As a Black dancer, I often grapple with a question I asked in my 2015 work BodyBusiness: What is my body worth? Over the years, fundraising for SLMDances, the collective I founded and direct, has proven to be an uphill battle. It is not lost on me that what is being funded is not just a creative process, but also my physical self and the physical bodies of the artists with whom I collaborate. Cultivating thriving wages for a dancer means making available health care with regular body work, worker’s compensation, paid time off, sick days, overtime, and more. As we know, these benefits are not the norm for working dancers, and in the wake of a global pandemic, many dancers are lucky to have a job at all. Layer this with the reality that Black folks are more likely to be impacted by the coronavirus due to ongoing racial disparities, and the dance funding conversation moves into the urgent truth that if my Black life and body matter, cut the check now.
On July 1, I published an essay on Essence.com, “How To Be a Black Choreographer and Not Die.” It was a snapshot of what I have been feeling and processing for more than a year on my health and wellbeing, in relationship to my art making, in relationship to being a Black femme artist with modest means. Knowing this writing would raise my public profile, strategically, SLMDances launched a flash fundraiser the next day to be funded over the Fourth of July weekend. We made direct asks to white and non-Black people of color donors raising more money in six days than we had ever raised in a singular fundraising campaign in the past 10 years.
While part of me was ecstatic to meet our financial goals and meet them quickly, I am also unnerved by it: Why did I have to tell people that I am about to die while making dance for them to respond and share resources? SLMDances activates an individual giving strategy annually. Each time, we keep our fingers crossed toward the goal of raising enough funds to break even on general operating expenses and create a small nest egg to jumpstart us into the next calendar year.
The SLMDances leadership team parsed through these feelings in a text thread. A. Nia Austin-Edwards, our Strategic Visioning Partner wrote:
I can only imagine how lives would shift if every Black artist called got reparations when they arrived at this point of almost dying (because the sad part is white folk might not believe it before then—Black almost-death is still more valuable than Black life) / AND let’s stop engaging in the structures that would rather we die for “success” rather than live simply and wholly in our BEing
Black almost-death is still more valuable than Black life. I brought this idea to a conversation with my father about our fundraising. He stated matter-of-factly that tragedy and scarcity motivates people. I pushed back. I knew these were truths and yet, I refused to accept them. Beyond cycles of chronic burnout, I think of all my dance-sisters fighting or succumbing to life-threatening illness. I think of Breonna Taylor’s face on the covers of Oprah and Vanity Fair magazines. I think of Octavia Butler posthumously achieving the New York Times Bestsellers List for Parable of the Sower, her 1993 novel that predicted the very moment we are living in. In all cases, we are Black women getting acknowledgement, recognition, and resources more often in sickness and death than in health and life, and that ain’t right.
Poet Bri Ari asked, “Must a Black woman die to prove her humanity?” As we wade through a national racial reckoning, there is an exponential uptick in white folks asking Black folks to revisit and describe in detail their pain because now, they are listening. The same goes for other groups who hold privilege and power, asking people with marginalized identities to excavate their traumas for further understanding, when the truth is that oftentimes we have already told you about our pain and asked you for what we need. And if we haven’t spoken up, it’s because we know you wouldn’t believe us anyway, and we can’t trust that you will show up for us. It is a difficult project to cultivate a spirit of abundance in a society that feeds on fear, guilt, and scarcity. Autumn Brown’s essay “Scarcity and Abundance” teaches: “Scarcity thinking says that we cannot expect others to provide what we need, and that creating systems to ensure that basic needs are met are pointless exercises in altruism.”1
An extraordinary number of Black women artists thanked me and said they felt affirmed by my writing, by my vulnerability and transparency. I was shocked by other people’s shock at reading my experience, because most of the Black women artists I know have some version of this struggle. Our service to our craft, and our service to those who support us in making our work, is a kind of caretaking that often comes at the expense of ourselves. The response leads me to believe we are holding shame. We’ve been pushing back against the “strong Black woman” stereotype for a while now, but many of us still don’t want to be seen as being unable to handle it all; again, there’s that understandable lack of trust.
