The aforementioned article discussed some initiatives on campus last year in response to Black Lives Matter. However, it failed to include other forms of engagement, specifically one poignant to me and three others involved. For the sake of preserving institutional memory and not promoting erasure, I want to highlight this particular student-initiated engagement with Black Lives Matter on campus last year.
Last semester, I embarked on a senior project for my special major in Dance and Black Studies. Compelled by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and countless other black people at the hands of the state, my project consisted of three works. The first work addressed the systemic violence and killing of black people and aimed to raise awareness of this issue. The second work was about self-care and how black people can practice self-care in community with one another in the face of oppression to affirm our worth. Finally, the third work was about celebrating black lives.
Imagine four black women dancing in the middle of Parrish, unexpectedly performing. Imagine witnessing a symbolic representation of one of the black women killed by the police. Imagine seeing the black women use their bodies to cry, scream, freeze, move angrily, and stare at passers by. But, also imagine observing them hold one another and lift each other up. Imagine viewing these events unfold over and over and over again — cyclically and seemingly never-endingly.
This is what my fellow performers ShaKea Alston ’17, Briani George ’15, Summer Johnson ’17, and I labored on numerous occasions over the course of the spring semester of the 2014-2015 academic year. Our goal was to interrupt the monotony of Swarthmore and compel people of the community to see and engage with issues surrounding Black Lives Matter. These issues do not just affect black people but everyone. We found that people’s reactions to the performances were to some extent indicative of their willingness to engage with issues of race. The fact that some people could not take but a moment to stop to see what we were doing and why it was important implied their lack of care and concern.
Despite those not willing to acknowledge us, these performances were also for us. They gave us the time and space to process in whatever way we so chose with our bodies. To speak our truths with questions and statements such as “Am I threatening to you?”, “Does this make you uncomfortable?”, “I’m scared.”, “I’m tired.”, and “My Swarthmore education won’t save me.” We claimed these truths as we stood on the steps in the middle of Parrish. Though we were up high, confidently addressing those who were around, performing in public spaces did make us vulnerable. On one occasion, though there were people surrounding us watching us perform, a group of white men walked right in the middle of us as we were dancing, as if they didn’t see us. It reminded us of the familiar experience of being seen yet invisible at the same time, appreciated on the surface but denied personhood.
I write this not to commend myself on a job well done. I write this to remember the experiences of performing in these public spaces (Parrish, Science Center, McCabe Library, and in front of Sharples) on different occasions — most times for hours on end. Though the performances took a physical, emotional, and mental toll on our bodies, in some ways, we were empowered. I write this to remember how we changed the spaces where we performed, but that we were also changed in the process. The performances have left an imprint on my body, and when I hear songs used for the project such as “What is Love (feat. V. Bozeman)” by the Empire Cast, I am taken back. I write this so the people who experienced our performances remember how they were moved and take action. Pertaining to Black Lives Matter, the voices and experiences of black people should be at the center. I write this because Black Lives Matter is still relevant, and the work continues. I believe that dance, and the arts in general, is one powerful way to spur not only dialogue but also social change.
To recognize those who helped with my senior project in some way and engaged in discussion and action around Black Lives Matter, I’d also like to thank Xavier Lee ’17 and Indigo Sage ’16 for using my senior project as the focus of their linguistics final video project, Kara Bledsoe ’16 for capturing the performances on different occasions, and Jumatatu Poe and Sharon Friedler for supporting and mentoring me throughout the process. To the black people who have been killed due to systemic violence waged against you, rest in peace and power.
Link to Xavier and Indigo’s final video project can be found here.
Link to the video of our final performance in Science Center can be found here.