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Black Representation in Campus Art

Arts & Culture | February 21, 2017

Though these past few weeks have been rife with stories of turmoil and resistance, Beyoncé Knowles kicked off Black History Month with an announcement of the imminent arrival of not one, but two more Carters, and a beautiful photoset to show for it. Shortly after, the world was blessed with new music from Sampha, Syd, and SZA to soundtrack Black Twitter’s eruptive celebration. Of course, these events did not magically clear the clouds of anxiety that the current political climate has hung over many of our heads, but they did shed some light on the avenues for Black joy that still exist. After all, when is a “good time” to be Black and joyous when so often comfort is predicated on forgetting our identities?

Many of us have taken to the streets, classrooms, and social media to voice our concerns surrounding Trump’s administration and moreover, systems of injustice and oppression. And much like the aforementioned musicians, others have turned to the arts and creative expression to forge the world they want to see. It is in this vein that the Black Theatre Troupe and Caribbean Dance Team were established at Tufts.

This January, sophomore Melanie Horton and junior James Austyn Williamson revived Tufts’ Black Theater Troupe. Inspired by their time in Professor Monica Ndounou’s Black Theater Workshop class last spring, Horton and Williamson created an artistic space on campus where they would not have to leave their identities at the door. Tufts’ Caribbean Dance Team was created in the fall with a similar impetus and intent, the newest addition to the growing community of predominantly Black dance groups that also includes African Dance Collective, ENVY step team, and Blackout step team.

Unlike Caribbean Dance Team, Black Theater Troupe has historically existed on campus, although according to Horton, “it just hasn’t been sustainable. Student leaders either study abroad or graduate and things fall through, so it’s come through Tufts in cycles.” For this reason, membership dwindled and eventually the troupe became inactive, until now. Both Horton and Williamson were involved in last year’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, an experience Horton considers a contribution to her eagerness to carve out room for more productions that center the Black experience.

Citing the only two Black theater productions at Tufts, Gem of the Ocean in 2016 and For Colored Girls in 2010, Horton emphasized that it wasn’t so much the content that they felt was lacking, but the platform. “We both really felt that the drama department and a lot of performance groups on campus can feel very exclusive to people of color. What does it mean to enter a space where you should be discovering yourself as a performer but feel like there aren’t enough interesting roles because of your race?”

Staying true to the rich history and diversity of Black storytelling and oration, Black Theater Troupe hopes to organize various workshops that will culminate in an end of year showcase to the power of performance.

A long history of Black student arts groups on Tufts’ campus precedes the Black Theater Troupe and Caribbean Dance Team. Art, in this sense, is not only a way of communicating a story, but also a means of forging community. Ranging from the formerly published Black Literature Journal, Onyx, to the recently aired TUTV docuseries, Roots, Black students have long been pushing against dominant images of Tufts to center their truths. For example, on any given day, you could ask anyone procrastinating in the Capen House lounge what their favorite a capella S-Factor/Essence song or SWAT Spoken Word performance is, and their face would probably light up with one too many memories of screaming loudly with friends in the front row of Goddard Chapel and Hotung Café. These groups recreate the sights, sounds, and feelings that a lot of Black students associate with “home” and cannot find elsewhere on campus. Tufts’ Caribbean Dance Team hopes to continue this pattern.

Started by senior Antonia George and sophomores Anjalique Knight and Christihanna Morrison, the Caribbean Dance Team is disrupting notions of apolitical dance by centering identity and culture in its art. According to George, the “lack of Black dance on this campus” and history of erasure in other dance groups underlined the need for a place that serves the interests of those who grew up dancing in Black homes, but may not necessarily have “formal” dance training. “Caribbean dance incorporates different people and different styles. We don’t want to be competition-focused,” George said. “It’s also a community for those who have danced mostly for fun.”

Echoing similar sentiments, senior Fehintola Abioye of ENVY, Tufts’ women’s step team, said, “It’s not intentional, but I really do think it’s important that ENVY is all POC and predominantly Black women because at an institution like this, it is so easy to get whitewashed.” ENVY co-captains Menbere Kebede and Nadeerah Lamour also spoke to this by stressing the importance of the community that dance allows for, as well as the art itself.

Given the history of policing Black bodies, dance in particular provides an opportunity to turn the body into an instrument of communication. By this principle, it is more something to be remembered than learned. Noting this inextricable link between Black history and rhythm, George alluded to the beauty of harnessing this power, stating, “I think it’s important to have Black spaces built on the tradition of different Black dances across the diaspora. And it’s especially important at places like Tufts, where there are definitely people who have had access to all sorts of training and think that they have [more of] a say on what it means to be a dancer.”

What with being constantly inundated with discouraging headlines and policies, it is easy to feel as though we are not doing enough to carry the world on our shoulders. Not only is this an impossible burden for one to bear, but it also does not allow for us to find acts of resistance in our everyday existence. Sometimes, even just managing to find happiness is radical in itself. Thus, through community and performance, groups like Caribbean Dance Team and Black Theater Troupe are unapologetically creating necessary spaces that celebrate the arts inclusively, and inadvertently, the people in them, too.

Furthermore, creating tradition in this way is an essential part of memorializing Black students’ histories and experiences on this campus for years to come. For instance, despite not having tangible records, ENVY still does their signature step routine nicknamed “the Jonathan,” and S-Factor will always perform “One More Time,” and in turn, so will the students who come next, carrying their legacies. As George puts it, “It’s fun, but it’s also important.”