#WokeBaby and the Lessons We Learned

Image: Giovani Ortiz

Inauguration weekend was crazy. On Saturday, I shared my friend’s photo from the Women’s March in Charlotte, NC. By Sunday, 22,000 people had shared it directly from my wall and Buzzfeed was contacting my parents in their attempt to reach me. #WokeBaby had taken the world by an adorable storm. And I, in a way, found myself the manager of a meme.

JK Rowling and Gwyneth Paltrow re-tweeted the image. Several artists created their own renderings of the now-iconic picture. Giovani Ortiz is making prints available of his version, with proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. Comedy Central’s @Midnight with Chris Hardwick opened the show by describing “by far the greatest hero of the march was a legend we only know as #WokeBaby” and followed that with an entire segment dedicated to her. Multiple news outlets directly linked the story back to my personal Facebook and Twitter pages. The good news was, with me as a buffer, the family was protected from much of the madness.

AJ+ on Twitter
AJ+ on Twitter

The child’s mother and I met while on staff at Jacob’s Pillow Dance in the Berkshires. We have stayed good friends through social media and the respect between us is mutual and often in evidence. She let me know that this is why it is especially fitting that her daughter’s original sign will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Berkshire Museum. The appeal of the #wokebaby image was that my friend’s young daughter was speaking for herself and — amidst a sea of witty and often abrasive signage — was offering up her complex, bold, yet non-lingual memorandum for interpretation.

Lesson: In these times, our messages are best delivered artistically.

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This is the reason that a group of us in Chicago came together for a dance demonstration. This was not anti-Trump, but rather pro-peace, pro-cultural equity, pro-social justice, and pro-Article 1 freedoms for the next four years. All dance styles, ages, abilities and experiences were welcome. This happened at the same time as other planned protests and demonstrations, but was not affiliated with them or any other organization. This was an individual artistic response and statement, inspired by the active artist participation I witnessed during the Egyptian Revolution.

We held the dance demonstration at Heald Square Monument, which sits across the river from Trump International Hotel and Tower and commemorates the American Revolution and promotes much more. It reads,

The government of United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

George Washington 1790

The plaque beneath states:

Symbol of American tolerance and unity and of the cooperation of people of all races and creeds in the building of the United States. The monument designed by Lorado Taft and completed by Leonard Crunelle was presented to the City of Chicago by the Patriotic Foundation of Chicago.

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As per the instructions collaboratively generated, our dance demonstration was in four parts:

  1. Al’iibdae (Creativity/Diversity): Open Forum with all participants moving in their own way simultaneously or in turns, as individuals or groups.
  2. Jítǐ mùdì (Collective Purpose): Flocking where a few leaders organically emerge and others shadow their easy-to-follow movements, then leadership graciously and seamlessly rotates. Accompanied by jazz flute.
  3. Unidad (Unity): Stillness in relationship with the others, with Silvita Diaz Brown reading a poem by C. JoyBell C..
  4. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): Dance party led by anyone willing — this day it was Lady Sol Garcia with friends and fellow protestors joining in, to the music of Bruno Mars.

Here are two videos from the demonstration, captured by Mohamed Radwan:

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Participants were encouraged to share our invitation with anyone who shares the values that our dance demonstration promoted — no matter what their political affiliation — and with anyone comfortable expressing themselves in movement in public.

Dancers shared their own reasons for participating:

I’m dancing for my mother who came here from Mexico in 1975 w clothes on her back so that I can have a chance to be educated.

I’m dancing for my cousin who couldn’t be alive to dance with us because her life was viewed as less-than, and who lost her life standing up for her two young daughters.

From attire to content, participants were given plenty of choices. I warned them that we likely would have to dance with our belongings, so to pack light or bring a friend to help carry things and record the event. There were to be other protests and demonstrations happening nearby; we wanted to help each other stay safe, especially one dancer who would be dancing with her baby.

Before the demonstration, a group of us gathered inside the public lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center to collaborate, plan and prepare. Lucky us: members of the public had decided to join in and marched with us up to the monument. One of the dancers, Lauren Milburn, had a handheld camera with her and later edited together this beautiful video:

Dance Demonstration for 2017 Presidential Inauguration from Lauren Milburn on Vimeo.

Although this was all before the Executive Orders on refugees and immigration, we agreed that without diversity and equity of race, religion, income, creed, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, Chicago neighborhood representation, background, age, experience, ability, body type and artistic practice, our dance demonstration would not have succeeded. We did all right on this front — not bad but not great. Next time.

If the last weeks in America have been any indication, the next four years will be packed with political provocation and protest. #WokeBaby, Werk for Peace and #ICantKeepQuiet remind us that if we don’t maintain the authentic artist within us and the collaborative artistry between us, we will have lost ourselves. We have a few years to intentionally provide more space for that — and take up more space with it, too.