The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has a Whispering Gallery. It is a 40 foot long sroom covered in metal. The thing is, when you stand at one end, you can whisper the quietest whisper you can manage, and the person at the other end can HEAR you as though you were speaking right into their ear. That moment when you realize that your little voice has made it to the other side, because the other side replies and you experience what happened to them when they heard your whisper, is a moment of glee. And then you keep doing it until other people show up because even though you may have heard that voice before, you know get to hear it as breath, a whisper, loud and clear. Digital media, for me is like that whisper. There is loud talking about what it means to be black and what it means to be a black woman and what the black experience is supposed to feel like, look like, sound like, taste like, etc. that we have a hard time letting it just be. When I say be, I mean it in terms of being a state of becoming.
Digital media is the place where I can’t see the other side of the whisper room, but I know it is there. I hear the whispers that make their way to me, across time and space, through cables (as light, yay fiber optics!). Digital media is the space where I can find a photograph and post it with the whisper “did you know she was this beautiful?” and I can hear back “she really is”. And while yes, she might be and/or represent all those things that define the black experience, in fact, I may be even placing her as “the Black Woman” at that moment of whisper, we are allowed to just see her and see that yes, she was, is, and will always be beautiful. And we are allowed to see her and say yes, she is and will always be, like me.
I go into my project knowing it is not a critical mass project. However, I know how whispers affect feeling and how seeing affects world making. My only hope is that by sharing these photographs of women who were here before us, I help keep their images in mind. Having that image creates a new world. This is, of course, the moment when things move from media to performance.
This post brought to you from the confines of my humanistic little heart.
I am in the midst of an interesting internal debate with external consequences. I think I don’t like History. I am also so/so on history. Actually, I am probably currently rejecting any kind of historical derivative as well. Despite this, I am in love with the idea of looking at the past.
This line of thought started a while ago, but came to a head with the following image.
(I created a mini-project around the recent conversation/thoughts I’ve had and am having about this photo: http://jadedid.com/cameroon/)
Here is what is happening. History feels like myth to me. There are too many (w)holes and the narratives are to totalizing for my comfort level. I was speaking to someone about my project, and they said that they can never see the image in a photograph as separate from the history the photograph was created in. This meant that any photograph of black people they see are read as part of a horrible historical narrative regardless to the image in the photograph. [I am thinking of photograph as the thing and image as the read because it is easier than explaining Barthes]. This meant that, for said person, black people in the United States had no existence outside of the confines of a History of (violent) slavery. And, as this person was a black American, their existence was also articulated by slavery. I acknowledge that the legacy of slavery still exists in our social structures. However, that is not all black people are, nor has it ever been. If this is what history is doing to people, I don’t want it. But I knew this. I have major issues with the type/time (I wrote time initially when I meant to write type, but I think it works too. Yay Freudian slip) of empathy historical narratives of trauma create. I have a whole map of this system that I was not going to include in my dissertation (I was using it as a way to keep the work I am doing on track), but now I think I have to because I do not want this reaction. Nor do I want to be pulled back into the space of everyone always only being an agent of history.
There is quote that I commonly see attributed to Harriet Tubman that I thought of as I was going through all of this. I have no idea if it was really said by her or not, but I get the sentiment of both the speaker and the”not knowing” subjects being conjured.
I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
So, I move to the past. The hinge of how I think of the historical past is not History, but a temporal separation. I am playing with coevalness and presence, and the freedom that the speed of digital contact gives us. I am not saying we need to end History. I think we need it and it is necessary. I applaud anyone who can spend their life’s work looking at traumatic imagery and narratives. I am thankful they are able to write about it, theorize it, analyze it etc.. I am thankful for those who are out there writing counter narratives and working on understudied H/histories. I am thankful that those people exist, because I can’t do it. And if those people weren’t doing it, I couldn’t do the project I am doing. Histories need to be known. But we also have to accept that the past for many people was just that. Many people just lived their lives, just like we are. That is where I find beauty, at times tinged with sadness. It is beautiful none the less.
I am in the midst of an argument. A colleague of mine who is also black, and also in Performance Studies (and is male) doesn’t understand my frustration with people and their talk of essentializing. Any claim to a universal but closed off experience is cornered as being essentializing. Apparently performance can close gaps in experience. I don’t agree. I think performance can make the gaps smaller, but there are some things that certain groups or people experience that others will never completely understand. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to deepen our understanding of each other. It does mean though that we have to accepts the limits placed on us by our social positions in terms of race, class, gender, nationality, etc. We have to.
He seemed really frustrated and said I was claiming there is such a thing as black authenticity. I agreed with a caveat. Anything I do is an authentic black experience because I am authentically black. Even though my background is what it is, the way I am interpreted in society as I move through the world is as associated with blackness, not always as all black mind you, but black is always there, literally on the surface. I feel like the beauty of Performance Studies, for me ,is it allows us to expand and share and play with what authentic blackness is. The more representations of blackness we have, the more diverse the experiences we share are, the greater our potential to explode the idea of an essential blackness.
The next part of the conversation had to do with people experiencing the black “Other”, and accepting their positionality. Different bodies in traditionally black spaces does things to that space. Even when different bodies are invited to those places some people might see this as problematic because they don’t think the space should be changed in that way. Or, they might just not be comfortable in a black environment. In this specific instance the discussion was around the black church. As much as I want to explode the idea of blackness, I think so much of life is meeting people where they are. If someone feels like they don’t belong is a we need to accept that they might not belong in that space. At the same time, it is important that we in our role of teachers help them interrogate why they feel the way they do in a meaningful and productive way and nudge them towards new experiences without pushing. And then we hope that someday, preferably that day, they will take the dive into the discomfort and reposition their world.