- Helanius J. Wilkins
Say their names. Jacob Blake, a Black unarmed male who was shot in front of his children in Kenosha, WI. Trayford Pellerin, a 31-year-old Black male who was fatally shot in my birthplace of Lafayette, Louisiana. Never forget Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman fatally shot in her own home, for whom justice has yet to be served. The rallying cry for Black lives matter remains palpable. My own sense of safety is called into question with each new life taken, with each thought that elicits invisibility.
I have had the same disorienting dream/nightmare on and off for some time now. I dream that there are two factories in the world. These two factories only make Crayola crayons. In one factory most workers perform only one job. They remove white crayons from various boxes and then repackage them for shipping to retail. In addition, there’s a subgroup of these workers charged with collecting all the white crayons that are removed, packaging them, and shipping them to the other factory. In this other factory, workers receive the packaged white crayons, unpack them, create special packaging for each individual white crayon, then send out for shipping to sell. More recently, this dream has become a visual for reconnecting to specific childhood memories. In every memory where a box of crayons was involved, whether an 8, 24, 64, or 120 count pack I had, white was a color. I understood white to be a color. But, at some point, I also came to understand that all the other colors were being lumped together and referenced in a less individualized way.
This individualized care for the white crayon and the consolidating of all the others is a sharp metaphor for what I believe is one of the most unsettling and institutionalized practices of separation. I have long not been a fan of the phrase “People of Color.” If I dare say it, I kind of hate the phrase. So, when I learned of Resmaa Menakem’s work, and heard his adoption of POC as “People of Culture,” I cried for what felt like an hour while on one of my 12-mile personal protest, meditation walks. Menakem had touched on something that had long been resonating within me, something that was deep-seated in my core, something I had not been able to language on my own. Once I heard and received POC as “People of Culture”, I was rewired in the blink of an eye to see, or bring back to the front of consciousness, that we all have cultural backgrounds and that whiteness is a construct – something that emphasizes privilege over culture.
For the record, I do believe there was a time in American history where the phrase “People of Color” felt more legitimate – for lack of a better way to language my thought. In an article titled “The Phrase ‘People of Color’ Needs to Die” by Damon Young, he says “Although the phrase is centuries old, it didn’t stick in our lexicon until the late ‘80s, as an alternative to terms such as ‘nonwhite’ and ‘minority.’ By grouping ethnicities together, the term was meant to engender an oppression-based solidarity. We’re in this struggle against racism together.” In my opinion however, over time it has come to feel more like one more clunky and disconcerting effort to avoid discomfort – to be politically correct – and rather than uplift individual ethnicities and cultures, it lumps them all together. I am even convinced that, at times, the phrase creates a sense of ease for those who find discomfort in saying Black. After all, we are in a moment where saying Black lives matter is a threat to All lives matter for some. Go figure! We are also in a moment where I recognize the acronym has expanded to BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, & People of Color. While it marks a forward shift, in my head I hear separation and othering.
For different reasons, I also have an aversion to the phrase “I don’t see color.” Really? You don’t see color? I am filled with dreams and hopes of a different and more socially just tomorrow but, nowhere in all that optimism is a vision of a post-racial world. It is not even imaginable. Nor do I want that to be the landscape. I was raised to believe that America is an aggregation of cultures, and that my heritage and others are the essence of this country’s vibrancy. That belief lands in my body in a way that allows me to feel my feet firmly planted and connected to the ground; my spirit integrated into the soil of the earth to nurture and contribute to new life; and that lets me know with each day I wake up, and gifted another breath, I belong.
For one to say that they don’t see color is to say that they don’t see me. I am, and my contributions to America are, once again made invisible. In 1970 Dr. Chester Pierce, a Black male psychiatrist and Harvard professor, devised the term microaggressions. An example of racial microaggressions according to him is the theme of color evasiveness – “statements that indicate that a white person does not want to acknowledge race.” In this sense, saying “When I look at you, I don’t see color,” or “There is only one race, the human race,” sends a message that denies a person’s experiences and them as a racial/cultural being.
