Elizabeth Koe, writer/producer
The National Sawdust night with Jacqueline Woodson was a beautiful exploration of her work and ideas, and those of her fellow artists and friends Carl Hancock Rux and Toshi Reagon. It was an honor to be in such an intimate space, amidst their energy and inspired words and music. It was also an honor to listen while they talked with complete honesty about how they are feeling, right now, in this America. Toshi’s words were despairing, impassioned, urgent, and compelling in their undeniable truth. She spoke with a full and open heart about her frustrations, and demands for MORE – more for black people, more for humanity.
Any attempt to paraphrase Toshi would fall immeasurably short. What I can speak to is what I personally felt while listening – overwhelmingly guilty and stupid. Overwhelmingly guilty and stupid for being surprised by the election results: surprised like the pollsters, surprised like Hillary Clinton, surprised like even President Obama. This shock doesn’t compute with what we see every day, the deep and systematic oppression of and brutality against black people. There’s much made of the liberal coasts who didn’t see this coming – but right HERE, in liberal New York City, we have one of the most segregated school systems in the country with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students in what are considered “intensely segregated” schools. Right here in liberal New York City we have a jail population that is 57 percent black, within a city where black people only make up 25 percent of the total population. Right here, in the liberal coastal state of New York there is an overall poverty rate of 15.9 percent, but in the African American community that number stands at 23.2 percent. And, right here in liberal New York City, we’ve witnessed the senseless murders of black men, men like Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham and Eric Garner. All of this is to say – surprise that a Trump America is possible is not an acceptable reaction. It’s a privileged one, and we now must deal with its dire consequences.
Listening to Toshi speak, I was hit with new force by the enormity of this failure and the moral laziness of it all. This is an emergency – we live in a country where black people are denied their humanity daily. We must reach the complete understanding that if we don’t wake up every single day and work in some way to fight for racial justice, we are complicit and we are failing. That is not livable. Toshi laid out her demands for a fight, from all people, for human dignity – and that is what we must do. We are all responsible here and now.
Mariana Sadovska, artist
A few days ago, I was for the first time in a new space for art in New York, National Sawdust. It was a literature-music performance, but more than that, it was a special possibility to find yourself in a very intimate relationship with the artists. You heard them in conversation, as human beings, then saw them transform into artists when they performed. While you knew that you were in the audience, you felt like you were at the table with them – you saw how they laughed, how they spoke, what they wanted to share.
This evening became one of the strongest artistic experiences, which was probably possible only thanks to this form I have just described. I will try to explain why.
These days, we all ask ourselves, “What shall we really do? How shall we react? Can we just continue ‘to make art’ and separate ourselves from insanity – from all this Trump, Putin, growing populism, nationalism, radicalism? Can we hide inside our creativity? Make love (art) not war?” (It happened that the performance was on the same day as the destroying, killing, and genocide in Aleppo.)
Are we allowed to say: “Well, first of all, it is far away, I don’t understand what is going on there, and anyway cannot change anything. So…”
I was having all these thoughts while I was listening to the voice of Toshi speaking. She was asking us, the audience, questions; she was naming many things, like genocide, slavery, in a way I haven’t heard for a long time: directly, naked, like it is…waking us up. Taking us out of our comfortable place, where we all try to hide.
It’s been a long time since I experienced such an intense silence – you could hear how we all were listening. Toshi managed to not became pathetic, not to say empty words. It was very honest. Painful. Maybe in one moment she became a bit narrow, putting everything only on two opposites, black and white, literally and symbolically.
I rather think that the problems are more complicated and more connected in a way.
It is not just a problem of white people and black people in the USA, it is not just a problem of the Ukrainian inner conflict (I am an artist from Ukraine, living in Germany), it is not just a problem of Aleppo people, or of the Turkish opposition, or the Polish opposition. It is one problem of all of us – here and now. And we shall stop being surprised…and try to solve thing locally.
We shall stand up. Each one in his place. We shall stop being indifferent.
That is what I heard in Toshi’s voice. And where language was not enough, she then started to sing. And singing, that artistic act, touches the deepest part of our human soul. It is painful and hopeful. It is healing and it is inspiring. And for me, this is art, in the highest and purest form.
I was moved. I was so thankful to be able to be there that evening. I felt very inspired, I felt the confirmation not to give up. To be not afraid to swim against the river.
And I appreciate so deeply that it was possible, that National Sawdust creates the space for such confrontation, for such voices to speak and to be heard. So we felt angry, agreed, were moved, felt stronger, felt uncomfortable. We felt awake, we felt pain. We felt.
