Angel's Basic School
d'bi.young anitafrika and black queer divinity
Note: above, a video of d’bi.young anitafrika giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alexis Pauline Gumbs responds to the talk in the essay that follows.
In the beginning there was the word. And the word was “she,” born from her mother like so many other public prayers.
d’bi.young anitafrika, daughter of foundational dub poet and scholar Anita Stewart, stands at a lectern that transforms into a pulpit by the first move of her hands (Mac laptop not nearly withstanding). At the same time that anitafrika offers a critique of the repressed lust in the life of the common homosexually active and actively homophobic preacher, she creates a new congregation. She populates the room with young queer beings like her adolescent self, rich with longing and questions, but ignored, when not directly attacked by the figure at the pulpit. anitafrika’s congregation moves out of the church, walks all through the streets, makes out with other little girls at Angel’s Basic School, and bears the internal and external heat of the sun without social recognition, until now. There is transubstantiation here.
Standing, chest open in a conference room, anitafrika has traveled home to Kingston and stolen back her local pulpit into cosmic significance. And then she shifts from her dub conjure voice into an explanatory tone. Describing her own journey from Angel’s Basic School (where the angelic work was the work of girls touching each other and knowing themselves) to this moment of annunciation, weeks after the launch of the the Watah School in the distillery district of Toronto, anitafrika lets us know she has effectively reclaimed pedagogical and spiritual space. This is a pilgrimage from a spiritually violent and homophobic church to a sacred performance space where intersectionally oppressed young people speak their truth and heal each other. From a basic school where girls find each other secretly to a performance incubator where artists use anitafrika’s decade-tested Sorplusi method to learn themselves and their purpose in the context of community and commitment.
Listening to d’bi.young anitafrika describe the guiding principles of her method (self-knowledge, orality, rhythm, political content and context, language, urgency, sacredness, and integrity), I applaud her for the work of what she calls “redefining performance education.” She honors the elders in her Toronto community of artists of color and her mother’s distillation of the four elements of dub poetry (nation language, music, politics and performance) for allowing her to create a process that empowers artists from multiple oppressed communities. Rejecting an approach that would privilege inclusion in an existing white-dominated theater world, Watah encourages artists to take the stage as themselves. And due to the practice of self-reflection they engage as they work through the questions associated with each of the eight elements of the Sorplusi method, they emerge more clearly in relationship to their own experiences, their purpose on the planet, their role in their communities than they ever could have imagined was permissible or possible.
What would happen if every preacher on every pulpit engaged in equally rigorous self-reflection, dared themselves to risk self-knowledge, and accounted for their impact on their communities? Could homophobia, sexism, internalized racism, even capitalism survive the implementation of the Sorplusi method by the weekly performers on the pulpits of the world? I think of the work of queer black community-accountable preachers like Marvin K. White, who ministers at GLIDE Church and leads poetry workshops on moving trains. I think of Sangodare Julia Roxanne Wallace, who creates sermons in the Southern black Baptist tradition about an infinite inclusive god informed by the tenets of black feminism, afrofuturism, and soul music. anitafrika’s work highlights spiritual conjure work as the legacy that queer black diasporic artists inherit and activate. This is sacred work. It makes another world possible.
“I will close with a poem,” anitafrika informs the audience. And as she moves away from the lectern into the realm of the gathered chairs to enact “blood.claat,” one of her best-known poems, I can finally see the actual congregation. There are some visibly black people in the front row, leaning forward, and then rows and rows of white people, sometimes shifting nervously in their seats as anitafrika walks up to them and looks them directly in the eye, speaking of the intimacy and power of menstrual blood and the creative power of black women. She names goddesses and remedies and calls multitudes of feminine warriors into the space with her voice. And I remember at this moment, years after this performance, Watah has recently launched another crowd-fund campaign to finance its space after citing racism in its rejection from several important grants that it had depended on for operating costs. I wonder about the disconnect between arts funding and self-reflection. Between sacredness, urgency, and the short attention spans of tokenizing allies. Between the creative power of menstrual cycles and the limitations of funding cycles.
With that specific performance of “blood.claat” d’bi.young anitafrika sought to enact a chosen creative blood relationship in the pale and climate-controlled space of the conference room. Did it work? I can see from the video that the people are moved. At the moment of this writing the fundraiser is about halfway to its goal. And the sustainability of spaces like Watah beyond their novelty will let us know when the church finally says, AWOMAN, ASHE, so be it, so it is.