A Rap (With Anna Deavere Smith) on Race

May 27, 2016
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Anna Deveare Smith and Donald Byrd talk A Rap on Race

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DB: So the first question—and I don’t want to do the interview, I think, as somebody who is not vested in it in some way because that’s kind of impossible.

ADS: Yes, and not uh, not true.

DB: In your usual process you do the field work of interviewing the subjects, you have met them and have a real sense of them beyond the interview. Because this was a pre-existing recording, how are the challenges different, in shaping the script and in this particular case, it not being devised as a solo performance?

ADS: I have been learning and studying this material since the early eighties when I found it in the bookstore of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where Margaret Mead worked in the Department of Anthropology from the 20′s until her death.  I have taught it for years in my acting classes having students play parts and switch sides to learn about persona and language.  I then learned and performed the edit that you have as a one-person piece for the opening of Zankel Theater at Carnegie Hall.  I then directed actors in it in 2014.  The recording and book are compelling to me as a drama. Race is the topic of discussion, but the drama is actually more complex.  It is a drama about two people who have met their match intellectually but who substantively see the world differently in part because of their histories, and their experiences but also because one of them, Baldwin, thinks and talks in metaphor and the other collects and absorbs what she calls facts.  The fire in the conversation is about two inevitably different ways of seeing and connoting the world.

DB: Can you tell me what is it about this material, the recordings, that attracted you to it in the first place?

ADS: The musicality of it, and also their willingness to talk with one another and their desire to pick up the pieces of the ‘60’s and to make sense of it. And so the vigor of the inquiry on both sides is very interesting to me.

DB: This thing you said about the musicality of it, I mean when you and I were working together you said, listen to the tapes and try to capture the musicality of it—

ADS:  Yeah.

DB: I’ve found the same thing happens when doing it, performing it, is that they, Mead and Baldwin, start to make sense, literally just in the abstraction of the musicality of how they speak to each other.   Do you think that that’s where the truth of it really is, in how they are playing their music together?  That there is something about that, their music, as much as in what they are actually saying, their interplay, in the counterpart of the musicality of their conversation?

ADS:  I think that’s part of it. But I do think that there is also just the heft, the intellectual heft, that even if we had never heard them and we just saw this on the page, you can feel the intellectual energy there and the bulk of knowledge. You know, these are true public intellectuals. So I would say that both are true, that both count in this case.

DB: One of the things I find really interesting is that in the beginning of the conversation with her, he seems to let her speak. He acquiesces in some way or kind of—what’s the word I’m looking for…he is “gracious” in his letting her tell him all about her northern background and her northern good and all of that stuff, that progressive liberal kind of way of thinking, and that he is doing it in a way that is not meant to set her up, but just to allow her to revel in some ways in who she is and what her background is.

ADS:  Yeah, I mean I don’t know if he had a motive. I know from watching audiences watch it, they assume – they laugh because they think that it’s this white woman, you know, talking so much.

DB:  Yeah.

ADS: But I actually think that any good writer, any good artist, any good thinker spends a good deal of time listening or reading or watching.  And so I think that he’s truly—my choice if I were performing him is that he’s truly interested.

DB:  Right.

ADS: He doesn’t know her.

DB: Yeah.

ADS:  As you know they met specifically for this and he doesn’t know the terms of the conversation yet. So I think it would be wise for any of us in that same situation to listen before we speak.

DB:  I agree. I find that he just, they don’t know each other, he just listens. And then the other thing, I mean one other question is about the role of alcohol in loosening them up. As the conversation progresses, obviously drunker, would they have been able you think to have a conversation like this if they had not been so sloshed?

ADS: Well I don’t know.  We don’t know if they were drinking because we didn’t see it.  You know what I’m saying? Maybe that slurred speech is that they’re tired. I mean at one point he says “these last 48 hours” or whatever.

DB:  Right.

