This lesson is part of a larger vogue studies curriculum, a unit aimed at teaching ballroom scene history to the ballroom scene, other queer people of color, and our allies. The unit works on both discussing history and teaching vogue dance, combining the two to show a comprehensive history of the scene, and promote voguing as a tool of political action and resistance. In the stage in which it currently exists, the curriculum begins with outlining a basic timeline of ballroom scene history, then breaking down each point on that timeline for deeper inquiry. This lesson comes at the earlier part of the unit, just after the basic outline has been presented, and uses vogue’s initial foundation in Riker’s Island Prison as a starting point to understand and challenge the prison industrial complex:
1. Think Back: At the start of the lesson once participants have gathered, remind the group to think back onto the origins of vogue that they have just begun to learn about: “Where did voguing start? With whom, and how?” Ask participants to write down or share out all the details they can remember from earlier lessons and discussions, and make sure the group is on the same page by listing the details they share in a column to the board.
2. Intro and Explanation: Ask participants if they have ever heard of the term ‘the prison industrial complex’ before, and if possible work together to provide a definition for the group: “The P.I.C. is a term for a group of systems that work together to create violence in our communities, and rely on incarceration as the only answer to that violence. Today we will be talking together about how to better understand the P.I.C., how it relates to our own communities, and how we can challenge it. Ballroom scene history is key in giving us some examples which can help us answer these questions, as we will see soon. Angela Davis, a Black feminist and member of the movement to abolish prisons, has said that examining the experiences of the most marginalized members of the prison system can shed the greatest amount of light on the larger structure. Today we will be using vogue to look at our own experiences as queer people of color to expose the P.I.C. and think about how the creativity of our communities can be used to resist it.”
3. Visual Organizer: Pass out copies of the graphic organizer Transgender Youth and the Prison Industrial Complex–shown in the image to the right of the first paragraph (provided by the Prison Moratorium Project and FIERCE NYC.) Ask participants to take a view minutes to read the organizer to themselves, taking note of what they see, observations they can make, and any questions they have. When folks have had sufficient time, ask them to share out their observations, comments and questions, and add these to a new column on the board.
4. Making Connections: Briefly go over the entire organizer piece by piece, incorporating new observations and attempting to answer questions as a group. (Keep in mind at this stage in particular that sex work, homelessness and other points that appear on the organizer may be sensitive or controversial subjects, and that some present members are likely to have been or be navigating many of them. Approach their discussion honestly, attempting to make them visible and empowering, but also without forcing participants to talk about uncomfortable subjects or share beyond what they are willing to.) Once solid sense of the organizer has been made, ask participants: “How do the points on this organizer relate to our own community? How do they relate to the ballroom scene as we know it?” Give ample discussion time to this as a group, and make as many connections as possible from the ballroom scene to the points on the graphic organizer. Add these to the board, and ask participants to add them to their own organizers.
5. Transition: ” Discussing these connections is important because it shows us that even if the term P.I.C. is a new one for us, it is something that we and our communities have been struggling with and fighting against for a long time. As we move to the dancing portion of our workshop, we will leave the notes from our discussion up on the board. Keep them in mind, and as we are moving, think about how some of these themes show up in vogue movement, where you notice them and can find them, and how vogue works to challenge some of the problems we talked about today.” From here, transition into the movement activities planned for the day. Participants in the workshop will be learning the basics of the vogue styles of new way and vogue femme, so will most likely be practicing specific moves or working on improvisation. As participants are working together or receiving individual attention, try to work in discussion of the day’s themes as they relate to specific moves, styles, and ways of dancing. Try and keep the connection from the earlier discussions in the back of folks’ minds as they are dancing.
6. Closing: “Did folks think of any connections between the movement we worked on today and the discussions we began the workshop with?” Let folks share out any reflections or ideas that are on their minds. “Let’s return to the graphic organizers we were working with at the beginning of the day. Take a look back at them. The subtitle says, ‘disrupt the flow.’ How does voguing and the ballroom scene as a whole break up the flow between the pieces of this complex? How can we as a community use voguing in the future to keep challenging and disrupting this system?” As participants make suggestions, add them to a final column of concrete strategies for challenging the P.I.C. These could include anything from ‘sharing our knowledge’ and ‘teaching this history to our friends,’ to ‘using dance at a demonstration or protest’ and ‘supporting sex workers’ rights.’ While this is a challenging closing activity, push participants to come up with as many concrete strategies for resisting the P.I.C. as possible, and have a few examples ready in case the group gets stuck. Wrap up the workshop from there, and if you can, allow folks extra time to talk and practice further in the space if they need to stay longer.
