In 2019, the violence and risk with which language captures black life is ever more real. Public space, whether virtual or concrete, is a battleground for putting the language of oppression or resistance into the world. Also, language has sped up to a dizzying clip. I’ve been hungering for more time to ponder and construct language for public consumption, to slow language down, to pick it apart. Then I got stuck on the question: Can dance help us choose our words more carefully? I am endlessly fascinated by dance’s slippery nature that is impossible to put into words; dance makes language trip, stutter and grasp for definitions. This year I began exploring how to literally put moving bodies into contact with words, to rethink how words can unfurl the beautiful complexity of black life that is so often oversimplified in our media. In other words, how to create a space for linguistic experimentation for black dancers? How to choreograph a freer language? Uncle Rebus was born.
Dance makes language trip, stutter and grasp for definitions.
Collaborating with dancers Trinity Bobo, Stanley Gambucci and Jasmine Hearn, I looked into the history of Brer Rabbit Tales. The Tales are a contentious series of black oral stories, recorded and published by a white, southern folklorist, Joel Chandler Harris, who claims to have overheard the enslaved sharing them on a plantation. ‘Uncle Remus’ is a character, invented by Harris, to serve as the fictional narrator of these tales. In my mind, Remus has become a stuck symbol of black oral tradition, as seen through a white gaze. Coming out of this post-Emancipation, Reconstruction era, Zora Neale Hurston wrote that Negro expression is the “urge to adorn,” yet in the tales, these adornments had been buried by an underestimation of black poetic ingenuity, especially in mainstream literary circles. For me, the tar baby became a central figure in how to free up expression within the Tales. In one story, Brer Fox mixes up tar and turpentine and, from this material, sculpts a human figure. Brer Fox sets Tar Baby in the hot sun, a black and sticky trap waiting to snare Brer Rabbit. Much can be said about this black figure, its amorphous body, wrapped in silence, but, I began wondering: What can tar baby say? Could we invent a language that tar baby can offer, a language we haven’t encountered yet? A language that helps us reimagine our roles as storytellers and dancers? Can this language dance like our bodies?
I printed two standard English alphabets on A4 paper and attached them to a wall. The dancers and I rearranged these letters for weeks to spell out sentences from Brer Rabbit Tales. Letter by letter, building up and breaking down the words of Uncle Remus, we discovered new associations, fractured ideas and multiple voices. This abundance offered me both a complex unspooling of black oral history and, in this age of texting and typos, a window onto our contemporary linguistic leanings. We also explored how punctuation could substitute for letters as a simple, visual adornment. For example, this would turn the word “TAR” into the word “T#R”. These substitutions created hybrid image-words that made me question what was being written, what I was reading into it all, and through this process, what imaginary wor(l)ds and political commentaries were emerging.
I’m contributing the written recordings of our structured spelling improvisations for this journal. I’ve tried to faithfully recreate how the words transitioned into other words while spreading out across the surface of the wall, in their own kinetic, grammatical journeys. A “rebus” is a mind puzzle, where the reader tries to piece together a collection of images and letters into a statement. I’ve always like the nonsense and play involved in guessing what the answer is. I enjoy this more than knowing the answer. My hope is that Uncle Rebus allows the same kind of free read. Our library is open.
