Content warning: This article discusses anti-Blackness, racism, and violence.
When Beyond the Lights opened in Fall 2021, it challenged the thematic expectations of Black art here at Georgetown. Instead of foregrounding trauma, the Black Theatre Ensemble (BTE) prioritized the celebration of Black American theatrical traditions and their joyful history.
“That is something that we’ve been trying to move towards, like creating art that’s just happy, that’s just fun,” Iliana Diaz (CAS ’23), BTE’s business manager, said.
Diaz sees Beyond the Lights as moving away from narratives of pain. The play platforms the joyful nuances often missing in dominant narratives in Black art while simultaneously celebrating art within the mundane.
Contemporary pop culture is filled with gratuitous explorations of Black trauma and pain across all major artistic forms. From books to films and even music, there seems to be no limit to the depiction of Black suffering despite limited Black media representation. Works like The Blind Side (2009) are notorious for their commodification of anti-Black violence and subtle promotion of white saviorism. Even works like Till (2022) and Moonlight (2016)—praised for their nuanced approach to anti-Blackness and racism—are still rooted in the exploration of generational trauma and, albeit unintentionally, reinforce the framing of Black joy as the fleeting byproduct of hard-won triumph.
Art that does not prominently feature the narrative of “overcoming obstacles” receives far less industry support, according to Anita Gonzalez, a professor and co-founder of Georgetown’s Racial Justice Institute.
“[Producers] don’t get that you can just have a story about Black women just having a good time in the Caribbean,” Gonzalez said. “That kind of story is not the story that [white] producers want to hear. They want to hear about Black trauma, they want to hear about obstacles.”
Often, equitable representation for Black artists in media is rooted in rehashed narratives of racialized violence and anti-Blackness at the expense of the artists themselves. Works featuring Black identities and stories, like BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Get Out (2017), gain the most prominence when they center racialized violence and marginalization. Creators feel pressured to continue exploring anti-Blackness and histories of slavery in order for their work to be recognized, leading to exhaustion given their own emotional proximity.
In her push for more lighthearted productions, Diaz connects deeply with the idea that performance art is inherently moving even when divorced from grandiosity.
“There is an association a lot of times with things that are meaningful, things that are powerful, they have to be traumatic and intense and serious,” Diaz said. “But there is as equal an effect in moments of happiness, in moments of joy, of excitement, even if it’s just a lighthearted comedy.”
Art can take even the simple moments and transform them into beautiful complexities. Tyler Mitchell’s exhibition catalog “I Can Make You Feel Good,” for instance, showcases his visualization of a “Black utopia” with joyful photographs of Black communities in uniquely free and effortless ways he didn’t otherwise see in popular media.
“The daily mundane things of life can be art,” Mélisande Short-Colomb (CAS ’21), a performer and activist, said, beaming. “Life is art.”
But herein lies the present reality and problem: Black art made of the mundane is rarely celebrated. Rather, when it comes to representing Black lives, it is art that draws from both personal and systemic forms of suffering that is given precedence. Across many major awards ceremonies, the majority of nominations for Black talent both on- and off-screen go toward films related to racism. Moreover, many critics and researchers have found that Black talent is twice as likely to be limited to race-related content.
Creative work that centers Black trauma—even when produced by Black creators—can limit explorations of other emotions and experiences beyond pain. Student groups that aim to produce Black art, like BTE, often face both external and internal pressure to embrace vulnerability in their productions which, for Black artists, manifests as these narratives of oppression and Black trauma.
“I think there’s definitely a pressure to express the vulnerable parts of your life and bare that on stage because that’s what you assume draws people in,” Diaz said. “When you’re constantly offered and you’re constantly being told, these are the kind of stories that you should probably make, then it’s like, will people show up if we tell something different?”
This focus on narratives that center vulnerability leaves Black creatives to draw from wells of their own pain to continue producing art. Ultimately, this takes a toll on artists as they are forced to believe they must continue to perform vulnerability to have their work respected. Black trauma is commodified as a tool for entertaining white audiences, and Black artists are expected to continuously shoulder the burden of reliving and engaging with their traumas.
“There’s an emotional impact for performers especially when they have to put their embodied selves into these places of trauma,” Gonzalez said.
However, vulnerability can also be freeing. Short-Colomb, who currently serves as the community engagement associate for the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, believes that there is great merit in engaging with vulnerable storytelling—her one-woman show Here I Am intimately explores her personal and familial relationship to Georgetown as a descendant of the GU272+.
Many other artists, especially those from systemically underrepresented communities, utilize their mediums to process the issues they face, particularly when the news is saturated with narratives of pain. Alfreda Davis, faculty artistic director of the Black Movements Dance Theatre (BMDT), explained that vulnerable art can provide an outlet when pain can be hard to articulate in words.