ADS: So that’s a long time. So we don’t know for sure. I think we have to say that, Donald. We don’t know, uh, if they were drinking. It seems that they were. And do I think that they could have the same conversation? Absolutely. Absolutely.  I have no doubt about that. Because you and I are both old enough to know how those quote-unquote “conversations” about race went quote-unquote “back in the day,” when we weren’t so careful about talking about white privilege or this or that or the other.  I think that people were in a vigorous seeking of how can we find our way together after, you know, uh, more than 100 years—or 200 years depending on when you landed on American soil—all these years of a very, uh, um, peculiar relationship that was guarded and, um, where people didn’t have a chance to have, you know, their full humanist expressed. So I think many of us dove into that when we had a chance to do so, and uh, I think without alcohol it would be just as open and just as fiery.

DB: Right.  Um, I wonder if uh, I mean I think… one of the things I’ve said to people and wonder if you agree with this or if there is something you want to add to it, I kind of look at this, their conversation as a model. That if we, … that the value of bringing it up, the Mead/Baldwin conversation, and kind of putting it in front of people is in some ways… they are a model for how we might…the degree of honesty and openness … that we might have… and the kind of messiness and sloppiness of having a conversation about race…  my hope is that in some ways their conversation is a model and might give us permission to have deep uninhibited conversations around race.

ADS: Well I think yes, I think it’s a model, very hard to find now. Um, but I also think that we again can’t underestimate that this isn’t just like a truth-telling session. These are two people who are extremely accomplished researchers in their own way, thinkers and writers.



March 1, 2016
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RAMBUNCTIOUS 2.0: A Festival of Music and Dance…Continued + DANCE, DANCE, DANCE

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RAMBUNCTIOUS 2.0: A Festival of Music and Dance…Continued, Photo Credit: Tino Tran

“Black history doesn’t only belong to African Americans; it belongs to all Americans. It is a travesty that most Americans don’t know black history.” 

– Chey Yew, playwright and artistic director of

Victory Gardens Theater (Chicago)

When I was growing up in the segregated South, attending all-black schools, we were always taught “Negro” history. Taught about the contributions and accomplishments of black artists, educators, scientists, inventors and political/ community leaders. There was no “Black History Month;” everyday was black history. Why? Because black folks’ histories and contributions were not to be found in the text books approved and provided by the all-white school boards of the Jim Crow South. Yet our teachers and families were committed to our knowing and remembering and so we were taught.

We all knew the names of abolitionists Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglas; educators and activists Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune; botanist and inventor George Washington Carver; Eli Whitney the inventor of the cotton gin; scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, poets Arna Bontemps, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. We also knew the black figures from popular culture, sports, movies, music, and entertainment, especially those that had broken the race barriers and were trail-blazers like Joe Louis and Willie Mays. We were even encouraged to write essays about them and enter oration competitions held between black schools where the subject of our speeches was one of these renowned black figures. By the time I was entering the 9th grade in 1963, the list had expanded to include authors Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin.

This was the positive history, the biographies of those who were able somehow to transcend, if only for a moment, the ugly oppressive fist of bigotry. But there was also the dark history, slavery, always in the background and just below the surface of everything we did. Yet we were not shielded from it nor was it denied. In my own family I was taught and reminded whom had been born a slave or how many years after slavery they were born or their age at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Told of the indignities family members had endured at the hands of whites, some of those hands were ‘family’ hands – the white family.

We were taught about the atrocities of slavery, and made aware of its bitter remnants even as we sang the beautiful old Negro spirituals. We were reminded of its continued emotional and psychic damage on us, of its legacy of brutality. We learned of the lynchings and the systematic terrorizing of black folk by faceless white men in hooded white robes. We learned of cross burnings, beatings and demeaning acts of aggression. However, most importantly, we learned that in spite of the horrors of the past, the important history were the stories of when, how and whom had survived. Black history was the narratives of the survival and the thriving of black folk in America.

