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  • Writer's pictureTheatre TIM

What is this "Black"?

In 1993 in the academic journal called Social Justice, Jamaican-British scholar Stuart Hall published an article titled "What Is This "Black" in Black Popular Culture?" It, predictably, explores questions about what "popular culture" is, and specifically what "black" "popular culture" is and what it means. This question of what "blackness" is has been a cornerstone to our discussions in my Black Dramatic Theory seminar. It is a question that is both simple and complex. The first class our professor asked us to consider the question of "what is black art?" - it's the question that guides many of our discussions, and one that has been asked as long as "black" has been an identity. As performance scholar Anita Gonzales points out in her section in Black Performance Theory (Duke, 2014), called "NAVIGATIONS: Diasporic Transports and Landings": "Performances of blackness were unnecessary before African encounters with other ethnicities and their social practices" (20). In short, before Africa was colonized and enslaved people of African descent were labeled "black" - there was no identity of "blackness." In Black Skin, White Mask (Grove Press, 2008), Frantz Fanon says that "what is called the black soul is a construction by white folk" (Introduction, page xviii).

Blackness, black art, black identity, have been constructed in contrast to the equally constructed idea of "whiteness". Such divisive concepts of reality, separating "black" from "white" was completely constructed, and has become completely real. By this I mean: ideas have power, and belief shapes reality. In the above-mentioned article by Hall, he states that "the struggle over cultural hegemony" (106) is waged within "popular" culture, as much as within "high art". Sixteen years ago, Hall talked about the position that "Black" art holds within the conversation about art overall. The struggle over cultural hegemony has existed since one group of people decided to enforce their ways and customs on another. Hall's article is interested in shifting the "dispositions of power" - by this he does not mean taking the hegemonic position held by European (white) culture, and giving that power to Black culture. Hall insists that a zero-sum cultural game is not necessary.

Hall is interested in unseating hegemonic cultural superstructures. He is interested in unpacking the ways in which "high art" and "popular culture" are considered different and fundamentally unequal. He discusses the ways in which the concept of "popular culture" is simply a euphemistic way in which to maintain the hegemonic cultural order that exists. He says that it is "necessary to deconstruct the popular once and for all" (107). He breaks down the different meanings of the word "popular" - the ways it is associated with "the people", with "locality", with "the vulgar", "The informal, the underside, the grotesque" (108). He also references "what Bakhtin calls "the carnivalesque"." Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher who wrote in the 1920s in the Soviet Union. Of course, as someone who researches, participates in, and bases much of my practice around theatre and performance techniques and visuals developed in the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, I was particularly struck by the specific use of this word in understanding "popular." It was not in any way a new use of the word, but it did ring true. Especially since in my own research I am always running up against scholars who call Trinidad and Tobago Carnival a "popular art for", one that is somehow seen as the development of the will and artistic sense of "the people", whose artistic ability is often written about as somehow "natural" and "innate", a far cry from the way in which Western artists are written about. Western art is seen as technique that is carefully developed and honed, important traditions that are taught, not inherited. It is a linguistic twist which separates Carnival from Theatre. Carnival is seen as "primitive", while Theatre as "high art." It is exactly this divide that Hall speaks of.

This brings me back to his question of "What is this "Black"?" Hall sees black popular culture as a fundamentally contradictory place. A place of "strategic contestation" that can "never be simplified or explained in terms of the simple binary opposition that are still habitually used to map it out: high and low; resistance versus incorporation; authentic versus unauthentic; experiential versus formal; opposition versus homogenization" (108). He looks at the way that black culture has been able to develop only within the space of "popular culture," how it has created it's own languages, it's only patterns of speech and musicality, and how these have been influenced by colonial cultures, and have been taken and appropriated by those same cultures. He also notes that black cultural forms are "the product of partial synchronization, of engagement across cultural boundaries" (110). Black culture is "not the recovery of something pure that we can, at last, live by", he says, it is a "diaspora aesthetic" and "we are obliged to acknowledge that they are what the modern is" (110). Hall questions concepts of "authenticity" around black art - what "counts" as black art, and what doesn't. He points out that "we tend to privilege experience itself, as if black life is lived experience outside of representation" (111). Blackness is both lived experience and representation. It is not a singular experience. He says that searching for an "authentic black experience" will not lead to liberation. But, more, it is by understanding the multiplicity of identities and experiences and realities that make up black life, blackness, black experience. Being black, he says, quoting bell hooks, "isn't good enough for me" (113).

This brought me back to my own thoughts around black art. On one hand, all art/cultural production created by artists who are black, is black art. But, on the other hand, we run across black artists every once in a while who speak out against other black artists, who praise the work of white artists/cultural creators, and whose work strives to "raise" "the culture" to certain "standards" created by Eurocentric culture. Is this black art? And, of course, I always have to bring this question back to my own work. Is my work black work? My work is obviously influenced by black artists. Most of my influences are black artists and cultural creators. Most of the work I do focuses on black people and black stories. But, my own identity is always in question, and so is my work. It is not a clear-cut answer. All I can say at this point, is that I do not claim to be black because I find that such a claim pushes me over into the territory of those who have claimed to be black in order to amplify their voices in black spaces, in order to impose themselves as "leaders" within a community that was not theirs. We all know that light-skinned privilege exists, and that for me to claim to "be" black puts me in the position of potentially taking space away from others and claims a legitimacy to my voice in spaces. Instead, I am a person who has African ancestors. Whose ancestors, five generations ago, were enslaved, having been stollen from Africa. The likely lived in Grenada. My experiences include those of feeling "other" within the white Midwestern space where I spent most of my childhood. My commitment as an artist is to tell the stories which have historically been untold, silenced. My interest is to create work that exists and speaks to people within the Afro and Caribbean diasporas to which I belong. My interest is in exploring my experiences, and to work with others who have politics which center empowerment for people of African descent.

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