On shaking hands
and quivering voices and stammered words
and heart flutters that could be heard across the Brooklyn Bridge
On spending a moment at the center in the midst of a life at the margins
On hypervisible invisibility . . .
I am not used to being on panels. I am not used to talking in front of people, much less crying in front of people, much less crying on a livestream broadcast to the world wide Web and archived for all to see. But living past 23 has made me used to things I’m not used to.
There is the question of how much am I willing to sacrifice my comfort for collective liberation.
There is also this sense of dire urgency that has taken over my being in the past year – carrying life will do that to you. There is the question of how much am I willing to sacrifice my comfort for collective liberation. There is a clarity that if I have not made that sacrifice, I have not done MY work. And so in these moments I am uncomfortable, in front of people, I remember that this is my sacrifice; it is my being visible that allows others to see (no matter how invisible I wish to be).
As I remember the panel on Dance Criticism in NYC, so eloquently curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa, I remember seeing every panelist’s hand shaking at some point. I remember the way I heard just about every voice quiver – except dear Charmaine, the way Black women perform never ceases to amaze me. I remember the realization that we were preaching to the choir, that everyone at that table was and still is genuinely interested in change even if our definitions of change vary. It’s that kind of good preaching where the Amen choir lets you know you’re not alone.
And then there was the moment I felt alone…on an island…applauded from the mainland but standing by myself, bare, and so far away…
My tears were for Black children. My tears were for Black mothers. My tears were for Black artists who are all these things and more. The lump in my throat had actually been building since the beginning of the month, when I saw Dancing While Black’s and then there was fire… Masculinities Re/Born. Since I watched four Black men conjure, circling and swirling their arms in the same pattern despite never seeing each other’s work before that shared evening. Since Anthony Rosado reminded me that our ancestors were not victims, that our very lives were proof of their resilience and then we all danced in celebration. Since I watched Yeman Brown’s sweat in flight as he embodied the two-ness, no, rather the multiple personalities of Black masculinity. As I watched movements I recognized from my brothers, uncles, cousins, and then shaking – the shaking of an anxiety I have only recently come to know.
I have actually been wrapped in that deep, layered emotion expressed on the panel since I watched Ricarrdo Valentine and Orlando Hunter embrace in every way I cannot describe. Since I laughed, gasped, choked on their performance of Brother(hood) in spite of manhood. Since I watched them love – as individual, as partner, as spirit. As my dear sister Adia says, “The African brings spirit into every single thing we do.” It is that spirit that engulfed me throughout that weekend in May at BAAD. It is that spirit that jumped out of me on that panel.
It is not easy to see that I carry
It is that spirit that broke me open as I watched Marjani Forté-Saunders’ being here…/this time just days before – the spirit that Tendayi Kuumba, Jasmine Heart, and Ni’ja Whitson moved with. See they weren’t the only ones on stage that weekend. So many folks said they held back tears while watching that work (yes work, not performance). But I was liberated. The pain that had been clouding and crowding me for days was pulled out of me and laid upon the stage. I remember when they touched me – propelling themselves across the floor of a room so small and packed to the brim. I felt the vibrations abound. I felt my soul opened and salved by their grunts and wails. When you have cried from the soles of your feet, you see this endless pain for what it is. And all you can do is lock in to every ancestor you can find to propel you across the floor, across the very bottom of this country, and when you look up, you can still see the sun and stars no matter how far they may seem.
In the time since that panel, I have been told that it is hard to see me as marginalized. That I am successful and sitting at the center. Yet as I sit at the center, I watch the margins remain invisible or simply pass through – the same way Charmaine’s intense emotion around the painful history of an elder critic passed through Siobhan as she went on to make her point about how this critic launched careers. Our pain often seems to be only a hiccup in their sentence. It is easy to see me at the center in my fancy African pants and tall shoes. It is not easy to see that I carry children lost, cousins jailed, hunger pains, blood stains, mama’s tears, baba’s fears, grandma’s dreams and so so so much death. It is not comfortable to see my history as you admire my success. But that seeing is actually exactly what I was talking about.
It does not take a side eye to see that the lens is distorted. I want you to see me the way I saw myself in the work of Marjani. I want you to see my ancestry like the brothas of Masculinities Re/Born showed. I want you to see the violence we carry that shakes us into anxiety. I want you to see the pain behind addiction that brings us liberating tears. We are trauma survivors and ancestral thrivers. We are pain carriers and glitter wearers. As folk watch this video again and again, this is what I want them to see. Because you cannot begin to understand my value when you only see one limb of my being.
You cannot begin to understand how to process my cultural translation until you see I’m actually speaking multiple languages.
And while there is so much work to be be done – perhaps we can start by simply question job what we see. Maybe it is better to look through a side eye after all.