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  • Helanius J. Wilkins

Trigger: Again and Again and Again

As it always happens for better or worse with creativity, I have encountered an interruption. My plan was to write a piece titled “Full Frontal” about how life has morphed into one about constantly staring at screens. From phone to television to computer screens, I feel like I am on a world tour that always ends up with me positioned in front of a screen. But as quickly as clarity surfaced about the greater arc of “Full Frontal,” it dissipated with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

I’m less okay than I want to believe I am. It is a rare moment where I am rejecting my own optimism and confidence. I am tired. My heart and mind are heavy. I have found myself waking up over the past few mornings with tears in my eyes. I’m questioning progress when present images of police brutality in America reflect the same as from the 1960s. And that time frame does not even scratch the surface of a fraught history built on slavery. I’m questioning the impact of video recordings that make the horrendous killings of Black people more visible. The rate of killings has not lessened nor made the officers responsible more accountable. The repeated trauma of seeing Black bodies treated as tokens and their killings seeming as if celebrations for racists is hard. I am hurting. Will history ever stop repeating itself?

Eradicating white supremacy in America requires concrete change – change that I question is possible. In We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes “that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.” Although I consider the possibility for a different future through my work, I relate to the spirit of Coates in this moment. We are facing this crisis in a time where our non-leadership, at best, is reduced to self-serving bullies who take advantage of their privilege to run for shelter. Present leadership hides rather than rise up, to listen, be compassionate and empathetic, and make a concerted effort to right the wrongs. Then, again, perhaps such cowardly actions are intended. Are racist power structures built on a practice of waiting for the uprisings of Black people and the diverse bodies in solidarity with them to settle down to avoid change, therefore making it easier to continue murdering Black people and robbing them of their lives?

I’m tired. I’m so tired. With each new trauma, it renders as if I had just experienced one the day before – causing tremendous fatigue, sadness, and despair. At times I am so numb that I’m not even sure what I feel or how to feel. In my own way of fighting I continue to hold space for resistance and resilience, empathy and grace, compassion and love. Walking up to twelve or so miles a day feels like an act of courage and a personal protest. I continue to hold space to be seen, to be heard, to be felt, simply to breathe.

The white supremacy fight has been a long one. It continues to be a long fight. Lyrics from “Dear Mr. Man” (released 2004 as part of Musicology album) by Prince are blasting in my mind right about now:

You're thousand years are up Now you got to share the land Section one, the fourteenth Amendment says: No state shall deprive any person Of life, liberty, or property Without due process of law Mr. Man We want to end this letter with three words "We tired o'y'all!"

With each new senseless killing of a Black male, I am reminded that could have been me. Lawful acts often lead to violent responses. No one is immune from Rodney King to Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner to Walter Scott to Tamir Rice to Ahmaud Arbery, and now George Floyd. And I cannot go without including the alarming rate of killings of Black females - Sandra Bland, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Breonna Taylor, among them. Nor can I not bring to attention the number of transgender persons including Nina Pop, who was killed May 3 in Missouri, and more recently Tony McDade on May 27 in Tallahassee, FL. Being Black in America comes with a price. And, like a broken record, close encounters run on repeat in my body with every step that I make, even in the comfort of my own home.

I have experienced my own unprovoked, fearful encounter with police in 2008 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In that moment, it did not matter that I had a presence in the greater D.C. metropolitan area and was praised for my work in The Washington Post. It did not matter that I had just finished teaching class in the upscale area of Friendship Heights. It did not matter that I was educated. The only thing that mattered was that I was a Black male walking at night with a backpack on, and therefore suspect. Still to this day, I reflect upon how my story – and having my life - might have been drastically different if it had not been that a Black female police officer was among the white policemen who were addressing me with racist overtones. She stressed that I was not the one they are looking for and had to do so repeatedly before they finally let me go. I do not share this to bring attention to my experience. I share this to say that, sadly: experiences as such are not foreign to most Black men. Regardless of success, education, values, and decency, being a Black male in America always equals being suspect. In my 2005 evening-length dance project, Cold Case, I had this reality in mind for the first section of the work that is appropriately titled “Black Equals Danger.” I later revisited this theme in my 2011 evening-length dance project, Trigger, in a solo section titled “Warning.”

I do believe it is important to make the distinction that the issue is racism in America. I do not believe that all white people are racists. I do not believe that all policemen are racists. However, I struggle with the disproportionate number of senseless killings of Black people by the hands of white people. I struggle with how Black people must continually function in social environments in a state of permanent race-based stress, something that white people are protected from. In White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, she writes:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

As I’m wrestling with myself to move some place closer to the optimism and confidence that is more typical of me, I acknowledge my privilege. I recognize the opportunities that I have been granted are because of those who came before me, their countless efforts and, in some cases, the sacrificing of their lives. I am grateful for my diverse and inclusive friendships that allows me to be connected to humans who care and who are invested in causing good trouble by engaging in the work of undoing racism and building on and expanding efforts of decoloniality. That said, none of my privilege shields me from racism.

I recall a time when a former collaborator revealed a blind spot when they said to me in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way that they are looking forward to the work we will make when I “get over this race thing.” Did they not know that my work would always engage the topic of race? That in America I am seen as BLACK first? In a 2017 review of a performance I did at the John F. Kennedy Center as part of the Millennium Stage series by Lisa Traiger, she wrote:

Well before ‘Black Lives Matter,’ the hash tag and the movement, former Washington, D.C.-based choreographer Helanius J. Wilkins was making work that unapologetically demonstrated that black lives matter...Wilkins doesn’t allow his audience to forget, even for a moment, that experiences of black men in America remain far from equal to their white peers.

In this moment of uprising, it is amplified more than ever that structural racism in America do not allow Black men to forget, even for a moment, that they are Black.

I am heartened by the global display of solidarity. I have NEVER seen something like this before! Britain! Japan! Germany! Denmark! Iran! Italy! New Zealand! Canada! Poland! Australia! Even Russia, China, and the African Union voiced support for the protesters and criticized the United States. It offers hope when I find myself oscillating between whether there is any. I am heartened by the coming together of “everyone vs racists.” I am heartened by those who have reached out to me to ask if I am ok. All of it gives me reason to believe there is possibility for a different future.

At the end of this year I will turn 48. While I would like to believe differently, I am fully aware that the fight for justice and eliminating structural racism is far from over. I have been asking many of the same questions and exposing the blind spots of an America that sees the marginalized differently for nearly two decades. I continue the work because, even in the most difficult of times, I refuse to give up. I continue in my efforts to emphasize how our actions generate sensory engagements that reconfigure our relationships to ourselves, environments around us, and to others. I continue to create opportunities for audiences to have visual and kinesthetic experiences that foreground a place defined by unconditional love.

I recently came across a social media post beautifully reminding me that “resistance is NOT a one lane highway…Do NOT feel guilty for not occupying every lane. We need all of them.” There are many opportunities and ways we can show up and peacefully saturate spaces to influence meaningful change. This long battle is a human issue. I encourage us all to participate in the change we want to see and that is long overdue. I am dreaming and actively doing with you. As I shared in a previous blog post, my heart bleeds, but my soul holds space for hope.

Top Photo by: David Dowling.

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