
It's been really great. I've been collaborating with Nyugen Smith, as well as Christian Berman and Marisa Adesman. Nyugen is a great director. He has a very clear vision, and it's easy for him to direct me — I have free range to do and move as I want, but within the context of what he's asking me to do. With Christian and Marissa, I choreographed a piece for their video project, as well as improvised based on what the scene entailed. I don't think that there's a huge difference between collaborating with visual artists and collaborating with performing artists. I think the difference would be in collaborating within someone's idea as opposed to collaborating and creating an idea.
And do you feel equally comfortable with both processes?
Yeah, for sure. I have only collaborated in terms of creating a piece with one other person — Rashidi Lewis — at a residency in Miami. We spent about a week at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High School, creating and setting work together. That was a really great experience.
Part of the residency program is doing group critiques and feedback as well. So, beyond collaboration, what has it been like getting feedback on your dance and poetry work from people who are sort of mostly outside of those spheres?
It's been amazing. People get trapped in their own art form a lot of times. And I think that it's really important to be influenced by other people's art forms, by the way that other people view things because at the end of the day you're not just making work for yourself, you're making it for others. I've definitely gotten some wonderful feedback from them about the writing, about digging deeper, and about how to add to my work. It's been really helpful.
And this is your second time in Wassaic, right?
Third, actually. My first time here was in 2015 — I showed a collaborative, piece with Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Heidi Wiren Bartlett. I was also here last summer performing my own work with two of my dancers — Mynesha Whyte and Brionna Williams — in a piece entitled “Faith.”
Can you talk a little bit about how those prior experiences here informed what you wanted to do in this residency specifically? Have you been trying to feed off of them, or have you been trying to do something entirely different?
Those were both really positive experiences that drew me to Wassaic. The main thing that made me want to come here was that I’d have time and space away to really focus on my work. To wholeheartedly be in it, to not be on anyone else’s schedule, to not have to worry about having to go to work the next day. Not to mention the scenery, too. It's nice to have a chance to be out of the city.
You also mentioned that you've really enjoyed and fed off of the outdoor stage as an unconventional dance studio space. Can you talk a little bit about how that specifically has influenced your time here? And influenced your practice?
I'm just inspired out there. I've always loved being outside and in nature. I created all the movement phrases that I have been working on while here on that stage, and I've definitely got a lot more done choreographically than I intended to do. I think it just had to do with a change of scenery.
And what specifically have you been working on while here? You mentioned your collaborations with Christian, Marissa, and Nyugen, but what else have you been working on personally?
I came here with the idea of working on the duality of the black body living and navigating through white spaces. Looking at how people can experience the exact same thing and have felt like they experienced it completely differently. The way that black people and white people live in two different realities.
I've been working a lot with texts by James Baldwin. I've really been referencing his 1965 Cambridge debate on whether the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro, or the American Negro is at the expense of the American dream. And the way he answers the question is by saying that it basically depends on what your sense of reality is. So I’ve been looking at the timeline of race and racist structures, why those structures and institutions and systems are still around, and the Western European sense of reality that we live in here in America — a sense of reality that has yet to evolve to create any place for the subjugated, or the oppressed. For me.
That seems to tie back to what you were talking about earlier, this idea of helping the nation “achieve itself.” That, right now, we're not even operating on the same plane of what this “American Dream” actually is. Does that seem right?
Yes. I actually created a timeline on the board in my studio, thinking about why these structures are in place. Thinking about slavery, sharecropping, and convict leasing all as free labor, but then we get to the Jim Crow era and it's really not about free labor. It's more about protecting this irrational fear of the other, about protecting that sense of reality, making sure that whatever you have is not taken away, making sure that we keep black people as second-class citizens. And then you move forward past Jim Crow into where we are now, mass incarceration, and see that it’s still all about free labor and keeping this Western sense of reality safe.
And have both of those ideas specifically manifested themselves in pieces you've choreographed? Or just in your mode of dancing more generally?
So I actually created the texts first for “Duality.” When I got here I was doing all research: re-reading books that I’ve read, articles, documentaries, listening to speeches. I put all of my notes and my ideas on my board, then started writing and creating poems. Then I started editing the poems, trimming them down, and really figuring out what I was really trying to say. And then I made the movement phrases based off of that.
Is that the direction you usually work in? Starting with a piece of poetry and then creating a dance piece to accompany it? Or does it sometimes go the other direction?
I usually have the poem first and then develop the movement as a response. Sometimes I’ll record improvisations that I've done to learn and turn into phrases. I can either go back to phrases that I think would work with the poem or create completely new ones. I’m always dancing more than I'm writing, even if the poem comes first.
Originally from Mount Vernon, NY, I began showcasing my talents and creating performances at family gatherings, and social functions. I was a praise dancer at Mother A.M.E. Zion Church (Harlem, NY.), and a dance club captain in high school. My formal dance training started at The Dance Theatre of Harlem School, after which I went on to receive my BFA in Dance from The University of the Arts, Philadelphia (c/o 2015).
I have danced and performed with companies Lela Aisha Jones | FlyGround, Putty Dance Project, Dancespora, KCBC, and Jo-Me’ Dance. I have worked with choreographers Michael Mao, Jasmine Powell, Raphael Xavier, and Joanna Kotze. My writing has been featured in works by iKada Dance, Drye Marinaro Dance Company, and by artist Surya Swilley. I am a past artist in residence with The Wassaic Project (July 2018), and Activation Residency (September 2019).
I recently received the 2021-2022 Kenan Institute of Ethics Graduate Arts Fellowship in Social Choreography and Performance.