Valerie & Nasya Gay
Nasya, 28, is a dancer and facilities manager at Art Sanctuary.
Nasya: I’m a nerd, so I came fully prepared.
Valerie: It’s funny because sometimes we are reversed, right? Normally, you would think that the older person would bring paper with all the stuff. My stuff is on my phone.
BHU: So, you [both] are totally opposite in that way?
Nasya & Valerie: Yeah. We are.
So, who’s a woman from history that you feel whose story is unsung and has impacted you in your life?
Nasya: I’m a dancer, so Katherine Dunham is really important me. I have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and a master’s in Dance Movement Psychotherapy. Katherine Dunham is the first Black woman anthropologist to focus on Black dance. She was born in 1910 and then she died in 2006, so she just recently died, but when she was active, it was in between like the ‘30s to the ‘50s. She’s really important, because she actually brought African diasporic dance to the West. Before her, it was seen as “tribal” or “savage.”
As an anthropologist and as a dance therapist, Black faces across the world are not seen in those two particular fields.
Also, in the ‘30s she became a shamanist. She went to Haiti, Trinidad and Jamaica and studied their dance forms. She was also a pioneer in civil rights in other countries. When she was performing and travelling in Brazil in the early 1950s with her husband, who was European, she went to stay with him in some hotel. And they wouldn’t let them stay in the same room. In Brazil, a place where there’s so many of us, she filed a lawsuit and won. Because of her lawsuit, Brazil immediately stopped those laws.
BHU: And these are merely bullet points in her life.
Nasya: Yes, and she’s the founder of modern dance. When Martha Graham was like at her hype, she was shouting out Katherine Dunham like, “Y’all need to look at Katherine Dunham. You must look at her.” Because Katherine Dunham was a Black woman, she didn’t do as well in America as she did abroad. Just like Josephine Baker.
Valerie: I’m just so proud. I’m super proud of her. It makes me feel really proud that she would be inspired by a Black woman.
I’m a proud mom. I know it’s annoying to her. As we are talking about these women from the past and their legacy, I’m actually watching my legacy. It’s amazing to me. You know, through the foibles and all the mistakes I’ve made, to see this amazing, incredible woman who’s going to impact the world and for her to then be attracted to an incredible person who impacted the world. It’s just beautiful...do you remember your Barbie doll? What was her name?
Valerie: We named her Zora after Zora Neale Hurston, a Black anthropologist. I never used the word anthropologist with you. If I could’ve gone back, I would’ve been saying, ‘She’s an anthropologist, and this is what she does.” I don’t think I fully understood it. I just knew this was a woman Nasya needed to know. So hearing her talk about how it’s inspired her, I’m seeing her evolution into herself. I appreciate the fact that Nasya is clearly a thoughtful person, a critical thinker and clearly someone who has her own thoughts.
With your parenting, was that something that was intentional for you?
Valerie: I remember a kindergarten conversation. She had to go back to school and say, “It’s good to be Black.” There had been some kind of little altercation and these white girls were telling her that she couldn’t be Cinderella, because Cinderella couldn’t be Black. Like, “Wait, what!?” Black Cinderella was straight out of a ‘90s movie. She went to school the next day, with her little mantra like, “It’s good to be Black, it’s good to be black.” She got to the playground and she said, “It’s good to be Black.” She got surrounded by 5 little white girls who pushed her and said, “No, it’s not.” It rocked my world in the way that made me want to make sure she knew who she was in every aspect.
When you were about seven, it was the last time we saw BET or MTV videos. Particularly BET, because I felt that they were being hypocritical and were promoting misogyny and self-hatred. We used to watch Teen Summit, even though she wasn’t a teen. I was like, “This is so cool.” So, there’s this great conversation about misogyny particularly in the Black community. Then they went to commercial break and they said, “Here’s such and such group and here they are with their latest hit.” And the first words out are, “Where all my b**ches at?!” I was like, “Wait!?”
I don’t want her to be objectified or to see herself in an objectified way on TV or any images. If she sees it, she’ll see it outside, but she’s not going to see it in our household. So, we would make up our own videos.
BHU: Really?! Tell me about that.