Generation L will be hosting the first in a series of Voguing Workshops this coming month on Friday, May 17th at Batey Urbano. This movement event will focus on not only the foundations of the dance style of new way vogue, but will also examine some key points in the history of the ballroom scene. We will be using vogue dance as a means of better understanding our own history as Black and Brown queer people, poor and working folks, homeless people, sex workers, and trans people. This dance/history series will continue every third Friday of the month for the summer. These workshops are free, so please mark this first one on your calendar, stop by, and keep an ear out for future events!
Vogue Workshop Series: Black and Brown Queer History
Friday, May 17th
6pm to 8pm
2620 W. Division
This Event is Free
Hip hop activist Rosa Clemente recently posted a video response to a Rick Ross lyric on emcee Rocko’s new mixtape The Gift of Gab 2. The line goes, “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Clemente calls for more than petitioning, facebooking, or an attack on the finances of mainstream artists and their record labels, but for new action and a change in our relationships. She calls for women and men in the community to denounce rape culture, and for the leaders and elders of hip hop to speak out against its hold on lyricism. She asks that we actively teach young people to combat rape culture, and create a climate of respect for women and for consent that starts early.
I was moved by Clemente’s video, but also by her ability to react immediately to unacceptable forms of violence, and her push to address and hold responsible the perpetrators of rape in our communities while also understanding rape culture as larger than just male, just heterosexual, just hip hop, and just the hood. I wanted to share her video and share her tenacity. How can we learn to organize ourselves so that we are ready to respond to any threat to our communities, be it violent, economic, cultural or spiritual? Where do we find the strength to be alert to all forms of injustice as they are perpetrated against us? I believe if we could react this fiercely, cohesively and compassionately whenever we or our people are under attack, it would be much harder for the powers that be to mess with us.
This past weekend, b-girls from all over the country and street dancers from around the Chicago area converged for B-Divine: Celebrating the Feminine in Hip Hop Fesitval. The gathering featured workshops, artists showcases, graffiti, and an all-styles battles, and focused on being a welcoming, supportive, feminist space, empowering movers, emcees and artists in an exploration of what femininity means to street dance, and how it connects multiple styles and dancers. The legendary Ana ‘Rokafella’ Garcia was in attendance and speaking truth, as were Leida ‘Lady Sol’ Villegas, Auristela ‘Lady Champ’ Nuñez, Boogie McClarin and a host of other pioneers of hip hop, house and street dance. Big shout outs to the entire event, its phenomenal organizers, and the conversations about history, intergeneration solidarity, queer power, and feminism in street dance it sparked. Mad love, and more of these in the future!
Several of the creative and artistic organizations I work closely with have been talking recently about how to create and sustain the kinds of projects that matter to us most, and which we feel will be most empowering for our collectives. The things we need to provide for ourselves and our communities, and by contrast the opportunities to perform or do workshops for foundations and academic institutions which provide a lot more money, tend to be the two inevitable sides of the coin. Some think of it as a betrayal to the community to take our traditions elsewhere for financial gain, while others feel this is the best way to gain the resources we need to do the kind of work our communities most need. Cultural appropriation, and the ability of the resourced to create their own access to our traditions, is at the crux of this debate. The conversation always seems to revolve around who has the power to claim access, and whether acknowledgement or resistance of that power is what is called for.
These debates hold important lessons, not just about unequal access in a capitalist society, but how the traditions of oppressed people often point out to how that access needs to shift. Within these conversations I have thought often about the n word’s use in Black popular culture, and the difficult discussions it has raised as elements of that culture have been absorbed by the mainstream over the last decades. As complex as its usage is for our communities, I am even more interested in the reactions it evokes for others. I am always fascinated by how incensed it makes people of privilege when they are told they cannot say the n word. It seems to strike many as inherently unfair that there be a word which only some people can say, and that those who can say it have the right to decide who else can and cannot along with them. The idea seems especially difficult to stomach for those who are not used to being barred, banned or limited, who expect entrance and access wherever they go, whatever their needs are. Though this is an old controversy, it is the perfect place to start looking at cultural appropriation as a real and legitimate political issue, not solely because it deals with the agency of oppressed communities, but because it reminds us all that universal access–be it social, cultural, political, geographic or economic–is not a reality for the majority of our planet.
