Alvin Ailey, this young, gorgeous, talented Black choreographer, artist and dancer took his company, there were 10 of us then, to The First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar in 1966.
We ended up rubbing shoulders with Langston Hughes, Katherine Dunham, the President of Senegal Sédar Senghor, and the other dancers from the diaspora.
The magnificence of that first journey...unless you’ve been to the continent, you don’t know what I’m talking about. You have to go there, get off the plane, no matter what country you are going to and immediately, you take in the air. You take in the aromas, the colors and the kinship because you are seeing a whole lot of Black and Brown people. You take all that in.
We realized where we were and how significant this was that even Emperor Haile Selassie was flying in to participate and make a speech at this event.
We were there for 7 days, I think. But Alvin Ailey was the one that got us there in the first place. Nobody is paying to send anyone to the continent. People would send us everywhere else to dance. They would send you to Poland. They would send you anywhere else in the world, but not Africa.
So to have this opportunity to go to the continent where you came from and to understand that you have a deep rich history here - even if you can’t trace exactly to your relatives - it was what Mr. Ailey called a “blood memory.”
Mr. Ailey really did not talk about why it was important to be there. We knew. There was less explanation in those days. Just think, the Civil Rights movement is going on and you’re on the Black continent, what a privilege. You put two and two together. You don’t have to explain that. We all understood that.
Nowadays, I must say. You do have to explain that history because it’s being erased from [us] so much that they have to understand their roots and their roots in the United States. African- Americans, we were brought from the continent against our will and we are here, and we created our own sense of our culture, but we still got the blood memory.
It’s so important, that young people know this. Understand where you came from. Understand the root of who you are. It didn’t have to be explained to us because we were dancing it. We were in the circumstance where we had to make it clear to everyone that this is who we are, and our arms are open accepting you because you are this too. We are just trying to get you to understand that you are human. We already know we are. By understanding through our artistry, through our creativity, through our truth and being specific about who we are, you’ll recognize who we are.
When I’m working with dance students, it’s very important that they understand the history. Mr. Ailey said “we are not dancing in a vacuum.” You have to dance from the inside out. It has to come from the truth of you being as vulnerable as possible and understanding who you are as a human being. What you have to give to an audience when they come and see you. Show off. We’re entertainers. We are also educators and we are also lifters of spirit. That’s why we are on the stage.
You better be incredible. You compare yourself to yourself. Young Black people of course have to be aware of that. You have to be ultra-aware of it, only because the patterns of and the paradigms that are in the country that you live in. They haven’t changed. The paradigm is still the same.
When I say to people we had to work twice as hard. I know people put it aside and say, “no, you don’t have to work twice as hard.” Yes, you do.
There’s no guarantee that because you are so fabulous and so incredible at what you’re doing that you are going to be recognized. I keep thinking of the first time that I was dancing, my aunt came to see me dance ‘Cry.’ I finished and people were clapping. She heard the two white women behind her saying, “Oh, she’s so wonderful, too bad she’s so dark.”
And this is still going on. Look around you and see what’s going on. You are a role model regardless of whether they you want to be it or not because you can count on your fingers how many of us have made it to the ‘top’ of our disciplines. When you achieve, you achieve for all of us. You achieve for your parents, for your entire historical background, you achieve because you’re standing on shoulder after shoulder after shoulder after shoulder. That’s why you’ve been able to see a brighter horizon. There is no escaping no matter where you go, no matter what discipline you are in or how popular you are. You are an example because there are so few of us that are being used as examples of what it is to be at the top of your game.
Every time we achieve something you notice how people copy it? Then we invent something else. We just keep inventing. We are inventors. We are such a creative people; knowing that there’s no place for us to go but up.
We are strong people. We’ve been here from the heart beat, the beginning of time. You are responsible for that heartbeat. Take responsibility for it and then there are places that we can go that we don’t even know about. Who thought hip-hop was going to be around this long? Who thought the entire world was going to copy and sound like us, dance like us and pretend it’s theirs? Think of the things that we continue to build on, look at blood memory and see how it keeps us in a creative mode, always. You are capable of things that you have no idea of. I had no idea that I was going to be where I am right now, talking to you this morning about what has happened to me over the last 76 years. I had no idea, some of the things I dreamed of and some off the things...out of the blue. But I am standing on some extraordinary... I can’t even call them shoulders. There was an older Civil Rights worker marching with former President Barack Obama. She was being interviewed and they said, “The people are standing on your shoulders.
She said, “They better got off my shoulders, I’m tired. I’ve done my work, now you do yours.’