Bricks & Bones: Navigating Insider/Outsider Positions and Honoring the Stories of Others

Chantel Jones (left) and Alfreda Rollins (right) share stories during the Dance Exchange engagement at Saint Paul United Methodist Church. Photo by Jerome Weeks, courtesy of artandseek.org.

Chantel Jones (left) and Alfreda Rollins (right) share stories during the Dance Exchange engagement at Saint Paul United Methodist Church. Photo by Jerome Weeks, courtesy of artandseek.org.

 

Who’s telling my story? Who’s singing my life? Who’s telling my story? And are they telling it right?

On our first day in the African American Museum one of our elders, Christine King, taught us this song, which I meditated on everyday. To learn a new city through its erasures and silences is to have a very specific understanding of that city. While I felt privileged to be learning about the parts of Dallas’s black history that had been buried and dismissed for so long, I was sensitive to what it meant to be an outsider accessing these stories.

The categories of “insider” and “outsider” are complex and I would argue, insufficient. We all move back and forth between these categories and often even fail to experience a true sense of belonging in the spaces that we call our homes. Still, during my time in Dallas there was no doubt that those of us who had traveled to be a part of Bricks and Bones needed to be intentional about how we were taking up space, whose stories we were telling, and how we were telling them. Making art about the trauma of a city you’re not from, with or without permission from local partners, is a deeply complex and difficult project. Each day offered new insight into the advantages and limitations of being an outsider, but our community engagements at Billy Dade Middle School and at Saint Paul United Methodist were particularly rich sites for interrogating these issues.

I’m not sure anyone feels like they belong in a middle school, so I wasn’t surprised that I felt very much like an outsider as we entered the auditorium at Billy Dade Middle School, where we found about 20 kids between the ages of 12 and 14 teasing each other, wiggling in their seats, and only mildly interested in what we were there to do. Meghan Bowden Abadoo, Crysta Caulkins-Clouse, and Fabiola Torralba began the visit with a circle warm up where students reluctantly mumbled their names, and self-consciously began warming up their bodies. We asked the students to speak a little about how they practice resistance in their own lives. Their answers focused mostly on how they avoided conflict by cooling down when they were upset, saying no to negative pressures, and simply “taking a breath.” They were then shown and taught the choreography from what we called the “Resistance Section” of Bricks and Bones, which we hoped would inspire them. As the students learned the choreography, there was a noticeable shift as the energy became one of concentration. I felt the magic in the room when the students were then split into groups and asked to add their own movements to the choreography. It was incredible to watch them lean into their own creativity and allow themselves to get excited about introducing their own material and sharing it with their peers. Unaware that anyone was watching them, they lit up. In the closing circle, students were significantly more vocal and expressive about what they had seen and experienced. As soon as they were given the space to frame the conversation with their own experiences and contribute their own ideas and movements to the preexisting choreography, it was clear that they had a lot to say and I think we all wished that we had more time to spend with them. At the end of the day it seemed like our primary purpose had been simply to make space for them to create something and witness them doing it.

Our performance engagement at Saint Paul United Methodist focused on the act of remembering as a tool for resisting erasure. Given the significance of the 100 year old church to Dallas’s black community, we found it important to share, reflect, and dance with community members in that particular space. Because this particular engagement was so much about the history of the church and other black Dallas institutions, I was very aware of the fact that despite all I had learned about Dallas’s history, I could not partake in the nostalgia that many in the room experienced. I had not been present for Dallas’s transformation—I had not experienced this particular loss and displacement firsthand.

During the event, Dallas cohort member vickie washington reiterated the fact that the church was one of only three structures from Freedmen’s Town remaining in the area, and invited us to celebrate the fact that they still remain, stating “We are here to honor the work of our ancestors and remember that there was erasure. What was lost? What remains? And how to make this city what we want it to be?”

vickie followed this with a story about witnessing 35 structures in her neighborhood be demolished in just 2 days, highlighting the ways that erasure has happened, not over time, but rather quickly. Those present were asked to remember a time that they experienced erasure and share it with someone (who they did not come with), and then again with someone new, as if they were telling the story to their grandchild. Using the Dance Exchange Build A Phrase tool we created a dance inspired by the stories shared, and performed it while singing Christine’s song, Who’s telling my story? Who’s singing my life? Who’s telling my story? And are they telling it right? Dallas cohort member Linda Jones concluded the event by inviting us all to remember a person, place, or object out loud, creating a patchwork quilt of memory. Several old Dallas institutions were called out such as Henderson’s Chicken, Strictly Taboo, Carter’s BBQ, and the State Theater. Though, as a non-Dallas native I was unfamiliar with these sites, watching the joy and camaraderie bubble up in the room as people remembered and yelled out places where they would go as children was a testament to the power of creating space for people to remember together.

I’ll end with one last anecdote.

On the afternoon of the final performance I took an Uber to the South Dallas Cultural Center. The instant I entered the car my driver, a handsome older black man, asked me if I was a dancer and serendipitously began telling me about his brother who had danced professionally in New York for many years. He was open, talkative, and clearly a lover of dance. Vaguely aware that I had one last Bricks and Bones flyer in my bag, I took our meeting as a sign from The Universe and began telling him about the performance happening that night, filling him in on what we had been up to all week. His enthusiasm about the project was so much that it made me sad to think that it was only by chance that I got to tell him about it. He promised to post about the event on Facebook and invite both of his brothers, and sure enough that night all three of them showed up. I sat behind them during the performance and as I heard them sigh knowingly, chuckle, and occasionally shout out words of encouragement to the performers, I had a great sense that, despite being outsiders, we had captured something that really spoke to these men.

When doing this kind of work it is necessary to remind others and ourselves that we cannot be experts on the experiences of others and that is not our job. There is much that we do not and cannot understand about Dallas, and the experiences of the lovely individuals who trusted us with their stories. Our job is always, first and foremost, to listen, to witness, and to support that which is already flourishing in any given space. This is not an easy process–mistakes and oversights are bound to occur, and we must honestly encounter and address privilege and power, especially as they apply to race and access. But if we are willing to sit with discomfort in the service of important work, we have the exciting opportunity to create art that is understood and experienced differently by diverse audiences and constantly changing, creating new opportunities for all of us to be heard, to remember, to grieve, and to celebrate.

About Bimbola Akinbola

Bimbola Akinbola, is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Maryland, and currently engages with Dance Exchange on a number of projects and events, giving voice to the process through documentation.