The question of cultural and creative appropriation goes deeper than licensure, copyright and compensation. It points to how access in our society is delineated on a larger scale, and the deep contradictions oppressed communities are expected to comply with. As dancers, poets, artists, spiritual leaders, musicians, teachers, and the carriers of our people’s traditions, we are often lectured by outsiders that culture is fluid, that it is no ones place to tell others how to relate to it, that it is impossible to control access to it. Yet when film distributors make millions off documentaries, when record labels decide what and how to package as a musical genre, when elitist universities offer workshops on street dance, or when communities are treated as the backdrop for a music video or advertisement, isn’t that exactly what’s happening? Moreover, why are our cultures understood to be fluid, public, easily accessible to whomever desires them, while healthcare and education are commodities whose availability to oppressed communities shrink daily? Why is our slang, our spirituality, our food, our moves, expected to be constantly available to others, while housing and a living wage are not available to us? Why, on the whims of the elite, is our culture allowed to be taken places from which our bodies are banned, because of boarders, national boundaries, and racist and classist law enforcement? How does power give itself permission to dictate our access to basic rights and resources, yet find it impertinent and ludicrous when we demand self-determined ways to control access to the few things in this society we can claim as our own, the traditions we have meticulously cultivated through generations of imbalance and marginalization?
I am not the first to raise these questions by any means. Yet often when they are brought up, the point attempting to be made is that our communities should become the sole benefactors of their traditions, that we should copyright, we should profit, we should be able to limit access to the cultural resources which we have created. This is not the statement I am hoping to make. While I believe strongly, returning to the question of the n word, that oppressed communities do have the right to decide when and how others participate in the traditions they have generated for their survival, my hope is that these decisions will not be ones which lead to further alienation and limiting of access. Exclusivity is the status quo in a social and economic order which believes value to be derived from scarcity, and further commodifying our cultures, forcing them out from where they exist into systems in which only a select will be able to benefit from their power, is only bolstering that value system. In many ways, our traditions are fluid, flexible, and able to adapt to and draw from a host of difficult scenarios and realities. Instead of determining who can access them, I propose we determine and fight for how they are accessed. What the traditions of oppressed people point out is not that we need to do a better job of packaging, marketing and controlling our art forms as products, but that the systems which commodify that which is most necessary and sacred need to be abolished.
Our traditions are beautiful, and all people should have the right to understand, benefit from, and actively participate in them. We have the right to demand what that participation looks like, and that it take on forms which defer, give control over to, and honor the collectives which have generated them. I suggest that this cannot happen, that our traditions cannot be honored so long as our communities are deprived of the basic resources which all people have a right to. Therefore, a real respecting of our traditions requires the dismantling of the nation-state, of patriarchal power structures, requires a commitment to public access to quality education and an equal distribution of resources. How can the blues be everyone’s music when the profits it has generated are rarely seen by its original musicians? How can hip hop know no bounds, when its architects know the boundaries of their cities all too well? How can our language be universal when our collectives are segregated on race and class lines? Our absconded traditions remind us that there are different levels of access for the different tiers within our economic order, and that the self-determination we seek must go deeper than social and cultural entrepreneurship.
To fight against cultural appropriation is to fight against capitalism, gentrification, the degrading of our communities by those who simultaneously make hollow use of their beauty. To cherish our traditions is to demand the systems which disenfranchise our collectives be immediately terminated, and that oppressed people be allowed to make their voices heard in every venue which silences them.
Tuesday of next week, the 19th of February, poet Yosimar Reyes and visual artist Julio Salgado will be hosting an artist showcase and workshop as part of their Jotas Sin Papeles Y Sin Permiso Tour. These two queer, undocumented artist/activists both work to empower and give voice to queer, Brown, immigrant and working communities. They will be presenting some of their amazing work, and leading a short workshop at Batey Urbano in Humboldt Park. Everyone is invited to this free gathering, which is made possible with organizing by Generation L. Come through if you’re around!
Artist Workshop with Yosimar Reyes and Julio Salgado
Tuesday, February 19th
4pm to 6pm
2620 W. Division
This Event is Free
I believe the honoring of our ancestors is the sacred space in which our spiritual and our political selves meet, and that important members of our communities become ancestors every day. Passing on their words, wisdom and struggles is not just about memorializing them, but reminding each other that our fights continue when we take on the responsibility of continuing them. Remembering how those fought before us reminds us that our struggles are not rooted in legislation, political parties or rhetoric, but in love for ourselves and our people, the deep need to express that love freely, and to live our lives as whole. We honor those who fight with us and fought before us to keep their strength and knowledge a part of us, and a part of our movements.