“Oftentimes, the headlines can just grab your soul,” Davis said. “Fortunately, for us as artists, we have a way of reflecting what we feel more than the average person who doesn’t have an opportunity to speak on it.”
But Short-Colomb emphasized that it is key for artists to have agency over how and when they give access to vulnerability in their work.
“Vulnerability is not something you have to give to other people, especially in performance,” Short-Colomb said. “You can choose to not always be subjected to pain or expected to be present in a position of pain.”
An important distinction, however, should be made in how stories are portrayed and how they reinforce different narratives. When mainstream media chooses to only platform stories of Black pain, it becomes an exploitation of the suffering of marginalized communities rather than a depiction of reality. Agency over the decision to center narratives of suffering is essential for Black creators.
“I’m not here to perform pain for you, and I’m not scared of you either,” Short-Colomb said.
For many Black creatives, the hyperfixation on these narratives misses the nuance in these stories, particularly the joy of preservation and autonomy. These creative processes are historically a necessary part of the process of navigating the influx dynamics of resistance and power faced by communities of color. Oftentimes the exploration of generational trauma is an act of ensuring that these stories do not go untold. Through Here I Am, Short-Colomb speaks for her heavenly grandmothers, the family she loves and lives with, beyond their role in the white history of Georgetown entanglement in Georgetown’s history.
Autonomy for Black artists involves using art as a tool to rewrite narratives of marginalization. Jabril El Abanti (CAS ’24), a student musician, believes there is innate personal power generated in repurposing harm for creative expression.
“Anything that can be used against you can also be something that is used for you—that is like the very thing that creates your identity,” El Abanti said.
In writing his song “Too Much Soul,” he takes ownership of the narratives and labels that had been used against him since childhood. Through his impassioned repetition of “too much soul” paired with an upbeat baseline throughout the song’s chorus, El Abanti is able to reclaim the harmful words and reconstruct them into a proud declaration of his energy and passion.
For many creatives, a special catharsis comes with artistic autonomy. “When you look at Black art specifically, there is closure that we don’t normally get outside of art,” Carlos Rosario (MSB ’23), a musician and film and media studies minor at Georgetown, said. “I think that there’s some kind of closure, some kind of catharsis that comes from it, even if it’s trauma, even if it’s pain, there’s joy in it because I get to tell it.”
In Mr. Georgetown 2022, Rosario performed a moving rendition of “En Mi Viejo San Juan,” a song detailing the melancholy of the Puerto Rican diaspora and the impact of U.S. imperialism in Puerto Rico. In spite of the song’s more solemn themes, Rosario shared that the performance felt like a “full circle moment” as it helped him to connect with his Puerto Rican heritage in a moment of shared joy with other Caribbean diasporans at Georgetown. Black art, even born from sorrow, can create joy through the personal connections artists share with these works.
By sharing these experiences, Black creatives are able to not only achieve individual freedom but also connect on a deeper level with their audiences. Following the release of his newest album demo nights. (2023), Malachi Quarles (CAS ’23), who releases music under the stage name HUGHLANDER, experienced both the healing that comes with personal artistic expression and the way it can create interpersonal connection.
“When you’re able to put that to an art form, that’s very healing for somebody,” Quarles said. “Even though I don’t make music for people, when people relate I think that’s really cool.”
For communities of color, art is a fundamental cornerstone of connection and comradery. Gonzalez explained that Black artistic traditions have always been rooted in ideas of communal healing and connection.
“Communities of color are already thriving and fruitful—we don’t need to be fixed,” Gonzalez said. “We have always had strategies and ways of being that keep us connected and thriving and healthy—one of them being able to sit in communities with other people and share knowledge through the vehicle of stories.”
Art has the ability to facilitate strong connections and convey intimate messages within Black artistic communities, and it is vital for the continued production of creativity.
“Having a community behind you that really appreciates what you’re doing is so important to many artists and it shows that what you’re doing is touching people in ways that you would have never thought,” El Abanti said.
In order to make meaningful art, Black creatives, especially at institutions like Georgetown, must make conscious efforts in deciding which stories they choose to center. Because communal creation has been so ingrained in the history of Black artistic spaces, fostering further collaboration opens up the possibility for community building.
“What’s made my Black creative experience at Georgetown so fruitful was just that it was about community first,” Rosario said. “The way that Black music and Black art broadly on campus will continue to thrive and be great and be beautiful is if community is at the center.”
Ultimately, Black creatives must continue to take charge of their own artistic narratives and creation founded on communal joy and love.
“What has sustained marginalized communities? What keeps us here, what keeps us going? It’s love. It’s not power, it’s not resistance,” Short-Colomb said. “When we come from those places, and we meet in the middle, we meet in the middle because we love each other.”
This content was originally published here.