“Feeling It: Race/Affect/Performance”–I Felt It!

I was absolutely blown away by the first panel of this symposium. When I entered the second floor auditorium of the Art West Building, I did not expect to be as provoked as I was when I left. I do not know if this was me underestimating the potential of conferences in general, but I certainly did not expect to think and feel like I did.

The first speaker, Bianca Williams, opened the panel with her interrogation of affect and ethnic studies. Her specific example that lead her to this site of inquiry is her ethnographic project that looks at the transnational coping strategies of black American women, particularly the GFT (unfortunately, I did not catch the full name of the group), in response to U.S. racism and sexism. The GFT, a group of black women from the U.S. who travel to Jamaica, takes new admits to a vista in Jamaica where almost without fail they cry in a ritualistic way, in Williams’ estimation, in addition to visiting other parts of the island. By looking at the affective lives of black American women, Williams asks what the benefits are of placing black women in the center of affect studies inquiries. I really enjoyed her line of inquiry. At the beginning of the five-week course associated with the symposium, I, too, had wondered how affect studies and ethnic studies could be brought together. Her project seems to be a great example of how the two can certainly inform one another. However, I did leave the auditorium wondering how much of these transnational coping strategies relied on the labor (affective and otherwise) of Jamaicans, particularly Jamaican women and men who work in the hotels, restaurants, and tourist locations. While black American women temporarily leave the confines of the U.S. and the forms of racism and sexism that exist in the states, the black Jamaicans that serve these women live and work within the confines of Jamaican racism and sexism. What are we to make of this? I understand that Williams could not have possibly addressed these issues in the time allotted or even in her book project, especially if it is bound by a certain set of research questions. However, I do believe that these issues of power are important ones to discuss and continue thinking about.

The second speaker/performer brought up equally interesting issues concerning whiteness in Africanist dance. As an Africanist dancer, Jewish-American dance choreographer Esther Baker-Tarpaga’s inquiry into Africanist affect through dance lead her to “revisit whiteness.” From what I gathered from her paper/performance, she had to begin interrogating the “white dancing body,” her white dancing body, especially in Africanist dance. As the mother of mixed-race daughter, the wife of a black man from Burkina Faso, and the co-founder of the Baker-Tarpaga Dance Project (a transnational dance company), she could exclude her positioning, making this line of inquiry quite personal (as I suppose most things are). The second video performance she showed called “Free to be You and Me” was a collaboration done by her young daughter and herself, which demonstrates one mode of inquiry for Baker-Tarpaga. By dancing and performing with her daughter, she says that she is able to learn from her new ways of looking at the world. By dancing and performing with others in different performances, I suspect that she is also suggesting that whiteness can be interrogated alongside notions of blackness, mixed race-ness (whether or not that is a word), and other facets of identity.

The last performance she demonstrated was live. The previous speaker, Bianca Williams, and a co-organizer of the symposium, Naomi Greyser, sat in two different desks. While drumming was playing on her computer in the background, Baker-Tarpaga had tied thick ropes to a leg of each desk and had pulled each woman to a point on the “stage” where they faced each other. I think it is worth pointing out that Williams is seemingly black and Greyser is seemingly white, which I think adds a layer of significance to the performance (I say “seemingly” because I do not want to presume I absolutely know. Apologies for any misreadings and/or line-crossings). With both ropes crossed behind her back, she began dancing. The newspaper she had taped to her waist during the showing of her previous video performance added an auditory layer that was just as thought provoking as the black lines she drew on herself earlier in her paper/performance and her theorization of the body being poly-centered that she borrowed from another Africanist dance choreographer. She soon fell to the ground between the two desks, the ropes still crisscrossed behind her back and danced horizontally in a way that looked like she was flailing. At this particular time, I began welling up with tears although I could not understand why I felt like crying. I certainly did not want to be vulnerable in that particular space, which brings up issues about which affects are allowed in “academic” spaces. Later on, though, I began thinking that I felt like crying because of Baker-Tarpaga’s willingness and ability to embody and perform in a way that I understood to be vulnerable. In other words, what I perceived to be her vulnerability made me feel vulnerable. Her performance displayed a kind of vulnerability that was especially highlighted by her arms being crossed behind her back with ropes as well as her flailing on the ground. Moving and dancing horizontally between the two sitting women looked like a certain form of prostration, possibly submitting to the reception of knowledge or to the process of working through issues like whiteness in Africanist dance. However, that reception of knowledge or that process of working through issues is not easy, as indicated by her flailing movements. This last performance made me wonder about the utility of vulnerability in research, writing, and teaching.

The third speaker, Aimee Carrillo Rowe, walked up to the podium crying, admitting that she had tried her best to read her piece without crying yet there she was, crying before she had begun reading, provoked by the previous paper/performance. Carrillo Rowe’s creative nonfiction about the near-death of her newborn child Roque Luna (apologies for my misspellings if there are any) along with her theorization of writing about trauma was beautifully written yet difficult to sit through. I felt like crying again, although I have not lived through this particular traumatic experience. While I can empathize with the author, and the piece she read seemed to almost demand empathy or something else out of audience members, what resonated the most with me was the theorization of writing about trauma. Interspersed throughout the recounting of Carrillo Rowe’s traumatic experience were her poignant observations about how trauma is twice-lived through the act of writing. During the Q&A session afterwards, she pushed this further to say that trauma is thrice-lived by theorizing the act of writing about trauma. She also drew from Gloria Anzaldúa concept of “entering the serpent,” a hard process of consciousness-making that Carrillo Rowe asserts expands one’s capacity to feel and, ultimately, connects one to the divine. At the end of the panel, I was left wondering about the parameters of theorization, particularly about difficult issues and topics like trauma, specifically as an academic/scholar/fill in the blank. I suppose this relates to the question asked during the Q&A session about what is/should be public and what is/should be private. What gets discussed and theorized and what does not? Who is allowed to discuss and theorize trauma/fill in the blank? These questions are certainly not meant to diminish the powerful narrative and the thought-provoking theory developed to further illuminate the nonfiction piece (or the work of the other two presenters). Rather, I think they highlight issues of asymmetrical power relations when it comes to making the personal political.

Stacey Moultry

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