WHEN YOU'RE IN THE TRENCHES - in honor of the class of 2017
"We were all there on the cutting edge of each other's dreams," she said.
I inhaled deeply, and held in all of those gems -- so many gems-- and felt grateful. How does one die a free Black woman? The answers of how one may manifest those dreams are not simple, even in the context of understanding that what I was experiencing right then (as a college graduate, as someone who had been able to maintain a salaried job position, as someone who had had access to health insurance in my lifetime at certain points) would be considered freedom by many. How can one remain present and acknowledge how far we still have to go?
Back in August of 1991, I moved to Atlanta to attend Spelman College, a place that has a long history of Black leadership and struggle. To go to any college, even on student loans, was a privilege to most folks in New York City. It represented only a surface level of how deep resource, culture and class examination can go along lines of identity. Theatre, the method/craft I used to learn the spirit of my people, imprinted these lessons far more effectively than anything else I could have chosen as a major because it's something I have always loved. Here is a lesson from the marginalized voice of one: If you ever get the chance to experience the privilege of being able to choose, choose something you love, one day you'll discover you’ve retained more than you thought.
The first time I entered the Fine Arts building I knew it was magic. The music department located on one wing, the visual arts on the opposite wing, the middle housed the Baldwin Burroughs Theater, and the rear housed what would soon be named the Maya Angelou Theatre. Throughout the space, on walls and in display cabinets that joined a network of classrooms and work spaces, lived the paintings, posters, displays and sculptures from Black artists -- both student work and historical. Voices raised in chorus rooms floated down into the main hall along with instruments that danced underneath your every step. This was my introduction to studying up close the complexity of many things including power, the Black middle-class impact on the historic West End of Atlanta, and the intersection of several forces within me: race, class, spirituality, sexual orientation, and gender.
The morning of April 30th, 1992, the world woke to the reality of the Rodney King verdict. Rodney King, who had been captured on video being brutalized by LAPD after a high-speed chase, had struck a chord about a truth suffered in silence by many. Here on video was proof of this treatment. When four officers had been charged the year before, as a nation we waited. On the evening of the acquittal verdict on April 29th, we had a renewed feeling of injustice. The verdict was released in the evening for LA but during the middle of the night for the east coast. Folks stayed up since the verdict was public planning protest responses. For people who took to the streets chanting demands and singing freedom songs, the antagonistic behavior by the police with plastic shields and riot gear and more did not stop. On the news, I saw a different presentation of of the verdict using words like “riots” and the power the media has in shaping the narrative of moments and events. The protests continued nationwide for weeks -- even after LA televised a still healing from being beaten by the police Rodney King pleading for us all to get along.
What does it mean to live within a legacy formed on the destructive value of difference based on the color of your skin? What does it mean when you are asked to erase yourself for the comfort of others success? What is the difference between poetry and rhetoric -- especially during a period when it seems that people use rhetoric so frequently?
It has often been noted by many how slow the process of true change can take. To help on my journey, destined to send me outside the confines of my school reality, I spent all my time gathering gems -- valued lessons from the body of instructors, artists and a decorated career professional who had returned to Spelman as a full-time student. These gems schooled me on how to protect and re-energize the spirit of Black resistance/resilience through my craft. I greeted this with many emotions, but among them a deep reverence for having an opportunity to learn the expressions that sustained our people in times of crisis from their creators and fellow celebrators. In the Theater, I/we processed my/our pain and my/our history, with my/our fellow classmates in the trenches. We transformed the lessons offered by veteran creators into finding our own expressions, thereby taking our places along the line of resistance and resilience for our people.
This weekend will greet the newly graduating Spelman Class of 2017 with many possibilities and truths. The most prevalent--expressed at the beginning of this piece so eloquently by my Spelman sister c'94. As we strolled across campus watching preparations for the coming graduation ceremonies and reflected on our time together in the trenches of the Spelman Drama and Dance Department she shared. "We were all there on the cutting edge of each other's dreams....but only when you can affirm yourself, will you know that you have finally arrived." The final lesson from the marginalized voice of one: We grow by supporting each other. AND don't allow yourself to become the obstacle that stops your inner growth -- you will face enough challenges in life already.
Collette R. Carter c'96