Irma Cabrera Romero is a disabled, Xicana activist, and a fixture in the Latin@ community of Chicago. She worked continually for countless struggles around the nation and world, but especially for the rights of undocumented people and the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. She died on January 11th, 2013 of a heart attack after a medical procedure. Johnny B is a local artist and emcee who spoke with particular poignance and perspective about the culture of violence in the city of Chicago. He was shot on January 10th, 2013 after leaving the home of a friend on the West Side.
Rest in peace.
We live in an era where claims are commonly made, and largely accepted, that the U.S. has made such significant and irrefutable progress from its past of racial struggle that it has essentially overcome it. The presence of oppressed bodies in advertising, as TV show characters, in government and other highly visible venues is often used to support these claims. On the one hand, our identities as queer, Brown, disabled, and immigrant individuals are given hyper attention when they are needed to illustrate diversity or prove the progressiveness of traditionally conservative institutions. On the other, our needs are ignored and openly attacked by those same institutions as they appropriate our bodies to mask their indifference to the healthy and dignified survival of our people. Across the board, we are expected to believe that our oppression no longer exists, fed such myths by the exact sources who benefit most from our continued marginalization. In my experience, there is no place in which this reality is more apparent and less examined than the gentrification of oppressed neighborhoods, and the forcible removing of their populations.
There are many reasons I feel gentrification is a taboo subject. It is an act which people of every identity sometimes feel compelled to participate in out of economic necessity, even when it causes political and social discomfort. It is often understood to be inevitable, both on the part of communities who experience it and those who initiate it, and though it is a regular subject of ironic humor, it is less often treated as one for political engagement and resistance. It forces many of us to examine the ways in which our political rhetoric does not match up with our daily realities. Yet above all else, the reason I feel gentrification continues to be largely avoided as an topic is that it pulls the rug out from under every myth of post-racial progress, and forces us to examine how our world continues to depend not merely on racial segregation, but economic, geographic, linguistic, and so many more. Moreover, its examination shows how these factors work in unison to preserve dominating structures, and empower the privileged over the oppressed.
I recently read a report published by associate professor John Betancur from the University of Illinois titled Gentrification Before Gentrification? which documents the struggle of the Mexican/Xican@ community in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen in its resistance of economic abuse by outside interests. The report’s conclusion makes several significant claims that are rarely described in relation to changing neighborhoods: 1. That it was not small scale opportunism on the part of individuals seeking cheap rent prices, but the greed of powerful institutions—like those of the nearby business district and the University of Illinois itself—working systemically to secure their interests in the neighborhood which spurred its gentrification. 2. Community organizations and their leaders joined forces to actively resist gentrification, and learning from past struggles rallied local government, activists and youth programs to use art, protest and housing networks to stave off the appropriation of real estate by outside forces, and were largely successful. 3. Gentrification of the neighborhood began to take off not because outside forces broke through community efforts, but because middle class members of the community infiltrated local organizations and used a post-race ideology to undermine those efforts. Claiming that organizers who framed the struggle of the working class Mexican/Xican@ hood as one against wealthy white outsiders were imagining dynamics which no longer existed, middle class members of the community were able to slow the efforts of organizers, and pave the way for their own potential benefiting from Pilsen’s gentrification.
Another Chicago neighborhood which has been experiencing rapid demographic shifts in recent years is the historically Boricua hood of Humboldt Park, whose anti-gentrification struggles are also informed by those of Pilsen. The report on Pilsen notes that one of the key means of resistance used by local organizers was community-generated art. The 18th St. stop on the pink line, for example, has been covered by murals and graffiti, much of them featuring Indigenous-inspired symbols and images. What was intended to rally community and aggressively mark territory, however, was turned into a selling point by real estate agents and middle class community members. The symbols that were meant to galvanize pride in local heritage were appropriated as signals of authenticity and exoticness to outsiders. In a similar vein, Humboldt Park, whose main drag is bookended by two steel sculptures of the Puerto Rican flag, has already become a hotspot for young privileged Chicago residents, and is commonly marketed as a “real” and “authentic” neighborhood, prized more for great food than its radical social and political history.
