I squeeze my toes together and sand fills each gap. I love dancing here on this land, on this coast. It is somehow known in my spirit, yet I feel estranged. I stand at the shore and look out across the Atlantic Ocean; the intensity of the sun is almost violent. I am desperate for respite from the sea, the foamy water laps over my toes luring me into its depths.
This body of water holds the ones that came before me. I carry this as I walk and sink deeper. Closing my eyes, I imagine becoming fluid. I want to travel as this water does. I want to touch every land that my people have ever called home. I turn my back on the sun to face the shore…
Every time I tried to catch my breath, the relentless hand would pull me back in, all I could do was surrender until mercy was given to me.
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
– The Sea is History – Derrick Walcott1
I often think about the time I nearly drowned in Senegal. Although it happened in 2018, the feelings it brought have been more present with me over the past two years of the pandemic than when it originally happened. It is the feeling of being lost and surrendered to a power beyond myself, the feeling of being subsumed by my cultural histories. My training at Ecoles des Sables at the time included learning traditional and contemporary dance forms from around the African Diaspora. The experience of almost drowning whilst embodying diverse forms of Africanist movement led me to think about how both the body and the sea are archival spaces, keepers of our histories and secrets. The sea, as described by Derrick Walcott as a grey vault holding those who succumbed to battles and tribal memories. The body, the corporeal space storing historical and cultural knowledge, memories of our own and those we have never met. I consider these archival spaces as submerged realms that are mostly hidden from public view and consumption. Kamau Brathwaite tells us that the inconspicuousness of cultural and ancestral memories ensures their survival.2
Through dance, I enter this submarine space – polyrhythmic vibrations, undulations, and rotations are the spatiotemporal vehicles through which I time travel, receiving ancestral data that is available. Although dance is the vehicle through which ancestral data is available and anyone can embody it, it is not universally received; reserved for those who engage with the movement spiritually as well as physically. The embodied realm takes me beyond borders and structures of power. Lately, I have been drawn to the water, where I also experience this liminal connection across past, present, and future. In my family life, my practice, and in my writing the water has become a point of return for me. I become grounded by floating free, experiencing my frailty as well as power from my ancestral network.
The sea is history and in it i am rewriting myself. within the waves i am recovering myself. i go beyond myself not to return but to push forward, to gain momentum and keep pushing on, this realm is fertile, Glissant3 reminds us that our people were the seeds that were sown in this water. i go beyond myself.
Alongside this, I have also – as we all have – been navigating this fresh moment of racial and feminist reckoning which has caused society to confront what has been hidden from public view, or rather what has been redacted.
According to the Oxford Dictionary to redact is to censor or obscure a part of a text for legal or security purposes. When considering anti-black racism and how it perpetuates imperialist white supremacist capitalism4 it is clear how processes of redaction are used to determine what and who is legitimate and who is a threat to security. Tina Campt’s ideas around fugitivity allow us to think about those who do not remain in their place, to the spaces to which they have been confined or assigned Engaging in resistance, fugitive practices refuse through nimble and strategic acts that ‘undermine the category of the dominant’5. In my current postdoctoral work on the mid-twentieth century choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, our team think a lot about embodiment and redaction. Dunham’s extensive archive over the duration of her career is a fugitive act of resistance. It is the refusal to disappear out of our history with seemingly no trace as so many of her counterparts have. As scholars who are interested in historical enquiry, when working in Dunham’s archives the question of what is pushed out to the public through our work and what is absent is very present for us. This is especially pertinent when considering what hidden labour and other contextual conditions may not be present in the archive but are salient to Dunham’s story. The project uses digital methods to consider Dunham’s data through an everyday methodology that considers the peculiarities of day-to-day practices, experiences, and the ‘systemic connections’6 that become apparent through the cumulation of granular data about where Dunham was, who she was with, and what she and her company performed. By using digital methods, we see what might be otherwise obscured within the archive. Aware of the problematic history of digital technology and how it is a tool that has been and is continually used against Black people, we utilise feminist and anti-racist approaches to our work.7
Most importantly we do not allow the data to be our only consideration in our findings but use it together with traditional methods of historical enquiry to produce data analysis that is more holistic.