One of SLMDances’ ongoing projects is building that sense of trust with Black and/or femme and/or artists in our collective, those who love us, and those with whom we are invited to collaborate. This extends into our approach of cultivating resources, including and beyond money. As our collective has matured, we have honed our practices of bartering and negotiation, benefited from many in-kind offerings, and grown our grassroots fundraising. We remain flexible and as transparent as possible. We know that we build trust when we provide people with clear information about how we are gathering resources, timelines to give and receive said resources, and a voice in shaping this process. Above all, we believe in abundance and that we will get our needs met. We know that, as Brown states:
Abundance thinking says that together, we have enough of what we need, that there is enough for all of us if we recognize our essential interdependence. Abundance thinking requires that we share our struggles and our rewards. Abundance thinking trusts that if we develop relationships based on sharing our struggles AND our resources, we do in fact have enough of everything—love, food, energy, and power.
This is a transformative moment in our nation’s collective history and in our collective imagination. The technologies that we are enacting to make sure our neighbors, friends, and relatives have what they need are simultaneously ancient and future-forward: community fridges, mutual aid funds, carpools, plant trades, and more are becoming commonplace practices to shift resources where they are desired. Generally speaking, SLMDances has had more access to necessary funding during COVID-19 than we have ever had—whether it has been through our individual donors, artist crowdfunding, emergency grants, and even what I am coming to call “consolation prizes”—micro-grants from major grantors in acknowledgment of our application and the pandemic, even though we were not selected as final awardees. This needs to be the norm.
We must layer onto our abundance thinking what Tara Willis so aptly states and Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone unpacks in “Can we create lasting mutual aid structures?” (published in the July/August 2020 Brooklyn Rail)
Willis: … I want to think about a reparations approach to mutual aid… The question of mutual aid, at least in Chicago, is a reparations approach to resource sharing. I don't think mutual is the way to go. It hasn't been mutual. We need to undo the lack of mutuality.
Reparations is a first step toward naming and addressing the centuries of pain, anguish, and exploitation wrought by white people and white supremacy culture. Redistributing financial wealth and relinquishing unearned power could release white institutions and white people into the possibility of trust, of ecosystem-tending instead of gatekeeping.
This reparations approach to mutual aid, in tandem with an abundance approach to economy, undoes the historical lack of mutuality by recognizing the lack of balance along lines of race in our culture. When Loeffler-Gladstone names this as ecosystem-tending, she also invokes a restoration toward natural cycles of life-death and growth-harvest, as we see in environmental seasons.
The approach also invests in Black life. To invest in Black life is to invest in Black joy, thriving, and imagination, moving us all beyond the bare minimum of chronic struggle into sustaining transformation. Through this framework, Black humanity is a given, in all its complexity and nuance, and our art making and art makers are essential parts of our social networks. This framework could develop trust where it does not exist, and restore trust where it is broken.
This approach asks: Can we throw away the red tape of grant applications that award the best grant writers with the shiniest work samples, and instead simply prioritize those who need funding through a lens of racial equity? Can fiscal sponsors treat artists as respected partners who are experts in managing the business of their art-making practice? Can we humanize artists by acknowledging their needs for food, shelter, vacation, and pleasure to thrive before they conjure artistic thoughts, and continue to do so even when they make mistakes or fail? Can we fund what is life-restoring and life-affirming as a preventative measure?
In the last weeks of August, SLMDances held our annual retreat, a dedicated time for collective dreaming. I posed the questions to the group: What are the ways you have seen resources shared during the pandemic? What do we want to carry forward?
The call to action that surfaced is a simple mantra that affirms life and restores our interdependence: keep buying Black, small, local, and in season.
Brown, Autumn. “Scarcity and Abundance.” Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams, PM Press, 2016. pp. 104-108.