Growing up I always saw the power of art as way to engage with my thoughts and ideas. While I was not a very creative visual artist, I nonetheless liked to flip through catalogs and look into the works of others. Music was my true passion in the arts. I grew up playing the clarinet and bass clarinet and found that through my individual playing I could add to a larger sound when I played alongside my band classmates. Picking up an instrument allowed for me to develop an interest in further self expression. Joining drama in seventh grade I started in small roles that grew into my interest of working on the behind the scenes management of the show. Through these experiences I have come to see art as pivotal in the community.
As I have grown up, and come of age, I can reflect and see the implications of art in my everyday life. Often art is limited to the definition of artistic ability centered around painting, drawing, etc., but in the context of this project art becomes a skillset in which to tell stories that encapsulate the experiences of Black/African American women.
I was inspired to delve into the arts by my fellow activist across Michigan State’s campus. From the Black Poet Society to individual organizers who are self proclaimed artivist this project developed to explore those spaces across MSU. I further chose to specifically examine women because of the continuous erasure they face in movements across time and space.
In correlation with my other work “Crafting Chicana/Latina Spaces: A Comparison of Lived Experience Through Creative Expression” I was inspired by one quote in particular:
“Chicano art comes from the creation of community […] making visible our own reality, a particular reality—by doing so we become an irritant to the mainstream vision […] Chicano art represents a particular stance which always engages with the issues of its time.”
Stated by Judy Baca–the famous muralist who began her career in the 1970’s–I was struck by her conscious use of art to bring together a community narrative that actively sought to use art as a central piece for communal conversation. Even more so her work was geared to reflect not only her experiences as a women of color, but the implementation of Latinx social realities and histories tethered to communities of color. From this initial philosophy of art as communal I began to think of how women of color communally engage in the arts.
In exploring themes around women of color and creative expression I came to have issues with finding participants that wanted to explore the art of navigating spaces as women of color. Thus, I found participants in my own social circle of women of color due to the small size of the communities of color on campus. Being an upperclassmen afforded me the privilege of being able to tap into these networks as I have a more developed sense of rapport with my fellow women of color on campus.
I initially began this project with the intentions of interviewing women to expressively discuss how their own efforts and crafts shape their emotional and mental environments. That is to say that through this work I suggest that the creation of space creates a central framework supports these women. By simply asking my circle of friends I received confirmations and invitations to events and circles of interest that produced a snowball effect that lead my research with it.
In setting up interviews my research lead me to focus on Black women in specific due simply to time availability. Through this incidental research design my research developed into four interviews of self identifying Black women, but only three of the interviews themselves can be found within the confines of this website.
From my freshman year at Michigan State University, research participant number lived on my floor and could always be picked out of a crowd with a crown of curls, quirky fashion style, and camera equipment that always hung from one should or another.
Research participant number two also lived on my floor my freshman year and is more quiet in person until she takes the stage. From her performances on the stage, interest in exploring performance as tools of engagement and empowerment this artist of color employs her methods in mentoring kids from Detroit–her hometown.
My last participant that will be noted in this online research platform also stems from my freshman year as she was actively involved in the Residential College of Arts and Humanities housed in Snyder-Phillips where I lived.
Due to the racial segregation of campus, the few people of color that were house in this dormitory developed and maintain strong affiliations with one another. As we have progressed through our undergraduate career at MSU we have created interlinked relationships through our social and professional circles.
With a project centered around exploring the spaces that women of color craft for themselves I found it ironic almost that the physical representation of our communities on this campus are so small that limiting my research to women of color placed my research into a spectrum where my pre-existing friendships with the participants were reflected in the friendships of my participants themselves. Meaning that all of my participants were friends, students, and artist in the same physical spaces as they interacted in social, academic, and culturally produced together.
In allowing the interviewees to shape my findings throughout this project I found that these Black women worked in various and overlapping mediums of art and articulated similar feelings on art as a means of racial and gendered expression of self in contrast to the white spaces they navigated at the predominantly white institutional space that is Michigan State University.
Sometimes Art House / Audrey
For my first participants narrative experience her coming of age experiences structured her own interest in the arts. From her experiences in middle school this participant became conscious of her own racial identity as Black regardless of her identification as biracial and the overlapping axis of being a woman.
“We’re just all women and we liked art and history or something. Um, but yeah college is when I realized that women of color because I also saw groups on campus like women of color were like organizing and like learning the importance of starting the communities of women of color and the commonalities between our experiences even if you’re like latina, if you’re black, like, the experiences can be pretty similar, um, that’s something I’m trying to understand is like where are the difference, where are the differences in experiences, but for the most part I see pretty similar um, like, like, struggles.”
Noting an earlier confrontation centered on race this participant goes onto explain how she views the experiences of women of color as parallel to one another and the use of art as a connecting medium for these demographic populations creates a language that relays their experiences into a relatable theme for the creation of dialogue.
At one point in the interview the participant notes that digital spaces and music is a place where she was able to develop her identity and define her likes and dislikes that manifested in her other creative endeavors. Here she states that while feminist art was still becoming a more acceptable motif among artist she places her own work in those spaces.
Taking this idea of feminist art into digital paces where she first came to develop these notions of self
Audrey directing, scene writing and radio casting, 2017
For my second participant she discussed issues in navigating a predominantly white theater program here at MSU and her involvement in the Black community via her own independent work. Speaking of these two experiences as separate the participant delved into her angst at working within a program that was not open to discussing, or performing shows that brought race into the conversation. Thus, the participant elaborated on her own work as a means to discuss issues surrounding the Black experience in contemporary American society. Through this lens she expands upon her own multifaceted identity in a manner that is similar to that of Du Bois concept of “double consciousness”.
