Twins – Introduction: Writing About The African-American Aesthetic

Usually our time together was sensual and judging by the sounds of pleasurable gestation of fellow patrons around us, and the appetizers placed before us, this evening would be no different. We loved environments like this–autumnal orange, red, sage green, white and sophisticated browns with a hint of sparkle – not bling – just sparkled, enough to entertain the eye. Recordings of Bill Evans and The Modern Jazz Quartet softly riffed as we began our girlfriend-catch-up-cacophony punctuated by food.

Dawna’s red hair was now short and sassy begging one to be seduced by her brown intelligent eyes. We spoke of our lives – her conference in Canada at the Dali Lama Center for Change and me with my book. Rather my frustration with my book. I had begun twelve years prior researching and writing on the African-American aesthetic and postulating its manifestation in the American aesthetic. True to my training I had academically, therefore antiseptically, identified 69 elements to the aesthetic. Research content was not the problem, style was its albatross– my writing was sterile, actually, righteously boring. So I began to insert my black literary voice in the academic writing. However, as I solved one problem I created another. Tuned out my black literary voice was really quite black. “I don’t know?” I muttered, “I don’t know how to resolve the different writing styles.” Dawna pondered me, “Maybe you’re pregnant with twins!”

About to take a sip of wine, my glass paused in mid air, I stared quizzically back. Yes, her eyes were quite intelligent, but now her smile deviously seductive. “What?” I queried. “Maybe you’re pregnant with twins.” She repeated matter-of-factly. While my mind searched for the meaning of her sentence, another part of me sighed, “God! I almost wish it were true… it would mean I had been gloriously taken in the middle of the night, perhaps by some god, disguising himself as hard muscled flesh, hovering over me the way Nijinsky, as Faune, hovered over the nymph’s scarf, pulsing his seeds of life into the avatar of his feminine. I need that. I need an anfractuous heat to inspirit me. I need an insemination, a tantric death and rebirth, a new awareness and connection to my Genius daimon. And clearly, I also needed to be “laid”. With a warm exhale I returned to the restaurant. Without drinking I set the glass of wine down on the table and stared at it, swirling its contents. It takes a moment to recover from such intimacy.

“Pregnant?” I repeated still swirling the Pinot. “Yes …” She paused to bite into a flour tortilla filled with plantain and spices “… maybe you’re unknowingly writing two books at the same time. One that is more academic, written for fellow scholars — students, and the other personal, how the African-American aesthetic reverberates through your life.” Almost on cue the waiter arrived with our entrées and intellectual discussions were replaced by primal forces induced by the aromas of goat cheese, herbs and rice pasta. Driving home from dinner I pondered my so-called “pregnancy”. I decided to relax, separate the two books (honoring my twin pregnancy) and, allow the writing to write.

The result came in hundreds of pages filled with missteps; curiosity fueling the purchase of 322 additional books and exhaled tears in the middle of almost every night. But I had enough mornings of hope and raucous joy to continue the journey.

Slowly I began to embody the black aesthetic as a literary teacher. As I identified aspects of the African-American aesthetic in my personal life this cultural genius further identified me, making evident its underground streams of Africanist nourishment, and its syncopated cycles of renewal within the African-American context. My work grew ever more authoritive, dense, and personal as I witnessed how others, and I, embodied this multi-faceted cultural sense of beauty and intelligence.

The aesthetic turned out to be a formidable power – a dynamic consciousness – an intelligence and Genius – that guided me as an artist and saturated the wider range of all my endeavors. I saw my distinct Africanist cultural-psychology – a mindset that functioned as a set of survival structures in my daily encounters. I had also found a vault holding my history – a chronicle of how both my ancestors jive, and I elongate, elegance, and sway. I felt Langston’s rivers, a rich heritage that guided me as I snapped my fingers to Super Freak by Rick James or cried while reading The Bluest Eye by Morrison.

The moment I finished writing I closed my eyes, tipped my head back and sighed. I stretched my bare brown arms and ran my fingers through my locks. Some locks longer than my limbs dangled between my fingers for an additional moment. Finally dropping they sounded like thick ropes as they slammed against the back of the upholstered chair – the sound of chambers closing. It was done.

