i can’t breathe… : Gloss

i can't breathe...

Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of the “ready-to-hand” suggests an unconscious operation turning object into process, through the figure of the tool. I’ve been thinking about Black presence within varied histories of the United States as an operationalized manifestation of tool; as a presence created “ready-to-hand” as an extension of the will to power that white systems of domination and capitalisms enjoy. Black presence in the US continues to be operationalized as a method of quantifying and qualifying; distinguishing and diminishing; denying, exploring, and wondering at. Seldom celebrated or allowed a full measure of complex humanity, Black presence occurs contingently, made manifest as legislation for access to voting and quality schools; as protest and disruption; as ludic celebration destined for transference and disappearance. Theatre tends to operationalize Black presence as well; to treat it as a cypher or a ghost in the machine.


When is Blackness ever unmarked? Black presence inevitably seems to mean in and of itself, as a thing that can be mobilized by others.


August Wilson’s plays resist this tendency, through a surplus of wordplay. In the way that Shakespeare’s characters are not marked as white, necessarily; not materialized in terms of racial dynamic (excepting Othello, of course), Wilson’s theatre proposes Black presence without Black subjugation. Allowed to speak, at great length and depth, toward the terms of their own conception, Wilson’s characters instrumentalize language to confirm their ability in the world. Wilson’s theatre, like Shakespeare’s, doesn’t seem to care about who we are watching it, listening to it, experiencing it. Black presence becomes ontological fact, rather than alternative othering.


With words as tools employed among each other, the Black people breathe.

We debate, we assemble, we disagree. And inevitably, we establish rap music, to emphasize the ready-to-hand of language.


About the Author

Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and Director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications. Books: Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (Wisconsin, 2002), Dancing Revelations Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture (Oxford, 2004), Black Performance Theory (co-edited with Anita Gonzalez, Duke, 2014), Choreography and Corporeality: Relay in Motion (co-edited with Philipa Rothfield, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).