I say this not to promote Dunham’s Data project but as a starting point to think about not only how we attend to the people within our archival work but how we take care of the archives within each other. How do we, the underrepresented and misaligned continue to participate in a system that renders us invisible, whilst also refusing to reduce each other? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to the academy as an institution that adopts processes of redaction to obscure experiences of
microaggressions and violence in many forms. Conversations that occur behind closed doors and complaints that lead nowhere; the University must be protected.
I think about the sensation of drowning often as I walk through the halls of one institution or another. The lost feeling, the invisible feeling of being surrounded. At times, I feel so surrendered to the system… and then there are moments where I can take hold of my body, entering the submarine realm and I experience that fullness of connection again. In all honesty, I don’t expect more from the institution, it has been built to protect itself and it was not built with me in mind. But as we move through this space, I wonder how we continue together? Those of us who have been designated illegitimate and a threat to security, those of us who are redacted. Where might we submerge to so that we can survive? What are our inconspicuous practices that will undermine dominant systems that only seeks to sustain imperialist white supremacist capitalism?
Victoria Okoye (2021) reminds us of the importance of care in her recent writing on Black digital constellations and relation, in the submerged realm our methods must be full of care in order to ‘enact a world that has not yet been realised’.8 It is through relation with each other that we refuse processes of redaction, our care-full acts are defiant. When we give and receive care, like Dunham, we write ourselves into our archives, into what has been made invisible by redaction but is protected and alive in the embodied realm. It is through relation with each other that we refuse processes of redaction, our care-full acts are defiant. When we give and receive care, like Dunham, we write ourselves into our archives, into what has been made invisible by redaction but is protected and alive in the embodied realm.
I want to end these thoughts with Jack Halberstam’s exposition of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s (2013) Undercommons as a place of the wild.
The path to the wild beyond is paved with refusal. In The Undercommons if we begin anywhere, we begin with the right to refuse what has been refused to you. […]9
Within the academy, our redaction is subverted through refusal. What was first refused to me here was care. It was the refusal to consider my humanity, to even learn to say my full name. I chose to resist our redaction through acts of kindness, recognition, bringing my whole corporeal being and sharing it with you.
Tia-Monique is a dance scholar and practitioner who is interested in themes of identity, popular culture, resistance, and Black feminism within African and African Diasporic dance. Her research critically engages Africanist dance as a vehicle for creating and interrogating African and African Diasporic worlds through interdisciplinary approaches and embodied research. Her AHRC and Midlands4cities funded PhD, ‘Practices of Rooting and Spaces of Performative Becoming: An Exploration of British Caribbean Identities through Dance’ conducted the first extended analysis of identity formation within the choreography of British Caribbean Diasporic artists. Tia-Monique has both presented and taught her work internationally and has published within collections in the fields of dance, geography, and Black feminism. She is currently a dance history postdoctoral research assistant for Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and a postdoctoral research fellow for Creative Approaches to Race and In/Security in the Caribbean and the UK at the University of Birmingham.
- Derek Walcott, The Star-Apple Kingdom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). ↩
- Edward K. Brathwaite, ‘Kumina – The Spirit of African Survival’, Jamaica Journal, no. 42 (1978): 46. ↩
- Edouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, trans. B Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). ↩
- bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place (London: Routledge, 2009). ↩
- Tina Campt, Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe, Book, Whole (Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2012), 87. ↩
- Harmony Bench and Kate Elswit, ‘The Body Is Not (Only) a Metaphor: Rethinking Embodiment in Digital Humanities: Visceral Data for Dance Histories: Katherine Dunham’s People, Places, and Pieces’, forthcoming 2022; Harmony Bench and Kate Elswit, ‘Katherine Dunham’s Global Method and the Embodied Politics of Dance’s Everyday’, Theatre Survey 61, no. 3 (September 2020): 305–30, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0040557420000253. ↩
- See: Harmony Bench and Kate Elswit, ‘The Body Is Not (Only) a Metaphor: Rethinking Embodiment in Digital Humanities: Visceral Data for Dance Histories: Katherine Dunham’s People, Places, and Pieces’, fothcoming 2022 ↩
- Victoria O. Okoye, ‘Black Digital Outer Spaces: Constellations of Relation and Care on Twitter’, Transactions – Institute of British Geographers (1965) 46, no. 4 (2021): 806–9. ↩
- Jack Halberstam, ‘The Wild Beyond: With and For the Undercommons (Forward)’, in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 5–12. P. 9 ↩