Low tone memory: Unpacking the critical performance and embodiment of “Bag Ladies: carrying a diaspora colored black”
By Meida Teresa McNeal
Bag ladies: carrying a diaspora colored black is an attempt to perform embodied scholarship through the language of the academy, through personal stories, and through the realm of the physically moving. In this creative process, we follow what Brenda Dixon-Gottschild terms the “-ings” of performance “…to apprehend the vitality and energy of the subjunctive mode of process as an antidote to overdoses of the declarative, full-stop mode of a product-oriented tradition” (168). In this choreographed essay, I mix these styles and ways of knowing to analyze how Bag ladies – as a particular and locally grounded performance – did its work. Traditional citations live with shards of personal testimony. Dance description is juxtaposed against analytical insight. Elements of our staged dialogue and recorded conversations add texture to my ruminations about cultivating this process of community, of performing ensemble, of four black women trying to locate themselves in a larger dialogue. As Barbara Christian makes careful note, “…When theory is not rooted in practice, it becomes prescriptive, exclusive, elitist” (354).
It is in the do-ing that we activate the arsenal of diasporic tools that have in our personal and collective memories. How were we able to explore, articulate and organize our local experiences of living-in-black-diaspora by calling on the tools we have been gathering all of our lives? In the same way that there is no one monolithic expression of blackness, there is no ultimate code to relay these expressions out to the world. These four women maneuver through the immeasurable landscape of blackness through their local experiences via the expressive modes of movement, spoken word, recorded sound scapes and visual imagery. We are searching for a poetics, a de-centered logic and creative form that can handle our dispersed and fragmented identities without stifling them into permanent stasis. By focusing on the “-ing” in our dance, we want to revel in our agitation and off-centeredness; that is the space in which we make meaning through the practice of relation. “This shuttling in-between frontiers is a working out of and appeal to another sensibility, another consciousness of the condition of marginality: that in which marginality is the condition of the center” (Trinh 18).
This off-center center is our entry point for a performative interrogation into black diaspora. We are four women with definite, but always elusive ties to this changing landscape that gets named “blackness.” Felicia: African American, born in Chicago with limited world-traveling experience but clinging to the motto that it is ESSENTIAL TO THE SOUL TO TRAVEL. Abra: claiming North African and Chicago black roots, always proud of her Chicago heritage and seeking to put its vibrant black cultural practices on the global map. Meida: a white/black creation informed by memories of Oklahoma red earth, Chicago urbanity and a newly emergent tie (through personal interest and marriage) to Trinidad. Aisha: a 2nd generation West Indian child, derived from both Haitian and Trinidadian parentage, bounced between NYC and Chicago’s northern suburb of Evanston and mother to a four year old child-woman named Ajile. These women are linked by this local connection: Chicago. From there, they spread out (like most of us do) across geography, across nation, across region, across city by car, train, airplane, television, radio, CD or videotape. Stopping here and there, but always with the intention to keep wandering, making a way and a name, an identity for themselves. Diaspora in this contemporary light, is less about a re-connection with that evasive space called Africa and more about a “conceptual geography” lined with circuits of exchange to which we are all connected. By locating the pathways that these circuits make, by imagining this circuitry’s multi-directional trajectories and drives, we make the idea of diaspora work for us.
Aisha: We lay claim to the names bestowed upon us. What are our names? Our cultural memberships? Our marks of shame? Our marks of empowerment?
Abra: And where must we say them? Where is it necessary to call them onto ourselves in order to be recognized? To recognize ourselves, doing battle with the name, but also loving it
Meida: Wearing it like a dress that needs letting out every now and then. Wearing it like a coat with holes that need patching, productive patching
Felicia: These bodies, these names are in constant circulation. Doing the work of recognition, of silence, of invisibility, of what these bodies are connected to here and now, and then and there, and elsewhere. In the passing of this moment, who am I now? What is my name?
Applying May Joseph’s notion of “performed possibilities of citizenship” to the creative process, we explore what the potentialities of diaspora’s use are for our specific coalition (3). Who do we identify with and what do we belong to? What are the issues that begin to surface in an examination of diasporic affiliation? How are moments of identification and alienation made from our physicality? Early on in our creative process, we found a way ‘in’ to the work. But I don’t think we knew this was the way in – As with any process, you don’t quite understand what you’re building or what the effects are until after you’ve completed the endeavor. Long conversations, laughter, meals together, phone calls to coordinate who was picking up who to get to rehearsal, lugging a TV set from home to keep Aisha’s daughter Ajile occupied during our rehearsals or rotating responsibility as to who would keep an eye on her during a rehearsal. These intimate moments would be the components to build what is necessary to any collaborative community: trust, mutual responsibility, care, getting close to each other’s bodies and thoughts. Through a time-intensive rehearsal process, we build our alliance. We are able to be honest and vulnerable in rupturing moments of dis-identification. A critical choreographic reflection: Whose stories do you feel close to? Who stories shut you out? How does this continuum of identification make you question your own positioning, of what (you think) you know about “blackness”?
