I am blackwoman in America.
And, I love being a blackwoman in America. I agree with Zora Neale Hurston when she says:
“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow damned up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world – I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
I know why I love every drop of my DNA, the African and the European. I love myself because I honor the story of my ancestors. I know what they endured to survive with their humanity in tact so that I could exist.
This past Sunday, I was reminded of this when I attended a sold-out performance of “Crossin’ Over: A Musical with a Measure of Silent Rebellion” mounted by The Black Rep in St. Louis, Missouri. [Full disclosure: My son is a brilliant actor and a skilled carpenter with the Black Rep] This production, crafted by Ron Himes and Charles Creath and directed by Himes, is billed as a musical, but it is not exactly that. There is no libretto, no dialogue that tells a story and provides the occasion for songs and dances. While it is all music, it is not opera. The music is a program of songs, but it is not a choir concert.
With all the dramatic elements of a good play, a tight ensemble cast of four men and four women and African drummers take us through the African American experience from pre-slavery Africa through the hell of the Maafa which includes the horrors of the trans-Atlantic middle passage and slavery. After slavery, we experience the blues and early gospel and then travel through the civil rights and black power movements up to the present day gospel that shouts praises in a way that takes us beyond the pain of the human condition in general and beyond all this pain plus the stress of living in a still racist United States of America. For those of us reared in the black church tradition, many of these songs are familiar and beloved. For me, this is especially true of the Dr. Watts, a kind of a cappella singing, that is as beautiful to my ears as Gregorian chants. It was thrilling and amazing to hear the house sing along with this call and response tradition.
In her poem, “What Do We Tell Our Children Who Are Black?” Dr. Margaret Burroughs reminds us that it is our responsibility to tell our children the truth of our history. Our children need to know the truth of global black history so that they will be “confident in the knowledge of his(her) worth.” According to Burroughs our history gives us strength. It gives our children the strength to survive. She writes:
“And survive he(she) must! For who knows?
Perhaps this black child here bears the genius
To discover the cure for. . . cancer
Or to chart the course for exploration of the universe.
So, he(she) must survive for the good of all humanity.
It is in this truth that “Crossin’ Over” returns theater to its origins in ritual and homage to the gods, creating sacred space in the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University. In the beginning of theater humankind wore masks to allow the gods to speak to humans through humans. Later, individuals would perform the various parts of a ritual in a theater like setting before audiences to allow humans to speak back to the gods and to each other. In this event, the lines between the sacred and the secular, between the human and the divine, become porous and we are able to cross over. This is its own transcendence. It is a deeply spiritual moment.
Spirituality is consciousness of our relatedness to that which is beyond our physical selves. We are more than a sack of skin containing blood and water, bone and muscle called by a proper name. We are at once consciousness, that which is awake to the world around us, and we are conscience, that which helps us discern right and wrong, that gives us a moral imperative. The deeper our spirituality, the deeper our awareness of relatedness. We are related to family and friends, to fellow citizens, to all of humanity, to all of nature and creation, to divinity, to holiness, to Divine Love, to the Creator of All, to that which was before the beginning and will be after the end.
What “Crossin’ Over” helps us to see is the consciousness of transcendence that allowed black people to survive. We looked beyond the present moment in Africa, through the Middle Passage, during our enslavement, after emancipation when we were set free without reparation. No 40 acres. No mule. We looked beyond during the civil rights movement and we are looking beyond today as we still must survive and thrive in a society where we have to insist that black lives matter, and negotiate various N-word controversies. It is the remembrance and in the celebration of this history that helps us in the words of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to “Keep the faith baby.” It is this memory that reminds us that we do not say our prayers to “the white man” or to the United States of America or to our employers or to any form of political economy.
However, more important than transcendence is transcendence with joy. I say and say again that the moral goals of living are sustenance and joy. We ought to do the things that will sustain human life, but what is the point of living if there is no joy that makes life worth living? This is the function of the arts, to make life worth living. And African-American people have found joy in living. In the Pulitzer Prize winning play, “No Place to Be Somebody”, Charles Gordone writes there is more to being black than meets the eye. He says in part:
“It is all the stuff that nobody wants but cain’t live without!
It’s the body that keeps us standin!
The soul that keep us goin!
An the spirit that’ll take us throo
Yes! They’s mo to bein Black than meets the eye
The transcendent joy of black life is the love that comes from Divine Love. It is extended families that not only love each other but who like each other, who enjoy each other’s company. It is parents who will move heaven and earth to help you become all you can be. It is sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, play mothers and fathers, and aunts and cousins who cheer us on and pray for us and push us to do better. The poet Nikki Giovanni is correct in the poem “Nikki Rosa” when she writes:
“and I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me
Because they never understand
Black love is black wealth and they’ll
Probably talk about my hard childhood
And never understand that all the while I was quite happy.
“Crossin’ Over” is made of the stuff of black pain and black joy and black creativity and black talent and black work and black skill and black discipline and black spirituality. Yet, it is a presentation of human truth that can help human beings sustain with an inexplicable God-blessed joy that is at once human and divine.
PS: Please support regional theater.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”
I am blackwoman in America.