Later that day I enjoyed a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The coolness and grapefruit/lime aroma of the wine was perfect for the warm evening in the garden of my Sonoma home. I watched the vultures and a hawk catch the thermos off the bluff-cliffs. In the warm-wind silence I remembered Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, on the Oprah show with an audience filled with women who had had parts of their lives emancipated by her book. When Oprah asked the author how she felt about her writing affecting everyone in the studio audience Gilbert gracefully replied, that she was honored that her work had stimulated so many people and, in reality, she had written the book as a ladder to guide or plot her own journey back to equilibrium. I too had written a ladder, guiding me deep into the richness of my culture, expanding my parameters, and sassing my soul.

I went to bed that night feeling the peace of a job well done.

Two months later.

My solace did not last long. I had 69 personal narratives, verbal/literary quilt sections, but no quilt. During a conversation with my friend Jan I lamented the quilt-nature of my creation. She remarked, “Yeh, that happens sometimes. But there are lots of books with snippets of stuff, important stuff… like the Bible.” She paused, and then continued, now talking through what seemed to be a smile, “Girl, that’s what you’ve written, the Black Bible, The American Abridged Edition!” We both screamed with laughter. “So true girl!” I continued, “When I want encouragement I look for the 23rd Psalm. I pick up the book crying, read the psalm, stop crying, let out a huge breath, close the book, put it back on the shelf. That’s it, a snippet – I don’t read the entirebook!”

We riffed for another ten minutes recounting other “snippet” books, The Torah, Reader’s Digest, and Aesop’s Fables; my shoulders relaxed as we giggled and confirmed my journey. After months of trying to put all the “snippets” of my writing into a cohesive linear narrative I decided to let it be, that’s not who I am. I am complicated, juxtaposed, short, and sweet. After the call I sat in the softness of my sofa looking at the brand new “250-story” Kaiser building that now blocked my once gorgeous view of the Bay Bridge of my Oakland home. I thought of the short snippets of culture brilliantly exacted by Hughes, Baldwin, Hurston, Kincaid, and Brooks.

I stood from the sofa and walked toward the too-new-to-be-making-so-much-noise stainless steel refrigerator. As my hand touched the smooth handle my uncle came to mind. He always told short stories. As the family Griot his stories were the “Ivory Tower Literature” of everyday life. In fact, both he and my mother were my first literature teachers. Grabbing the puttanesca sauce I had made with black olives versus green I realized specific subjects did arise in my writing – the beauty, consciousness, and history of blackness; the amazing woman I had chosen to be my mother; my Sistah Girlfriends like Jan and Jessica; men; my passion as a dancer; music; my career in dance education; my love of travel; and the medicine of my garden in my Sonoma home. These topics became the titles of chapters. Between Bible snippets, the Kaiser building, the handle of the refrigerator, and the black olives in the tomato sauce it all became clear, the manuscript was done.

In the end, my research did turn out to be a passionate lover, a seducere who used movement to awaken my body; music to expand and heal my ageless heart; color to caress my ancient soul; and word to emancipate and empower my mind. Dawna was right, I was pregnant with twins.

In this blog I present short excerpts from my writing. It is my contribution to the dialogue.

The form of the narratives will vary from prose and ponderings to academic scholarship. Each post is an aspect of the African-American aesthetic.

Please enjoy and feel free to leave your own thoughts and contributions.


Bio of Author:

LUANA holds a BA in Dance from The College of Saint Theresa in Minnesota and a MA in Dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Luana is currently a tenured professor at City College of San Francisco teaching Dance Production, Dance History, African-American Aesthetics, Choreography, Modern and Jazz technique, and runs the Repertory Dance Company. She is a co-coordinator the dance program, which is one of the largest college dance programs in the United States. She has taught at Mills College, Laney Community College, JFK University, and is presently a lecturer at Dominican University in the LINES BFA program. Before teaching at the collegiate level she taught academics through dance for 15 years at the K-12 level. She has been acknowledged for her teaching and mentoring by her peers, and the CCSF Dance Program, in which she has worked for the past 28 years, has won the prestigious Izzy Award for lifetime achievement. In addition to her teaching career, Luana successfully performed in the U.S. and in Europe. Currently she is researching the role of the African-American aesthetic as it has informed the American aesthetic.  She has published her findings in two books, What Makes That Black? The African American Aesthetic (2016)  What Makes That Black? The African American Aesthetic in American Expressive Culture (2017). Her research has applications in art criticism, anthropology and education. Luana is an avid gardener, neophyte bocce player, and a long-standing student of theoretical quantum physics.