I begin with that which is languageless. Gesture, wordless calls of grief or joy, exclamation, a dancer’s body moving in time. What John Edgar Wideman calls, in his essay “In Praise of Silence,” “the entire body’s expressive repertoire, subversive, liberating, freighted with laughter, song and sigh, burdened and energized by opposition.” Which means: not words alone, but every mark we make in the landscape, in the air. I begin here because when I think about the art and resistance work I am most enlivened and taught by this moment, I think about the Turf Feinz and Yak Films.
I have not been so moved by nearly any quiet work of both art and resistance recently than I was when I watched the clip my friend Ross Gay urged me to see: “RIP Oscar Grant” by the Turf Feinz. Oscar Juliuss Grant III lived in Hayward, California. He was a grandson, a son, a father, a partner. Grant was born February 27, 1986, and was fatally shot by Johannes Mehserle, a BART transit policeman in Oakland on New Year’s morning, the morning after his mother’s birthday, in 2009. “RIP Oscar Grant” shows the dance crew dancing in Fruitvale Station, the BART station where Grant was shot.
It’s important to mention here that Oakland’s Fruitvale district has roots in organizing against white supremacy and police brutality with, among other activist groups, the Oakland Latinos United for Justice. Latinos United for Justice was formed in response to the 1968 shooting of Charles “Pinky” Dominic De Baca by Officer Walter Gibbons. It was around this time that the Chicano Revolutionary Party joined forces with the Black Panthers to help patrol the streets and protect citizens from police.
I see the work of these dancers as an extension of that same vision. And in this conversation, I want to think about the ways that young black and brown people are memorializing and celebrating each other while resisting brutality. The crew’s dance moves and gestures look to me to be informed, among other things, by technology, animation, video. They rewind, fast forward, slow down time.The news clippings, up against the surveillance-like manning of the camera, make me think: Look at these young men remixing movement to repurpose the technology that was not, at first, meant to love them. And they dance in a place where a brutal tragedy has taken place, where the crime of the Fugitive Slave Act, for example, is echoed in other kinds of government-sanctioned violence against brown and black bodies. We hear these names among the thousands: Charles “Pinky” Dominic De Baca, Sean Bell, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Mike Brown. Oscar Grant.
In Fruitvale Station, these dancers move and dance in Grant’s “footsteps.”
If we are to try to imagine that time is an illusion—and that all things are happening at once, it is deeply moving for me to imagine that as Oscar Grant is in the throes of harassment and the pain of his murder and saying goodbye, there is this company, these young men alongside him and over him and under him and near him, a kind of company to him. And in this they are remembering, companioning and tending to the dead and the future, too.
I once heard Joy Harjo speak on a panel about history and poetry. She sat quietly for much of it. The other panelists said a lot of things. Harjo remained the only quiet one. Her quiet had a straight back. And then she interrupted one of the panelists and said something like, “That reminds me of the time…” and she spoke of a fellow Native American professor who committed suicide near the end of one of the years, and how he must have been hurting and isolated, but not many people spoke about that, or spoke about his death or their loss when he died. And she said she was at home one day and she noticed a black thread or string floating in the window, and she observed it for a while until she realized that that black string was grief. The grief of the professor, the grief of the students, her own grief, the grief of silence, a historical grief, and that she knew that it was her job to take that thread and put it somewhere, weave it into the larger tapestry (she made a gesture, then, as if that tapestry were just above her head). She said it was her job to put that grief in its place, or else someone else would be out walking and just walk right into it, without knowing what it was they’d walked into and inherited. The danger of that. And that is all I remember from all of the things that were said that entire day.
This tending is part of the work I think such makers as the Turf Feinz are involved in with their memorial work. This is the tending of poets like June Jordan and Audre Lorde and Nikky Finney (see “Liberty Street Seafood” from Head Off & Split for how she deals with violence without violating the young people in the poem’s eye).
And so it is that these dancers help me to ask of arts practices:
1) Who or what does this work care for? Love?
2) How do you talk about/look at white supremacy and patriarchy or (…) without further brutalizing the black or female (…) body in the work?
3) Make a list of the bodies in your work and the verbs attributed to each. When we are writing/filming/painting, what verbs do we attribute to each body (according to race, class, gender, etc.)? What does this tell us about our eye(s)?
4) What are our tendencies? And where might we need to make critical space for joy and tenderness in the remembering, so that our own imaginations (gesture by gesture, line by line) aren’t rendered by the values of white supremacy or violence as we resist it?