Celebrating Blackness: Alums create space for Black love and joy
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Thursday, July 23, 2020
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Thursday, July 23, 2020
“I know that art heals, that art leads the way, art is expression, art is joy, art is love.”
So says UMass graduate student Sabine Jacques. As she considered how she could support the Black community while people grieved George Floyd’s killing and protested police brutality, it was her experience as an artist that helped her find a way to do so.
Jacques holds a Multicultural Theater Certificate and has performed regularly in Department of Theater mainstage and independent productions, as well as producing films and photography. Leaning into her belief in art’s power, she reached out to two fellow artists and Certificate-holders, Afrikah Smith and Sandra Seoane-Serí (both also Theater major alums), to put together My Blackness Is… a webinar celebrating the creativity of the Black community by offering dance, spoken words, acting, musical performances, and more by Black artists, followed by a community dialogue. The series, which was open to an audience, achieved its aim so well that the three organizers are now thinking about what’s next.
“I know that I want this to expand; I know the potential of this space,” Jacques said.
“Hearing how other people were responding was just an affirmation. It spoke in a lot of ways to Black joy, to Black love, to what community means. I didn’t realize how much I needed it,” said Smith.
Creating a space
Like many, Jacques was profoundly affected by the horror of Floyd's killing as it came to light in late May.
“I felt really heavy that week,” she said. Asking herself what she could do, she found the answer in bringing her “art family” together.
“Whenever things like this happen, we come together and are in community with each other. Seeing as that isn’t really possible right now, the millennial side of me was like, let’s use technology!” she said. She reached out to Seoane-Serí, an actor, who immediately signed on.
“I was in a crazy creative rut, and I said, ‘I will help you because that’s the least I can do’,” Seoane-Serí said.
To complete the team, they reached out to Smith, who is a dramaturg, writer and stage manager, as well as a producer. “I didn't know much about the technical elements to the production, and quickly my mind turned to Afrikah because Afrikah is a master of all trades!” Jacques said.
Smith organized many of the logistics of the event, as well as creating the striking image the group used to brand the event.
The purpose was for performers to show their work, but the underlying theme Jacques laid out for the series was “wanting to create a space where Black folks can feel held, even if it’s just virtually — a space to envision what our world is and what we want our world to be.”
“When I think about love, personally, I rarely think of it as a feeling. I think love is genuinely an action,” Jacques said, and one way of showing your community members that you love them “is by creating spaces for them where they can feel and express what they feel.”
Seoane-Serí noted that the webinar let cisgendered men express their feelings in ways that countered toxic masculinity — as well as holding space for people whose voices are generally less heard.
Finding the artists was a matter of looking through Jacques’ contact list; the group quickly arrived at enough Black creatives to fill four days to presentations. Artists were loosely grouped from night to night (one, for example, featured people who had performed in UMass Theater grad student Ifa Bayeza’s Infants of the Spring two years ago), and asked to submit what they’d be doing so that the trio of organizers could set an order that flowed well for each evening.
Originally, the plan was for it to be a closed event. When they asked the artists, however, they all agreed that they wanted to open it up to an audience. They made another change when dancer and Theater minor Isabelle Marseille reached out to ask where audience members could donate to support the artists. The group set up a Venmo and by the end, they’d raised enough to pay themselves and the performers $100.
Jacques acknowledged that she initially had mixed feelings about opening up the event and asking for donations, as she didn’t want to put the added pressure on the artists. However, many of the artists are not currently working due to the pandemic, and she believes that it’s important to “pay artists what they’re worth, pay Black folks what they’re worth.”
Envisioning a better world
Also part of each gathering was a dialogue.
“UMass got us into those talkbacks that we did after each show!” said Seoane-Serí, recalling that productions with the Department of Theater were frequently followed by a Q&A with the audience. “It was nostalgic and nice to have that back.”
It was also right in Jacques’ wheelhouse. “I'm also getting my Social Justice Education Certificate and the track I'm on is the Intergroup Dialogue track, so this past semester I facilitated a semester long dialogue course on race and ethnicity,” she said, explaining that she brought the skills learned there into her facilitation of each night’s presentations and Q&As.
“I love seeing the art,” she said, “but I love creating spaces where people feel like they can openly, vulnerably, and honestly engage because they know it's going to be facilitated in a way that allows folks to be seen, heard, and held.”
Smith praised this part of the event, saying they found tremendous value in the opportunity to reflect every night, not just on the presenters’ work, but on the challenging questions Jacques raised about how to go forward. “What does self-care look like beyond our image of chocolate and bubble bath?” Smith said. “What are the ways that I can radically love not only myself but my friends and my family and my community?”
All three organizers lauded their mentors for giving them the tools to create the event.
“I am grateful for the mentorship, guidance and care that I’ve received from Professors Iya Awotunde Judyie Al-Bilali, Megan Lewis, Priscilla Page, and Ximena Zuniga. It is because of them that I have the courage and wisdom to initiate these liberatory spaces. I am eternally grateful for their fierce leadership and Love. Ase,” said Jacques.
In the aftermath of the event, the three presenters are thinking about offering more. The group sent out a survey to attendees to help guide their future plans. Seoane-Serí has edited the Zoom footage from each night into videos that are now posted on YouTube for anyone who is interested to watch, and Jacques is thinking about next steps, including the possibility of My Blackness Is… self-care kits.
“Stay tuned, essentially!” said Seoane-Serí.