- “Set Your Blackness Free”Barbara Ann Teer’s Art and Activism during the Black Arts Movement
Her eyes, opening like crystals, looked back to Africa, forward to the Caribbean, upward to America, told us to “take God out of the sky and put God into our hearts.” … This woman, heavy with the smell of herstory and history, put her foot on this American spine and bid us look up at her gospel hands hanging bamboo poems of life.Sonia Sanchez, “Barbara Ann Teer: 1937–2008”
Barbara Ann Teer’s ritualistic revivals and theoretical writings reveal the unique ways in which black women intellectuals of the Black Arts Movement (1965–76) used their agency to actively conceptualize their own framework for black empowerment. Defined by theorist Larry Neal as the “aesthetic and spiritual sister” of the Black Power concept of self-determination, the Black Arts Movement consisted of poets, theorists, playwrights, artists, dancers, and musicians who advocated a black aesthetic as a means to promote racial solidarity and incite community activism against racist social and institutional practices in the United States and abroad.1 Although Black Arts theorists and artists shared a common concern regarding the “relationship between art and politics” and desired “self-determination and nationhood,” as Neal argues, their ideological beliefs and artistic practices were by no means consistent.2 Exploring Barbara Ann Teer’s art and activism reveals that there was a significant moment within Black Power and Black Arts discourses wherein the recuperation of black women’s culture became an integral element of black empowerment. Teer’s important theories of performance also challenge the current historical fallacy that there were no female theorists of the Black Arts Movement. This article critically examines Teer’s holistic performance theories, critical essays, and unpublished ritualistic revivals to demonstrate a continuation [End Page 136] of black women’s intellectual traditions from within Black Power discourse. This study contends that Teer’s intellectual and artistic endeavors redefined the revolutionary theater of the Black Arts Movement by incorporating a holistic approach to performance that privileged the spiritual, artistic, and psychological liberation of both participants and performers. Furthermore, Teer’s grassroots efforts created new woman-centered African-based mythology and promoted community activism by providing a platform to discuss the devastating effects of racism and the need to form productive relationships among black men and women of Harlem. In so doing, this article not only recovers the contributions of an important black female intellectual, artist, and activist but also reveals the nuanced tensions between Black Power and feminist movements and the heterogeneous ideologies within the Black Arts Movement.
Teer’s politically and socially conscious art embraced African aesthetics and rejected traditional theatrical notions of time and space by eliminating divisions between actor and audience and encouraging all to use the performance event itself as an opportunity to bring about social change. Thus Teer’s ritualistic revivals were much more than entertaining “plays” and were meant to have lasting effects far beyond the scope of the event itself. Teer used the terms liberator and participant to describe the performer and audience, respectively, in order to illustrate the active roles both parties must undertake in order to bring about a cultural revolution. She encouraged liberators to approach performance holistically by utilizing chants, sermons, testimonials, music, song, dance, and structured improvisation to guide participants along a spiritual journey of self-identification and empowerment. A community was formed during the ritualistic revivals as participants were exposed to the problems facing Harlem, taught black cultural pride through the infusion of African mythology with contemporary life, and encouraged to take part in bettering their own community. Teer’s didactic, emotionally engaging, and entertaining ritualistic revivals successfully fused a dramatic premise with music, movement, poetry, and religious practices. During the Black Arts Movement Teer wrote, choreographed, and developed three important ritualistic revivals: A Ritual to Regain Our Strength and Reclaim Our Power (1970); A Revival: Change/Love Together/Organize! (1972), cowritten with Charlie Russell; and Soljourney into Truth: A Ritualistic Revival (1974).3
Paradoxically, while Teer’s performance theories and ritualistic revivals were critically acclaimed during the Black Arts Movement, her contributions to Black Arts...