Nasya: So, one of the only videos that I got to watch was Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name. So, routinely, we’d do this part.
Did you record them?
Nasya: No. It was sleep overs. We had sleepovers.
Valerie: All the girls will be like, “Let’s do videos.” So we would do our video and they’re like, “That’s not how the video goes!” It was really important to me that she knows who she is. We’re going to get negativity thrown at us all day long. We turn on the news at any moment, we walk on the street at any moment, we could be confronted with what other people’s perceptions of our failures are or our slights.. Especially as Black women.
BHU: Valerie, I also want to ask you to share your untold Black story. The lady that you wanted to share.
Valerie: The woman that I want to talk about is Phillis Wheatley. I love Phillis Wheatley. And so for those of you who don’t know who she is or was, she was a poet, she was a writer. She’s crowned as being the first African American published woman. First African American woman published author or poet in the 1700s. So she was amazing. She was brought here when she was about six or seven or eight years old around 1760. And at 17, she was a poet, you know, a published author. So, that’s crazy!
The person who bought her was someone who could recognize her keen wit, and so the family educated her. By the time she was like 10, she was reading and writing in Greek and Latin. At 17, she travelled and went to Europe.
The poet Voltaire wrote about Phillis Wheatley and was singing her praises. George Washington wrote about Phillis Wheatley. She was probably from modern-day Gambia or Senegal, people believe, and I guess through stories that she told, her parents were sun worshippers. So, in her poetry, she would often use “son” like she’s referring to Jesus Christ but it’s also the homonym for “sun.”
It was a way of infusing herself and her people into her work. People didn’t know it.
I first heard about her when I was 10 years old. I went on a class trip to the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and they talked about her. I remember coming home and saying to my mom like, “Oh my gosh! Mommy, did you know about this? This girl! This girl!” My mom didn’t. Had never heard of this, ‘cause she wasn’t taught Black history. She stayed with me all this time -- that someone could take somebody else’s artform and make it her own and excel at it is just incredible.
When she was 19, she had to go to court to prove that it was her who wrote the poetry. And she was in front of like this inquisition of all these different judges trying to quiz her to make sure it was hers and of course it was hers, so she won that. But still, no one in America would publish her book. So she got a patron from Europe to publish her book. Then she was emancipated at 20.
She married a man who was a shopkeeper. People say that he wasn’t a good businessman, but we don’t know. He was a Black man in that time period. He ended up with debt and back in the day when you ended up with debt, you went to prison. So, he went to prison. She was forced to become a scullery maid. Even when she was a slave, she never had to do work. Her work was learning and writing. So she didn’t know how to do this kind of work and she had a baby to take care of. Her baby got sick and died. She died at 31. That was her life. People know about her but not the implications. I feel like you just drop the needle at any point and there’s so many lessons to learn about her life.
BHU: So, I need to ask you what are some things that you feel like you’ve learned from your mom that you’ve taken onto yourself and your character?
Nasya: I think not being afraid to be myself. I’m really goofy. I grew up in a very diverse community. I was lucky enough that my mom took me to a Black church, but all of my schools were super diverse.
When I first started going to my church, Bible Way, I felt a little bit out of place because I didn’t grow up in an all-Black setting. I didn’t know the cool words. Ever since I was a kid, I always felt like an old lady. Looking at my mom and seeing she’s not really the same as anyone either, but she was always just doubling down on her personality. People will say, “Hahaha Val, you so corny.” She’ll be like, “Okay, I am so.”
Okay, I can be corny too.
Valerie & Nasya Revolutionary Picks:
Nasya said: “Katherine Dunham is the first Black woman anthropologist to focus on Black dance. She was born in 1910 and then she died in 2006, so she just recently died, but when she was active, it was in between like the ‘30s to the ‘50s. She’s really important, because she actually brought African diasporic dance to the West. Before her, it was seen as “tribal” or ‘savage.’”
Valerie said: “She’s crowned as being the first African American published woman. First African American woman published author or poet in the 1700s. So she was amazing. She was brought here when she was about six or seven or eight years old around 1760. And at 17, she was a poet, you know, a published author.”