UNCLE REBUS UNCLE REFUS UNCLE REJUS UNCLE REPUS UNCLE / REPUS U C E / REPUS T C E REP*S T E REP*S “TOKE REP*S TOKEN “REP”S TOKEN “R*P” TOKEN” D*PE COK’N! COT’N! COT’N! DRE ) *** UNCLE REMUS UNCLE REJUS UNCLE REDUS UNCLE REDU ( UNCLE REDU C) AUNCLE REDU () AUN LE? REDU () AUNTIE (RUDE.) AUNTI (RUDE.) CUN+IT (RUDE.) .H UN+IT HO +IT RUDE ) HOW IT C ME HOW IT C*ME AB*UT WAS *** UNCLE REBUS! UNCLE RESUS! JUN*LE WE SUS JUN*LE ME SUS JUN*LE ME SIS UN*LE JESIS PUN* JEESIS! HUN*? SIS N THN*? IS NATHN B*Y! COT N B*Y! COT N B’Y! COTTN B! H COT’N (B!TCH) AG (COTTN) GAG (COTT*N) AG OF (COTT*N) BAG OF(COTTN) BAG F COON COON AF COOL AF A FOOL A FABL OO, FABLE HO O, FABLE HO*MO. , FABLE HO*O.* FABLE WHO*O.*S FABLE WHO*O.*, S FABLE? WHO .*, S ABLE? HOW .*,S ABOE HOW IT CA ABOUT HOW IT CAME ABOUT WUZ , THI AME ABOUT WUZ, THIS CAMEABOUT WIZ, *** WIT/ SUGAH WITE SUG/H BITE UG/H BITE GASP BITE GRASP BI E TRASS BI D TRAP BIND TRAP VEIN TRAP VEIN T AR TEAR T=AR RIVEN DRIVEN DRIV’N JIV’N SP AR JIV’N SPOR (E) VIJ’ SPORE I Y MOE ITY MOE PITY MO E TINY MO E THE TINY ONES IN THE DEEP YEL UP! *** CAPE FORGET APE FO GET NAPE FOG ET? GAPE FO ET? GA E OX ET? A/EX GO ET? EX GO! T? EXIT? GO!D TE I GO DAY! BAIT GO D BAIT D ‘OL BIG DO ‘O BATC BIG BATCH O BIG BATCH OF T*R I *R BA:YH I, TAR B :Y I, SAY T I, SAY NOTHN I ST/LL SAY NOTHN.. ..ST/LL I SAY NOTHN *** SINE LOGOS NISE LEGOS! NI LS L=GOS! ANIM’LS L=GOS! *NIM’LS LAND OZ ERTH *N M’LS LAND ON ERTH (ON * :M’L AND ER (ONLY A M*TTER OF TIM= I,T. I, DANCE FO. TH=M I S L O W TH=M DWN I BUY TH=M OUT. HI M!ST*R SLY OUT H/ M!STR SLY AB:T U H/ M!ST SLEY RAB:T U SLEY D’ RABIT, U! *** FIRE STORM FIRM STORE F*RM STOM: F*RM TOM, :P F*RM MON’Y *RM .F MONTY W*RM .F MONTY W*GON FULL .F MONEY WE GON B. MONEY WE GON B (‘IGHN)Y WE GONE B (‘!GHT) WE GONE (‘!GHT) GONE W*S T!M= THEN W*S M= THE W*GON =MPTY. *** UNCLE REBUS UNCLE REMUS UNCLE REFUS UNCLE RE:US UNCLE: REDU UNCLE: REDUN N LE: REDUN NOBLE: RE UND NOLA : UNDER NOLA UNDER W TA NOLA ISUNDER W TA I NO NEVR SWAT I NON EVR. I EVR B NON. IN VR B ON YES’M I B CON YES’M I BACON? YES’M! BISCU!T NAW BA U WAIT BAYOU WAIT YOU WAIT YOU WANT BUSS WAND PUSSY WANDER KUSSY WONDER’N FUSSY WONDER FUSS YONDER! US GO YONDER GO’N “YONDER” GOIN “NO DER” GO’ON DEAR NO/GO, LAND? BOOG/E L ND!? BOOG/E M*N BOUG!E M/L BOUG!E M/LK B*T+UHM/LK T*B UHM/LK NAW G NAW B UTT M/LK BRUH MLK GEN BRUH LMK ANGER BRUH LMK MANGER BRER MAGN BRER MAGNO!*A B*RE MAGNO!*A B*RE AGNO! B*RE NO! WH*RE SW ON WH*LE SP* P HOE SW*MP HOW W*S HO AB U W*S + AME H IT .ME AB UT W*S +H!Z H=W IT C.ME AB*UT W*S +H!Z? *** UNCLE REBUS LUN YE R (US) LUMB ER C MB ERR H +CMB ERR HO+C*MB ERR UM HO+C*MB BURN HO+C*MB BR*WN SIZZ/E “HOW COM IZ” “HOW COM SY’R I, O COM Y’R WITSL’ O CALM WISTL’N CALM WILIN’ CALM ILN MO BAILN MOMA BAILIN MOMA BALLIN IM BOIL N .U IM BOILN . MIZ U L . K/Z U LAY K/TC’HN LAND K/TC’HN BLAND /TC’HN BAD AF ‘/TCH F.R A B ADD!E ‘/ HO+ P BREED! DE /HO+=P, BRER HO=! SEED O’ I HAV= S UL O’ I HAV= S/UL O’ I HAV= S( )L BU+, W/E I AM S(WO)L=N BU+,.. I AM WOOLL=N BU+,.. ..+H:S HOW /T CAM= ‘BOUT...