What is Black Space? It is a space created in opposition, in solidarity, as refuge, as think-tank, and ultimately as a source of power. It is a space to share and negotiate the codes, questions, and understandings of our identities within the larger culture, as well as a space of contradiction and limitation, as its terminology is inherently a false concept.
The supposition of blackness is held as a monolithic identity based on old laws, cultural rules, and visual cues of complexion and action. It has been historically used as a means of subjugation. A marker. A stain. A control mechanism. It’s a term that was transformed by Black people during the 1960s into an idea that embraced the complex space of power, love, and identity. It signified the difference between being put in a room and creating a room of one’s own. I believe the power to self-identify, in a time when we have developed a multitude of terms that describe our ways of being in this world, is itself the beginning of addressing the old, stagnant concepts of race. The reality of holding multiple and fluid definitions of oneself seems appropriate in an age of DNA forensics and cultural intermingling.
Black Space is a space created in opposition, in solidarity, as refuge, as think-tank, and ultimately as a source of power.
I was born in New York City and grew up during the Civil Rights era and the beginning of “affirmative action.” Although my personal aesthetic encompasses a wide range of influences from various cultures, most of my artistic career over the last 36 years has resided in and around the postmodern framework: Mel Wong, Trisha Brown, Susan Rethorst, Meg Stuart, Maria Hassabi, and Sally Silvers among many others. From the early 1980s to the early 2000s, I was one of the few people of color working in this genre of dance. In the course of the last 20 years, I found myself in what I called the “Black phase” of my career, working with a number of artists of color within the postmodern genre: Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Sekou Sundiata, Dean Moss/Layla Ali, Tracie Morris, Reggie Wilson, Patricia Hoffbauer, David Roussève, and Kaneza Schaal, to name a few. It was nourishing to be in the room with these artists and the range of their perspectives on how race or identity played a part in the making of the work, particularly after working in the downtown scene where the idea of race felt absent. This was especially made evident during my time working with Trisha Brown (1987-93), as she focused on the erasure of identity as a means of abstracting the body; allowing the movement to dictate identity within the choreography.
There has been a significant change in the last 10 years, as a younger generation of Black bodies and bodies of color began appearing on the scene. This shift created a larger space for reflection, alternative perspectives, and other dialogues within the postmodern dance community. Last year, I surprised myself with my response to seeing Oluwadamilare Ayorinde’s beautiful, dark Black body appear in Trisha Brown’s work, after being the first Black body in the company myself 30 years prior. The internal semiotics of seeing this sole Black figure working amongst white bodies and how those bodies framed him changed my ability to see the work. Or rather, to see the work as Trisha might have wanted it to be seen. My connection to his body and the work was simultaneously baffling, enlightening, and resonant.
Parallels: The End, curated by Ralph Lemon was the closing performance of the Platform 2012: Parallels at Danspace Project. The larger platform was a revisitation of the original curatorial question behind the 1982 Parallels series: “What is Black dance?” This closing event involved 12 performers of color doing solo improvisations over the course of 11 hours based on prompts offered by Ralph. I felt a quietly moving satisfaction in watching the succession of brown bodies inhabiting the stage, in a space where my own Black body had been the anomaly over the past decades. This event became the impetus for a series of interrelated performance research projects I developed examining how a Black body exists within the postmodern concepts of neutrality and abstraction, as well as other interrogations. It was a process of exploring certain questions–how do we perceive the source of our identities, the contradictions between personal desires and political needs, and the question of ‘what is a black body and voice?’–culminating in the final performance work, he his own mythical beast (2018).
But I still struggle with the philosophical questions of what is Black and what is a Black space: Is it solely in opposition to whiteness? And how does this play out in a particular aesthetic form that is housed within a white-dominated genre? Is it a Black space when the performers are Black and audience is mostly white? Or must it be a private space amongst only us?
I am reminded of an interview between Julius Lester and James Baldwin from a New York Times article (May 1994):
JL: What do you see as the task facing Black writers today, regardless of age or generation?
JB: This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete.
JL: And how would a Black writer do that?
JB: Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete. Do you see what I mean?
JL: I see what you mean, but some Black writers of my generation might say that the responsibility of Black writers is to write about Black people.
JB: That is not a contradiction. If our voices are heard, it makes the concept of color obsolete. That has to be its inevitable result.
While I admire Baldwin’s utopian desire for racial obsolescence, it’s an ideal, which I don’t think will happen in my lifetime, if ever. But his idea speaks to the concept of presence. The room shifts when “we” are more present in it, when our voices are heard as multiple voices and not as a monolith. This presence feels political, encompassing various strategies for survival, personal examination, and language that elucidates the range of our presence and relationships within a diverse world. A Black space must recognize the inherent hybridity of this concept.
The cultivation of this space feels essential in a society where the current political regime wants to pull us all backward and has removed the Band-Aids that were meant to heal wounds, revealing that certain ideas and fears continue to scar our minds and bodies. In the end I have no real answers, simply a deeply felt desire for a space of transcendence, as I have been wanting for a long time.
About the Author: David Thomson
About the Editor: Tara Aisha Willis
Works CitedLester, Julius. "James Baldwin–Reflections of a Maverick." Late City Final Edition, 27 May 1984. Web. 1 May 1994. .The Voyeurs. Brooklyn Bridge Park & Madison Square Park, New York, 2016. Performance.