Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Identity Dance

While watching the NACHMO 2 showing this weekend, I noticed I was the only choreographer of color. It did not surprise me because it is often the case that I am one of few, or the only. The story of my life. What I also noticed though, was that I was the only choreographer who chose to create work based on an element of identity: womanhood. Many (not all) of the dances were abstract in theme and content. I certainly have an appreciation for such dances and have created my share. For example, Pulled/Together, which is based entirely on the idea of force, balance, and energy.

Still, I could not help but think that there seems to be an element of freedom amongst choreographers who are not of color, to move for movement's sake, to dance about nothing in particular, or to dance about anything but their own experiences. Don't get me wrong, I do not feel bound to dance about any of the labels that I identify with, nor do I feel unable to dance about nothing in particular. Moreover, I think there are many folks who are not of color who choose to make identity dances. What I am getting at though is this feeling that those who do not have the privilege of being accepted as the norm in American culture (i.e. white man), are more inclined to make identity dances.

Zadie Smith in her latest book, Changing My Mind, a compilation of essays that span the length of her career, opens with an essay entitled: "Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?" In it she tells us the story of when she was fourteen and her mother gave her Zora Neale Hurston's novel to read because it was "good writing." Smith resisted, however, because it was a "black" novel. She writes:

I had my own ideas of "good writing." It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly "lyrical" language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered "folk speech" or the love tribulations of women (3).

Smith in her young age holds high the craft of writing, aspiring to the "neutral universal." She resisted liking anything that she could easily identify with. She goes on to explain:

To write critically in English is to aspire to neutrality, to the high style of, say Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson. In the high style, one's loves never seem partial or personal, or even like "loves," because white novelists are not white novelists but simply "novelists," and white characters are not white characters but simply "human," and criticism of both is not partial or personal but a matter of aesthetics. Such critics will always sound like the neutral universal, and the black women who have championed Their Eyes Were Watching God in the past, and the one doing so now, will seem like black women talking about a black book. When I began this piece it felt important to distance myself from that idea. By doing so, I misrepresent a vital aspect of my response to this book, one that is entirely personal, as any response to a novel shall be. Fact is, I am a black woman, and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason (11-12).

Smith's fourteen year old inclinations are just the opposite of my own. She feels an absolute need to attain neutrality in her work, to be a "color-blind" reader and writer, to just be without attaching any personal identifications. What she realizes in hindsight is that in actuality all things are produced in association with personal identifications though traditionally, white readers often believe themselves to be above it. Moreover, she comes to terms with the fact that writing can in fact be "good" by all high standards, and she can relate to it. The integration of her personal identifications with the standards of good writing actually make it better. She does not have to separate herself and her experiences from her craft because herself and her experiences make it all the more rich.

I want to call into question this tendency of "others" to dance about their otherness. Once some one asked me if I was an Africana Studies major because I was black or because I was interested in it. I respond hastily, annoyed, indignant, "because I'm interested." It's true, I did choose to study it because I was interested, but like Smith, I cannot deny that the interest is tied to my blackness and wanting to have a deeper understanding of myself. The self-serving interest does not discount the importance of the study. I mean the reason why we feel we need Black Studies and Women's Studies and Queer Studies and Feminist Studies programs etc. etc. etc. in the University is because the white men who founded academia with courses of study called History, Science, Mathematics etc. did so through their own eyes. They only counted the white man history and what was written was chosen because it was deemed important to them and supported their various plights. Specifically in the American context, that is what became the "neutral universal."

As a result, I think those who are "others" MIGHT feel some responsibility to fill in the gaps. To find themselves and fill in the gaping holes and mis-assessments of the white men's history books. Perhaps it is only human nature that we study and write and think and create in relation to ourselves and the way history would have it, my time as a young black heterosexual able-bodied working class ivy league educated dance artist woman is now. My world is informed by these overlapping layers and so it is from these layers I choose to create. Laura Alexandra Harris in her essay "Queer Black Feminism: The Pleasure Principle" considers at length the role of her multiple identities in her own intellectual study and discourse. She writes:

At the same time that I articulate and analyse this already ongoing queer black feminist project I know I will be enveloping it in my own autobiographical perspective. I know it will be particular. My purpose in doing so is to bring theory and practice together by writing my self into history, by writing myself a history, and by writing a queer black feminist subjectivity into practice (emphasis added, 7).

I can replace the identities she listed with my own, but the objective is the same. Through my own intellectual discourse and creative practice, I am creating a space for myself and those who relate to me. I am diversifying/challenging/expanding the canons of discourse. With this understanding I, some one who can check the "other" box, some one who lives at the intersection of historically oppressed yet presently simultaneously privileged and struggling, do feel a responsibility to dance about my realities and otherness; however, this responsibility is not a burden. In fact, it is a joy. It is a joy because I recognize my privilege do so, and to even have the choice not to if that's not what I'm feeling on any given day.

But I wonder how and when we will be able to get beyond this idea of the "neutral universal"? Will the work of white people in America ever shed the perception of just being "work," while work created by "others" holds on to labels and specific identifications? Would it work to simply label "white work" as such? If we can get to a cultural understanding of how multiple identifications layer and intersect informing our daily lived experiences, will that lessen the responsibility of "others" to create about their "otherness"?


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