Saturday was the first day of BlackLight’s Creative Change Makers’ Training…BlackLight in Bloom. I don’t know where or how to begin. There is no way to adequately capture the synergy in that room in the Paul Robeson Campus Center where we met. In many ways, you just had to be there. And, in many ways you were. We felt the loving intentions and strong spirits of all of you, our participating observer friends, lovers, supporters, community members, and ancestors. You floated in the room with us, filling us with the light we so needed that rainy, chilly Newark morning.
I walked in the room, knowing it would, indeed, be a good day when I saw Brittney and Shauntice already out on the floor warming up in leotards and tights. Sandra Bowie, VP of Arts and Education at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, was sitting quietly, almost meditatively in the corner. NJPAC is interested in housing BlackLight (thank God! infrastructure and real institutional support. finally!) But it was 10:55. We start at 11 and there were only four girls in the room! And then, of course, my phone starts blowing up. “Are we still having it today? It’s raining” “What time does it start?” Where are we meeting again?” As hard as it is for me, I am working on letting go of not only my need to control, but the belief that I can actually control anything outside of my own actions, energy and responses. So, I simply texted back, “Of course,” “It already started,” and “you know where.” 11:15 and the room was full.
While each new BlackLight trickled in, they were given a task to assist in breathing life into the space. Shaylah and Blanca set up the journaling corner with the Kenyan stool, candles and rug I brought from my home altar and the rest of the young women rummaged through the remaining bags to create our materials table, blogging station and talking circle. Some of them walked slowly, carefully looking down at the items in their hands before settling on the perfect placement, some skipped through the room and things landed where they may – perfectly. I watched this new group of BlackLight girls each moving in her own way and saw our first choreographic work take shape. These opening moments, the process of getting settled, setting up and creating beauty in the space may seem insignificant, but establish the foundation from which all else flows. We talked about the permanency of the walls and the other structural aspects of the room that we couldn’t change and what it means to change those parts we can impact: how the space looks, feels and smells. Every time we meet, we will all bring material parts of our life – things we find beautiful for whatever reason – to fill and reshape the room. You know, the politics of aesthetics and all.
Vernard Gilmore is my brother, a gift, a true light and a brilliant dancer and choreographer currently with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. We were blessed to have him join us as our first guest artist. Friday night Vernard performed in all three pieces the company performed at NJPAC. I was exhausted just witnessing from the audience. Nonetheless, he was up at the crack of dawn yesterday calling me to finalize the details for his visit with BlackLight. The few hours before tech rehearsal, which are often the same day as that evening’s performance, most dancers are luxuriating in the opportunity to breathe, stretch and recoup alone. Vernard, however, chose to spend this time giving to BlackLight.
When he walked in the room, we all gasped a little. He is physically beautiful, yes, but what we were responding to more than anything was his luminous spirit. He is surrounded by light. He is light. Ismael, our first male BlackLight member (of the “where are we meeting again?” text) arrived just in time to join our circle and take class with Vernard. I think he may have run all the way from his home. We love Ismael and the quirky, lovely earnest energy he brings. We need him. He needs us. Some of the new members of Blacklight, like Ismael, attend Arts High School and have been dancing for some time. Others have never really danced outside of their bedrooms and define themselves as writers, visual artists or “still discovering.” Since the knowledge that the body holds and reveals is such a core piece of BlackLight’s driving philosophy, we all move. We work towards technique and artistry but refrain from judging our status in that process. Vernard managed to get everyone to dance fearlessly and unselfconsciously. I had planned to primarily watch and film but soon found myself stripping down in the corner to my leotard and leggings. I’ll admit that I might have elbowed a few BlackLights out of the way to get a prime space on the floor. Vernard challenged us with some pretty intricate choreography and refused to let anyone hide in the background or allow claimed shyness to be an acceptable excuse for not going all out. By the time Vernard left, we were all in love with him, dancing, and ourselves. Thank you, Vernard.
Fayemi Shakur is a writer, community change agent and goddess who came to BlackLight to share her healing methodology . She talked about releasing, shifting past darkness, finding self, and deepening understanding through the act of putting pen to paper. Affirmation is a word that many of the BlackLights had not heard before. So, Fayemi talked about affirmations and intentions and what it means to claim the self you want to be. We moved from the high physical intensity of Vernard’s dance class to a more internally focused, quiet space with our work with Fayemi – honoring all aspects of ourselves as we explored these various modalities of coming into our own so we might touch and inspire others. Hard, necessary and beautiful work. All of it.
I am…I will be…My city is…My city will be…
The BlackLights were given two minutes to write in response to each of the above prompts. We took our written responses and translated them into performance poetry pieces and then responded to these spoken words with our bodies through movement. The choreography we have so far – dope. And, this is just the very very beginning.
Our day ended with the glorious Darnell Moore. If you know Darnell, I don’t have to explain the peace and spiritual intelligence he radiates. If you don’t know him, I won’t pretend that anything I could say would be adequate other than, you need to know him. We all need some Darnell in our lives. Darnell covered the walls in the hallway outside of the room with post-it notes. The BlackLights walked outside and selected the notes that they felt represented who they are. We went around the circle and listened as we explained why we felt we are worthy, a social change agent, beautiful, resilient, or courageous. We then talked about the importance of our contexts and our personal histories in not only shaping who we are, but who we choose to be and how we decide to move through the world in the future. We also considered the power in self-definition in a society that defines young black and brown people in ways that are painful and physically, emotionally and spiritually dangerous. The raw openness and exquisite honesty that emerged during that conversation took, I think, many of us off guard. We were sharing and supporting one another like family completely unaffected by the fact that, for many of us, this was the first day we met.
Anyone can build a decent or even innovative curriculum for young people. We can all do a fairly good job of talking about social justice education or arts activism in theory. But, there is no way to teach or train folks how to build the type of safety and love that we all created in that room. There is a certain combination of passion, true belief in the possibilities for individual and collective transformation, and an almost ridiculous attraction to seemingly insurmountable challenge that guides the way Vernard, Fayemi and Darnell think about and act in the world. It is this combination of energies that I also feel in the spirits of each of the BlackLights. It is this energy that will push us on…press us forward…make the types of changes we envision in Newark (and beyond) inevitable. It may not be a dance step, sentence, or affirmation away…but it could be.
Starting Tuesday, my blog and other online presences will mostly (finally) be turned over to the BlackLights so you’ll be hearing from them in these next postings. I hope you stay engaged as they tell the story of their journey through the Creative Change Makers May training. We’ll see you at our BLOOM showing on Saturday, May 22nd. All details on that will be posted soon.
All my love, always.