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DONALD BYRD ARCHIVES: WHITE MAN SLEEP (2002)

Zebediah Smith

Donald Byrd and Spectrum Dance Theater share the 2002 performance of White Man Sleep in remembrance of the 2001 September 11th terrorist attack. Donald Byrd has chosen to share this reflective piece from his archival works on the 22nd anniversary of one of the most definitive and horrible moments in contemporary American history. Living in New York at the time, Donald Byrd’s White Man Sleep offers a deep reflection and response to the 9/11 attacks.  

Read below to hear from Donald Byrd about White Man Sleep and watch the full performance.  

September 11, 2001, New York City::The morning is beautiful, clear, and peaceful. The calm is broken by the sound of a plane flying too low … its engines rev up. A loud crash, like a sonic boom. A woman runs towards me, face full of terror. I turn and see an open flaming wound in the side of the building, like a gaping maw of some horrible mythical creature. It looks not real, rather like special effects generated for a movie… . silence … Then people falling, jumping from the windows… “Why must I witness this”, I think, “why?” – from my journal, Donald Byrd

The terrorist attack of 9/11 is probably one of the most significant events of my life. On that day, I was afraid in ways I had never been before. I was frightened for my life, for the lives of those that I loved, those that I felt affection for, and those who were just neighbors. I was afraid that a way of life that I had committed myself to – art-making – might be lost. The days following the attack, I replayed the moments and events of that day over and over in my mind. Around me was the rubble (almost up to my front door) from the collapsed towers, the smoke and acrid air, the awful smell, the dazed faces of the living and the frozen in time faces on the flyer of those missing but probably dead. For the first time since I had made the decision to be an artist, I questioned that decision. One might say it triggered a crisis of faith – faith in the value and worthiness of Art and those who make it.

I also wondered, Why did I have to see the horrible things that I saw on that day?  People falling, jumping from a doomed tower, gently holding on to each other as they fell to their deaths? In order to make sense of it I chose to believe that I and others like myself that lived through the day and witnessed the events of the day were chosen. A divine gift given – a responsibility. We who‘saw’ were being asked to speak of those things, those events, to not forget them, and to bear witness to the horrible events of the day.

“White Man Sleep” was the first new work I made after the attack. It was part of a CalArts Alumni Concert held at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in the East Village in the late Spring of 2002, 10 months after the tragedy. It was my way of remembering the day, those that lost their lives, and those who witnessed. Later I made other works that responded to the day, but this was the first.

Donald Byrd, September 2023

This a single camera, archival video.

White Man Sleep (2002) by Donald Byrd

Music: Kevin Volans “White Man Sleeps” (sections 1 and 2), Silvestre Revueltas (section 3)

Dancers: Michael Blake (section 1), Stephania Guiland (section 2) Tanya Wideman-Davis, Thaddeus Davis, Stephanie Guiland (section 3)

As a result of White Man Sleep and other creative works that touch on the 9/11 attacks, Donald Byrd was invited to speak in the 2021 documentary Memory Box: Echoes of 911, sharing his intimate recollections in the aftermath of the attacks.

The feature documentary, directed by David Belton and Bjørn Johnson, premiered September 8, 2021, on MSNBC and Peacock. The documentary collects accounts of 9/11, recorded in the months after the attacks, and present-day testimonials from the same eyewitnesses.

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