By Kim McMillon
As a UC Merced graduate student, I have a deep gratitude to the UC system for offering an African-American woman in her fifties the opportunity to return to college. This opportunity has come with a price though, the price of awareness. Growing up, I did not understand the importance of enrolling in courses on African American history or culture. Throughout my college years, I never registered for a course specific to African Americans. I was assimilating. I could discuss Shakespeare’s plays, or the theatre of Tennessee Williams, and as a nod to my Blackness, Lorraine Hansberry. I did not understand the importance of the rich history and culture of Black America until I was asked by my advisor, “What do you love?” I said, “I love theatre,” and at the age of 54, I found my Blackness in the writings of Amiri Baraka, Askia Toure, Sonia Sanchez, Adrienne Kennedy, Ishmael Reed, George Wolfe, and Ben Caldwell. African-American voices that were always there, like gifts that had never been opened. The rich voices of Carolyn M. Rodgers and Larry Neal provided an open door to the history and culture that I had been too busy to examine.
However, I was not alone. In 2014, I produced the UC Merced Black Arts Movement Conference with the UC Merced Office of Student Life and Center for the Humanities. I spoke to students and found that the majority had never heard of the great works of the Poet Laureate of the United States Juan Felipe Herrera, the playwright Genny Lim, the founder of the Black Arts Movement Amiri Baraka, or the first African- American Female Black Panther, Tarika Lewis. Each of the people listed played a role in the Black Power and Black Arts Movements and attended the UC Merced BAM Conference, except for Amiri Baraka. Amiri died on January 9, 2014. The conference took place on February 28th. Through a series of emails, Amiri supported and advised me on the conference that he had planned to attend.
A special moment at the conference was being hugged by a Chicano student thanking me for bringing this conference to UC Merced and opening his vision about what we as scholars of color could accomplish. This drive to achieve, to educate, has lead me to teach the theatre of the Black Arts Movement through the course Theater and Social Responsibility, Arts 115. I see it as a vehicle for healing issues of racial inequality. The course has never had more than two African-American students; perhaps, because there are so many of us in Black bodies that are finding our own path to healing the pain of America’s systemic racism. I consider this class a healing of ideas of what it means to be Black in America. For many, a light bulb goes on. Through Performative Blackness, my students find that space of empathy and understanding of what it means to be Black in America. When a young Asian student performed in Marvin X’s Flowers for the Trashman, people in the audience cried because as an actor he went to a place of what it means to be a Black man in jail for no other reason than the color of his skin.
For a great many African Americans, before they open the door to the outside world, they have to inquire in that still, small voice,
“Am I ready? Am I ready to walk out into a world that doesn’t always look at who I am, and often cannot see past the color of my skin.”
Then the next question is,
“How do I feel safe? What can I do to feel safe once I walk out that door?”
For me, growing up with a father that practiced a mixture of Buddhism and Christianity, I chanted. However, everyone is different, and the truth of the matter is you don’t always walk out the door asking yourself, “How do I feel safe?” There is usually an incident, whether it is someone looking at you strangely or what President Barack Obama described in a white house briefing after the George Zimmerman verdict as seeing you, and then locking their car door. That need to feel safe is always there, but sometimes like a bad dream that you have had over and over again, it glides across your memories and is forgotten, until the next time, the next words, the next offense.
Kim McMillon has over twenty years of experience producing theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written and produced Voyages, A Multi-Media Excursion into Reincarnation, Confessions of a Thespian: When Spirit & Theatre Collide at the Julia Morgan Theatre, and the Oakland Literature Expo with PEN Oakland as a part of the City of Oakland’s Art & Soul Festival. She is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at UC Merced’s School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Art. As president of UC Merced’s African Diaspora Student Association, Ms. McMillon has helped organized events that shine a light on racial inequality. Ms. McMillon is currently producing the Dillard University/Harvard Hutchins Center Black Arts Movement International Conference, September 9-11, 2016. For more information, please go to: www.blackartsmovement.net.