"We Want Poems that Kill": Removing the White Gaze from Black Stories Onstage

LeKethia Dalcoe

(This essay is the third in a three-part series about actors creating their own work that we have been publishing throughout the month of April.   If you missed them, read the first two pieces in the series by actor/playwright Niki Hatzidis and solo performer Raymond McAnally.)

I consider myself a social artist; the works I create are those surrounding African American characters who are unapologetic in their search for understanding, self- love, and empowerment. Artist and activist LeRoi Jones declared, “WE WANT POEMS THAT KILL.” This statement sums up my approach when writing plays.

I'm drawn to creating narratives that kill the white gaze and take back our power in telling our own stories—in other words, black folk telling stories about black folk.  I believe the only way truth and multi-dimensional narratives can be told when dealing with the black body is when we are actually at the helm of telling them ourselves. The experience of African Americans in this nation is a particular one, one that is shared and understood within our community on a unified level. Most times, words are not even needed to understand what my brother or sister might be feeling or experiencing.  Because of America's flawed and treacherous history when dealing with the black body, there are many intricacies and nuances that I believe only we can explore when telling our stories. 

When writing my play A Small Oak Tree Runs Red, which is inspired is by a lynching that took place in 1918 Valdosta, Georgia, where a woman named Mary Turner was lynched while eight months pregnant because she boldly spoke up against the lynching of her husband Hayes Turner, I deliberately made the decision to erase the white narrative from my play entirely; it was to be only an outside device that had no power to move the story forward, and only through the acts of those three lynched victims could their entrapment in purgatory be released. (In my play, purgatory is the holding space between heaven and hell.)  I felt that by not giving the white gaze any power, I was in turn, empowering the spirits of those victims.

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The recent murders of Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Alton Sterling, to name a few, sent me into a state of rage and mourning. Because of the blood that was being spilled in the streets, and the continual headlines of innocent black boys and men being murdered, and the cops who were getting away with it, I took to the pen in order to find release and healing. My community has been traumatized, and yet has dealt with the wounds of history, and the present. A Small Oak Tree Runs Red was birthed from my trauma. Even though the play focuses on an actual event that took place 100 years ago, I found it devastatingly beautiful and tragic to discover how I could so easily place my own fears, emotions and anger into the mouths of those victims. I placed them in purgatory, which I conceived of as a kind of holding space: a metaphor for the physical and mental paralyzing limbo of the whole country. The characters in my writings are often in some kind of holding space, unable to move forward because there has been no accounting for the crimes done to the black body in the real world, no reconciliation.

By having power over our own art, black writers can destroy how we are often falsely portrayed, and give birth to new dramas that show black life in its truest, most unapologetic form: free of escapism and full of the raw truth.

It is no coincidence that revolutionary art often arises in concert with political revolution. We are in the midst of a movement at the forefront of revolutionary art called "Black Lives Matter". Black people are demanding that their lives be seen as worthy and that new reforms and laws be created to protect them.  Art has the power to heal, and I believe that there is another "Black Arts Revolution" at hand, but, unlike its predecessor, the artists of this movement are far removed from the rope, lash, and physical scars of the past.

From the period of 1965 until 1975, there was a massive outpouring of need for true empowerment and an upsurge in self-determination for change and equality. African Americans  were no longer associating with the term “negro,” but “black.” This sense of pride gave birth to one of the most prolific battles for human rights, known as the Civil Rights Movement. Black men and women were no longer accepting segregation, discrimination, and sitting at the back of the bus quietly, they wanted change. February 21, 1965 marked the assassination of Malcolm X and gave rise to a new movement: the "Black Arts Movement." The Black Arts Movement was created by writer and activist LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Black America was now protecting and arming themselves against the corrupt police, they were now expressing artistic and political freedom, living by such slogans as “by any means necessary.” This was a new, aggressive change that America had never experienced: a militant artistic movement.

