Summer Institute: “Time […] does not pass, it accumulates.”

[DX Note: Ellen Crooks was a participant in Dance Exchange’s Summer Institute this summer 2017, and stepped forward as the Communications Work/Study. Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing Ellen’s writings (and other institute participants) as a way to reflect on the journey through our Summer Institute and to provide a glimpse into the experiences of the participants. Check the blog for more! — MC]

“Time […] does not pass, it accumulates”
— Ian Baucom

In resuscitating the history and experiences of enslaved people on the Middle Passage of the North Atlantic Slave Trade, there arises a question of place. What happened on the ships carrying people from Africa’s Gold Coast to the ports of New England or Virginia or Haiti? Scholars cite the loss of more than a million lives in passage across the Atlantic alone, and their stories of displacement are largely lost to the ocean. When American slavery is researched, we often talk about its most visible and prolonged consequences: the abuse and violent exploitation of brown and black bodies. What happens upon inquiring about the passage from freedom to slavery? What do we learn about place and spatiality? I think that these questions point to a long-obscured loss, one that includes the loss of home and freedom, but also the loss of a history that continues to impact us. The happenings of the past live within us- our architecture, schools, government, and even our bodies. We continue to employ slavery in its contemporary incarnation in the American prison industrial complex. The Middle Passage is alive in gentrification of once-black spaces that packs brown and black folks more and more tightly together, strips them of their resources, and displaces them from their homes. We accumulate the practices and norms of injustices past, uncritically adopting them as part of normal society. The quote that begins this post (written by Ian Baucom in Specters of the Atlantic, Duke University Press, 2005) was written to indicate the way a loss of the Middle Passage contributes to a cultural loss of capacity to connect practices of enslavement to contemporary experiences of race in America. So how does this relate to the Summer Institute?

Last Wednesday, the Institute participants took an “anti-tour” through the U Street Corridor with public historian Dr. Marya McQuirter. During this time, Dr. McQuirter shared some of her immense knowledge about black life on U Street throughout time, beginning with the Civil War, moving to the “Golden Age” of black-owned business, and tracing connections to the sidewalks and street signs we saw. Something happened as we walked and talked and danced about gentrification, we put our bodies into the spaces that had long been battlegrounds. We got off of the metro at the U Street Station, which also houses the African American Civil War Memorial. Immediately, we talked about the built landscape as we saw it, turning eventually to the Prince Hall Masonic Temple. Throughout time, this building had been a hub for social clubs in the area, bringing black folks together for both casual and glamorous occasions. Dr. McQuirter shared that the social clubs specifically housed in this Masonic Temple were some of the first to extend support and inclusion to LGBTQ members, many of whom frequented the bars and clubs on greater U Street. We marched on. At the intersection of U and 11th, there remain three landmarks of black entrepreneurship: they face one another in a historic triangle. Walking a few steps further, we landed in the alleyway between Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theatre. I’d like to focus on Ben’s Chili Bowl for one main reason- Dr. McQuirter wasn’t exactly sure why it was as famous as it was. There was a sense of myth surrounding it, its establishment was later than many of its neighbors’, but it enjoys enduring popularity and celebrity in the neighborhood.

The wall is decorated with a massive, multi-color mural. Beginning with the Obamas and Prince, stretching back to include Chuck Brown and Harriet Tubman, the wall is an amalgamation of new and old. Without belaboring dates and facts, it concretely references black excellence in the D.C. Metropolitan area, affirming the coexistence of black life, music, and food in a centuries-long struggle for justice. But more than that, the wall highlights happiness and success. The subjects beam with toothy smiles, memorialized as singers, politicians, activists, and icons. The wall bears the history of the neighborhood while also reviving a sometimes-lost history of joy. The U Street Metro station looms just across the street, bringing more patrons and more developers- people who appreciate the music venues and chili; people who oust the neighborhood’s indigenous residents. The wall smiles back.

We made a dance. The dance used the space and the space was seeped in history. So, did the dance use the history? Did we confront the extractive processes of wealthy developers? Did we address the way displacement has made the neighborhood more “safe” and “inclusive”, terms that are used to promote the space for affluent potential residents? We tried to. We used tools like movement metaphor and spatial detail to directly cite our movements to their sources, to root the movement in our new understandings of the area. We even tried to find the joy, to celebrate the persistence of life and culture in the face of deep inequality. By embodying these things, we re-centered the histories that Dr. McQuirter shared with us as human experiences in/through space. In a small way, we connected the work of artists to the persistence and pervasiveness of gentrification. It wasn’t a pièce de resistance, but it was a gesture.

When it comes down to it, U Street isn’t a slave ship. To directly compare the two does a disservice to both: it massively downplays the blatant violence of enslavement and it ignores the celebrations, the joys, and the vibrance of U Street. I maintain, though, that bringing these histories of movement and displacement to the fore focuses attention on the accumulation of time; the repetition of extractive practices and the echoes of slavery that reappear in contemporary life. Embodiment offers a way to return history to the body and conceptualize mobility as something that happens even under dire circumstances. I will carry our gesture with me as I continue to investigate the connections that artists and queer people have to the displacement of black and indigenous people, remembering that my choices are produced inside and through this accumulation of time. The specificity of a neighborhood, a single street reminds us that these echoes reach from the local to the global, it’s our job to uncover them. I will leave you with a question that Dr. McQuirter posed: we could have chosen to write a U Street history of poverty, of queerness, of music, or of food- but when do we choose these and why?

About Ellen Crooks

Ellen is a loud and curious movement artist with roots in Virginia. She comes to Dance Exchange as a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, having earned interdisciplinary degrees in Political Theory, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Dance. She's here to experience and notice, her favorite things.