Of course it is not easy in our days to create such a space. It will be much more safe (also for financial reasons) to invite only artists whom we all will admire…who will never go too far…who never touch us in our wounds: “Please, not too much thinking. Please, some ‘relaxation’ after my stressful day. Please, let us continue to sleep and dream about Christmas presents…” And then we will be surprised by the results of elections, referendums, or anything else…surprised and sad, for a while, for a short time…and then we will get used to it and forget…and continue to sleep.
Dangerous. Toshi’s voice told us how dangerous it is. And how we have to stand up now.
Somebody told us, the world was destroyed – not because some crazy monster did it, but, because all others (we) did nothing.
Iliana Paris, National Sawdust
When I’m scheduled to work as venue staff at National Sawdust, I’m already at an advantage of being able to walk into a different performance piece every single time. Going into this show, I had no prior knowledge of who Jacqueline Woodson was or what she did for living, nor her friends Carl Hancock Rux and Toshi Reagon, who also contributed to this wonderful experience. As the talkback began, more bits and pieces of who these individuals were took me aback. These were black artists who not only give to the world their talents and gifts, but also grew up having experiences in Brooklyn, something that speaks to me on a personal level. I’m a Afro-Boricua woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, very close to where Woodson was raised. And although we were raised in two completely different periods, we both have witnessed and felt the looming change of the neighborhood.
The first part with Woodson and Rux discussing their experiences and excerpts painted a vivid picture of what my neighborhood was before I was born. The comparisons and contrasts of Old Brooklyn and what it is today definitely put things in perspective, since I already have my own feelings about what’s been happening to the neighborhood over the years. As Woodson raised the topic of post-election emotions, she brought up the importance of black people/artists speaking up during this tense time.
Rux mentioned he originally was ranting and full of anger toward the nation and the president-elect decision, as were most people after the election. But as time went on he realized that the negativity wouldn’t solve anything, and decided to shift his focus into positivity. He then brought up a quote written by Toshi’s mother, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, which resonated with me: “Life’s challenges are not meant to paralyze you but to help you find yourself.” I took that statement as a way of not letting the president-elect decision make us throw in the towel, but to help us unite together in moving forward. Not only that, but in life in general we should always be moving forward, because the universe never gives anything we can’t handle.
The second part with Woodson and Reagon got real, real fast. Woodson opened with an excerpt from another book she’s written, Brown Girl Dreaming, which at the end mentions something along the lines that her childhood crew’s music and groove was of jazz, and they didn’t even know it. Reagon then explained how that particular portion of the book came to be with a discussion she’d had with Woodson years back. From what I gathered, Woodson’s writing includes not only her perspective as a black woman growing up in ’60s/’70s Brooklyn but the perspectives of her closest friends and those dear to her.
The discussion then led to current political events, and Reagon definitely put in her two cents on the matter. She said that many people feel too comfortable with what’s been going on around us, as if our battles are already half done, when that’s not the case. She proceeded to speak her truth, her mother’s truth, and the truth of the nation. As she brought up heated points, the room stood silent until one person spoke up upon the matter and responded to Reagon with “It is what it is.” She rebutted with something similar: “If it is what it is, then do something to change it.”
Reagon brought up great points and a discussion that’s been needed for decades now, and I agree with what she said. It’s true that many people have swept our nation’s history under the rug for years, down to rearranging and limiting what we know as history in our school curriculum. Although it may seem to some that she was attacking white people and making the room uncomfortable, the discussion at that moment in time needed to happen. If she shouldn’t have brought up the discussion then, then when is it an “appropriate time” to talk about these issues?
Reagon even mentioned that her mother was still picking cotton up until the civil rights movement, which was news to me – I’d been so accustomed to cotton picking in terms of slavery, and in that moment she solidified the fact that our school systems fail us. People still don’t know this nation’s history, because some feel that if that if they didn’t live it, it doesn’t affect them. And it’s the complete opposite: It affects everything we do as a nation, and Toshi brought up a great point supporting that notion.
After that heated portion of the talk, Toshi closed the second part with a beautiful song about freedom.
I say freedom, you must hang out amongst the stars
It’s kinda hard for you in a world like ours
We talk about you night and day
Thinking that we’ll find a way
Freedom, freedom over here
I know it’s not always clear
Some of us, we’ve had our fill
Who’s gonna stand up with you
I, I, I, I will oh yeah
Oh yes I will
Her lyrics resonated with me as an Afro-Boricua woman whose origins stem from indigenous roots, because this is something we’ve been wanting since the beginning of the nation: FREEDOM. It’s a word we love to throw around in this nation, yet it’s always put into question with all the injustice we see on a daily basis. This song was an amazing way to end the discussion, so that those who were heated from it could also hear the perspective in a more lyrical sense: Freedom must be amongst the stars, because although we can see it, it feels and looks like it isn’t attainable, at least until we work together to make it so.