We build a unique corporeal economy that repeats itself with endless variation from rehearsal to rehearsal and performance to performance. Looks, touches, breath and sweat on skin, hearing each other speak in powerful statements, stuttered and not-quite-formulated ideas or whispered tones, giving and taking each other’s weight, learning each other’s movement styles and vocabularies, recognizing our own distinctive styles as we face and dance with each other. These are the beginnings of a kinetic theorization process made acute in the sustained workshop-to-performance setting as we create a choreographic entity called Bag ladies: carrying a diaspora colored black…
Looking at each other. Looking each other over. Theorizing about our encounters of mingling with our bodies and mouths. We create layers of conversation. Layers of code—And we are laying a foundation for our code. Getting closer. Hedging away. Sealing protection through silences. Defensive banter or unsaid words waiting to explode. Concentrated partnerships, stripping away the shyness. And something content and comfortable. Hopefully. Hopefully, open to understanding.
After entering and re-entering several times already, at this moment when we create the walking circle, I am ready to touch you now, take your weight, feel and smell your scent. I am not self-conscious about this performing we are doing. I am more interested in talking and making statements through dancing with you. I have warmed up my body in the sections before this one. Gotten used to hearing our feet scuffle and our breath catch in sync. I am beginning to feel in tune with this stage space and with your body next to mine. And I begin to notice that your body is not quite like mine. That the length of your arms are longer than mine. Do they (out there watching) notice how different we are? I see you in detail, in particularity. I can feel your uniqueness when I grab you around the waist and feel your curly coarse hair against my cheek. Or when I rest my body against your broad back. Or when I take your arm as we both pull back and spin and realize that our weight is not the same. Never will be.
May Joseph frames her investigation of diasporic citizenship as a collage of ‘citizenscapes’, playing out “…vignettes of nomadic citizenship in ambivalent relations to official and available discourses about private and public citizenship” (13). Similar to Joseph, I am interested in the “expressive domains” that particular black bodies inhabit from their local positions within the web of diaspora. What is the cultural currency available and created by these bodies, state-sanctioned or underground, performed publicly or in the private confines of a safe space? What weight does this cultural economy carry as we make and take pieces of it to create ourselves, the values and narratives of an invented ‘black heritage’ that we will teach our children and use to measure other black bodies against? How does this diasporic cultural economy travel and what are its parts? And so we are searching for the methods we employ, the actions we take to “do” black culture across geographies. What are the practices and traditions, the kinetic examples of black culture as capital being exchanged and absorbed, internalized and exported: humming, hair braiding, testifying, playing the dozens, Yo mama jokes, cracking, talking to the movie screen, loud laughter, telling stories, learning by doing and imitating…
We rely on more than official or formal verbal/written codes of language to draw transnational, trans-regional and trans-local connections between us. We put our bodily memories to work, searching for the practiced second nature codes contained in the vessel of the body countering a “…tradition which focuses on the transmission of what has been inscribed, on texts, or at the very least, on documentary evidence which is held to have a status comparable to texts, to be constituted, as it were, in the image and likeness of a text” (Connerton 4). Bouncing between the more visibly inscribed knowledges and habitual but not so transparent incorporated knowledges, we lay claim to the names given to us and create others when these inherited names threaten to box us in. Bag ladies is our attempt at purposeful wandering; it is never a resolved journey. To understand the nature of diaspora’s value we must begin to envisage it as “… a loosely coherent, adaptive constellation of responses to dwelling-in-displacement” (Clifford 254). Or as Marie-Helene Laforest asserts: “The struggle imposed on me can be summarized in the distinction between where I am supposed to fit and where I’d rather not fit. I dwell in many locations simultaneously” (21).
Meida’s entry node: He says that sometimes I sound like a Trini. That I slip and it comes out in my voice, in my attitude. I see the same in him. Chicago and Trinidad mingling in the space of a marriage. A partnership and bond built through our bodies, our opinions, our looks, our kisses. It is hard work, yes. Cuz the roads don’t always meet at the right place. Trinidad. Chicago. Worlds apart. But it is beautiful work too. Cuz we find surprising spaces of connection on the road we are travelling together. Trinidad. Chicago. Under the same roof, sharing the same bed. Emblems of his home now mark mine. The national colors hanging on our walls, in our car. The foods he knows cooking on our stove, smells of Trinidad circulating through our Chicago apartment. And when we are there, in his home, I always bring a little of Chicago with me. CDS, house mixes on tape, my slang. These moments are the layers and embellishments of home creating home anew.
