obisidianThe Experiment

In August 2014, Call & Response, a group of seven Black women performers, from seven cities, presented their freshly minted, powerful works at a festival at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This in itself is remarkable. Antioch, after all, had not exactly been a hotbed of discourse and creativity for Black women prior to 2014.

In fact, the festival would never have happened if it weren’t for a professor named Gabrielle Civil, who made the unlikely choice of accepting an appointment there when she experienced the enthusiasm of the faculty who hired her. Part of her demand before accepting the position was that Antioch would hold a festival of Black women and performance.

Even more remarkable is the process by which these performances were generated. A month before the August festival, the women had convened to perform select pre-existing works and share ideas in service of their main artistic task: “to produce the Call, the collective prompt for artistic action, that would articulate [their] ideas about art making and catalyze … new performances.”

The core questions they asked: What would move us forward in Black feminist practice? What would it mean for us as Black women artists to claim joy?

Establishing the Call

The Call they ultimately birthed, and which underpinned the August performance, was dubbed “Experiments in Joy.” Its profound components are as follows:

  1. Tell the truth.
  2. Create something new.
  3. Let someone in.
  4. Document.
  5. Repeat.

I first learned about these Experiments at my 25th Yale reunion this past weekend, and I have been turning the components and the message over in my own head. While created for a specific community and purpose, the Call can spur all of us into our creativity and into action.

The Dangers of Achievement

Earlier in the weekend, my mom and I had met with an old friend of hers and my dad’s. This former Yale Admissions Officer shared that although his life looks wonderful objectively – he has a loving wife, financial stability, and a summer vacation house in Nova Scotia – he wakes up many mornings feeling sad and unmotivated. He self-identified as an “Eeyore,” the donkey character from Winnie the Pooh who complains about everything and sees very little hope for his life.

I told him about James Lawrence, a 39-year-old who decided he would race 50 Ironman races. Not just 50 in his lifetime, but 50 in 50 days! To make things really easy, he vowed to run these 50 Ironmans in 50 states. Did he complete his goal? You bet he did, even with an early injury that required him to swim some of the races with one arm. Amazing right?

“I bet he got really down after he completed those races,” said Eeyore. And in fact he was right. Mr. Lawrence has been struggling with his motivation since he completed the races.

Looking at the Experiment in Joy, I see that Lawrence covered numbers 2,3 and 4 of the Call but I’m not sure whether he did numbers 1 and 5. He repeated the Ironman 50 times but then stopped. And there was no particular truth telling that I know of at the foundation of his physical challenge. Thus, when it was over, he was left without joy.

Your Personal Experiment in Joy

I wonder what our Yale friend would create if he were to use the recipe for joy in the Call?

I wonder what I would create? I recognize that my blog is a creation that meets the Joy criteria. Each week I tell the truth about something, create an article that has never been written before, share it (let many people in), document it, and repeat the next week.

Notice the trick in the Call. That fifth element is the most important really. Creating something and being vulnerable about it will only bring joy for so long. It’s the repetition, the telling of a new truth, perhaps in a new way, that keeps the joy alive. I’ll be honest: Each week lately I have struggled with what to write in my blog, and I have often not come up with an idea until late Sunday night or even Monday morning, which is my deadline. But when I write something meaningful and new, I do feel joy. And I feel joy when people tell me I’ve given them tools they will use or insight into their own lives or a new way of approaching life.

I will be continuing to explore ways that I can respond to the Call to Joy in my life. What would your truth be? Your new creation? Where does your Joy reside?

Note: A more thorough explanation and account of the Call to Joy project can be found in volume 41 nos. 1-2 of the creative/scholarly journal Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora.

Participating performers: Gabrielle Civil, Duriel E. Harris, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Rosamond S. King, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Miré Regulus, Awilda Rodríguez Lora

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