January 2020

Come Unity: Activism in the Virtual Realm

“Come.Unity” serves as a gathering place for Black optimism, fostering a Black future without Black death at its end but an end with joy—a communal victory dance.

by Bernard Brown

“…the Black revolution is more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws–racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systematic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Testament of Hope”

Watching the news from my apartment in Leimert Park, the center of Black cultural life in Los Angeles, the broadcaster asserts that 22-year-old Stephon Clark was murdered in the backyard of his family home March 18, 2018, in south Sacramento, CA. Upon my return to Sacramento, where I teach dance at Sacramento State University, my cast of Black and brown Sacramento-based dancers and I met, consoling each other about the tragedy. Enraged by the murder, I set out to do something concrete to confront the system of oppression plaguing my community. I marched with the local Black Lives Matter (BLM) chapter to the State Capital building in protest of this senseless, violent state-sanctioned crime.[1] Additionally, the dancers and I began to create a dance in response to the murder of Stephon Clark.

In an effort not to get too bogged down in history, I am compelled to point to commonalities with the BLM movement and the Civil Rights Movement. This is important because BLM is often publicized as contradictory to the values of the Civil Rights Movement. BLM offers us all a chance to elevate, value the lives of some of our most vulnerable, particularly those of Black people. If the American Civil Rights Movement began as soon as the first enslaved African was brought to these lands in 1619, reaching its powerful and impactful zenith in the mid-20th century, then the Black Lives Matter movement is its logical extension and evolution—including more voices, using broader strategies. Scholar, Thomas V. Reed posits that the Civil Rights Movement became the model for virtually all progressive social movements for the latter half of the 20th century—reshaping the effectiveness of Social movements thereafter.[2] Much of what we use today as effective, practical strategies for protest comes from this time: integrating art forms into physical interventions, decentralized organization, and patient organizing that encourages people to take control of their own lives.

Christopher Salango on his knees, arms stretched upward. Photo by Jingqiu Guan.

Connecting these movements lays the foundation for my work as a Black, gay male artist-scholar-activist in the 21st century. Created on the heels of the murder of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, CA, my dance theater work “Come.Unity” (2018) utilizes dance as a vehicle toward combating systemic oppression. Using the decentralized, organized leadership model employed by Black Lives Matter, the dancers and I create a choreographic community, seeking to integrate dance performance into the conversation of activism, propelling us toward our collective liberation. Through this article, I seek to understand the effectiveness of my choreographic work, and how it is in service of a political movement, choreographing liberation.

Mother, artist, activist and scholar Shamell Bell offers ‘Choreographies of the Oppressed’ as a process that unpacks systems of oppression with modalities such as ‘Street Dance Activism’ that may lead to ‘Choreographies of the Liberated.’ Choreographies of the Liberated is a corporeal prefigurative intervention that is parallel to and distinct from Theater of the Oppressed.[3] While remaining committed to resisting oppression in the world as it currently exists, C.O.L. (Choreographies of the Liberated) offers the healing and resilience necessary to continue the struggle by experiencing the erotic (as defined by Audre Lorde[4]) “joy of liberation.”[5] Using these theories has been impactful when looking at the potentiality of dance activism beyond the scope of awareness and advocacy. Awareness and advocacy are important, and also, they are not the end. Action and empowerment for the participants and the witnesses is a more apt goal.

Dancers lunging. Photo by Jingqiu Guan.

“Come.Unity” begins with an ambient wind soundscape, and a solo figure meandering through a dimly lit space. The male dancer, Christopher Salango, commits to punching and slashing gestural material while balancing on one leg. Knocked down, he recovers only to reassert his place, balancing precariously, punching and slashing the air around him. Peripherally, the four community members continue their uncommon tasks of sliding on their backs occupying small amounts of visual real estate. Ultimately, unable to withstand the repetitive pressure, the soloist falls to his knees, arms outstretched to the heavens. This gesture of pleading, of openness, surrender and ultimately, of alignment with the will of a Higher Power, has been a commonality in the American Black Dance aesthetic, as exemplified in the canonical “Revelations”[6] (1960) by Alvin Ailey, “Songs of the Disinherited”[7] (1972) by Donald McKayle and the male solo, “Mourner’s Bench” [8]embedded in Talley Beatty’s “Southern Landscape” (1947). Its use here is to connect the past to the present. The four community members gather up the man heaped in the corner, moving him to the center. Everyone is sits, bowed heads, feet firmly planted on the floor.

Later, in a transitional moment, the soloist is shot multiple times, almost unnoticed, obscured by the flurry of activity by the other cast members. The intentional theatricality of this moment seeks to draw attention to the repetitiveness of civilian video capture of traumatic events. Leanne Ruiz, a tall Afro-Latina woman, runs to his prone body, throws her body onto his—conjuring images of Black mothers wailing, lamenting the State, and the state of their sons. These images are indelible; propagated by the internet and in our collective conscience. She resurrects him. She rebuilds him. She fixes his gaze towards the direction of their oppressor.

Leanne Ruiz over Christopher Salango, hands on his supine body. Photo by Jingqiu Guan.