By Dubois’s definition double consciousness can be described as follows:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife this longing to attain self -conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face” (2-3)
In discussing her experiences acting in the white academic spaces she occupies as a Black woman the participant expressed the lack of initiative of her white counterparts to partake in spaces occupied by people of color. As an example the participant noted her work within the Black Power Rally that occurs every fall semester. Having written and directed the skits laced throughout this past falls’ Black Power Rally the participant was in need of a white actor to partake on a scene discussing police brutality in the Black community. Noted as a great opportunity for exposure and diversification of one’s skills the role went unfilled for weeks because of the discomfort many students expressed having. Having two continuously navigate two worlds as an actor came across as strenuous on behalf of the participant who strives to expand into new spaces with issues she feels is pertinent to herself, but do not resonate well with the predominantly white spaces she occupies and works with.
To exemplify this feeling of double consciousness the participant states that for even her creative endeavors is split:
“I feel like it’s difficult balancing my needs as an artist with my needs as a Black or African American student. I, hmm, they don’t really go hand in hand.”
When asked why they do not go hand in hand she states, “Cause when I’m working with the theater community, which is predominantly white, I definitely have different issues and different experiences that I don’t feel like they understand. Or even,I don’t even know if they even hear me or hear what I’m saying…They don’t, they don’t get it and they don’t feel it the way that students of color get it or feel it”
Blood At The Root Production, Mananged by Participant 2, 2017
Dressed in all black from head to toe my third participant strongly identifies as a Black woman. As a young girl she was strongly involved in a little bit of everything. From drawing, painting, dancing, acting, to her current interest in acting, radio work, and dance. In her interview the participant addresses her work as being integral to her experiences as a Black woman. She explicitly states that she feels obligated to make that extra effort to bring race into her experiences and acting spaces. Yet, she notes that while her abilities as an actor are being guided under the instruction of the same professors the racial discrepancy of having to fill white roles are eliminated by the mere fact that she is black. Feeling the need to compensate to be on equal platform opportunities with her white counterparts she acknowledges that some discrepancies are not necessarily surmountable when cast crews and producers have certain images in mind for their productions.
As previously stated, this project required a fair amount of searching for participants that were willing to be interviewed, had the time/resources to do so, and fell into very particular niche in the community. Thus, in finding these participants all three displayed have some prior connection to myself. Separating the research participant from myself did not seem to be an issue; in fact, I believe that our prior association allowed for the participants to be more open and direct about their experiences and artistic expression.
With the original idea to look at women of color, this project stemmed from another overlapping project centered around creative expression and Chicana/Latinas.
Due to the central facet of this ethnography centering the experiences of Black/African American women I work through a critical race framework that centers race as lens for analysis as opposed to shifting the dialogue between the research and participants as simply a gendered perspective. Yet simultaneously, I look at these interviews and interactions between researcher and participant through the intersecting frameworks of Black feminist methodologies. To expand, Black feminism is feminist thought that implements an intersectional framework that acknowledges race, gender, class, and other socially constructed hierarchies of societal status. Therefore, in the connection of these frameworks the discourse and contentions that are produced by these research participants can be viewed, articulated, thought through, and presented in such a way that centers their experiences as Black women.
Speaking on the issues of feeling obligated to the cause of bringing the arts back into the Black community is Paul Robeson the famous civil rights activist, scholar, and athlete. His excerpt “The Negro Artist Looks Ahead” articulates the rise of popular culture through its origins in Black idioms and culture, but the Black community receives little compensation for the exploitation of their works. In the development of his argument Robeson touches upon a contention that runs parallel to sentiment expressed by participant number three. Feeling obligated to center herself into white spaces, Robeson would state that “we”, as Black people,”have an obligation to take it back to the people”. Through this work of centering Blackness in artistic spaces and expressions Robeson sees the empowering and liberation of the Black community. While the participant did not express this sentiment exactly her expression of feeling obligated and having to go the extra mile to incorporate issues facing the Black community nonetheless
For these Black women, the arts gave them the platform or access to a means of expression that allowed for a presenting of their experiences. In centering their narratives as Black women in a predominantly white space there is a seismic shift in the understanding and relating of how dance, theater, documentaries, photography, and so forth establishes an agency that is otherwise not allowed for women of color–especially Black women. In analysis of the participants as individuals , their stories of frustration and obligation to bring race and gender into their classes, shows, art displays, etc., because of the structural lack of the institution to do so. While these women did not directly correlate their art practices as feminist practices their work in the liberating of their own ideas can be arguably seen as feminist work as they seek to empower themselves, their communities, and other women in particular.
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Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. 2013. Critical race theory: The cutting edge. Third ed. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B, Charles C. Lemert, Manning Marable, and Cheryl Gilkes. 2004. The souls of black folk. 100th Anniversary ed. Boulder, Colo: Paradigm.
Marable, Manning, and Leith Mullings. 2009. Let nobody turn us around: Voices of resistance, reform, and renewal : An african american anthology. Second ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hill Collins, Patricia. 2009;2000;2002;1999;. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. [2nd].;Rev. 10th anniversary; ed. New York: Routledge Classics.