Abra’s entry node: I am in graduate school, an institution of higher learning, post-baccalaureate studies, according to the academic jargon. “They”, sociology students, studying social scientists, call me Abra to my face. In class, sometimes, I am one of them. Many times I am no one when “they” don’t give me words or can’t look in my eyes or won’t acknowledge my appearance as a part of me or maybe, something separate from me; as if my appearance doesn’t reflect me or the categories I’ve been streamlined and socialized into; as if “they” don’t use it to de-categorize me or as a prerequisite for ignoring it. See me while I see you and let’s negotiate labels for each other. Agreed? I am navigator of the stares, the silences, and the spaces in between that I encounter, that are searching me, seeking me, comparing me to blackness recycled and reconstructed on screens, through music, within mass media. And you?
To approach the sticky space of identity formulation, Martinican scholar Eduoard Glissant advocates a strategy that he terms errantry, a purposeful wandering on the road to creating identity. For Glissant, errantry “…follows neither an arrowlike trajectory nor one that is circular and repetitive, nor is it mere wandering–idle roaming. Wandering, one might become lost, but in errantry one knows at every moment where one is–at every moment in relation to the other” (xvi). “Relation” challenges notions of settled identities, stable histories or permanent traditions by charging that identity, history and tradition only come into ‘being’ through the bodies that activate these social codes. When we invoke errantry, we are wading through our combined genealogy of bodily memories to explore the utility of diaspora’s meanings for our particular community.
We are wandering with purpose through this cultural inventory searching for the elements of a kinetic vocabulary that are encoded in individual experience, and for those that are shared as a body of collective cultural signifiers. During the workshop process, we tried on these remembered markers that have been handed down to us. An exercise to generate movement: What are the cultural gestures that signify “blackness” being performed? The results: Arms akimbo, finger-snapping and neck rolling, ‘Hey shorty!’, “Whas’ your name?’, ‘Yuh safe?’, black women laughing, ‘Mmmmmm….’ Yet, we were also experimenting with our own creative reenactments of these codes. How does pitch, tone, timbre change when I say the words or do the movement? How is my enunciation different from yours? An active heteroglossia, these gestures of blackness and fleeting eruptions of greetings, foods, musics, dance codes and goodbyes weave the textures and changing sames of everyday blackness inflected with a diasporic tonality. They challenge any permanent notions of authenticity. Like Bahktin “…we are not dealing with the ordinary dialogic form, that is, with the unfolding of material within the framework of its own monologic understanding and against the background of a unified world of objects. No, here we are dealing with the ultimate dialogicality, that is the dialogicality of the ultimate whole” (18).
‘Ode to Africa’ began as a joke. Like most jokes, it is a critical laughter that we were sharing. A common experience we all had of attending Black Student Union functions, Kwaanza events, or poetry slams where an uni-directional story of blackness-as-Africa would be repetitiously exercised, without changes. It is our mapping of the stories we have been told: Nubian kings & queens, the Black Power Movement, ‘Black is Beautiful!’, Africa is Home, is Origin, is the Place we all need to go back to. We recognize that these stories are told with a subtle flavor now. We are not told to go-back-to-Africa, not really, unless it is to visit and pay ‘homage’ to the Motherland. We are not told to learn the languages, not really, unless it is Kwaanza season. But the message of a previous Afrocentric order still has currency, and we must wade through this too, as we discover our own connections to Africanist culture in other spaces: Chicago, Trinidad, Jamaica, Toronto, NYC.
We invoke diaspora “…not to recuperate and assess ‘Pan-Africanism’ but to interrogate the very meaning of the term and search for the often ambivalent place Africa holds in the imaginations of its New World descendents” (Lemelle and Kelley 1). It is this sense of ‘ambivalence’ that surrounds us at every turn. We are the inheritors of a sensibility of alienation brought on by a perceived loss of origins, history and material culture. These are the markers that have been given to us to indicate our cultural deprivation. Yet, we build from what we don’t have or what cannot be “officially” recognized. In order to move, we make our own poetics, grounded in experience and survival techniques beyond print, beyond voice. We follow in the footsteps of Audre Lorde, building a knowledge structure that can manage the way we think and express ourselves into being. “Poetry is the way we help to give name to the nameless so it can be thought…And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. [Poetry]…is the skeleton architecture of our lives” (38). Every act of mobility requires a complementary consciousness.