With the civil rights movement came hope, a belief that Righteousness would prevail over the evils of hate, bigotry, ignorance, and inequality. My family believed in this hope, not for themselves but rather for me, for my future. Their notion of integration was not a mixing or co-habitation of the races but rather equal access and equal opportunity – that’s what they wanted for me. Their hope led me to believed that one day the history that I had been taught in my Southern Negro schools would be taught to all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion. They hoped and I believed that just as I had access to black history, white people would, with integration, also have access to it. And in the future we, all Americans, would be the beneficiaries of our collective histories.

Jumping ahead to 2016 – in many ways little has changed. While some non-black Americans know a few things about black history and the contributions of blacks to American and world society and culture, most do not. This is the challenge, creating awareness and consciousness about the positive and real contributions and accomplishments of blacks.

I wonder about the violence against black folks happening almost daily across our nation. Happening in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Cleveland, Los Angeles and other cities and towns over the last two years and recorded by cameras on smart phones, distributed across the internet and witnessed on 24-hour news outlets. Wondering if these murderous acts would even be happening if the contributions of black people were known, acknowledged, and valued. Wondering if black history were the history of all of us, our history, Americans’ history, then, would #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite? or #StopErasingBlackPeople at Art AIDS America would even be necessary? Even Spectrum Dance Theater’s current festival of music and dance, “MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE”, might just be a nice oxymoron as opposed to an effort to illuminate the often ‘invisible persons’ status of black classical composers and the influence of black sensibilities, dancers and choreographers, and the Africanist Aesthetic on American dance both modern and classical.

I wonder and wonder and I wonder and I wonder…

Donald Byrd

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DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, Photo Credit: Tino Tran

The Minstrel Show Revisited Is Difficult…

October 19, 2015
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The Minstrel Show Revisited is difficult…

It is difficult because it complicates our thinking

It is difficult because it is disruptive

It is difficult because it confronts

It is difficult because it makes us race-conscious in a way that is not comfortable or easy

It is difficult because it represents conflict, chaos and potential danger

It is difficult because it hurts and we feel the pain

It is difficult because the issue of race in America will not go away

It is difficult because our responses reveal how ‘tinny’, limited and narrowed by political correctness our conversations about and around race are

It is difficult because it does not falsely uplift and we do not feel good

It is difficult because it provokes

It is difficult because it asks us to be brave and courageous

It is difficult because it asks black people and white people to sit in the same room when race is the issue

It is difficult because race and negative representation is thrust and thrown in our faces

It is difficult because we have to acknowledge the racists legacies of our past

It is difficult because we are asked to stare into the face of the minstrel “black-face” mask and it stares back at us

It is difficult because we are asked to face representations that horrify us but are part of our culture and history

It is difficult because we become aware of how we have internalized racism

It is difficult because our responses are complex/complicated and we want/wish them to be simple reactions, easily categorized

It is difficult because we feel guilt, shame, anger, surprise, complicit, fear, astonishment, remorse, sadness, and are numb all in the same breath

It is difficult because we are taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride

It is difficult because we laugh

It is difficult because we see and hear others laughing

It is difficult because we are bombarded by images and sounds that unnerve and unsettle us

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that what we thought or hoped was finished, dead and gone, is alive and well

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that at this point in time, there is no post-racial America and never was

It is difficult because it seems to ‘re-inscribe’ the language of racism that it purports to want to erase

It is difficult because we are reminded that history is painful, we can hardly bear it and want to rewrite it, or wish it weren’t so, just so we can feel better

It is difficult because we are asked to acknowledge that we see color and race

It is difficult because in spite of what one says, none of us are color-blind

It is difficult because sitting in the darkened theater we are aware of all the unfiltered thoughts regarding race running through ours mind – and maybe others know what we are thinking

It is difficult because it raises questions and provides no answers

It is difficult because we hate every minute of how we feel when we watch it yet watch it anyway

It is difficult because we are sick and tired of the past and wonder why we can’t just “move on” or just “get over it”

It is difficult because in it the past and present collide and often look the same

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Photo Credit: Nate Watters, 2014