Both political and cultural, the Black Arts Movement was one of those rare phenomena that helped to advance black people culturally on a national level. The Black Arts Movement is known as the “artistic branch” of the Black Power Movement. According to Wikipedia, Time Magazine described the movement as the “single most controversial moment in the history of African American literature, possibly in American literature as a whole.”  This controversy was sparked because a new voice was rising in a world of literature dominated by European voices. This period greatly changed the literary world by giving voice to different ethnic groups and minorities in the United States. The Black Arts Movement created and evoked change. The movement broke from the past of protesting and petitioning for civil rights and surged forward on a tide of people demanding the unthinkable and unattainable: black power.

The purpose of the black writer was to be a revolutionary artist: to question the prescribed way of life and threaten its order. Charles Fuller, an African American playwright whose work I particularly admire, explains black writing perfectly in my opinion.

"What is black writing? For some time black writers have been asking themselves this question in the hope that an answer would awaken a new literary renaissance, one that would free them from the yoke of the white literary community--a community that, through its offers of reward, has confused and clandestinely oppressed every black writer who has tried to deal with the problem. What is black writing? Black writing is socio-creative art. It is a manner of self-expression, an artistic form born directly from the collective social situation in which the Afro-American found himself in this nation and this nation only. It is the only art form in the world directly related to the historical, economic, educational, and social growth and development of a people and as such maintains a unique position in the literature of the world."

Artists whose words came to life during the Black Art Movement who have inspired my writing or have given me the artistic permission to approach my writing boldly and unapologetically include Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ed Bullins, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Larry Neal, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, and Ntozake Shange.

These artists wanted change because they knew change must come.  Their work promoted that change and gave the black community hope. James Stewart, in The Development of the Black Revolutionary Artist, explains, "The revolutionary artist must understand this sense of reality, this philosophy of reality which exists in all non-white cultures. We need our own conventions, a convention of procedural elements, a kind of stylization, a sort of insistency which leads inevitably to a certain kind of methodology--a methodology affirmed by the spirit."

The revolutionary artists understood that they had to break the mold set for African Americans by the white community and define their own definition of what is black, what is beautiful. Many have gone so far as to say that black writers who choose to focus on black issues are not artists and are below their white counterparts. Charles Fuller, in the Liberator, further stated,

"We have been asked to believe that in order for black writers to become artists, they must forget who and what they are and follow in the footsteps of white men who created work founded on the idea that the highest form of art was self-expression. We are asked at the same time to be and not to be true to ourselves. We are asked to get off the race issue when we are tied to it hand and foot--and simply because we are the issue. If it is true that black men historically and presently are in protest of a society that has denied them entrance into these so-called mainstreams by every device conceivable, then it is sheer folly to think that they would create work that would not reflect this and an act of oppression to assume that what they create is not art. Socio-creative art is what Black men bring into existence when they sit down to write--indeed it corresponds directly, for us, to the meaning of art. Our lives and our art are one in the same struggle, and to continue to accept or debate the white standards of evaluation, nurtured by racial oppression, is to commit a kind of literary suicide."

There will always be black artists who will take it upon themselves to say, "Our stories matter...my art matters...my life matters...my history must be told...and I refuse to be silenced for your comfort and shame." I am one of those artists, and there is something ancestral embedded deep inside of me that refuses to allow white society to say what should be expressed, retold, or what is acceptable for the black narrative. This Renaissance will have a new look and a different approach of "artivism." With the power of social media, and numerous platforms to present art to the masses, art as activism will emerge from this generation in varied forms.

There is so much work that I have been privy to from my peers in the theatre and television world, that tells me that BLACK ART IS ALIVE!! They are aware, woke, loud, black, and UNAPOLOGETIC. "Black lives Matter!!"..."Not my President!!"...is being yelled from the stands, screens, and the stage alike. For black artists like myself, choosing to use writing as a weapon to promote social justice is a mission of immense responsibility and challenge, but unlike the black artists of the past, we have access to an ancestral roadmap and history like never before. We can look to the original "Black Arts Movement" for inspiration and guidance as a means of being rooted in our movement and take it beyond what it ever was, or what the confines of history ever allowed it to ever be. This surge of energy, art, and black magic that is taking place in black art has AWOKEN me, and I feel honored to be alive in such a time as this.

Lekethia Dalcoe is a playwright and actress from Houston who now resides in New York City. For more information about her and her work visit: www.lekethiadalcoe.com