William & Mary

Finding community, self-discovery in black aesthetics

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From dance and fashion to music and drama, the students in AFST 307 had no trouble identifying elements of black expressive culture they encounter -- or live -- every day.

This fall, Artisia Green took her students beyond that initial recognition to give them an understanding of the origins of those aesthetics, an academic language and framework to discuss them, and an opportunity to examine them through the lens of personal experience.

“I can see class content influencing their self-concept,” said Green, assistant professor of theatre. “Watching all of them grow is just a beautiful thing.”

Starting with ‘Crowns’

The Workshop on Black Expressive Culture rotates among Africana studies professors at William & Mary every semester and is structured around each professor’s area of expertise. Green, who attended a National Endowment for the Humanities institute on black aesthetics this summer, decided to focus her iteration of the workshop on W&M theatre’s upcoming production of the “Crowns.” Written by Regina Taylor, the musical uses church hats, gospel music and dance to help tell the stories of several African-American women.

Using “Crowns” as the foundational text of the workshop, Green led her students in an exploration of the myriad elements of black expressive culture, looking to historical and modern examples.

They talked about the West Indian front rooms decorated by Caribbean immigrants to England. They considered the role of dress in the construction of Malcom X’s identity. They traced elements of Africaneity in images presented by modern pop culture figures such as the controversial rapper Bobby Shmurda. They even created new dances based on African dance aesthetics.

And, through it all, Green fostered a spirit of community in the class, which included African-American, international and first-generation students, among others. The professor introduced the idea of the African ring shout, an often religious ceremony “that centers the community.”

“Everyone is standing together on this one, unified spot, and they all realize that they have a place in this continuum within this circle,” said Green. “When they move back out into all of their different, disparate geographical areas, they can always come back here literally or figuratively, where everyone is responsive to one another.”

Green also encouraged the students to reflect on their own identities and experiences – a process that helps show students that “the self is a very valid form of study,” she said.

“Central to my pedagogy is the goal to communicate to all of my students the importance of ethnic studies, but particularly African American students and those of the African Diaspora, that there is value in self-study within the academy as it is through a full understanding of oneself that a clearer picture of ones’ relationship to others will emerge and that the experience of the self should be an integral point of departure for theoretical discourse,” said Green.

A final project

As the semester drew to a close, Green gave her students a final assignment: Use some of the aesthetic elements they had discussed throughout the course to create an Africana-related project. The students responded with a creative array of projects, including documentaries, children’s books and performances.

Ross sets up the altar she created as part of her project.Nadia Ross ’17, for example, created a simulated voudo altar to teach her fellow students about misconceptions of the Haitian religion, often mistaken as voodoo. Catherine Goodson ’16, sculpted two masks based on the concepts of “hot” and “cool” in the African tradition and her own self-reflection on those states.

Some of the students, including Zhané Richardson ’16, used aesthetic elements to highlight societal issues.

Richardson said she designed an art project in which she recreated some of the last items documented to be held by black youths before they were killed by police officers or others. However, she changed some of details on the items to highlight certain elements of each person’s story.

For instance, she redesigned the packaging of Swisher Sweets that Michael Brown was reported to have had on him at the time of his death. She changed the brand name to read “Switch Your Stories” because of all the conflicting reports about what happened, she said. She also changed some of the details on the packaging to include things like the number of bullets that killed Brown and an African “adrinkra” symbol meaning life after death and hope. Richardson also replaced the surgeon general’s warning with a justice department warning, reading, “This may product may be fatal to individuals with too much melatonin in their skin.”

Richardson said part of her inspiration for the project was the trickster tale in African oral tradition.

“The trickster is victimized, and to get back at the perpetrator, they pretend docility and reconciliation and all of these things until they reveal themselves in the end and what their purpose was,” she said. “I thought this was a good idea because these are already very innocuous things from a distance so when you get closer to them and you see what’s on it, you think, huh, this isn’t as innocent as it seems.”

Like Richardson, Brielle Welch ’16 hopes that her project will serve to educate, but she also hopes it inspires one person in particular: her younger sister, Kiarra.

Welch created a documentary in which she interviews black women of various ages about the concept of beauty.

“The media often pushes an ideal woman that women are supposed to idolize and strive to be, and these women are primarily slim, white women,” said Welch. “These are some body goals that Kiarra may never reach. I don't want the media to cloud her judgment of herself. I want her to know her beauty lies in the things that make her black and go even deeper into her heart.”

Welch found that the project opened her eyes “as to how young people perceive their beauty as it relates to their race.”

“I also enjoyed exploring how black women raise their daughters to see themselves as beautiful and the trends in those teachings,” she said. “It was a truly great experience to look at these women in my life all around and just watch them talk about and discover what they truly loved about themselves.”

Although the class has come to an end, Welch said that the experience has inspired her to continue looking for African aesthetics in her life.

“I look to find consistencies and commonalities in my community that I never would have looked for before,” she said. “I enjoyed this workshop because it was so personal and allowed for me to broaden my horizons on a topic that I lived with every day.”