“I need to put my money where my tweets are.”
— Talib Kweli
On Twitter last week, I learned that famous African-American ballerina Misty Copeland is having her life story optioned by New Line Cinema. Exactly one tweet later, I learned that a protest of the shooting of unarmed, African-American teenager, Michael Brown, had been dispersed with tear gas, flash bangs and assault vehicles. It was a violent juxtaposition of images: Copeland, Olympian ballerina and spokesmodel for apparel giant Under Armour, smiling with earrings dangling and hair up, will be the subject of a movie about overcoming the overwhelming whiteness of American ballet while Brown, whose decimated corpse was left on a city street in the baking summer heat for hours, whose last words were “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting,” is the object of a debate about the extent to which black bodies are held in violent suspicion in America. Copeland’s story is about her miraculous personal success despite systematic racism, and is only beginning. Brown’s story is about how he fell victim to the same, and is at an end.
These overlapping, contradictory narratives paint a picture of an odd historical moment, where billion-dollar apparel companies use sexualized black bodies to sell merchandise to an increasingly of-color country, while the armored vehicles deployed by local police against citizens of that country are sponsored by billion-dollar defense contractors. One narrative is apparently uplifting, the economic apotheosis of centuries of racialized commerce, while the other is the latest in an inglorious litany of dead black bodies that includes Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell and thousands of others. Copeland is a one-of-a-kind woman while Brown is a one-among-many man. Copeland is the exception while Brown is the extreme. They are individuals at opposite ends of a shared violent, racist, economic logic.
The politics of black dancing bodies has been getting increasing attention as late, thanks in no small part to Copeland, and in large part to longtime cultural trench fighters such as Dance Theater of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, cultural critic Brenda Dixon Gottschild and Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown. In response to calls for more “black swans,” a new program of the American Ballet Theatre (where Copeland is a soloist) called “Project Plié” (of which Copeland is an advisor and figurehead) has been created to “increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet.” This program is intended to augment the supply of black dancers to elite companies, and thus make ballet “look like America.” Yet if one understands Copeland’s and Brown’s stories as exemplifying different extremities of a prevailing American racism, such controlled representational ambitions risk appearing like a halfhearted feint. Making dance companies “look” more diverse is not necessarily the same as attacking the systematized racial denigration that causes shortages of black ballerinas to begin with. We risk merely treating symptoms of the vastly more pervasive, perverse and perturbing American realness embodied by the tragic death of Michael Brown.
I am attempting to gesture towards a national racism, exemplified by Brown, and place Copeland and Project Plié’s narrative into that context. I am not frustrated by Project Plié because it, itself, is a racist proposal. Rather, I am frustrated because I don’t think it’s nearly radical enough, and yet there exists no more radical effort in the entirety of the ballet world. There is nothing to compare it to, and it’s easy to pick on a party of one. We have to start somewhere. I applaud ABT’s efforts even as I am deeply concerned by them, and hope that the program is triumphant on its own terms. Further, I hope that competing programs emerge from other world class ballet companies (New York City Ballet?) that make Project Plié seem conservative by comparison.
But I want to be clear about the scope of work: this is not a conversation about individual “racists” in leadership positions within dance companies, or making a thousand Misty Copelands bloom. The job to be done is to map out the ways that the American dance community participates in American culture, examine how dance reifies and reiterates the prevailing racism of our time, and then to wholesale re-imagine, re-architect and re-create how dance groups function within this country. The “dance world” is a cultural substrata within the broader iniquitous architecture of America, a microcosm of racial inequality within a macrocosm of racial brutality. Making ballet “look like America” is an ambivalent proposition, because from my (white, privileged, mansplaining-dude-with-a-blog) vantage point, Copeland is exceptional exactly because America is supersaturated with racialized violence.
The struggle for social justice does not end because Misty Copeland has a good commercial agent. I am not relieved of my implication within a racist system for having written this post, nor are you for having read it. I can’t ask that Copeland do anything different, nor will I ever ask that any individual do more or less in this struggle than they already are. But I can pose a single question, and you can choose to answer it: if you think, as I do, that the dance world is enmeshed in a broader racist moment in America, what, if anything, are you willing to do about it?