Felicia: For those who can’t move, can’t travel, what does diaspora imply? Is it in books or movies or TV shows and music videos that are broadcast via satellite? Access. Mobility. If I never traveled to Jamaica or Mexico or even other neighborhoods, would I understand that there are other stories of blackness, other ways of cultivating this identity? There is a difference between looking at black bodies on screen and conversing with black people face-to-face. The opportunity to walk among difference is precious. It can make your mind malleable. It can make you check yourself for judging what you have only read about or seen once in a photo. When your ability to encounter is limited, what happens to the stories you construct about being black elsewhere? How can you recognize the things that you have inherited, learned from elsewhere if you don’t even know how to recognize that “elsewheres” do exist?
The red cloth is our thread throughout Bag ladies. An offering of memories. A restrictive barrier keeping bodies ‘out’. An inclusive and expansive circle tied by knots of experience that bring it together not seamlessly, but so you can see its cracks. The acknowledgement of what we don’t know. A blindfold. A sensuous dressing that complements our various shades of brown. Blood. Family. Home. And being homeless. We guard every one of these memories, experiences. They are what we consider precious.
In the contemporary diasporic geography, different rules apply in the understanding of how ‘culture’ travels and makes its impact. We are not simply measuring center (as in the US or Europe) to periphery (as in any so-called ‘Third World’ location) flows anymore. As evidenced in recent critical work tracking Trinidad’s Carnival on a global scale to locations like Miami, NYC, London, San Francisco or Toronto, centers have been invaded by their marginalized satellites exploding tidy formulations of discrete national units (Nurse, Philips). Glissant’s errantry is invoked again as cultural artifacts such as clothing, music, dance styles, hair styles, remittances and e-mails make their way across the diasporic circuit. “This errant thought, silently emerges from the destructuring of compact national entities that yesterday were still triumphant and, at the same time, from difficult, uncertain births of new forms of identity that call to us” (Glissant 18). Joseph asserts that in the diasporic network “…citizens [are] reinventing themselves according to prevalent notions of authentic citizenship, either popularly or officially defined, whether in the way one holds one’s body, the music one consumes, or the kind of theater one produces” (4). She offers further that it is through everyday cultural productions that the “invisible economies” of creating blackness perform themselves.
All Aboard. Thank you for booking your trip with Diaspora Airlines. What will be your destination today? All Aboard. We have a wonderful journey ahead of us folks. Sit back and enjoy the ride. If you look out of your window to your right…All Aboard.
Booking passage across the diaspora is like world traveling and like staying at home. It’s a changing same. Repetitions, patterns, unpredictable moments.
It’s a riff you know in your bones. It’s a scale that just keeps adding on octaves. Never complete. Reaching for the highest note – the one we’re able to envision in this time, our time. But it’s also that deep bass. Gruff and grounded, a low tone memory, almost outside the range of our perception. A low tone memory that we have to keep imagining, it is a beginning that we don’t know the words to or maybe we just can’t form them.
This journey is inclined to expansion. It requires a loosening up of those rigid boundaries put in place by attaching black bodies solely to national affiliations. Similarly, this journey requires a re-orientation to how we approach blackness-in-motion. Bag ladies (in all of its stages of production) offers a kinetic economy built out of particular movement vocabularies, gestures and other physicalized symbols that are not necessarily performed everywhere in an identical manner, or even with the same intention and meaning. Echoing Paul Gilroy, there is a need to rid ourselves of dogmatic “dichotomies” that inscribe bodies in black and white leading towards “ethnic absolutisms” (2). The staunch attachment to ‘nation’ as the preeminent marker of identity clashes with lived experience. The physical reality of flesh-and-blood bodies on the move in the daily social world brings identities into being through interactive cultural relations, not simply through assertions on official paper documents (i.e. licenses, ID cards, passports). The process of identity formulation is an active project, not a passive one. Stuart Hall’s conceptualization of identity as always being dynamically positioned and placed is helpful: “Remember: identifications, not identities. Once you’ve got identification, you can decide which identities are working this week” (292). Cultural bodies belong to multiple social memberships, defined by work habits, personal politics, social engagements, familial connections. And these can change as well. In this light, the nation marks one membership card among many. Rather than upholding any notion of pure, impermeable, or isolated culture, these interactions in the ‘contact zone’ of lived activity keep us off-center and shifting in our identities. North Africa. Trinidad. Haiti. America. Chicago. Jamaica. Mexico. We inhabit all of these spaces and none of them. We identify with particular pieces of these experiences, but acknowledge the moments of opacity. In the studio or on-stage, we create a community of variegated blackness. I give you a movement. You take it on, ingested and internalized, my straight line becomes your curve. My strong and low push of weight becomes a soft vertical glide when translated, transferred, exchanged…
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