This week, HowlRound presents #BLKARTS Presents: Black Womyn Going Dark!, a co-curated series that explores the ancestry and legacy of black womyn in the arts featuring contemporary artists who create in multiple communities across the United States. Co-curators Erin Michelle Washington of Soul Center/ #BLKARTS, ATL and Deanna Downes of Deanna Downes Creative Consulting seek to engage a creative community of black womyn around questions including: What new/old ways are we creating/exercising to reach new or intended audiences? How are we creating access to the research of ourselves and our ancestry? This series is the beginning of a project that aims to address these issues for, by, and with black womyn artists. You will hear from artists across multiple disciplines using multimedia, writing, sound scores, visual arts, and other avenues in which we can expand our storytelling. These works and these womyn expand, define, and give framework for our contemporary experience of living in and through art. —Deanna Downes and Erin Michelle Washington
The Twitter chatter after Beyoncé’s Grammy Awards 2017 performance got me hyped. It reinvigorated a lot of discussion about the work we have been doing with my experimental theatre collective Lukumi Arts. Many people’s inability to locate Beyoncé, who is an African-American of Louisiana Creole and Bahamian heritage, within Afro-Cuban practices is typical. While it may seem far-fetched or like a publicity stunt, Beyoncé’s diligent public interest in Afro-Cuban culture, including traveling to the island with Jay-Z, and meeting Afro-Cuban legends like Juana Bacallao, cannot be overlooked.
Juana Bacallao’s legacy is unprecedented, and like many of the earliest Afro-Cuban women performers, such as Zenaida Armenteros and Mercedita Valdés, she is not considered to be part of North American blackness. Yet without them there is no Guadalupe “La Lupe” Raymond, the first Black Latina to sing at Carnegie Hall nor Celia Cruz, who realized fame in New York after working as a singer in Cuba and Mexico. These Afro-Cuban women artists were among the first to incorporate orisha, “Afro,” Black lullabies, and other meaningful Afro-Cuban repertoire into their performances just as many Latinx and African-American performers do today. Their spirituality, sensuality, and sensibility as artists has shaped me just as much as Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, or Josephine Baker, who of course also influenced these legendary Afro-Cuban performers.
Myles E. Johnson reports that Beyoncé also created Lemonade with sisters Ibeyi, French born twins of Afro-Cuban and Venezuelan descent, who are also both initiates who integrate Afro-Cuban sacred music into their artistic work. I reflected on chatting with their mother, an initiate to Yemaya, after their first concert in the US at Joe’s Pub. I imagine they would have had very meaningful conversations about orisha, its cosmology and Beyoncé’s exploration of hoodoo, folk culture, the Black American South, and womanhood invoking Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust so powerfully in its imagery.
Commercial artists always draw (or “steal”) their influence from us in the margins, at the root without proper credit. Beyoncé is definitely guilty of this, and New Orleans bounce artist Messy Mya’s family has pursued legal actions against the artist, alleging she did not have permission to sample their voice on “Formation.” Yet that same commercial exploitation is rooted in a deeper sense of searching, that we must also listen to. We need more Black artists to be open about their process of self-exploration, especially with African spirituality, so that we may be bold about voicing the contradictions of our citizenship and blackness, at odds since 1776, in our art.
Yet this cannot happen solely through a North American hegemonic lens, instead we must recognize our global privileged position as Americans (as complex as that is during a Trump Presidency), to push for more daring narratives that show Black agency. This requires being multilingual, traveling, and educating ourselves on these silenced artist legacies. It is work. And many white, bourgeois audiences, institutions and producers will reject it.
In Lukumi Arts, I have highlighted the ways in which institutions have silenced Afro-Cubans themselves, particularly Afro-Cuban women. The popular US Cuban American narrative of “white, wealthy Cubans fleeing Castro led Cuban Revolution to Miami” is so badly outdated. Stephan Palmié notes in his book that this narrative is reductive to the century of very important Cuban history in Tampa, Florida and New York preceding it; it also erases Cubans of color whose labor and presence as Black immigrants alongside Afro-Caribbean and African-American migrants from the South, paved cultural spaces for Black and Latinx in unique ways in New York and the Northeast.
It is in those spaces that not only great musical forms are produced, but also where Black folks work through political tensions, colorism, erasure, and language. I draw on these living room conversations today to create dialogue in my plays, such as: “Well the problem is they think they’re not Black and they too busy being Puerto Rican/Cuban, etc.” which was said by an African-American family member. I’ve also heard from a close friend: “Los mismos blancos cubanos discriminan asi que imaginate como yo me siento siendo negra y cubana.” (Our same white countrymen discriminate against us so imagine how I feel being Black and Cuban.)
These are very nuanced ideas about rejecting US blackness to access privileges of a non-Black identity, and on the other side experiencing racism through trying to access that same identity that white Hispanics have historically denied Blacks in Latin America and in the US. These are exchanges that get tense, but that we work out and around, and that is something to celebrate on stage and publicly as well.
In Lukumi’s rehearsal process, we bring the living room salon into the room. Additionally, we do not make assumptions about geography, place, and histories in the African diaspora or around the world. Just because we are Black and there are superficial understandings about our identity, we do not create a play on Brazil, Morocco, or Panama without someone who has lived, embodied expertise from that place/event we wish to explore. We often see people create work about where we are from and about who we are without asking us—and we don’t want to duplicate that kind of messiness and politics in our creative process. We are not saying that all people in the African diaspora should only speak to their experiences, but we are saying it is possible to culturally appropriate poorly and that we must be more accountable in creating work around these issues.
Afro-descendants have created a Black performance legacy that codes, politicizes, and disrupts national histories. Just as Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie, or Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes, fostered intercultural friendships—Black performance does not occur in a vacuum. Thus, US Black theatre, at the center of contemporary imperial power, should strive not only to highlight the contributions known and unknown of African-Americans, but also highlight other Africans and Afro-descendants who have shaped discourses of blackness and performance. Given this lens, we should push Black theatremakers to invoke African and Afro-Latinx names and voices that are missing from the cannon. This recognition does not lessen diverse African-American contributions, but instead enhances it. It tells the all too silenced story of how African-Americans have historically included people from all over the African diaspora. That is the power of the African-American experience and cultural production.
As my own artistic work grows, I learned from my Black foremothers that we Black women are often unacknowledged for our contributions and labor. I have had to confront race, ethnicities, language, patriarchy, homophobia, poverty, and illness to produce my work. I have had to speak out in times where I was the sole voice. I have been told to shut up, that I was wrong, too loud, too angry, too Black, too Hispanic, a witch, not enough of an actor, and not a real theatremaker.
Yet, perseverance is one of the oldest Black legacies, and I will never trust anyone or any institution that does not deeply confront a history built on the denial of my humanity and erasure. I do not want a seat at that table, I am too busy building a room of my own. Ashe