The final section, “Dope” is choreographed to Amiri Baraka’s spoken word performance of the poem of the same name. “Dope” works to deconstruct racist stereotypes. Baraka’s work is driving, energetic, and a scathing satire on race, the Black Bourgeois, the complacency of the Black church, and the many other systems of oppression enacted on and internalized by Black people in America. This is in juxtaposition to the dancing that occurs.

Bell’s theories of Choreographies of the Oppressed and Choreographies of the Liberated are invoked clearly in the “Dope” section of the work. Utilizing street dances like the Milly Rock and the Heel Toe in “Come.Unity,” the performers strike through and smash oppressive forces. Falling apart, reorganizing, using limbs as rapid attack against a seemingly bleak backdrop, the choreography reminds us to resist. Ultimately, the dancing community stands their ground. Undulating their spines, rolling their necks, hands clasped in front of their bodies, heads cocked and nodding “We see you.” The soloist grabs his phone showing the oppressor the evidence. Community rallies around him. Self-possessed, activating their erotic joy of liberation, the dancers employ their individual street dance, organized and improvisatory traveling through the crowd of witnesses; Moving from confinement, intermingling with the masses.

Remembering Bell’s question from in her street dance activism workshops/interventions: “How can you bring your talents to the movement?” The dancers and I brought our collective talents to a new dance theatre work. Our talents and strengths lie with knowing our target audiences and speaking to urgent topics affecting our communities.

Dancers holding hands and leaning on each other. Photo by Jingqiu Guan.

Social justice organizing in the 21st century has new faces. Those faces are female, queer, brown and Black. With the proliferation of social justice through social media, BLM built upon the foundational strategies of the American Civil Rights Movement for organizing and mobilizing groups of folks toward the goal of liberation. Through calls to action, live streaming, and real time notifications, social media has indeed changed the playing field for activism. As white supremacist tactics morph, the tools against this oppressive system must stretch and flex accordingly. The internet, often trivialized as a site for distraction or leisure, has proven itself a useful tool for creating community, a virtual church basement that extends beyond geographical boundaries. “Come.Unity” serves as a gathering place for Black optimism, fostering a Black future without Black death at its end but an end with joy—a communal victory dance.

With attacks happening almost daily, the collective thoughts can be heard asking “Where is it safe?” Black death at the hands of the State—directly and indirectly, was prevalent historically and is almost ubiquitous today. Theorist Douglas Crimp states that “art does have the power to save lives.”[9] How can we enliven ourselves and occupy space, experience joy in the face of death? How dare we fight for our liberation with a sense of transformation, healing, and joy?

With all the tools at our command, technology, social media, the urge to live virtually can be alluring. Through the cultivation of community, born on the internet, models like BLM demonstrate how moving from virtual to real-time creates justice through critical moves against major systems of oppression. I assert that the aforementioned tools are ours to use as a bridge to the road of liberation. Activism happens on multiple planes. Bell describes her research “as an investigation into the ways Black youth used street dance and social media as a tool to contest and mobilize against detrimental forces in their community and the dominant paradigm shaping their identities.” We can all participate in activism at this level; we all have gifts to offer to the Movement.

Photo by Joe Pugliese.

Bernard Brown, Assistant Professor of Dance at Sacramento State University, is an artist-citizen who situates his work at the intersection of blackness, gender, and sexuality. In addition to showcasing his choreography across the United States, Brown has presented his scholarship on blackness, queerness, and post-modern dance at conferences across the U.S. and abroad. Recipient of the Westfield Emerging Artist and Lester Horton Awards, Brown has been featured in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times for his dance activism. He is Artistic Director of Bernard Brown/bbmoves. The LA Times has called him “…the incomparable Bernard Brown…”

Further Reading

[1] This murder, like those of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and sadly, so many others, has stoked the embers of an old fire for Black people of the United States – individual and collective anger, fear and steadfast resilience/resistance facing the onslaught of violence, mistreatment, and the murder our own Black brothers and sisters. Understand these atrocities are simply based in anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is enmeshed with the very foundation upon which this nation is built. State sanctioned violence against Black people has been and continues to be what fuels the United States project. This is not new nor revelatory information.

[2] Thomas Vernon Reed, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005, 2.

[3] Influenced by educator and theorist Paolo Friere,  Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (TO) are theatrical techniques used as a means of promoting social and political change by having the audience be active – exploring, demonstrating, analyzing and transforming their reality. Intervening where oppression dwells, TO works in creating new alternative realities from real life events and situations.

[4] “The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

Lorde, Audre. “Use of the Erotic.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 2007, p. 55.

[5] Bell, Shamell. “Living is Resisting: An Autoethnography and Oral History of Street Dance Activism in Los Angeles” (Vimeo).

[6]“Revelations by Alvin Ailey.” YouTube, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, 28 Dec. 2016, youtu.be/tNqaixKbrjs.

[7] “Lula Washington Dance Theatre – Songs of the Disinherited (Excerpt).” YouTube, LWDTofficial, 24 Mar. 2010, youtu.be/y_ARVEKl3Jg.

[8] “Talley Beatty’s Mourner’s Bench from Southern Landscapes.” Jacobs Pillow Dance Interactive, danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/talley-beatty/mourners-bench-from-southern-landscape/.

[9] Crimp, Douglas. AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, edited by Douglas Crimp, MIT, 1987.

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