Yesterday, I was honored to finally participate in a Pop Up Poets event at the Kara Walker installation at the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg. Little known fact about me? I really don’t enjoy performance as much as I should. I’m good at it but usually terrified the entire time. So I’ve avoided taking part in these phenomenal live performance installations that the Pop Up team curates but I couldn’t avoid this opportunity when Syreeta McFadden asked a couple of weeks ago. I was already hyper aware of the work. Walker’s daring in constructing this mammoth piece and the trauma many felt at the dismaying behavior of many of the visitors to the site were compelling to me. It was undeniable too, the idea that this art, an articulate invoking of the ancestors, an interrogation of our relationship between the black body and cash crops integral to the early economic infrastructure of this country could be reduced and sensationalized in so many small minded ways.
That said, when I woke up on Sunday morning, there was no way that I was going. I stayed in bed and thought of good excuses. Work to do… poems to edit… reading series to book… plants to prune… books to alphabetize… when I got to that last one I called Syreeta and made plans to get my butt to Williamsburg. If a million black people could live and die in service of this country’s pocket and Walker could take the creative risk of putting this work into the world was it really too much for me to be present and grateful for the sacrifices made for me? Was it really too hard stand on line in the hot sun for two hours (when others slaved in it ) or to breathe in the cloying molten molasses scent for an hour (when others choked on it ) or to have my fancy sandals stick to the ground (when children once slogged barefoot through it in servitude) or ultimately to have my heart broken watching the way people interacted with the enormous sphinx including the man who stepped in front of me to take multiple photos of her nipples and realizing I was photographing the screen of his camera phone then scuttled away or the man whose look of disgust in viewing the small statue of a disintegrating dark brown sugar baby felt almost personal, were they really all too much?
I need to acknowledge that all of this; the eleven block long line, the cabbie who told us he wouldn’t get on a line like this unless they were handing out bread or money, the obnoxious amount of high-end litter left behind on the streets by visitors to the exhibit, the disinterest many of the long time lower income Williamsburg residents of color felt toward the event, the relentless sun, the stink of sugar, the sticky slightly suffocating feeling of being in that space, the utter glory of that black woman coated in refined sugar paste with her striking and decidedly black features, the way the light hit her lips, her nose and yes, her breasts, was an intense experience into which the artist was asking us to sink ourselves. Were we possibly all slightly grimy, sun addled moving parts of the installation with our commemorative family shots before the sugar sphinx? Were we good with our bodies like the woman who arrived with her head mammy-tied and posed next to the flank of the statue back arched and ass upturned in an uncomfortable mirroring Walker’s work? Was anyone as uncomfortable as I was with the spread rear and exposed labia once confronted with it towering above them?
What a day. It was coordinated by that dervish of creativity, Samantha Thornhill and in true Thornhill style it was multi layered and full of wonderful surprise. We met up on the line over the course of a couple of hours, me, Syreeta, Rico Frederick, Jayson Smith and Joyce LeeAnn Joseph. About 8 blocks out a striking woman approached from the front of the line with a mic and a camera man to ask us about our ideas on our relationship with sugar and where we were from and how that impacted our relationship with the work. We were taken aback but replied anyway. I grew up in a country where sugar was king and the house where I was raised was an old slave quarter at one time. My relationship was closer than I might have wished. Then Samantha stepped forward and introduced the newest member of our groups, the interviewer, Tracy Pierre who in turn introduced the camera man, Ras Nagrom, who had joined her impromptu as she made her way along the line looking for us. Then as we were maybe 2 blocks from the installation site we started to hear wonderful saxophone sounds coming down the street. It turned out that Henry Sax, a truly brilliant horn player, washanging out, waiting to join us.
The line which had been inching along suddenly moved forward and within minutes we were inside the decrepit factory building, milling about from sugar baby to sugar baby, flinching a bit on the inside. Jayson was miserable. He’d been to see it before and the emotion of it, the small brown beasts of burden, was overwhelming. Rico was tired. He too had seen it before this Sunday. His shoulders were slumping almost from the moment we entered. Syreeta and Joyce were both all tightly wound energy. Henry seemed dazed. Ras Nagrom seemed to be seeing through the camera and keeping that slight armor in place for his own protection. I could see Samantha and Tracy’s natural electricity starting to spark their eagerness to engage the conversation. We all kept disappearing into the crowd then gravitating back to each other to touch or hug or hold hands in the light casting off the bold face of the sphinx.
Finally we launched into what was essentially an unannounced and unrehearsed performance experiment. Henry called the room to us with the beautiful overture of Summertime from Porgy & Bess. Samantha, all kinds of daring, took the gummy factory floor, walked us through the gentrifying streets of Williamsburg with a poem that earned and owned her place on both sides of the argument and made the work belong to everyone in the room. Tracy and Syreeta, Jayson and Rico each took the crowd on a different, vital and deeply emotional ride over the course of the hour. The room stopped for them. The selfies stopped for them too. In the progression of the work the audience followed Henry to find us in different parts of the room circling the mountain of white sugar in the majestic and troubling shape of a black woman’s body. Eventually we found ourselves pretty much right where I didn’t want to be but where I had volunteered to perform, at the rear of the statue, beneath the very lips with which I had such trouble and with which Instagram and dude culture in particular has been having such fun. There again we paused for Henry to reset the energy of the space with his horn and as I moved around the perimeter of the crowd trying to understand how to enter it, Joyce LeeAnn stepped into the crescent all fluid movement and brash sensuality with her very female call to arms in her poem.
Suddenly I wasn’t as terrified to open my mouth and I could feel that maybe there was a place for my voice carved by the poets and the music that had preceded me and a space shaped certainly by the shadow of Walker’s miraculously named piece, a Subtlety. I read my poem, ‘the poet addresses Saartjie Baartman; the so called Venus Hottentot.’ where the I in the poem is a black woman trying to come to terms with the way she imagines that she/we have been viewed from the era of the Hottentot to now. You can read an early version of it over at the wonderful Storyscape Journal site. I got to hear that poem call back to Walker, to her inspirations, the generations of women black like me, thick like me whose labor made the way for me. I got to be present and thankful and feel all of the things that I wanted and many of the things that I certainly wanted to avoid. I can tell you this much about the performance itself. I’m eternally grateful to Sam and Syreeta and this Sunday’s Pop Up crew. I didn’t realize how much I needed to do that, to engage in that way, to see an unsuspecting audience in response and to feel myself push through full on terror and four different kinds of emotional and spiritual anxiety to get to the work. I’m still shaking. We were all shaking when were done.
Lynne Procope is the Executive Director of the louderARTS Project.