Blk as the form of infinity
Not located in a specific region or language or culture
Blk as the secret you want to tell but can’t communicate
Not the images of fear you see daily on each of your television screens
Blk Blk Blk Blk Blk Blk
That Blk that baffles all notions of security
That Blk that redefinescurves
That Blk that lives in the circle
That Blk that refuses to be locked in long enough to be understood
I reside in the darkness
I am not afraid
For in the dark, I can sit with myself
And wonder, who am I and what do I want to do
In the dark is where I see the light/my god/me
Erin Michelle Washington
Thoughts on Concept/ Introduction:
The essays in “Black Performance Theory” Ed. by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez
take a critical look at theorizing Blackness and the performance of Blackness in the 21st
Century. Essayists researched multiple points in space and time in the African diaspora to
produce the scholarship we see before us. Also, a note on the process oriented nature of this
project, DeFrantz has been gathering groups of scholars and artists and witnesses since 1998
in working groups to explore performance, culture, and technology in relation to Black
Performance. It is important to note this work, as it shifts our minds to embrace the writing of
history in alternative ways. So from movement, music,conversation, silence, awkward
meetings, working groups, lectures, and residencies this project is presented in the form of a
book though its journey to print has been filled with a variety of methodologies.
DeFrantz and Gonzalez open with locating Black Performance Theory in relation to Zora Neal Hurston’s 1934 essay Characteristics of Negro Expression . Hurston, a former anthropology student of Franz Boaz at Columbia University and a native of Eatonville, FL one of the first all Black towns in the United States. Hurston interviewed multiple people in southern communities in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana picking up on the phrases, dialects, dances, spiritualities, and expressions of love in each community. DeFrantz and Gonzalez note, “[Hurston] allows black performance to be in dialogue simultaneously with itself, the world around it, and the lives of black people. Negro Expression is an act of confirmation that is aesthetically motivated and foundational to understanding the community that practices it” (DeFrantz 3). Looking deeper into this text, one may ask a question, Is what is performed by Black people in an all Black town a true indicator of Negro expression? What qualifies this expression? The fact that the participants are Black?
Gonzalez and DeFrantz jump next to the 1960s expression of Blackness with the essay,
Revolutionary Theatre, by poet and activist Amiri Baraka. This was an interesting move in my
opinion that definitely lets us see the politics of the editors. Baraka wrote Revolutionary
Theatre in the early sixties before his declaration of the Black Arts Movement with his play,
The Dutchman. In this essay, as the editors note, Baraka calls for a “theatre of world spirit”
that would open up more possibilities for defining black performance as process rather than
product. He also notes that, “the imagination is the projection of ourselves past our sense of
ourselves as ‘things’. Baraka posits that victim-hood can be placed on both sides of the lines of oppressor/oppressed therefore conflating and shifting the concepts of how identities placed
within these categories function in everyday life.
Next, DeFrantz and Gonzalez and other scholars break down their thoughts on Black
Performance Theory. This section was interesting to me. I really enjoyed the poetic
expressions of each response. The thought of placing a definition to Blackness is an
interesting exploration. Many have theorized around this thought, but I locate my thoughts around Blackness in relation to how Fred Moten is thinking of Blackness as a “positive and negative. A plus one and a negative one. An opportunity to be seen and not seen. A privilege and an underprivilege.” DeFrantz follows this thought and de-centers Blackness as not just in relation to the material body, but more as a mode of thought: “black is the manifestation of Africanist aesthetics...black is action engaged to enlarge capacity, confirm presence, to dare.(DeFrantz 5).
In defining performance, Gonzalez states: “performance emerges in its own conscious
engagement, and it is created by living people” (Gonzalez 6) Her later comment that
performers “need to recognize their own performance in order for it to be valuable” left me
wondering how this could actually be possible? When one is attempting to be themselves,
whatever that is, sometimes one may be aware that they are performing to accomplish this, I
believe most times, one is not aware. So this made me more interested in excavating this
thought a bit later on how Gonzalez got to this definition looking through her work as an
Finally, Male-Identified Queer High Yellow Duke University, defines theory as: “an action and
practice already in motion; theory might be the realization of that noticing translated into text,
or music and motion… theory has to be shared among people to be a valuable analytic” (67).
This definition sits well with me because of its connection to a shared practice. I have to admit
I have anxiety over theorizing around Black Performance but look to reflexivity and an ethic
center as a base to launch my thoughts.
The essays in this book represent the multiple entry points of Black Performance from
movement to sound to text to ritual space. I enjoyed the imaginative spaces in majority of
these essays but a line of thought has connected a few in my head around this topic: Black
Death. In Black Movements: Flying Africans in Spaceships , Soyica Diggs Colbert explores the
tale of the Flying African who were “tired of the oppressive conditions of chattel slavery, and
used metaphysical powers and flew back to Africa” (Colbert). This concept of committing
suicide to gain a freedom totally de-centers the concepts of death as a kind of rebirth.
On the Atlantic, Enslaved Africans were forcibly held on boats and in order to escape this fate, some decided to jump. And sometimes when one wanted to jump, a group would be apart of this jumping due to the chains that connected them. Many scholars theorize that this jumping into freedom helped to strengthen the spirits of the Africans to be able to endure the harsh journey to the unknown land. Colbert locates this form of Black death as “psychic death”a death that enables the emergence of a newly freed self (Colbert).
Colbert continues in her essay working with the thoughts of psychic death in relation to George Clinton’s Parliament and his usage of the spaceship as a mode of transportation to freedom. Colbert connects this spaceship to the slave ship. She notes that in this migration home, “does not require Black people to retrace the Middle passage” therefore calling to the thoughts of Nadine George Graves with her thoughts on diasporic spidering. The thought that home is not just in relation to the continental space for the Black body that its journey could house an infinite possibility of spaces to go back to and continue to form and reform
spaces of home.
Colbert speaks about the character of Milkman in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” as he
commits suicide and has the agency to get in a plane and crash it himself. He had the agency
to kill himself versus in Kanye West’s song “spaceship” Colbert notes that West wants to “buy
reparations back” and has to buy his spaceship, having a limited agency in comparison to
Milkman. Later in the essay “Afrosonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity” Daphne A. Brooks will continue this thread of exploring Black death by theorizing Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a A Negro” which places a biracial girl, Sarah, in the middle of her adoration for her white mother and her loathing of her Black father. This identity crisis leads her to her eventual suicide, by her own hands, the hanging of herself to go to some space of freedom, not tied to the oppressions of this space in time.
I would like for us to look further into the thoughts on Black death in relation to this book on
Black Performance Theory. Is the performance of Black death now in 2016, with a large
number of Black and brown folk being killed, a call to a freedom of some sort? Is this a psychic death or a social death, as Colbert theorizes? Who can perform Black death? And in 100 years, will Black death be regulated to ones with Blackness as a marker? Will even the concept of
blackness being a mode of thought be dying and reforming itself again and again in
order for this to happen?
-- Erin Michelle Washington