All of these accounts point to gentrification as a key site in which the racial and economic access of certain groups are relied on to force resources away from others within the bounds of their own communities, often under the guise of diversity and racial harmony. I believe this understanding should teach us not merely that racism persists as an issue in our national culture—one that is inevitably tied to a host of other systems of oppression—but that it is the very ways in which we attempt to denounce or deny its gravity that allow it to gain deeper footholds. When we think of gentrification as the unavoidable demographic shifts that occur out of economic need, and not a tool for powerful interests to appropriate and control the resources of oppressed communities; When we imagine it as an option for making our neighborhoods safer, rather than a means of banishing the social issues that we have yet to address in just and self-determined ways; When we look at our own hoods in terms of location and economics, and forget that they are communities whose knowledge we need, and in which we can choose to involve ourselves, we undermine the wellbeing of our people, and support the disenfranchisement of untold others. How do we continue to resist gentrification, and unite across communities to defend all of our autonomy? How do we strengthen ourselves when power claims we no longer require strengthening? How can we demonstrate that our local struggles are not isolated conflicts amongst individuals, but rooted in larger systems of inequity?
Teachers for Social Justice in collaboration with Rethinking Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union will be hosting the 12th Annual Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum Fair tomorrow, Saturday the 17th of November at a new location, Kenwood Academy High School. There will be speakers, exhibitions, and free curricula and materials made available all day, and check out some of the amazing workshops on the schedule. You can preregister online here. I’m so hyped!
12th Annual Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum Fair
November 17th, 2012
Kenwood Academy High School
5015 S. Blackstone
10am to 5pm
I began voguing as a high school student, drawn to the art form because I had so little support and community as a queer person of color in my hometown. Upon graduation I began visiting New York City regularly to practice and participate in the ballroom scene there. It was, significantly, b-boys from the hip hop dance community with which I was involved at that time, that first brought me to the scene, and connected me to the members of the house organization which I ultimately joined. Joining a house and becoming a committed participant of the scene was the first time in my life being a part of a larger network of queer, Brown people of a huge range of class backgrounds, gender and sexual identities. It was my first time working and learning in solidarity with trans folks, sex workers, homeless youth, and a host of other radical identities which call the ballroom scene home. From b-boying to voguing, and from my small town to an urban scene of Brown, queer, and economically oppressed people, my experience with this art form has been one of not merely my own self-empowerment, but of forging connections across multiple oppressed identities through the medium of movement.
As a new member of my house’s chapter here in Chicago, my housemates and I have spent a great deal of time discussing our own relationships to the ballroom scene, and how to best maintain and pass them on to new generations of working, poor, queer and Brown people. It is clear that there are too few spaces for queer people of color to congregate which are not controlled by other communities and organizations which do not represent us. Deep race, class and gender divisions exist within our own communities which also make building a foundation for the passing on of tradition difficult. The commonplace opportunities to teach vogue are often based on making it a commodity to outsiders–teaching it to students, professional dancers or others with the means to commodify it, and not to our own friends, neighbors, and those who share our oppressed identities. We have been struggling as to how to make a commitment to this tradition which means so much to us, which honors the people and communities which invented it, and works to hand it down within those same communities.
In trying to imagine this commitment and its concrete manifestation, the b-boy community of Chicago, much like the one I originally began dancing in, has been a great inspiration. In open gyms and community centers, b-girls and b-boys of multiple generations, styles and backgrounds gather together on a weekly basis to practice, cypher, build routines and share moves, usually without any designated structure or goal outside of upcoming battles and the sharpening of their own craft. A commitment not just to learning the dance moves but entering respectfully into a lineage of previous generations of dancers is an expectation of these spaces. The appreciation and admiration I have for this scene has helped me and other members of my house begin to envision the kind of space we dream for ourselves and new generations of our own dance scene.
In hopes of moving forward and organizing an open practice space for members of the ballroom community in Chicago, these are some of the initial commitments and goals that I and other members of my house have devised for a vogue practice space:
- Autonomous–established for the ballroom community, by members of the ballroom community
- Decentralized leadership–controlled collectively
- Involving members of multiple houses
- Trans welcoming
- Focused on passing on not only dance, but also the radical history of the ballroom scene itself, both past and present, locally and abroad
- Committed to bridging race and class gaps in the ballroom scene and larger queer community
- Source of community organizing/mobilizing
- Providing social space–alternative to the club/bar scene
- Open practice model–non-formalized teaching (learned from Connect Force and the b-boy community of Chicago)
- In collaboration and solidarity with all underground dance communities in Chicago and abroad
This list we hope to add to and edit with other members of the ballroom scene, and with any and all people which seek to share a creative/social space as a means of gathering oppressed communities and keeping alive our radical traditions.