Words have power, for those who use them and those who hear them. Perhaps no one knows this better than Jade Solomon Curtis.
The Seattle-based dance educator and choreographer will bring “Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word N*****” to the UAlbany Performing Arts Center on Sunday. It’s a multidisciplinary work that’s been a long time in the making for Curtis.
It started in 2011 when she was walking down the street in what’s known as a progressive neighborhood in Seattle.
“I was walking around with another dancer and a white man yelled sitting in a windowsill yelled, “I didn’t know N***** came down here.” For me, that was an awakening. This was during a time when we were supposed to be in this post-racial era and to be called a N***** in Seattle, [in] a progressive neighborhood. . .” Curtis said.
It was the first time she had ever been called that by a white-identifying person, said Curtis.
The experience got her thinking about the term, one that she frequently heard in pop songs.
“So it really forced me to take a more inward look at how I was maneuvering through the world and how we were all maneuvering through the world and the impact that music had on that,” Curtis said.
She spent several years developing the work and it was as much a personal process as a public one.
“This work is heavy. It’s heavy to hold and heavy to share. So it took me really getting the courage to not be afraid to have the conversation and be in front of the conversation because that’s what the work requires,” Curtis said.
She pored over books and articles, videos and photos, trying to understand the racial slur’s history. She also found a mentor in Walter Beach III, an author, activist and former football player for the Cleveland Browns.
“The impetus in even having the courage to talk about the work in the way that I did had a lot to do with someone I consider a mentor of mine, Walter Beach III. He is 86 now and although he doesn’t necessarily identify as such, an activist his entire life. Being able to sit down in front of someone who has so much history and knowledge in themselves has definitely contributed the resources and knowledge that I’ve acquired,” Curtis said.
Merriam Webster traces the first usage of the word back to the 1500s, though it was first included in the dictionary in 1864. For much of the eighteenth century, the term was often placed in front of a slave’s name on historical records. It was also used as a racial insult, as it sometimes still is today. It has become such an infamous word that many refer to it as “the N-word.” However, some people in the black community have sought to reclaim or redefine the word, sometimes using it as a term of endearment.
The historical context is front and center from the start of the performance.
“The show opens with a piece called “Emancipation” and in addition to exploring the context of the Emancipation Proclamation. It also explores the images, the pain and the trauma associated with the word and the historical context of all of that particularly with slavery,” Curtis said.
In choosing the music for the performance, Curtis brought in some of her students for their input. They recommended everything from opera to hip-hop. There’s also some sound scores and remixed beats that Curtis collaborated with Seattle-based DJs. The styles of dance seen in the piece are just as varied.
“We incorporate both video and photo, historical photos that are now so old that they are public domain and explore what that means to utilize technology in terms of bringing us closer to humanity. Also, some videos that many people are very familiar with that explore police violence,” Curtis said.
She has presented the piece in several cities over the last few years, though never in Albany.
What sticks out to her the most after each performance is the response she gets from young audience members. They often tell her they’re rethinking their use of the term and their understanding of it.
“The worst thing that you can do to a people is to rob them of the memory of themselves. In saying that, I think that's the discovery for me, having initially been afraid to even have this conversation because it’s so big. It’s a global conversation. It touches everywhere, right?
It’s not just affecting the Black community but it's affecting a multicultural community so having done this work in a couple of different places thus far, the most prominent thing that stands out to me is the response of young people” Curtis said.
Her intent with “Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word N*****,” is to raise consciousness around the term and have viewers question whether it’s possible to redefine a term that has been used to belittle and insult people.
“Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word N*****”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: UAlbany Performing Arts Center, 1400 Washington Ave.
TICKETS: $15 in advance for the general public, $10 for students. $20 day of show for the general public and $15 for students
MORE INFO: albany.edu/pac