Even if I could imagine a post-racial world, I would quickly be reminded that it is fake news. Time and again it is demonstrated that color is not visible until one feels their life is in danger. It has been demonstrated that color is not visible until one has made a poor choice, and grows fearful of the consequences and therefore needs someone to blame. It has been demonstrated that color is not visible until one finds pleasure in fantasizing, exoticizing, and sexualizing Black and additional minority bodies. It has been demonstrated that color is not visible until one determines that their privilege is at risk.
In all the sharing of these deep reflections on race and my embodied experiences, I do find my way back to art. I always find my way back to art - envisioning it, creating it, sharing it. I move in the world troubled by many things, but I am also heartened by many things. I inhale and I exhale. I struggle and celebrate. I love, laugh, and cry. I love even if I don’t feel the love in return. Maybe I am not the chosen one, but I choose me. I believe in something and embrace the moments when my body is casting doubt. I self-destruct and reconstruct. I jump high, move at a fever pitch and am still. I exhaust myself and recover through activity. Art gives me a vehicle to show up – be PRESENT – fully committed in a sundry of lanes. My actioning is not myopic but, rather, expansive, generous and flowing. And with each failure, I receive a new gift – an unexpected success.
This notion of existing in many lanes is evidenced in two of the projects that are at the forefront of this focus of mine. At the onset of my current project with Avery Ryder Turner, an aspect of it was serendipitous. It emerged out of another project and it was not something that I was planning. The more I leaned in, the more I realized that a new project, now known as The Conversation Series, was already enmeshed full force with themes that I/we were navigating without necessarily naming them. The project created in the midst of our current societal and global backdrop, feels like it is taking on an expanded purpose and meaning for me. What the project holds both in its title and through its title as an actioning of conversations, feels like a metaphor for the work that is being demanded and needs to be addressed nationally if there is ever to truly be the manifestation of a more socially just America. Without the work centering on race, it embraces the race conversation because of who we are. What has been exposed in the process of our work together, is a demonstration of the effort to see something through, to accept that it is not going to be easy and that we will bump up against challenges. But the challenges are not an excuse to quit. They are pathways for continuing to grow, expand, deepen, and stand in our truths within the work. The duration, both within the work and the time it will take to build the entire work – especially given this pandemic reality, I hold as a reminder that true progress often requires time, patience, endurance, and resilience. The Conversation Series - given all that is presently surrounding it socially, racially, politically, globally – is rendering as a work rooted in undoing, coexisting, and reconstructing.
In contrast to The Conversation Series is Dirt, a new dance for camera project that is a meditative exploration of identity and Blackness in a heightened time of unrest and uprisings fueled by issues of police brutality and systemic racism in America. This work reflects a different lane, another slice of my being and my embodied everyday experiences. What I have been able to collaboratively create with Roma Flowers (visual designer, director, & video editor) and Andy Hasenpflug (original score composer and musician) is a work that is deeply affecting me but without trauma. Through the making of this work I was able to hold darkness and light and come out nurtured. I will not say much more because this blog post comes with the sharing of the full project. Dirt will be available for viewing through Tuesday, September 8, 2020. (Post September 8th, the trailer for the work will be available. Stayed tuned for future opportunities to see the full work.)
On that note, I say thank you for holding space for me to be seen, to be heard, to be felt, and not be invisiblized. Thank you for traveling through this reflection with me with an openness to engaging in the conversation. Our evolution will depend on our ability to converse, engage in both individual and collective work, practice deep listening, and not grow weary but, rather, reframe to find new pathways for continuing the work.
Top Image: From The Conversation Series film project #1
Photography by Carlos Flores/Watcheye Studio ©August 2020.
Bottom Image: From Dirt
Visual Design Created by Roma Flowers © July 2020.