Program Notes Dance 2017 at NKU

In November 2016, dance major and choreographer of this performance, Valencia Stallings, was one of 36 students who applied to become part of a creative team charged with finding ways to use the arts to mourn the creation of racial categories—categories like American Indian, Asian, Black, American Indian, Hispanic, and White. Out of these thirty-six hopefuls, a panel of judges chose eleven. For three weeks, Valencia and her ten teammates dedicated themselves to learning about the history of racial categories and why mourning their creation is critical.  The team read background material, engaged in intense- sometimes constructively uncomfortable -conversation, and shared artistic responses. Together, these students transformed their understanding of race. All eleven came to understand that the seeds of racial categories we still use today were planted in Jamestown, Virginia (1607). The team learned that racial categories exist, because since 1607 tens of millions of people who were mixtures of European, African, Native American and other ancestries were forced by laws to sever their ties with mothers, fathers, siblings and other relatives and ancestors to fit into ONE racial category.  These separations had the effect of making categories seem all too logical and real.

While it is not possible to convey in this space all that Valencia learned during the three weeks that inspired her choreography for this dance performance, it is possible to share one account that especially touched her artistic sensibilities. This account is from the book, The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive, a Story of Slave Life in Virginia, by Richard Hildreth- first published in 1836.  

  Illustration of Thomas and Archy in book The White Slave. In this scene, Archy and Thomas have been captured. A little girl sneaks in to free them, leaving the two men with a boundary-defining decision.

Illustration of Thomas and Archy in book The White Slave. In this scene, Archy and Thomas have been captured. A little girl sneaks in to free them, leaving the two men with a boundary-defining decision.

     The illustration features Archy and Thomas, two enslaved men—best friends—who were caught running together North to freedom by three self-proclaimed bounty hunters. The friends are held in a room with their hands and feet bound.   Archy (right)—the child of a master and an enslaved woman—is very light-skinned, with barely a trace of African descent to his appearance. In the narrative, he tells readers that, “by the laws and customs of Virginia, it is not the father but the mother, whose rank and condition determine that of the child; and alas! my mother was a concubine, and a slave!”  It does not matter that Archy’s father is free and a member of the White category. The laws separate Archy from his father, labeling him Black and enslaved in accordance with his mother’s condition.  Archy’s friend, Thomas (left), has a much darker complexion than Archy, as well as a hair texture that advertises his African descent.  After the little girl cuts them free, the two realize that they are at a turning point.  Thomas, fully aware that his physical features broadcast his membership in the category Black, insists they must separate, as his presence will only increase Archy’s chances of getting caught.

“You are now,” Thomas says to Archy, “on the road to the North. You have good clothes, and as much learning as an overseer. You can readily pass for a freeman.”  Archy wants to stay with Thomas, but thoughts of escaping enslavement flash in his mind “with a radiant and dazzling brightness.”  At the same time, feelings of love and gratitude for Thomas push through.  An emotional deliberation ends with Thomas refusing to go on and urging Archy to run on alone and to pass into the category White.  “If you stay with me, and are taken,” says Thomas, “I shall never forgive you for it.” Archy, heartbroken but knowing Thomas is right, consents to their separation. Archy’s grief is evident as he reflects on the character of the man he leaves behind:

A nobler spirit never breathed--I was not worthy to call myself his friend…. I stood watching him as he walked rapidly away; and as I looked, I was ready to sink into the earth with shame and mortification. Once or twice, I was just starting to follow him; but selfish prudence prevailed, and I held back. I watched him till he was out of sight, and then resumed my journey. It was a base desertion, which not even the love of liberty could excuse.

This decision marks the moment Archy passes into the category White- an event that severs relationships with both his best friend and his own mother forever. His relationship with his father has already been severed by law.   

Thomas and Archy’s experiences are not isolated, and they offer valuable insights about what it means to be Black and to be White in the United States. Today, we live with the legacy of a categorical system that assigns babies born to different race-classified parents to ONE racial category. Think how matter-of-factly we divide family members into distinct racial categories whenever we speak, for example, of White mothers who have Black sons or of Black grandparents who have White grandchildren.   Moreover, we have been sensitized to look for physical indicators of African descent as THE evidence of membership in the category Black.  In doing this, we fail to notice that the variety of shades and hair textures among those classified as Black is evidence of a history of systematic separation from those other- than-Black-classified family and ancestors. Activist Carlos Fernández argues that the separation of biologically related peoples into distinct racial categories “is at the heart of an unresolved American identity crisis, a dilemma that perpetuates ethnic and racial disunion and makes the resolution of the general race problem virtually impossible.” That separation is painfully evident as we look at a visual representation of the color line that divides White from Black-classified.

  The color line represents more than a simple division of peoples into the categories Black-and White. The range of shades on the right side of the color line tell us that relationships with different-race classified family members and ancestors have been severed, or deemed insignificant, qualifying all relegated to that side for membership in one category—Black. Archy’s leap over the color line to freedom came at the cost of severing his relationships with his mother, father, and friend—just three relationships among the tens of millions (really countless numbers) of relationships severed to make the categories Black and White seem real.         

The color line represents more than a simple division of peoples into the categories Black-and White. The range of shades on the right side of the color line tell us that relationships with different-race classified family members and ancestors have been severed, or deemed insignificant, qualifying all relegated to that side for membership in one category—Black. Archy’s leap over the color line to freedom came at the cost of severing his relationships with his mother, father, and friend—just three relationships among the tens of millions (really countless numbers) of relationships severed to make the categories Black and White seem real.         

The three-week workshop taught Valencia to become color brave (vs. color blind or color aggressive). The color blind and color aggressive are the frameworks that dominate racial discourse today. The color blind choose not to see race—to not see that the United States divides people into racial categories. The color aggressive, on the other hand, assign racist intent to the words and actions of even the most well-meaning people and in the process shut down conversation and dialogue.  The color brave place emphasis on understanding how racial categories were built on separation and loss.  They work to learn about the historical forces that imposed such separations and to recognize and address the consequences those separations have had, and continue to have, on opportunities and on relationships.  The color brave are willing to engage in conversation—sometimes uncomfortable—to liberate us from the unacknowledged and unfinished grief that reside in the hearts of an unimaginable number of Americans. When that grief is released and aired openly, it promotes human growth and unlocks hidden potential.

The Dance Performance

Deeply moved by the story of Archy and Thomas, Valencia felt inspired to use dance to share that story with audiences. She saw dance as a highly effective vehicle for mourning the separation, loss and abandonment upon which the categories Black and White were founded.  She also believed that, through dance, she could add something NEW to the national conversation on race. Valencia shared her vision with her dance peers. They embraced Valencia’s goal to mourn centuries of loss and separation, but especially to mourn the contexts mandating the severing of family bonds and friendships. While this dance performance inspires healing and reconciliation, it also draws on Archy and Thomas’ emotional responses to pique audience interest in exploring other, more complex and terrifyingly-cruel, separations forced on people who would become Black and White, and in the process, support the institution of slavery and other economic arrangements that followed. While a single dance performance cannot, by itself, erase the pain, suffering, misunderstandings and inequalities that the creation, and 400-year existence, of racial categories supports, it can encourage us to mourn. Clinical psychologist Edwin Shneidman maintains “mourning is one of the most profound human experiences that it is possible to have.....The deep capacity to weep…is one of our noblest human traits.”  When we can see the need to mourn the creation of racial categories, we have made the mental leap to begin the healing and reconciliation process.